Let’s focus on the queer aesthetic of t.A.T.u. and how it disappeared into the ether.
While Western musicians are regularly exploring sexuality in their work, Russian pop culture is strictly heteronormative. Strangely enough, ten years ago the situation was completely different. After the collapse of the USSR, young musicians started to rethink sex, gender, or love, and expressed it through art. This cultural phenomenon was known worldwide, and t.A.T.u. deserve some credit for that too – the girl band even managed to perform on Eurovision 2003 where they took an honorable 3rd place with “Не верь, не бойся, не проси” (“Don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask”, which is my favorite song by them, as a matter of fact). Since then, the situation has changed drastically, especially after the “gay propaganda law” was released. Queer aesthetics turned out to not be safe anymore. Nevertheless, let’s open the door to the world of t.A.T.u. – far beyond their famous song “Not gonna get us”.
Let’s start with the basics. “Нас не догонят” (“Not gonna get us”, 2001) was one of the biggest hits worldwide, and it probably still is. I am terribly sorry, but prepare for a bit of shade on everyone’s all-time favorite. Here is the big secret of t.A.T.u.’s success: it’s a pure producer’s project built on fake gay love. Two fifteen-year-old teens are doing something that doesn’t go along the social norms – “coming out” back then was perceived as a form of protest, and framing it in an artistic form was highly attractive to the general public. Julia and Lena were exploiting homosexuality to get everyone’s attention and it worked like a charm. I still remember my disappointment when I found out that these two girls were actually not in love…
Protest – that’s exactly what “Not gonna get us” is about: misunderstood by their parents, Julia and Lena run away. It’s not even about a “being queer” kind of problem, it’s more general: rebel teens who want to stand up against the whole society because they are teens and that’s what teens do. Queer topics are rather addressed in another t.A.T.u.’s song “Я сошла с ума” (“I’ve lost my mind”, later resung in English as “All the things she said”, 2000).
What the song is about is clear, the plot is pretty straightforward: lesbian story of two young girls vs reaction of society. The Russian lyrics match the song’s video very well: Julia and Lena are telling the story about how they are being judged for this “odd love”, how society is treating them like they are crazy, so they actually start to believe what they feel towards each other is wrong. And all this is reflected in the name of the song. The English version, from my point of view, is lacking it all.
Leading a lifestyle that breaks social norms can be hard, and sometimes you get to the point when you are ready to betray your beliefs just to fit in and be like the others. That’s what the song “30 минут” (“30 minutes”, 2001) is about. In the music video, Lena makes out with a guy, which leaves Julia heartbroken. In the beginning of the song, in a recording of a phone call Lena says that she is actually bisexual and that she spends way more time with Julia, and “the guy” is not cool with this situation. Julia is desperate, so she decides to kill her (ex-)girlfriend along with her new crush. Cut. For me personally, this song means the end of the whole t.A.T.u lesbian love story. It was over in a flash…
Nevertheless, Julia and Lena continue to work with queer themes in their songs and videos. Thinking about Russian TV censorship now, here’s something that really blows my mind: this “Мальчик-Гей” (“Gay guy”, 2003) live concert video that goes so well with the lyrics about a guy who “has to handle hard things”, accompanied by the singers simulating sexual scenes on stage. Ahhh, starting to be sentimental, this being allowed without any censorship, that’s absolutely beautiful. : (
And the last song I want to talk about is Eurovision’s “Не верь, не бойся, не проси” (“Don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask”, 2003). Fun fact: “Do not believe, do not be afraid, do not ask” is also a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book “The Gulag Archipelago”. It became a “mantra” for prisoners, an instruction on how to survive in prison. I do believe the name of the song has something to do with this. “Не верь, не бойся, не проси” is about a fight, about “Not gonna get us”, about resistance. It summarises everything t.A.T.u. have done.
This song brings us to the finish line, whatever has been done by t.A.T.u after that contains lots of sexual innuendos, but it’s something completely different. It seems like t.A.T.u. just want to provoke exploiting “debauchery”, nothing more than that. Julia and Lena still try to address different social problems, but the messages are somehow blurry.
t.A.T.u. could never be a longterm project: you simply cannot stay a young cute lesbian girl forever! t.A.T.u. could have transformed into something different, but failed in doing so, and the provocative storylines implemented after that were “way too much” for old Russia, and absolutely unimaginable for the time we are living in now. Nevertheless, they produced some really iconic pieces and for that, we will be always grateful. There were way more cool (actually) queer music artists in the 90s and the beginning of 2000s, but let’s talk about that later.
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