[13 March 2003]
It could be argued (by me, when caffeinated) that the history of “pop culture” is not the history of modern art or music or books or television or any of the stuff we cover in our reviews, but rather the history of marketing and advertising. (Look me up when you get to Madison. We’ll kibitz.) This has always been the case, y’all, and there’s no real argument to be made about it, so don’t even try.
So by now every soccer mom and clueless square uncle knows the shtick about Russian “lesbian” teens Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, who are t.A.T.u. They were put together, forbidden underage “porn” image and all, by their producer/songwriter/Svengalis, and they’re probably not really lesbians after all due to their having boyfriends back in Russia, and it’s all a big pop swindle. But that’s a wonderful reason to love them, and you could just groove on the whole time-honored artificiality of it. The direct line of hype, leading from Frank Sinatra and Johnnie Ray through Elvis Presley and the Beatles and the Monkees and [insert many majorly hyped music acts here], is once again honored, and the Gods of Image are pleased.
Because what the hell is wrong with the video for “All the Things She Said”? So a couple of cutesy Russian teenagers in schoolgirl uniforms act all tortured in front of disapproving society members, and then kiss about 40 times (or once in about 40 edits) and then walk away holding hands? Big deal—the same thing was done much more evilly in Aerosmith’s “Crying” video with Liv and Alicia back in the day. We didn’t get to see any actual kisses, but we all knew what was going on, and it was played for sleaze and titillation, and there was nothing wrong with that, either.
So I don’t see a problem with “All the Things She Said” getting played on MTV all over the place; the worst that happens is that people complain about it, which is great because it means that they get shown up as meanies, bigots, etc., and the best that happens is that real-life lesbian or gay or bi or transgendered or hetero teenagers end up feeling better about their own lives for seeing it.
(I’m assuming, here, no longer actually being any kind of teenager. So I asked my actual-teenager friend Allison A. Mayhem, who runs www.rantnotebook.com. Here’s what she said: “Stuff like this is the future of advertising. It will not stop with import pop music. Using semi-explicit photos of naughty Russians will soon be commonplace and expected, like brightly-lit color photos of food in commercials. (Enlarged to show texture!) Welcome to McDonalds! Try the new McMeatwich! NOW 50% MORE GAY! For a limited time only! ENLARGED TO SHOW HOT LESBIANS! UNDER 18!” Well, okay, so not every teenager is into the idea of Russoteensploitation; Mayhem likes the Alkaline Trio and the Dillinger Four and stuff like that. But me, I have no integrity, so I have no problem with the video. It’s so sad being old.)
The video is just one of three versions of “All the Things She Said” contained on 200 KM/H in the Wrong Lane—we also get to hear the actual song, which turns out to be a perfect slice of chamber/techno-pop when you hear it without visual distraction/enhancement, and in its “original” Russian-language version. They’ve imported production god Trevor Horn for this song and a couple of others, and he displays once again that he is master of all he surveys: he provides everything that made ABC and Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and early Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood [insert them in earlier hype-list too] so aurally undeniable. Throbby wobbly synths that give way to massive portentous smashes of noise that vanish in an instant to make way for delicate tiny sounds that are then completely eclipsed by hard-rock guitars for the chorus. And, I submit, the thing that makes the song is the little reggae drum-break that comes in right before all the dramatic parts, something that you’re just not going to get with any other producer in the world. Oh, it’s good to have him back, Mr. Horn, even though he’s really only working on three songs.
But in order for this to be proper broody/moody/sadcore pop, we need a chorus with lines that stick, and we get one: “All the things she said / Running through my head / This is not enough”. This goes straight to the heart of the matter as all great teen love songs must hinge on the theme of “they don’t understand us,” and these lyrics delivered by the helium-voiced Katina and Volkova (“When they stop and they stare, it don’t worry me / ‘Cause I’m feeling for her what she’s feeling for me / I can try to pretend, I can try to forget / But it’s driving me mad, going out of my head”) don’t disappoint. It’s touching, it’s trivial, it’s throwaway, it’s indelible. I like it because there is no way not to.
The same goes for “Not Gonna Get Us,” which is even more relentless in pursuit of our love. Horn does an amazing thing right from the start, giving us a dope techno beat that then mutates into a hip-hop version of the same beat for the chorus, which pretty much consists of the title shrieked at a seizure-inducing pitch that I’m surprised humans can hear at all. If you hate this group, it starts right here, but you have to be a very awful person, because when the floaty part comes in for the verses, and all we hear is soft teenage voice singing “Starting from here, let’s make a promise / You and me, let’s just be honest / We’re gonna run, nothing can stop us / Even the night that falls all around us”. That stuff is sublime, sisters and brothers, pure classic Shangri-La stuff, and the fact that it’s sung by girls to each other is cool, and the fact that it was written by middle-aged Russian dudes (and, I think, written in English by Horn and some accomplices), makes it somehow even cooler.
I’m falling into the trap, here, of discounting all the non-Horn-produced tracks. Of these, which are produced by Martin Kierszenbaum and Robert Orton, most are actually very discountable. There’s nothing wrong with “Show Me Love,” presented here in its regular version and an “extended version” that is only 45 inessential seconds longer, but there’s nothing all that right about it either. You’d think that Abba with metal guitars would rock my little world, but I’m kind of neutral about everything except the brilliant line “Like a game of pickup sticks / Played by f*****g lunatics”, which is ace, especially since it’s censored in the original. “Stars” tries for smooth world-pop with an extended Russian rap, but doesn’t linger in anyone’s memory after it’s over. And my seven-year-old daughter said that the slow atmospheric ballad “30 Minutes” sounded like “winter, with snow falling all over . . . and that’s not a good thing.”
I’ve heard people fall all over themselves to either praise or damn the t.A.T.u cover of the Smith’s “How Soon Is Now”, but I can’t get worked up one way or the other about it. It’s super-cheesy, which I think is a good thing, but it’s also not as passionate as some people have claimed; the girls are yelling because they have to be heard over the banks of loud clangy synths, not because they really care. No, for me the highlight of the filler is a truly great song that I don’t understand at all. What a “Malchik Gay” is or isn’t doesn’t matter one bit to me—the song is perfect, if “perfect” can be defined as “a clever rip-off of the Partridge Family’s ‘I Think I Love You’ on a two-step tip with ping-ponging vocals that sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks on E.” And I do. Plus, it has lyrics that function as both the title of this review and a summation of the disc’s basic philosophy, a philosophy that will be in place as long as there are teenagers:
“I wanna be the object object object object of your passion, but it’s hopeless.”
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tatu-200/