Featured Music: Wednesday, April 24, 2003
Persecution Complex

The young Russian lesbians of t.A.T.u. try to handle adult themes — but fail.


Lena and Julia, the two Russian girls who make up the pop group t.A.T.u., are just like any other two photogenic teenagers who have been thrown together by a pop mastermind, with one exception: They claim to be in love with each other, and they’re apparently really eager to prove it. In the video for their single “All The Things She Said,” the girls tongue-kiss each other in the rain while dressed in — what else? — clingy, soaking-wet schoolgirl outfits.

So it’s hardly a surprise that the video for “All The Things She Said” was MTV Russia’s Video of the Year in 2001, and t.A.T.u.’s debut album, 200km/h in the Wrong Lane, has already sold more than a million copies overseas. A huge promotional push in the States is just now getting under way, with the recent release of the English version of 200km/h, produced by Trevor Horn (The Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones, Seal). The English-language video for “All The Things She Said” is in heavy rotation on MTV, and Lena, the baby-faced redhead, and Julia, the punkier-looking brunette, have been featured in skin-a-matic pictorials in Jane, Mixer, and Request magazines. Mark my words: Grade-school teachers will soon find themselves explaining the birds and the birds to inquisitive young minds.

So are t.A.T.u. for real? Stateside critics haven’t bought into them — not completely, anyway. Esquire wondered whether the girls getting on the way they do was “true love or a shrewd ploy by Ivan Shopovalov, their bespectacled Svengali?” then quickly dismissed the question as so much intellectualizing over the awe-inspiring image of two young hotties locked at the lips. (The magazine’s answer to its inquiry: “Ah, who cares.”) Jane seems to have recognized the Muscovites’ plan to dominate our airwaves and magazine covers. They wrote, “See, Julia and Lena know a recipe for fame our squeaky-clean Mandys and Britneys can’t cook — they make out with each other.” But, per Jane’s usual m.o., the writer was much more concerned with t.A.T.u.’s personal hygiene than their media savvy.

What the critics haven’t done, apparently, is listen to much of the music. The mostly dance-pop-oriented 200km/h uses everything from straight-ahead floor-filler filler to Russian folksong, sung in (yawn!) Russian, to the type of alterna-rock you could imagine would happen if Shakira were N*Sync’s lead guitarist. The tunes wear out their singers’ young, undeveloped voices chiefly on the theme of chick-on-chick love, a subject the girls are allegedly well aware of. But it’s not that Lena and Julia’s extra-musical sexual conduct might not square with what can be heard on disc, it’s that these lasses are so overly dramatic about the alleged depths of their intimacy and their consequential persecution that none of it sounds the least bit honest. Granted, all teen music is overwrought and emotionally simpleminded, but t.A.T.u., through the songwriting pens of various veterans, is trying to elucidate the very mature issues of discrimination and what it means for a young girl to have feelings for another girl; sensitive topics such as these naturally require an artistic subtlety that’s generally anathema to the over-the-top exaggerations and large pronouncements of dance pop. The girls’ refusal to inhabit their lyrics, as good singers should, and instead overwhelm them dilutes whatever potency these lyrics may have. I mean, who cares what t.A.T.u. is saying when the beats are bombastic and the voices are as superfluous and flimsy as garnish on a salad? “All The Things She Said,” with its catchy 25-words-per-breath chorus, inflects drama-queen trauma. During the hook, it rumbles on guitar crunch, big beats, and attitude, and during the verses it flows on a quiet, minimalist backdrop that gives one of the girls (it’s impossible to tell which) a clean shot at a kindred heart somewhere on the other side of the c.d. player: “And I’m all mixed up,” sings the t.A.T.u. lass, real despondent, like she’s just lost her class ring, “Feeling cornered and rushed / They say it’s my fault, but I want her so bad.” The rest of the c.d. is as equally concerned with letting the beautiful brats aestheticize their oppressed existence as members of the other team. “I long for you to hold me / like your boyfriend ... does,” a t.A.T.u. chick pleads on “Malchik Gay.” “And though my dream is slowly fading / I wanna be the object, object, object,” etc. It’s as if these themes were crosses to bear, and, unfortunately, the girls from t.A.T.u. simply shrink beneath the weight.

But really, is the arrival of t.A.T.u. that surprising? These days, every Top 40 artist comes packaged with a background, a readily accessible history: It turns the private, lonely endeavor of singing into a microphone in a studio someplace into a campaign for the record buyer’s heart and mind. When all those 14-year-olds shell out their allowances for a c.d., they aren’t just buying music; they’re buying companionship. It’s almost inevitable that when all the available companions start to feel like cheap knock-offs of one another, something new will come along. Cute lesbian Russian teens — as far as get-rich-quick schemes go, this one is the tops.

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