Tina Turner’s legacy is teaching us what it really means to feel

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The longer the tease, the more alive I felt. I watched all the videos. Sometimes it felt like the teasing lasted forever. I loved.

There are countless performances by Tina Turner singing “The Best” on YouTube: awards, her own concerts, the iconic Divas 99 performance. On this last one, the introductory beat of the bass line overtook us for a full minute, as The Legs exited a limousine, crossed the theater lobby and the audience, and then reached the center of the stage. If there was anything Tina Turner knew, it was take your time with it – first, nice and easy; so nice and rough. Good things take time. And they are worth the wait.

I don’t know how to praise Tina Turner, because it’s impossible to distill an artist, strength and inspiration so great that – for us – it transcends humanity and becomes ethereal. A deity we were lucky enough to worship here on earth. And I am just the smallest fragment of a person who has been changed by his life, talent and history. She was, for me, O music star; I can’t even begin to imagine how that connection reverberated even more deeply for the marginalized, the wounded, the survivors and the triumphant – those who found themselves on parts of their life’s journey.

But I can talk about how I would watch her performances – constantly – and how they changed me. Specifically, I can talk about how they made me feel. Not in terms of “How was that?” But the verb. Tina made me to feel.

Like many older millennial gay men – I’m taking a Pepcid as I write this – Tina was always close to me, because… Tina was always around. Everyone in my life played her music all the time. Return of her “What’s Love Got To Do With It” had already happened by the time I was old enough to know pop culture; she was touring the world, and it was common knowledge that Tina was the greatest. Then I saw her in Oprah. (Some children watched power Rangers after school. I watched The Oprah Winfrey Show.)

At first I thought it would look like seeing two supernovae colliding. Instead, I was polite. Even Oprah bowed in her presence. This was someone whose halo was so bright that the most famous person in the world, to me, melted under it. When she was on that show, it’s not like I saw her in a new light. O Tina out of it all fell into place in a place that is now in my bones, my heart, my soul – that place everyone has been talking about since Turner died; we all know that.

There is not once (of perhaps thousands of times) that I have watched a Turner perform and not felt something electrifying. That I’ve been activated, somehow. The more I learned about his biography, the more that kinetic energy I felt turned into emotional energy.

Seeing her on stage transformed me. There was no live performer like her, because no one else could be as wanton and unbridled, but also harness that spirit into something so specific and grounded that we can all relate to it. Now, when I think of all the times I caught that “Tina Turner: One Last Time” concert at Wembley Stadium to watch, I realize what we all may have experienced through her performance.

It wasn’t just a wall of sound coming our way. It was a tornado of power, athleticism, sensuality, resilience and experience – a storm that wells up from the depths of a person who has lived through and is now expelling that past through his voice and movement. I tend to think of pop culture as a form of therapy. It demands that we consider things, that we solve our own problems because it confronts us with truths. It also allows us to retreat into distraction when we need it. Tina, for me, offered both.

What if every feeling—every joy, heartbreak, anger, moment of pride, self-doubt, and challenge—could explode from within us, bursting out of our limbs, hair, flailing legs, and gyrating hips, like firecrackers? When the threat of dealing with everything life throws at us threatens to flatten us, what an amazing catharsis could it be to just blow it all away, make it all explode out of us with all the unapologetic, bombastic flash of a fireworks show? What would it be like to feel this… free?

I’m not sure Tina Turner really felt that way. But the strength of his stage presence, his incomparable disposition and vigor, gave us, at least, the fantasy of that catharsis. And at the height of her power during her performance, she gave us that healing form of escapism.

But the point of his music, the point of Turner’s legacy – in many ways – is that you can’t escape. Reality was very important. As my colleague Helen Holmes wrote, Tina Turner never pretended her story had a happy ending. “It wasn’t a good life,” Turner said in a documentary. “Good does not balance evil. I’ve had an abusive life, there’s no other way to tell the story. It is a reality. It’s a truth. This is what you have, so you have to accept it.”

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That acceptance is the thing. And feeling that is part of the journey. Perhaps, if you’re Tina Turner, you might discover this as the greatest live performer to ever walk the stage. Or, if you’re me, you can give your laptop screen a standing ovation while one of her presentations plays on YouTube, and start building the path to vigorously releasing all of your own baggage, as her presentations have come to represent.

“I call you when I need you, my heart is on fire,” she finally sings, after that gloriously endless intro to “The Best.” Remember this? Being so excited about things we were all excited about the possibility, not extinct from the reality of life – worried, cynical, resigned. Especially now, it’s wise to feel the way Tina taught us. “Take my heart and make it strong, baby.”

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