Tina Turner’s voice. You can hear it inside your mind right now. But what is that sound, exactly? Not a house burning down at 4 in the morning. Not a sports car slamming its brakes in the rain. Not some fighter jet ripping through the blue. Not the atom being split. We’re meant to believe that it’s just carbon dioxide sliding past tongue and teeth, but somehow that seems like the least likely option of them all.
Either way, that friction is responsible for some of the most unmistakable music ever generated by the human body — and because we know so much about what this voice has been through, we explain its visceral majesty to ourselves in the most sobering way: It’s the sound of someone who knows pain.
Turner, who died in Switzerland on Wednesday at 83, endured a life so cruel, we can only wonder whether all the books, memoirs, Hollywood dramatizations and documentaries fully plumbed the depths of it. We at least know this much: Turner was violently abused by her spouse and bandleader, Ike Turner, across many years during the duo’s rise to fame, but she eventually escaped in 1976, fleeing a Texas hotel room with nothing more that 36 cents and a Mobil credit card in her pocket. Then, in less than a decade, Tina Turner scaled one of the greatest public comebacks in pop music history, that indelible voice helping her 1984 album, “Private Dancer,” go multiplatinum.
As she triumphed through the ’80s, you could hear a fresh joy in her singing, too — a trait that hadn’t felt as abundant since “River Deep, Mountain High,” a signature Ike and Tina song from 1966, co-written and co-produced by “wall of sound” man Phil Spector. Apparently, Spector had shooed Ike away from this fateful recording session, then encouraged Tina to tamp down the explosiveness, allowing her to squeeze more melody into the lyrics. Listen to how she splits the difference when she sings the words “higher” and “deeper,” as if she’s using all of her being to reach those extremes. “I was excited about singing a different type of song,” she explained matter-of-factly in “Tina,” a thorough and revealing documentary from 2021. “It was a freedom to do something different.”
As her music became more expressive, it refused to relinquish its sense of discipline. In concert, Turner’s presence was beyond electric: She stomped across stages as if she were trying to kick holes in them. Early in her career, she worried about being dismissed as a dancer who sings, but it remains staggering to think about what was happening in those moments when a single pair of lungs was fulfilling the twin responsibilities of supplying oxygen to a nonstop body and delivering “Proud Mary” as the tempo accelerated toward ecstasy. Turner had a tendency to shrug at these superpowers. “The body is a machine,” she told The Washington Post in 1993. “You train it to do what you want it to do.”
In the ’80s, she trained it to sing the most massive hits of her career. When “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” first hit the airwaves, the rasping humanity of Turner’s voice instantly distinguished itself from all the plush, sleek synthesizer textures that were saturating the radio circa 1984 — even the ones that she and her producers had chosen for her to sing over. She performed the same magic trick a year later, scaling the charts with “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” a volcanic hit from the soundtrack of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” which she co-starred in. We were still hearing a voice that knew pain, but now one that had survived it, too. It sounded worn, and rough, but more than anything else, alive.