TINA and Embracing What Scares You
On HBO's TINA doc and honest writing
“She just got divorced? The album’s gonna be fire.”
I think most of us have fallen victim to this altogether morbid anticipation of an album from an artist we love, especially because singing about their heartbreak is usually what gets us through our own. Whether it’s Adele’s upcoming post divorce album or Beyoncé’s post-Jay-Z cheating album Lemonade... I’ve never truly dwelled on the sentiment until I watched Tina, the documentary on Tina Turner’s life that dropped this past weekend on HBO. More so than any other Tina project, it cut to the heart of how much pain she’s been in since her career began.
Not just from the physical abuse from her former husband Ike, but also from the emotional abuse that he inflicted on her. Feeling unloved by not just Ike, but her mother as well. Feeling as if she’d never find a man who truly loved her, respected her, cherished her. Even when she was performing sold out shows at the age of fifty, literally launching a second act in her career that most artists can only dream of, she still had those “what’s wrong with me?” moments that we all fall victim to. I feel extraordinarily embarrassed whenever I say that phrase to my therapist, but this week, after witnessing Tina say the same thing, I felt less so.
Unfortunately, that insecurity is one of the things that continued to plague her for the duration of her career. At one point during the documentary, she even marveled at the fact that the lowest moments in her life were moments of inspiration for others, which meant she was constantly revisiting her trauma in service of her art. There’s a reason Miss Tina found herself a fine younger man and moved to Zurich with him, only to reappear whenever Brigadoon reopens.
It makes me wonder about the relationship between artists and fans, and what it truly means to fully represent yourself in your art. We tend to love artists the most when they make us feel euphoric enough to dance or when they give us company in the dark recesses of our minds. I haven’t thought about my art in the same way since Fiona Apple’s profile in The New Yorker last year described her feelings about former boyfriend, Louis C.K.
Apple was also briefly involved with the comedian Louis C. K. After the Times published an exposé of his sexual misconduct, in 2017, she had faith that C.K. would be the first target of #MeToo to take responsibility for his actions, maybe by creating subversive comedy about shame and compulsion. When a hacky standup set of his was leaked online, she sent him a warm note, urging him to dig deeper.
One of the women C.K. harassed was Rebecca Corry, a standup comedian who founded an advocacy organization for pit bulls, Stand Up for Pits. Apple began working with the group, and, once she got to know Corry, she started to see C.K. in a harsher light. The comedy that she’d admired for its honesty now looked “like a smoke screen,” she said. In a text, she told me that, if C.K. wasn’t capable of more severe self-scrutiny, “he’s useless.” She added, “I SHAKE when I have to think and write about myself. It’s scary to go there but I go there. He is so WEAK.”
Okay, first of all, I haven’t been masturbating into plants or anything, but her vitriol for Louis for being incapable of self-scrutiny, which therefore makes him useless has been forever etched in my mind. If you’re not shaking writing about yourself, if you’re not afraid...are you weak? Are you even putting anything useful into the world? I’ve wondered about this ever since I first started writing. At first, I imitated things that entertained me. The first “book” I ever wrote was in fourth grade and it was basically my own Fear Street novel about kids getting stuck on a haunted roller coaster. I will never be able to read it again, because my substitute teacher, who I asked to read it after I’d finished writing it, never returned the only copy to me. She also probably never read it. I haven’t trusted white women since!
The first play I ever wrote was when I was in high school, for an event series called The Lo Fi Theater Night, thrown together by some of the nerdier art kids. I wrote what was more or less an episode of Days of Our Lives. When I started writing television in grad school, we were consistently told to write spec scripts. If you don’t know, a spec script is when you write an episode of a TV show you like without actually working for that TV show, to show that you are able to write for television. They’re mostly useless because who really cares if you know how to write a good episode of True Blood? (I did, tho). If you’re lucky, you'll soon learn that the showrunner of whatever show you’re writing for will just rewrite everything you do anyway. But I digress.
It wasn’t until graduate school, where I witnessed other people writing plays that seemed intensely personal, that I began to wonder if I was masking my emotions beneath pastiches of pop culture. In a way, I was, but that was because I hadn’t truly mastered the art of subtext. You could easily read Fiona’s comments as “you need to BLEED on your keyboard” to write anything of note. And a lot of artists probably do interpret it that way. A lot of fans, too. Their fave’s work isn’t resonant unless you can feel that they’re singing like the rent is due.
There’s a reason that some of the most bubbly, saccharine songs end up being the most depressing music you’ve ever listened to. Artists like Carly Rae Jepsen or the Beach Boys, whose music evokes summer love but then also depression, once you read between the lines.
Tina’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was originally offered to a British pop group named Bucks Fizz. When you hear their rendition in the Tina documentary, it sounds like a corny, emotionless and giddy Eurovision song. The documentary will have you believe that Tina made the cover her own, like Whitney Houston did with “I Will Always Love You,” but the Bucks Fizz version was never actually released. The definitive version was always Tina’s anyway. Just listen to how she infuses emotion and soul into a generic pop song to the point that the lyrics suddenly become the truth that she’s wanted to share for decades.
It takes a close reading of music to realize that you don’t really need someone’s heartbreak to feel connected to them. My friends balked when I called Lady Gaga’s Chromatica an intensely personal album, but you try to tell me the lyrics to “Plastic Doll” aren’t about her relationship with her fans and how the media has treated pop stars like her and Britney Spears. It’s a direct through line from bleeding on stage at the VMAs to hanging herself during her debut performance of “Paparazzi.”
I’ve had very good friends with the best intentions reach out to me after I write another sad newsletter, but I think I’m finally figuring out that I can write about the pop culture I love while also blending it with emotions or hard memories I’ve felt in the past, or feel currently. I’m feeling more honest, sure, but I’m not depressed when I write any of these. It’s taken me some time to be comfortable with writing about myself without having to feel like I’m sharing the transcripts from my therapy session, and in that process, I’ve realized we will always hoist our own emotions onto the icons we love. Whether they’re pop stars, the Gods of Greek and Roman mythology, or even those people in the Bible that allegedly hate Lil Nas X. So why not, as a writer, foist your own emotions onto the pop culture you love? If I can make some connection between what I saw inTina, and how I channel my emotions into being a better, more emotional, honest writer, then who’s to say my inferences aren’t true? If you get yourself in the right mindset, any album or piece of art can be the resonant soundtrack of your fire breakup era.