The underage sex project with a hit record.

How popular culture gets popular.
Feb. 11 2003 5:27 PM

t.A.T.u.

The underage sex project with a hit record.

CD cover

For earlier generations, questions like "Beatles or Stones?" and "Pistols or Clash?" were meant to reveal something deeper than a musical preference—maybe even a whole cultural ideology. Pop music today offers no such intricate dichotomies; the best we can do is, "Britney or Avril?" In other words, do you prefer your underage pop star in a spunky Barbie-doll package or in a vaguely rebellious tomboy pose? On the other hand, today's global pop market does offer what might be called a Third Way: How about Avril and Britney—making out.

OK, that's not going to happen, but it's pretty good shorthand for t.A.T.u. (pronounced "tattoo"), a new pop act from Russia consisting of two teenage girls named Lena Katina and Julia Volkova. Last week their single "All the Things She Said" debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart, then moved on to the top spot in Music and Media Pan-European Singles Chart. Recently the song's video made Total Request Live's Top 10 on MTV. All of this according to the group's Web site, where you can watch the clip by clicking the "Audio/Video" link.

Volkova and Katina: Just friends?
Volkova and Katina: Just friends?

Let's pause, actually, to discuss the video. There are these two girls, right? They're in schoolgirl uniforms, OK? One has long, lush, red hair, the other has dark hair in a spikey, boyish cut. And they've got the hots for … each other. At first this is only hinted at, but the tease is a short one. Within a minute or so Lena and Julia are making out in the rain. Meanwhile, various sad and judgmental oldsters look on (apparently from somewhere within a Fellini movie), through a fence topped with razor wire. The music is a creditable slice of totally ephemeral mega-dance pop. (Listen to a sample.) Some lyrics: "Being with you has opened my eyes. Could I ever believe such a perfect surprise?" Then: "I'm all mixed up, feeling cornered and rushed. They say it's my fault, but I want her so much." And finally: "Daddy looking at me. Will I ever be free? Have I crossed the line?" At the end, the two girls, in their wet and clingy school uniforms, walk off hand in hand.

So this could be described as … enlightened? After all, it shows a lesbian couple overcoming fear and reproach. Perhaps there's something positive about the world's youth learning to embrace non-heterosexual pop stars.

But the story of t.A.T.u. and their sexual inclinations turns out to be even more mysterious than the capitalization and punctuation strategy in their name. The original creation myth went like this: The two girls, who are now age 17 and 18, are childhood friends who, in early adolescence, fell in love. They performed together in a teen band, then auditioned for one Ivan Shapovalov, who is billed as a filmmaker and former child psychologist. Shapovalov then packaged the pair for mass consumption, first in Russia, then Europe, and now the United States. (They recorded in Russian when they started out in 2000, but last year recorded a couple of songs in English, working with producer Trevor Horn on "All the Things She Said" and other tracks on the mostly English-language version of their album, 200 KM/H in the Wrong Lane.)

"Have I crossed the line?" Kneepads optional
"Have I crossed the line?" Kneepads optional

More recently, reports began to surface that the girls are not actually lesbians at all. Shapovalov was quoted by the British press referring to t.A.T.u. as an "underage sex project" and saying that he got the idea for the band after looking at porn sites. "At first, the idea was just underage sex," he told Blender, the music magazine, adding that he came to realize that this by itself wasn't enough. "Every time, the audience needs new images—for this project, new images were lesbian teenagers." In other words, t.A.T.u.'s place in the pantheon of breakthroughs in mass acceptance of gays and lesbians falls somewhere between a Howard Stern bit and the current Miller Lite "catfight" ad. Could you ever believe such a perfect surprise?

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But the story of the Lolita couple's rise only becomes truly perverse when you consider how obviously flimsy the lesbian packaging is: Shapovalov and his charges have hardly bothered to persuade anyone that they're on the up and up. Even the band's official bio comes off as a parody of the Svengali manipulator formula that recurs through pop history. "We have been persuaded to take part in the girl-band called Tattoo by band's future producer Ivan Shapovalov," the girls say. "As far as we know, before this band was made, Ivan Shapovalov never had anything to do with music business. … He made us to sign contracts with him, and according to these contracts we didn't have any rights to even speak. We just had to do whatever he was telling us to."

Not surprisingly, various critics have encouraged boycotts and deplored t.A.T.u. as peddling borderline child porn. Some members of the Russian Parliament have even suggested that some kind of legislation might be in order. Also not surprisingly, the attention has ratcheted up the hype and boosted sales. Shapovalov's response to U.K. moralists: "England is sick like America, and the only thing to do is provide a cure. …We will heal the country with music." Last week, according to the Moscow Times, Volkova and Katina held a press conference and, when asked whether they were lovers, one of the girls replied, "Maybe and maybe not. You know, we're not going to give a straight answer."

A straight answer! Even Malcolm McLaren would be impressed at the Great Lesbian Pop Tart Swindle.

But who is actually being swindled? In those Miller Lite ads, the famous "tastes great/less filling" debate is fought out by two women who begin tearing each other's clothes off (and who, in one version of the spot, end up asking, "Want to make out?"). Lite's fig leaf is that the scene is a fantasy concocted by dopey guys, whose girlfriends are appalled. The ad tries to have it both ways, mocking the same thing it's reveling in—and even, on some deeper level, mocking this sham pose itself, in a sort of infinite loop of provocation, critique, and hypocrisy. t.A.T.u. is much the same. And "All the Things She Said" has been steadily climbing Billboard's singles chart. This recalls another famous question in rock history, posed by Johnny Rotten: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" This time the answer is, "Of course—that's the whole point, isn't it?"

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