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From Russia with luv
t.A.T.u. titillate the masses

If pop music is really all about sex, does that make it a top or a bottom in its romp with the masses? Without even trying, the Russian teen-pop duo t.A.T.u. suggest it’s both, and also neither. Released in the US by Interscope, the duo’s debut album, 200 Km/H in the Wrong Lane, is pretty typical of the major-label teen product that’s been shoved down our earholes over the past five years. The cheesy synths, upbeat dance grooves, and breathy vocals are all produced to shine like lip gloss, and the act’s two 17-year-olds squeak through their saccharine Europop with all the singsong anonymity of the A-Teens. Yet the formulas are tweaked just enough to fit the current demand for toughness behind the taffeta. The girls emote into near shrieks, flip icy half-raps in English and Russian, drop some unexpected f-bombs, and ride occasional grandiose washes of rock guitar, as on the current minor hit "All the Things She Said," that are almost as hefty as Avril Lavigne’s eyeliner.

Some of this oomph comes courtesy of legendary ’80s schlock-rock maestro Trevor Horn (the Buggles, Frankie Goes to Hollywood), who stepped up to produce about a third of the tracks, including "All the Things She Said." Yet the group have risen above the fate of bad teen pop mostly by embracing a different kind of badness. As VJ John Norris said on MTV News a few months ago: "What could be more sellable, I ask you, than two Lolitas from Russia with love — for each other?"

According to their press clips, Moscow natives Lena Katina and Julia Volkova met as 11-year-olds in the children’s pop group Neposedi. "When we met, we could just feel each other," said Lena in a November cover story in Mixer. "First we were friends. And then, something more. . . . It was love." The article doesn’t say whether this love helped the pair win out over the hundreds of contenders vying for a spot in the new group. Lena does give abundant credit, however, to t.A.T.u.’s creator, 31-year-old psychologist, advertiser, and entrepreneur Ivan Shapovalov. "He did everything. The ideas of all the songs, the lyrics and our concept. He loves us." This makes Ivan sound more like an expert teen pimp than a teen-pop expert, and indeed the article’s author, Janet Tzou, doesn’t shy away from the obvious conclusions: "Shapovalov surely realized that t.A.T.u.’s double taboo — pubescent sexuality and lesbianism — was, in the name of another famous Russian doctor, the perfect Pavlovian trigger for straight males."

And yet something’s missing. After all, Shapovalov is hardly the first enterprising Russian to exploit the automatic drool response. "Look at ads for Russian prostitutes," a journalist friend working in Moscow wrote after I e-mailed him about t.A.T.u. "Among various categories of service is the line ‘Lesbie Show’ (along with ‘Classical Sex,’ ‘Anal Sex,’ and ‘Family Pair,’ which is usually a mom-daughter team)." As a pure "Lesbie Show," t.A.T.u are risible. The video for "All the Things She Said" even features the girls making out while a downpour soaks their Britney-esque schoolgirl uniforms (dig those neckties). So how have t.A.T.u. managed to perform before 50,000 Russians and sell more albums in Europe than any other Russian pop act? And why has the video to "All the Things She Said" been picked up by MTV’s TRL?

When I visited tatugirls.com, the hottest chat-room discussion wasn’t the nudge-nudge boy talk but an impassioned debate between girls on whether or not the TRL exposure would cheapen the group’s message. Meanwhile, Lena and Julia claim they’ve received death threats from teen boys because the boys’ girlfriends started going with other girls after discovering the group. In other words, though you’d be hard pressed to find a more top-down construction than t.A.T.u., they’ve apparently given some young women the strength to rise to the top themselves.

But I doubt it’s the lesbian theme alone that gives girls that strength. (Reports are even circulating that the duo are in fact heterosexuals in drag.) "Show me love, show me love, show me love!" goes the chorus to one of t.A.T.u’s bounciest songs, and it’s this tried-and-true teen yearning that powers the music. One of my favorite cuts is the one most disparaged by supporters and nay-sayers alike, the remake of the Smiths’ "How Soon Is Now?" Whereas Morrissey draped his pain over the tune with moony melodrama, t.A.T.u. are defiant, exploding the corny chorus as if they’d just realized its truth. This isn’t about sex; it’s about songwriting and performing. Sometimes that’s just what pop is "really all about" after all.

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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