Sexual Inadequacy: t.A.T.u. and Synthetic Queerness

The last thing I remember hearing about the Russian pop group t.A.T.u was that their producer, Ivan Shapovalov, admitted the entire thing was a hoax. If you don't remember them, part of the controversy surrounding their act was was speculation into their sex lives. Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova were two 18-year-olds thrust into a media machine, with a synthetic queer narrative being given to them by their producer (who is, by all accounts, a pretty creepy, disgusting dude). They performed this role by kissing and being affectionate with one another on stage. I don't want to release them completely from culpability in participating in this synthetic queer narrative, but both of them have publicly stated that it was not their idea and it wasn't their decision. Their "girl you know it's, girl you know it's" moment came in late 2003, when a Russian TV station aired a documentary, Anatomy of a t.A.T.u, that revealed that they were both straight. I heard all of this secondhand from my friend Debbie, standing in her bathroom and helping her bleach her hair. Debbie was the first person to introduce me to t.A.T.u and had played their single "All The Things She Said" on repeat for months. Even after finding this out she still loved their music.

 

Lyrics to "All The Things She Said" can be found here.

The story of the song is one familiar to a lot of queer people—two young people meet, fall in love, want to spend every waking moment with one another, but those around them contrive to keep them apart. Sometimes lovers are separated by being sent to another school or to a conversion camp, sometimes one or both of them are murdered. In April an Austin man killed his daughter's girlfriend and the woman's mother at the entrance to their home because he didn't approve of his daughter's relationship. Queer sexuality is strictly policed, in private and public life, and it is so much worse when you are young.

Apart from the truth of the stage presence t.A.T.u inhabited, there were people who found something in their music. It is the same as when we acknowledge that the Spice Girls were a marketing tool to sell watered-down empowerment to teens that may have accidentally caused some people to believe in "Girl Power" as a personal concept and might have positively impacted their lives. I will be forever grateful for the slow sex jam "2 become 1" for reminding me to "be a little bit wiser" and "put it on, put it on"—if the Spice Girls used protection, so could I. Even things that are created for completely cynical reasons can have a positive impact.

I reached out to my Twitter followers yesterday morning, to find out if anyone remembered t.A.T.u. One of the editors from Tiger Beatdown, Flavia Dzodan, sent me a few live videos from Eurovision, drawing my attention to the lack of close-ups in one video, noting that the producers were afraid of Katina and Volkova kissing. Here is the tweet from Flavia, here is a link to the performance, and this a link to the lyrics in English. Watching the video, whoever was running the cameras did make a concerted effort to avoid placing the two singers in frame at the same time. Which means that the producers were policing and censoring the queer behavior of two straight people, who were being styled as queer by a third straight person to get the attention from the all-important straight male 18-35 demographic. As per usual, queer sex is hidden behind several different layers of censorship. You can see the lesbians, but they have to be played by straight ladies and they must be heavily censored. When they are affectionate with each other they must not progress past kissing, giggling, and hair flips. Anything else would be a little too much like real queer sex, where people don't just giggle and toss soapy water at each other for hours—they, you know, fuck.

Previously: The Exposure Myth

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Comments

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t.A.T.u., the Spice Girls, Milli Vanilli... I think I love you.

It is the same as when we acknowledge that the Spice Girls were a marketing tool to sell watered-down empowerment to teens that may have accidentally caused some people to believe in “Girl Power” as a personal concept and might have positively impacted their lives.

That was me, one thousand times yes. I wasn't exposed to a lot of music as a preteen that suggested there was anything positive about being female at all. I'm often tempted to describe the Spice Girls as a gateway drug to feminism, but that's not an ideal metaphor since it suggests that feminism is, you know, a drug. Their personae clearly cared about each other, and that camaraderie was something I wasn't used to seeing either. Not sure if you're aware, but for their Greatest Hits, they actually changed the "2 Become 1" lyric, "Boys and girls feel good together" to "Love will bring us back together," reportedly to make it more inclusive.

As for t.A.T.u., I still listen to "All the Things She Said" on a regular basis. The synthetic queerness angle does annoy me a little, though, largely because when I say we should applaud and believe celebrities who come out, someone always comes back with, "OMG NO WE SHOULDN'T DON'T YOU REMEMBER TATU." Ack. The whole saga did indeed illuminate a lot about societal discomfort, though.

Excellent post!

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OMG get out of my heeeeaaaaadddd

I was listing to "2 Become 1" on repeat for about an hour (and could hear my roommate singing along in his room LOL) for research for this piece and I winced at the "boys and girls" line, but they changed it yaaaaaaay. Also I had a behind the scenes tour documentary video and knew all the parts to it and watched Spice World every single week and was the member of a short-lived tribute act with my BFF and her little sister and I was Ginger and we could have definitely gone pro.

Your comments are always wonderful, by the way.

Disappointment

I am so disappointed! I used to listen to TATU and haven't heard about their producer's statement until now. It is complete news to me that TATU are straight and the whole thing was a lie. I am from Russia originally, and I know how much prejudice there is against being gay. Silly me, here I thought that an openly lesbian group came out of Russia.

Do you know about Zemfira?

Do you know about Zemfira? She IS an openly lesbian Russian pop singer—and very popular in Russia.

Here's one of my favorite songs by her: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ap6dCyFTk-Y

Here, here!

I was vaguely aware of certain feminist concepts before the Spice Girls got on our radio channels (I think I was 11 then), but I have to say they are the ones who initially spelled it out for me. What I still do love about them is that there never seemed to be any boyfriends taking up space from the Girls themselves, especially considering that their personae were created characters rather than "real people".

When it comes to t.A.T.u. and the "societal discomfort" their supposed queerness illuminated, do you mean your own society in the US or the one in their home country? Far as I know, Russia is still very deeply misogynistic and homophobic, and I'm guessing that what could be taken as a comparatively mild stunt in most of northern Europe (my hoods) or the US may really have been a truly frightening and daring role to play in Russia, especially when you're a member of the lower castes as a female teenager.

as usual, the truth resists simplicity

"Even things that are created for completely cynical reasons can have a positive impact." <--This. I still remember the first time I hear "All the Things She Said" -- back when I was very much pre- the "getting better" of the It Gets Better narrative. Growing up with basically no access to queer or lesbian media, my first thought when I heard a girl on the radio sing a love song about another a girl was that I must be misconstruing it. When I finally accepted that it was indeed what I thought it was, it was a powerful alterntive to the radio's constant stream of heterojams.

This positive experience of the song coexists for me with critiques of the "synthetic queer narrative" that commercially profits a skeevy producer (et al), while refusing to honor queer people, artists, and expression. But it does coexist. It was still a few more years before I'd find legit queer music, and in that moment -- like a protein bar before a late dinner date -- t.A.T.u. held me over.

Positive

I remember t.A.T.u. -- I was maybe 10. And even though I am now 21 & straight, at the time I felt empowered to question and explore thoughts about my sexuality more freely because there was this pop culture example I could look to. So basically I totally agree with your sentiments & even though t.A.T.u. was queer-lite and faked it had some positive repercussions also, like Spice Girls too.

More than just a kiss

I will take t.A.T.u over a Britney/Rihanna kiss any day.

The Russian version is better (in some ways)

I learned of t.A.T.u. (whose specific combination of capital and lower-case letters I will never remember) after the fact that their queerness was a hoax was popular knowledge. The whole idea of lesbians-as-gimmick was distasteful to me, particularly that it reinforced the idea that queer women are "acting" to garner attention. But it was a catchy song all the same. I prefer it in the original Russian (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-F-JfWqMG6g), called "Ya Shosla S Uma," meaning "I Have Lost My Mind," which shows Lena and Yulia not only singing, but sharing more time together on scene. The English translation version of the video was cut, it seems mostly to cover the fact that they are singing in Russian, and some of the more "intimate" moments shared by the two characters (because let's face it, they're characters at this point) were reordered and cut from the original version. It's still PG, of course, no outright sex, but there's definitely more physical contact. What bothered me more were the schoolgirl outfits, complete with upskirt shots, and the selling not only of lesbian sex, but of underage sex as well.

The Russian version was

The Russian version was indeed different and in my opinion had better lyrics. Which brings to mind their other song "They're not gonna get us" ("Nas Ne Dogonyat" in Russian). The music video was about two girls running away from home together. But I am still bummed about the whole thing being a fake.

I don't remember ever

I don't remember ever believing them as lesbian. Or they could have been just as well as they could have been straight but it was always obvious that it was a show. Girls in schoolgirl outfits pretend flirting and kissing, it was a sexy show for the straight male. But it was still a way in, a way to start thinking about it, talking about it. It would have been much better had it been real but what it was was still better than nothing at all.

Cool

So nice to read that someone remembers t.A.T.u.! It was a nice gimmick, & it got more young people to think that being queer was okay from what I read on their boards back in the day & even now. They're both performed at GAY in Paris & Lena did a concert at a pridefest in the US last year. They still make a place for their fans, though they realize that the deception may have hurt some. 'All the Things She Said' is still the only queer song I've ever heard on mainstream radio that I can remember hearing.

Western lense

To dismiss t.A.T.u. As "fake", "lesbian-lite" or queer for marketing terms all on 2nd hand knowledge really eludicates more on how we have to view everything through an Anglo-American perspective all the time. t.A.T.u. Never claimed to be lesbians, the name literally translates to "this girl loves that girl". I've also yet to find any interview where they denounce their personas, or "admit" to being manipulated. Its only from a UK/US perspective we have to see them as embodying a lived lesbian experience. They certainly ARE queer, that's for sure, as both their albums and their performances contest. Their Russian label, NeFormat, was a left wing anti capitalist group that also included a Chechnyan singer who rapped about the atrocities in her homeland and displaced refugees. Its us who can't see the political, in a group that arised as demonstrating same sex desire in a country that still confines young women to mental hospitals if their parents find out they have same sex relationships.