Acid Queen, Rock Royalty

In the winter of 2009-2010, a single photograph dominated the New York City subway system.  For me and all the other antisocial strap-hangers desperate to avoid eye contact with a real person, this picture provided a reliable distraction.  It was a photo of Tina Turner in all her glory—mouth open, makeup brassy and fabulous, hair disheveled, skin glistening with sweat, one slinky strap of a halter top hinting at a risqué ensemble undoubtedly clinging tight to that famous body.  This picture oozed Tina’s specific brand of unruly sexiness and perfectly portrayed the powerhouse that women everywhere adore for her brazen confidence and personal triumphs.

The Brooklyn Museum used that image of Tina to advertise their exhibit “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present.” Out of the 175 photographs that comprised the show, Tina’s was one of two—the other a black and white image of quintessential rock star Mick Jagger—used to promote this exhibit.  (Tina snagged the exhibition catalogue’s sole cover spot.)  “Who Shot Rock & Roll” is the first museum exhibition that focuses on the important role that image has played in rock and roll music.

Tina in 2008. Those legs just won't quit. Photo Public Domain

In the largely white boy’s club of rock music, Tina Turner certainly is, on the surface, a glaring anomaly.  But few would debate that Tina continues a legacy, initiated by the blues women of the 1920s and continued by the singer-songwriters of the 1970s, of liberated singers in control of their sexuality and unafraid to question standards about love.  Through her personal life and her music, Tina epitomizes the issues explored in both of these musical genres.

As evidenced in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, women’s blues became a revolutionary outlet for black women’s issues in the 1920s.[1] There were truly no taboos in women’s blues.  Subjects ranged far and wide but almost always circulated back to the empowering and newly public discussion of sex.  Physical abuse, often perpetuated by these same sexual desires, was another frequent topic of women’s blues songs. [2] Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith gave a voice to the mixed emotions resulting from this previously unspoken problem.  The abused women in these songs were conflicted but unapologetic, championing their right to make their own decisions over public opinions of those decisions. [3] Tina Turner has famously dealt with this same issue.  Her explosive relationship with ex-husband Ike is one of the most notorious modern examples of domestic abuse.  Unlike most subjects of the blues songs, though, Tina was able to break free.  Her description of the abuse in her autobiography I, Tina, and the subsequent film What’s Love Got To Do With It? helped shed light on the psychological struggles of abuse, much like the blues songs of the 1920s. [4]

The singer-songwriters of the 1970s built upon blues topics of sexual assertion and conflicting emotions by continuing to explore the increasingly separate arenas of love, sex and the gray area in between the two known as the “relationship.” [5] Musicians like Carly Simon and Carole King displayed a mature sexual consciousness while experimenting with new types of couplings.  Love was at times strongly or barely desired.  It was no longer a necessary part of the equation.  Continuing this progressively more liberal views of relationships, Tina Turner famously asserted that love was an old-fashioned notion and proclaimed, more than asked, that it (love) didn’t really have all that much to do with “it” (sex).  The staying power of Tina’s trademark hit suggests that today’s women continue to agree.

In her life and career, Tina Turner has exemplified both the battered women of blues music and the independent new woman aware of her sexual power.  Add in her crossover appeal, rock’s strong blues roots and its continued inclusiveness and you have a rock and roll legend.  Moreover, Tina has the power of image that this exhibit deems so important to the history of rock music.  A sexy photograph of Tina Turner on the subway and in an exhibit is not just another picture.  Because of her famously turbulent yet triumphant story, it becomes something more.  It solidifies the continued presence and importance of sex in music but conjures up music’s historically gritty underside.  It represents a genre and a lifestyle that encompasses not only the sex, but the hardship, triumph and freedom of the American musical timeline.  She has, and she is, the image of rock music.


[1] Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 5.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Jon Pareles, “Ike Turner, Musician and Songwriter in Duo With Tina Turner, Dies at 76,” New York Times, December 17, 2007, accessed March 21, 2011.

[5] Judy Kutulas, “‘That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’: Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters, and Romantic Relationships,” Journal of American History 97 (2010): 691.

One thought on “Acid Queen, Rock Royalty

  1. Tina Turner is awesome! I think that her appeal comes from the way she overcame struggles in her life. I wonder which singers from our generation will have the lasting power that Tina has.

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