Invented pop groups – bands formed by managers more concerned with marketing than talent – have been with us since the Monkees first oozed forth onto America’s airwaves. Malcolm McLaren claimed to have created a punk version of such with the Sex Pistols. Even Iceland has it’s own version, in the form of Nýlon.
Singers and groups created primarily for marketability have become so commonplace that we hardly bat an eyelash when another one comes rattling off the assembly line, unless they bear some sort of gimmick that grabs our attention. This is precisely what Ivan Shapovalov had in mind when he created the Russian pseudo-lesbian singing duo t.A.T.u. in 1999.
Within the span of barely four years, t.A.T.u. – comprised of singers Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova – managed two hits from their sole album to date, 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane – the teen angst anthems All the Things She Said and Not Gonna Get Us – in addition to an ill-received cover version of the Smiths’ classic, How Soon Is Now?
Shapovalov was pretty straightforward about his vision for the band, telling Blender magazine, “At first, the idea was just underage sex. Every time, the audience needs new images—for this project, new images were lesbian teenagers.”
All the while, Katina and Volkova remained vague and non-committal to the image Shapovalov had created for them, stating in repeated interviews that they “just love each other.”
The sensationalism and downright sleaziness, made for great copy, and drew the ire of the British press in particular. The March 2003 issue of Q magazine printed a scathing portrait of the band – wherein two grown men called two 18-year-old girls “cunts” – as well as the band’s manager, who belched forth the comment, “Society needs to be protected from people who want to protect society from t.A.T.u.”
The gimmick worked to a large extent. Sexually confused teenagers and closet pedophiles the world over embraced them, albeit for drastically different reasons. In the hubbub, what few parties noticed was that the music the band put out was actually decent.
What sets t.A.T.u. apart from the Monkees, Nýlon and the Sex Pistols is that Katina and Volkova actually possess talent. In the review section, Q magazine gave their album three out of five stars, stating in part, “the mechanical rock and lascivious pianos come not just with sugar-coated pop, but industrial strength, turmoil and alienation.” For my part, I’ve listened to the Russian version of their album and I believe the songs are tightly composed, featuring the signature minor scale that Russians love so dearly, and push the normally light mood of pop music into unsettling, nearly explosive emotional territory – a soundtrack that goes very well with posting the daily news.
The biggest reason why I put emphasis on the Russian versions of their songs is twofold. As a native-born English speaker, I not-so-grudgingly admit that Russian sounds better than English, especially when sung. Don’t even try to write me and dispute this. You simply won’t convince me that “love” sounds nicer than “ljubov.” Secondly, Russians are suckers for wordplay and double entendres. Take for example the song, “Prostie Dvizhenia” (“simple movements”) – in English, the song is overtly about masturbation, whereas in Russian, the main verse roughly translates as, “Without you, I just keep going through simple movements,” which in Russian can mean going through the motions of day-to-day life despite the absence of a lover or “rubbing one out”.
Nonetheless, there’s one basic problem: how does one enjoy t.A.T.u.’s music without financing a sleazy Svengali? Unfortunately, the only viable way involves depriving the band itself of funds as well.
Visit t.A.T.u’s Russian website – www.tatu.ru – and click on “Downloads” (one of the few portions of the site in English). There, you can download all of their songs, both in Russian and English, numerous videos, and even a feature-length documentary of the band, all free of charge for now. The diehard fan will find rare videos and artwork, including a bizarre video montage featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin, and those sceptical but curious can hear for themselves what the band has to offer with a clean conscience. For best results, I recommend listening to the songs on Windows Media Player, with the graphic equalizer set on “Dance,” and the visualizer set on “Battery: I see the truth.”
In 2004, t.A.T.u. split from Shapovalov and the image he created for them. According to the official website, their new album – Dangerous and Moving – is due for international release this October from Interscope Records. Here’s hoping Volkova and Katina will eventually be able to shake the creepy spectre Shapovalov foisted upon them, and let the music speak for itself on their new album.