Reconsidering the Queer Cosplay of t.A.T.u.

Fifteen years ago, the Russian duo topped charts worldwide by playing with lesbian tropes. Could they make it today?
By Brandon Tensley,
Julia Volkova and Lena Katina of t.A.T.u perform during the Opening Ceremonies at the 2014 Winter Olympics at Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7th, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. 

At the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, the scene-stealing performance came from Russian singers Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, a duo better known as t.A.T.u. On massive screens behind them, they projected press clippings pointing up the controversy around their apparent homosexuality—"t.A.T.u. are corrupting our youth!"; "Russian duo do it with each other!"while Katina and Volkova, braless and brazen, warbled through their hit, "Not Gonna Get Us." In case this was all too subtle, the performance also included scores of women who flanked the duo and locked lips with each other in a telegenic display of Sapphic empowerment.

Fifteen years ago this month, in August of 2002, the duo broke through with "All the Things She Said," the lead single from t.A.T.u.'s debut album in English, 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane. (Previously, the twosome had recorded mainly in Russian.) The song's lyrics are remarkably clear about the muddied emotions that accompany same-sex desire in a world that tends to malign those feelings. "When they stop and stare, don't worry me / 'Cause I'm feeling for her, what she's feeling for me," the two women confide, before erupting when the verse hits: "I can try to pretend, I can try to forget / But it's driving me mad, going out of my head!"

One point of contention was the song's music video. In it, Katina and Volkova, clad in school uniforms, are in the rain and seem to be stuck behind a fence, with people staring at them on the other side. For almost four minutes, the two women ricochet between kissing each other and looking, frantically, for a way out. But then, a twist: It's really the gawking onlookers who are trapped—not only behind the fence, but also, the clip implies, by their bigoted ways.

For all of that, though, loving t.A.T.u.'s music is hard—not because Katina and Volkova are lesbians, but, rather, because they're not. This love-hate wrangling is even more complicated given how much time has passed, and how audiences have begun to change: What might have seemed, in 2002, like queer-friendly appropriation would likely feel more like exploitative gesturing in 2017.

On the one hand, it's no small thing to speak up for queer acceptance, especially if, like the members of t.A.T.u., you're from Russia, where the law is harsh on queer people in a way that American law isn't. Indeed, it matters a lot. I remember the first time I saw the music video for "All the Things She Said." I was 12 years old, and it was, I'm sure, well past my bedtime. But how could I stop looking? I mean, two people of the same sex were singing about being downright obsessed with each other—on MTV. For me, that video offered hope that it's OK—more than OK—to be queer. And I imagine it must have been similar for other closeted preteens my age.

But there was also the issue of t.A.T.u.'s fundamental lack of "realness." In lieu of authenticity, there was, essentially, opportunistic lesbian posturing. One British reviewer, writing in 2003 about the media attention swirling around t.A.T.u., commented that the group "packs enough cheap controversy to make Eminem's shenanigans seem like high art," nodding to what many began to consider was a deeply sleazy and sexist marketing gag that primped two young women for popular consumption. (The pair was assembled by producer Ivan Shapovalov in 1999, when the girls were only 14 years old.) And years later, in 2014, t.A.T.u. once again caused a kick-up when Volkova said that she wouldn't "accept a gay son" because "a man has no right to be a fag." (She added that it's different for lesbians because, oof, they "look aesthetically much nicer than two men holding their hands or kissing.") Worse than being trespassers, it seemed, the group had come to shun parts of the very community from whom it had earlier profited.

Could an act like t.A.T.u. become such a smash in 2017? Given that there's a greater degree of queer representation today—androgynous twin sisters Tegan and Sara, one half of the Veronicas—as well as growing acceptance in the mainstream, I have my doubts that a group could do what t.A.T.u. did, at least with the same level of impunity; "All the Things She Said" topped charts all across the planet. But then, the song is an absolute jam, even today—the hook, bolstered by surging guitars, is addictive as hell, and its message of total confusion can make a listener ruminate on similarly heady feelings in a way that feels deeply genuine.

Of course, the controversy hardly stopped t.A.T.u.'s music from becoming a global sensation. That's part of the point. In a 2003 essay (marvelously titled "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You"), queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick examines people's emotional attachments to texts and works of art, writing that "what we can best learn from such practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them." The bittersweet attraction to t.A.T.u.'s music maybe lies in that contradiction: Two cosplay queers were all some of us, particularly lesbians, had in pop culture at the time. And while eking out attachment was enough then, I don't think it'd be enough now, when more musicians are more openly able to bring their own lived experiences to their work—experiences they don't put on, or take off, for an awards show.

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