Ode to Tina Turner: Is Citizenship Just “a Second-Hand Emotion”?

Photograph Source: Sue Records – Public Domain

Tina Turner and I had two things in common. We are (were) both Swiss citizens; we are (were) Swiss residents, she in the German part near Zurich, me in the French speaking Swiss Romand in Geneva.

What we don’t have in common is I can’t dance or sing like her. I did see her perform once with Ike and the Ikettes in the late 1960s on the Upper West Side of New York City in a small theatre. During her memorable performance, I tried to imitate her moves standing with the other spectators in the audience. Her energy was contagious, but there was no way we, or anyone else, could match her perpetual motion.

Most intriguing, what we also don’t have in common is that she gave up her American citizenship, and I keep mine. This is how she explained why she left the United States for Europe in 1997: “I left America because my success was in another country and my boyfriend was in another country,” she said in a CNN interview with Larry King, referring to her then German boyfriend and later husband Erwin Bach. Comparing her success in the United States with her success in Europe, she added; “Not as big as Madonna [in the U.S.]. I’m as big as Madonna in Europe. I’m as big as, in some places, the Rolling Stones.”

Several years later, she described why she liked living in this small Alpine country: “I am very happy in Switzerland and I feel at home here. I could not imagine a better place to live,” Turner told the German newspaper Blick in 2013, the year she became Swiss and gave up her U.S. passport.

While tributes flow in on how Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tennessee, survived her relationship with the destructive Ike Turner to become the global megastar Tina Turner, I remain intrigued by her giving up her American citizenship. I understand her moving to Europe. I understand her settling in the quiet town of Küssnacht where the locals respected her privacy, as good Swiss do, perhaps not realizing the enormous Rock and R&B star they saw shopping in the local stores.

But why did she give up her American passport? That was the question I always wanted to ask her. I tried several times to interview her about this, each was unsuccessful. After all, she didn’t have to renounce her American citizenship. There are plenty of bi-nationals and people with multiple passports living here. And, it seems, she didn’t do it as a protest against American political policies.

We can also assume it wasn’t for tax reasons. She was probably subject to a U.S. exit tax for those worth more than $2 million. By giving up her citizenship, her worldwide assets would be taxed at a fair market value, a heavy price. Perhaps, it was difficult for her as a foreigner to purchase property, such as her $76 million home on the shores of Lake Zurich.

Like Tina Turner, an increasing number of the eight million American citizens living outside the country are giving up their citizenship. They are fed up with the annual financial filing with the Internal Revenue Service, including the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA), reporting Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR), double taxation issues, and countless other reporting and tax obligations. There are currently over 500 U.S. citizens waiting for a least a year to give up their citizenship in Bern, the capital of Switzerland.  So while hundreds of thousands of migrants overwhelm the U.S. southern border to try to enter the United States, some U.S. citizens are preferring loyalty to someone other than Uncle Sam. While it may seem that the reason is specifically related to taxes, there may be other reasons as well.

“If Trump is elected I will give up my U.S. citizenship,” I told my wife in 2015. We know what happened, but I held onto my passport. Yes, it means I can continue voting, but as I vote in my last place of residence in New York City, my vote does not make a great deal of difference. (Americans Citizens Abroad has tried for years to have a separate, elected official in Washington to represent their interests, but to no avail. They have also tried to eliminate double taxation. The United States is the only major country that taxes its citizens wherever they live.) Since I have a Swiss passport, why I keep my U.S. citizenship remains an enigma, questioned by me at least once a year around April 15 when tax declarations are due.

U.S. News and World Report wrote in 2020: “A record number of Americans are renouncing their citizenship. In just the first half of this year, 5,315 Americans gave up their citizenship…Until a decade ago, fewer than 1,000 Americans per year, on average, chose to renounce their citizenship.” Actually, 6,707 people renounced U.S. citizenship in 2020, a 237 percent increase over 2019 for an all-time high.

Brett Goodin described the difficulties in giving up U.S. citizenship as follows: “Renouncing U.S. citizenship is pretty complicated and costly. It involves one or two interviews with a consular officer, a $2,350 administrative fee – very expensive compared to other wealthy countries – and potential audit of the citizen’s last five years of U.S. tax returns. The whole process takes about a year. Once you have successfully unbecome American, you need to submit a tax return to the IRS the year after renouncing. After that, your ties to the U.S. government are severed.”

Why did Tina Turner give up her citizenship? Maybe because she was tired of being treated as radioactive when she went to a Swiss bank as I am. Maybe she associated her citizenship with her grim upbringing in Tennessee or her years with her violent husband Ike. What we do know is that she loved Switzerland: “It’s clean, and I feel like I’m really breathing in fresh air,” she told a Swiss journalist.

For whatever reason, Tina Turner died Swiss, with no American passport. Maybe for those living outside the country with other passports, U.S. citizenship is really just “a second-hand emotion.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.