It has never been easy for women in the music industry. Once upon a time the evidence was largely anecdotal. Now it’s being recorded for posterity, frame by frame. Recent documentaries about Britney Spears and Demi Lovato exposed the trauma inflicted on post-millennial pop stars. Two new portraits of Anna Mae Bullock and Marianne Elliott-Said, better known as Tina Turner and Poly Styrene from punk group X-Ray Spex, ponder the price paid by their forebears.
Turner’s story feels archetypal, a tale extracted from deep within the DNA of showbusiness. An abandoned child — ‘my mother didn’t like me’ — from a poor Tennessee background, the opportunity to fulfil her gifts came with the classic caveat: subjugation by an older, controlling man. Rock’n’roll pioneer Ike Turner romanced her while she was still at school. Furs on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning, arithmetic on Monday afternoon. So it goes.
She rose to fame in the late 1960s in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, the lit fuse at the centre of a powder keg of supercharged R&B. With her soulful rasp, lioness’s mane and powerful physicality, on stage Turner was imperious. Off it, she suffered years of horrifying abuse at the hands of her husband. Half a century later, Turner sits in her palatial Swiss home and shivers: ‘I was insanely afraid of that man.’ In 1976, tired of ‘living a life of death’, she escaped across a Dallas freeway to a Ramada Inn with 36 cents in her purse, and never came back. Ike got everything. She took nothing but her stage name.
The most compelling parts of Tina tell this — by now familiar — story. Turner’s happy ending, while thoroughly deserved, is less dramatic. Her transition to AOR 1980s star made for largely uninspiring music, but few could begrudge a forty-something woman of colour the chance to fill stadiums around the world.