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Opinion: Life lessons from Tina Turner

Tina Turner sings during her performance at the Macy's Passport '97 fundraiser and fashion show in San Francisco.
Monica Davey
AFP via Getty Images
Tina Turner sings during her performance at the Macy's Passport '97 fundraiser and fashion show in San Francisco.

By the time Tina Turner released her hit song "What's Love Got to Do With It" in 1984, she had already seen her career rise and fall.

The song had been written by two British guys, Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, who offered it to Cliff Richard, the Brit rock and roller, who turned it down. A few more singers, including Donna Summer, reportedly considered it for a while. Maybe they found the lyrics a little hard to put across:

"What's love got to do, got to do with it?" seems to ask, "Am I feeling love—or something dangerous? Will I just get hurt again? What does love actually do for anyone, anyway?"

As it's so piercingly phrased, and left to hang in our minds: "Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?"

By this time Tina Turner was 44 years old. She had been playing gigs on what used to be known as a "nostalgia circuit," where she sang old hits in casinos and county fairs.

What you hear in her voice in "What's Love Got to Do With It" is the hard rock of what she'd lived through: growing up in the cotton fields of Nutbush, Tennessee, singing in a church choir — and later in nightclubs — and working as a nurse's aide. She got a job singing backup for Ike Turner, then became his costar, married him in Tijuana; and, after years of abuse, escaped him in Dallas, bruised and bloodied, with just 36 cents and a gas card in her pocket.

"It scares me to feel this way," she sings, in a voice that's rugged, raw, and raspy, as if being pulled, phrase by phrase and still warm, straight from her heart. You hear her hurt and wariness, as she asks, "What's love, but a secondhand emotion?"

"What's Love Got to Do With It" won three Grammys, and marked one of the great comebacks of music history.

By the time she died this week, at the age of 83, Tina Turner had a happy second marriage, to a German music executive named Erwin Bach, and lived in France and Switzerland. She received a Kennedy Center honor, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — twice.

Tina Turner once told an interviewer, "People think my life has been tough, but I think it's been a wonderful journey. The older you get, the more you realize it's not what happened, it's how you deal with it."

Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken, again and again? Tina Turner moved us to raise our hands, and open our hearts, even when it hurts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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