Study Guide

What's Love Got to Do with It Meaning

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More than almost any other song, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” is basically synonymous with Tina Turner. It was her first and thus far only number one hit, the most popular single from her breakthrough solo album Private Dancer. Rolling Stone placed it at #309 on its list of all time greatest songs, and the Recording Industry Association of America ranked it 38th among the “Songs of the Century.” “What’s Love Got to Do with It” earned the 45-year-old singer three Grammys in 1985, and when Touchstone Pictures released the biopic of Turner’s life in 1993, the studio named the film after this song.

But “What’s Love Got to Do with It” had a pre-Tina life. Bucks Fizz first recorded the song in 1982. The all-blond ABBA knock-off had burst onto the scene at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest; put together by writer-producer team Nicola Martin and Andy Hill, the English group won the competition with “Making Up Your Mind.” But not every Eurovision winner has gone on to a long career. ABBA, who won in 1974 while representing Sweden with “Waterloo,” and Celine Dion, who won in 1988 while representing Switzerland with "Ne Partez Pas sans Moi," are exceptions to the rule. When did you last hear about Helena Paparizou, the 2005 winner from Greece?

In reality, the American Idol-meets-World Cup competition is famous for crowning one-hit wonders, but the English group was determined not to buckin’ fizzle, so they went straight into the studio and followed up their contest winner with a string of charting recordings. For their fourth album, I Hear Talk, they recorded “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” a song written by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten. The group ultimately decided to leave it off the album released in 1984, though, which was a good decision. The group’s Abba-esque outfits were embarrassing enough; they would have looked even more ridiculous had their Europop recording been aired alongside Tina Turner’s soulful rendition.

The Comeback Kid—Er, Middle-Aged Woman

Turner’s recording of “What’s Love Got to Do with It” anchored one of rock and roll’s most amazing comebacks. Turner and her husband Ike had produced R&B hits for a decade as The Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Many of these, such as “Proud Mary,” released in 1971, scored on the pop charts as well. Their high-energy shows were legendary, and within the British blues scene of the 1960s, Tina was a goddess. But in 1976, Tina left Ike (in 1978 she divorced him), and in the years following, her career took a dive. Two albums went nowhere, and her label dumped her.

In the spring of 1984, though, Tina’s cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100, and just a few months later, she released Private Dancer. The album reached #3 on the pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts; it was nominated for six Grammys and won four; five tracks released as singles charted. So, it did well.

Private Dancer marked something of a transformation as well as a comeback for Turner; it was a rock album. Dire Straits’s Mark Knopfler contributed the title track. Jeff Beck provided the flesh-piercing fills on “Steel Claw.” Turner reminded folks of her R&B roots by including Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It” had more than hint of reggae, but the album introduced Turner as a rock diva.

After Private Dancer, Turner’s career was on fire. She took a role in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and swapped small Vegas clubs for arena concerts. Songwriters and labels courted her. Over the next 15 years, she released five charting albums and 13 charting singles. She won another six Grammys, three American Music Awards, five MTV awards, and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” helped turn Tina Turner into one of the 1980s biggest winners. And while Bucks Fizz may have dodged a bullet, clearly the biggest loser in the resurrection of Tina’s career was her ex-husband Ike.

A Turner for the Worst

A musician, bandleader, composer, and arranger, Ike Turner was hugely talented. Born in Clarksburg, Mississippi in 1931, he was left fatherless at age seven after—according to some accounts—his old man was beaten by a white gang and then refused admission to a whites-only hospital. He taught himself to play the piano and guitar, and while still a teen, he formed bands that worked the juke joints between Clarksburg and Memphis.

It was in Memphis, at the historic Sun Studio, that Turner arranged and recorded what many argue is the first rock and roll record, “Rockett 88.” With Turner’s boogie-woogie piano sitting on top of a driving drum and bass line and Raymond Hill’s sax sounding more like the future than the past, it’s a plausible argument. Unfortunately for Turner, the record was attributed to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. In reality, there were no Delta Cats; all the instrumentation for the historic record was provided by Turner’s own band, the Kings of Rhythm, and Brenston, who provided the vocals, was Turner’s sax player.

History has corrected the mistake, and while Turner did not initially get all that much public recognition, Sun’s Sam Phillips appreciated his talent. Turner worked for Sun as a producer and talent scout for years. As a member of the studio band, he also played piano and guitar behind artists like Junior Parker, Howlin' Wolf, and B.B. King.

In 1956, however, Turner moved north to St. Louis, where he made his greatest discovery. 18-year-old Anna Mae Bullock actually had to force her way on stage—she later said she was too skinny to get a fair audition—, but once she seized the microphone and cranked out a rendition of “I Know You Love Me Baby,” Ike asked her to change her name and join his band. Soon she was fronting The Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

Ike Turner was a huge talent, considered by many to be one rock’s founding fathers. With Tina, he would record several hits, win two Grammys, and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On his own, he won a Grammy in 2007 for Risin' with the Blues. But Ike Turner was also an abusive jerk. Throughout their marriage, he exercised tyrannical control over Tina’s life and work. He beat and raped her, broke her nose more than once, threw hot coffee in her face, and used her body to snuff his cigarettes. In 1968, Tina tried to escape the abuse by swallowing close to a hundred sleeping pills, but she found no lasting relief until 1976 when, with less than a dollar in her pocket, she snuck out while Ike slept.

Turner chronicled the years of abuse in her autobiography, I, Tina. The story was also told in the 1993 biopic, What’s Love Got to Do with It. Ike tried to tell “his side” in his own autobiography, Taking Back My Name, and over the years, some have rallied to his defense. He was hardly the only abusive male in the music industry (TIP: that is certainly not an excuse), and many others found their reputations eventually redeemed. Some believe that Jerry Lee Lewis played a role in the death of his last wife (this was after he married his 13-year-old cousin, mind you), yet now he’s revered as a legend. John Lennon admitted that he used to hit women. “I was a hitter,” he confessed in 1980. “I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.” Today he’s all but worshipped as a great artist and a crusader for peace, though.

In light of all this, Ike Turner’s supporters wonder how long he will be singled out and vilified for his crimes. How long will he be referred to as the abusive husband of Tina Turner rather than the immensely talented but morally flawed rock and roll innovator? Perhaps the real question is why the others on the list have not paid a bigger price for their behavior. Do we only condemn this sort of abuse when the victim is a Grammy winning rock legend? If the victim is nameless—an unknown like Shawn Stephens or Cynthia Powell—do we turn a star’s brutal behavior into just an asterisk on their otherwise celebrated career?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to have come down firmly on one side of these questions. In 1991, it inducted both Tina and Ike into its hall. Tina Turner seems to have reached a different set of conclusions; she chose not to attend the induction ceremonies. And when Ike died in 2007, she did not issue any sort of forgotten-and-forgiven statement. She did not temper her earlier accounts by acknowledging any mitigating factors or redeeming talents. She made just one comment (through a spokesperson): "Tina hasn’t had any contact with Ike in more than 30 years. No further comment will be made."

Perhaps Tina Turner experienced too much of Ike’s dark side to really appreciate his talents. Or perhaps she was the only one close enough to really know and judge him. Either way, the hardships she faced must have made the taste of success that much sweeter when she finally began to be appreciated on her own after Private Dancer and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” We’re glad that she ultimately decided to “[take] on a new direction.”

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