Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
“Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?’’
Left on its own, the line is a cold-blooded killer, a baleful evocation of desolate resignation and whipsawed dreams. The riff that precedes it in the song’s chorus, (which also happens to be the song’s title) is so mesmerizing that you take that chorus’s resolution for granted. But the line encompasses everything the song is laying down.
Everything, that is, except the breathtaking triumph of the woman who made the song her own – and got the whole world to sing it along with her.
Tina Turner, who died Wednesday at 83 in Switzerland, released “What’s Love Got to Do With It” in 1984 when she was in her 40s. She was as dynamic on stage as a singer and dancer as she was more than a decade earlier when she was the galvanic cynosure of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
The only thing about her that was more explosive and powerful than her tawny-haired, long-legged physical presence was her raw, rasping, in-your-face singing style that made up in seismic force what it didn’t have in acrobatic range.
But in the years just before “What’s Love Got to Do with it” and the LP that carried it, “Private Dancer,” came out, she was considered more of an “oldies” act, disconnected from the early 1980s aesthetic and aligned with the R&B-Soul Music nexus of pop music that helped to define the turbulent hinge of the 1960s and 1970s.
She’d freed herself from what had become a hellishly abusive marriage to her bandleader Ike Turner, whom she’d divorced in 1978 after a public separation in 1976 and a lengthy legal battle that almost ruined her financially. On her own, she was still a welcome guest on international stages. But it took “Private Dancer’s” unexpected success to place Turner front-and-center in the 1980s pop zeitgeist.
Many hits swooped off “Private Dancer’s” playlist into the singles’ charts, including the title track, and “Better Be Good To Me.” But “What’s Love Got to Do With It’s” combination of world-weary bravado and poignant vulnerability proved such a strikingly appropriate match for Turner’s personal life of heartbreak and survival that it still seems shocking that it had been offered to several singers, including Cliff Richard and Donna Summer, before she got the chance.
The rock world welcomed her with open arms, and she flourished in its embrace. At the ascent of her newfound stardom, she appeared in the 1985 blockbuster movie, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” where she played a ruthless gang leader only slightly less frightening than “The Acid Queen” she played 10 years earlier in “Tommy.”
By the end of the decade, her concert appearances were breaking attendance records in Europe and elsewhere. Her 1989 cover of Bonnie Tyler’s “The Best” became yet another platinum hit, and her autumnal winning streak carried into the new century, with a 1993 movie of her life story, adapted from her 1986 book “I, Tina” and titled (of course) “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
Get Our Free Weekly Newsletter
- Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
- Join us on Twitter and Facebook
The film garnered Oscar nominations for Laurence Fishburne (as Ike) and Angela Bassett (as Tina), a top-selling album of her greatest hits, 2004’s “All the Best” and a smash Broadway musical, “Tina,” that took audiences from Turner’s beginnings as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee to her pinnacle as the Queen of Rock.
She just seemed so unstoppable, so indomitable that few of her devoted fans even dared to believe that all the life-threatening illnesses she’d suffered in the last decade would keep her down. It’s hard to believe that, after all she overcame, death would, or even could, stop her. Which is why Wednesday’s news came as something of a shock to the world at large despite her age and physical travails.
But she hasn’t stopped, really. Somewhere, somehow, that raspy, thunderous voice will persist as one of the most distinctive in pop music history. And the chorus of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” – whoever else sings it – will forever belong to no one else but her.