The following is a lightly touched up article I wrote during an all-nighter a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure if I should make it public but since my friend Tom said I should release something “human/personal” after the last two weeks of techno-nihilism I thought this could be an interesting escape. So, tread carefully and if I unintentionally covered things incorrectly or was unintentionally insensitive please blame Tom instead of expecting to me have basic levels of accountability – I was tired!
As the two friends who’ll eventually get roped into reading this trainwreck of a blog post will know, I’m a bit of a messy bitch and because of this I have an obsession with music that’s dramatic and hyper-emotional to the point of being extremely cheesy. If your music doesn’t make you sound like you’d impulsively put your hand down a shredder after being ghosted by a dude I just don’t have time for you anymore. This obsession has manifested itself in three ways over the last month – either through listening to a lot of early Xiu Xiu and the same three Björk songs on repeat with headphones on, hopping on the inevitable “The Prodigy was good actually” bandwagon before half of RYM or blaring some of the tackiest 2000s pop music at four in the morning. And to think that only two years ago I was one of those people who thought that listening to Bandcamp bands was a personality trait! Anyways, this brings us to this current point in time. I’m sitting at my laptop at a stupid hour in the morning feeling slightly sad and vaguely caffeinated trying to capture the exact reason why I’m just after listening to the song “All The Things She Said” for the seventh time in a row and why I’m just after spamming one of my uninterested friends with several discord messages about the band’s Wikipedia page. I’m really living my best life and this was a great idea.
In order for us to talk about t.A.T.u we have to first talk about capitalism and creepy men. t.A.T.u were formed in 1999 by Ivan Shapovalov, a then thirty-three-year-old former psychologist who until that point mainly produced TV ads. According to one of the most unsettling yet brutally honest Wikipedia quotes I’ve read in a while, he “formulated the image of t.A.T.u in order to capitalize on the common fascination and fantasy of school-girl lesbians” and ran auditions in early 1999 in order to find (according to genius.com) “teenage girls willing to pretend that they were lesbians”. He eventually settled on Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, two singers who had already performed together in the Russian children’s music group Neposedi. Neither of the singers identified as monosexual lesbians (with Lena being straight and Julia being bi) but Ivan ordered them to conduct their image, interviews and performances in a way that heavily implied it. Their first single, “Ya Soshla S Uma” was completed in Autumn 2000 and their first album “200 Po Vstrechnoy” was released that following May. The album was a decent success, selling roughly 2.5 million copies worldwide, prompting the release of an English-language version of the album under the name “200 km/h in the Wrong Lane” . This brings us to the infamous “All The Things She Said”, arguably one of the most definitive pieces of tacky early 2000s pop.
“All The Things She Said” is plastic pop perfection. The English translation of “Ya Soshla S Uma” was released in 2002 and was arguably one of the biggest pop tunes of the year, which is relevant since it’s going to be cool to be nostalgic about 2002 in roughly six months to a year. It was an inescapable song, getting certified platinum in seven countries while also gracing the headline of nearly every single dumb tabloid newspaper. I’m fairly sure it was even featured in the 2002 episode of “Reeling in The Years”, which would arguably be one of the biggest queer moments in Irish television since telly bingo. If you intentionally ignore the creepiness surrounding the song and how dated it is there’s an oddly endearing quality seen throughout the track. It’s plastic to the point of being fun and ironic, early 2000s enough to be endearingly cheesy and melodramatic to the point of presumably soundtracking hundreds of MySpace-related breakups. For lack of a better comparison, if “Is This It?” by The Strokes was intended to sound like a comfy pair of jeans, this song is the musical equivalent of that one picture of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake wearing full-denim.
Now this is the exact point where this blog post will stop resembling something with narrative cohesion and start devolving into three or four disconnected rambles. It seems as if the more time I spend trying to make sense out of this topic the more questions I ask myself and the more odd rabbit-holes I end up going down. It just seems like an endless abyss of questions, a bottomless pit of bad tabloid articles, an infinite void of strange details. Or in other words, a reminder that I need to actually plan articles before writing them. From this point on I’m just going to try and capture each of these rambles, if anything just in the hope that this derailment unintentionally comes off as interesting and “experimental” in the eyes of people who enjoy being pretentious online.
Okay firstly let’s just talk about the creepiness of the constant sexualization of the members of t.A.T.u. which is something that haunts their marketing, the media coverage surrounding the band and the perception of the general public at the time. It’s important to note that both members of the band were in their mid-teens when they became famous and as a result a lot of the headlines, album covers and articles surrounding the band (and specifically the music video for “All The Things She Said”) just feel sleazy. The whole thing just stinks of the male gaze and objectification of women (specifically queer-identifying women) in a way that feels extremely dated and wrong. Dumb online reactionaries often leave comments on old music videos to the effect of “this would never happen today in our PC culture!” and this is one of the few times where it’s actually the case. This creepy sexualization and objectification of literal teenagers seems integral to the band’s rise to fame. I’m reminded here of a quote from Julia Volkova in Russia Beyond which basically spells it all out of us. “In Asia, we were popular because all porn is based on schoolgirls dressed like we were in the video.”. Both of the musicians in the group were only sixteen years old when they shot the video for “All The Things She Said” and then we as a society thought it was normal when sites like MuchMusic and Virgin Media put it in their “Sexiest Music Videos” lists (which are apparently a thing). The whole thing just feels slightly wrong, a sleazy artefact from an era that’s not even that long ago yet extremely different in values. This wouldn’t happen today, and perhaps that’s a good thing. The producer (and the industry as a whole) reminds me of a weird young boy hitting two barbies off one another and pretending that they’re kissing – but if the barbies were real people, if a bunch of dudes with neckbeards were downloading a video of it to wank to and if the weird boy became stupidly rich in the process.
Speaking of the producer, what his exact goal was is something that I’m not really sure of. From what I’ve read in the interviews and articles I can find online there are two different images of him – either a strange man hell-bent on creating as much controversy as possible for vaguely political reasons or a soulless capitalist trying to cash in on creepy straight dudes, using media outrage in a calculated way in order to sell records. This image of him as a weird revolutionary of sorts is perfectly encapsulated in the following quotes from an interview with Lena Katina I read on archive.org. “Many people remember Ivan as a person who loved to shock others with actions, words, even with an outer appearance.” “He had creative thoughts in his head: he planned a protest against the war in Yugoslavia with a rock band…”. However, this romanticized image of Ivan falls apart fairly quickly when you realize how stupidly over-the-top his “controversies” were. For example, he was the producer behind n.A.T.o, a self-styled “suicide bomber musician” (according to an outraged article from the Telegraph) that performed songs in Arabic from behind a veil while images from Al-Jazeera were broadcast while words like “Nasdaq”, “Iraq” and “Al-Qaeda” were randomly flashed over the footage. The whole thing just reads as absurd, patently offensive to the point of seeming more like a kid screaming that 9/11 was an inside job to his fellow anime club members than a piece of pointed satire. It seems less as if he was trying to actually say something and more as if it was just an over-the-top attempt to cash in on the media’s (and society as a whole’s) post-9/11 hysteria. Sure he was saying “fuck the war” at a time where nobody was willing to but he wasn’t saying much of anything else. Everything he produced just seems oddly calculated, as if an A.I was tasked with annoying the editors of tabloid rags.
And now since I haven’t written myself into enough of a minefield with this dumb blog post let’s quickly talk about cultural appropriation and queerness. It’s quite easy for some hack of a blogger to make the argument that the producer behind t.A.T.u was appropriating queer culture to make a quick buck – hell the media narrative surrounding the band was basically that it was two girls faking being lesbians under the direction of a possibly pedophilic straight dude in order to either sell tacky pop music to teens or turn them into full-on lesbians who vote for Labor, worship Satan and read The Guardian. However, like all stupidly niche topics online there’s more to the story than what initially meets the eye. Firstly, Julia Volkova openly identifies as bisexual (even though she’s also been openly homophobic on a television interview because this topic is an endless abyss) and this narrative of the band being “secret straights” could be seen as bi-erasure. Secondly, labeling the output of t.A.T.u as just “straight guys in suits trying to make money off lesbianism” is silly as it ignores the fact that the band (intentionally or not) played a minor role in normalizing queer relationships in pop-culture and helping young queer people deal with their sexuality. Sure the producer was probably a creep and the fans were presumably early-2000s neckbeards but if these tacky pop songs helped even just one young queer person feel less alone or more comfortable with their identity isn’t that an objective good? And now we’re at the point in this blog post where I question if I should have written it in the first place. Am I unintentionally shitting on something that gave a lonely gay teen some solace at a time where homophobia was more normalized just to crack some cheap jokes on a blog nobody will read? Is this even something that I should be writing about? Is the fact that I mentioned the producer of the band more than the actual members somehow a sign of bias? Are these questions about to alienate the one conservative who stumbles upon this article? Appropriation is quite easy to point out as bad when it’s blatant and exclusionary (just look at how women and gays were removed from the hardcore punk scene) yet when the groups that are being appropriated from also get something out of the art it’s more of a grey area.
Honestly, I’m not that sure how I’m supposed to end this blog post. It’s stupidly late at night, the coffee is gradually wearing off and every attempt to flesh out an idea just ends up with 4 or 5 sentences that jump around the topic without saying anything of interest or anything of note. One of the problems I found while writing this post is that it’s quite easy to ask questions since everything related to this topic is vaguely questionable but when it comes to finding answers or a sense of closure it takes more effort than I’m willing to put it in at this time of day (it’s day right? the sun is up). If we’re supposed to learn anything from this post I guess it’s that appropriation is an extremely hard thing to write about without pissing someone off unintentionally, that media that exploits a certain demographic can also unintentionally end up helping said demographic, that nothing is ethical under this stupid capitalist system and that I should seriously consider planning these posts out in detail before jumping in. While going through what I’ve written this year I noticed that I ended a lot of these pieces with some random quote so I’m just going to copy and paste the first line of the first verse to give a sense of closure. “I’m in serious shit, I feel totally lost”. There, does that wrap it up for you hogs? I’m tired.