Pop knows well the love that dare not speak its name. But with the global ascendancy of the two Russian 18-year-olds who make up the sapphic pheromonomenon t.A.T.u., the secret language is officially a dead tongue. Speaking of tongues: t.A.T.u.’s brashly pronoun-specific approach to homo culture’s heritage of elision, insinuation, and codification is basically to stroke, nuzzle, and snog the shame out of it. It’s enough to turn an indigo girl crimson.
OK, I left out their Svengali. And their schoolgirl getups. And how they might not actually be lesbians, let alone lovers. t.A.T.u.’s backstory is a willful tangle of sensationalist contradictions: Mastermind and former child psychologist Ivan Shapovalov, who will probably be played by Jeremy Irons in the movie, calls them his “underage sex project,” designed to heal the West of puritanical sickness. His genius packaging covers the bases: triumph of free market, nadir of showbiz exploitation, TRL-ing of gay tolerance, death-by-Maxim-cover of lesbian chic. And the nymphets play their parts with the unflappable gusto of pop-up ads. Julia Volkova, the moody brunette: “Everybody is so sure we are lesbianki, maybe we are bisexualki.” Lena Katina, the extroverted redhead: “Do you want to hear that we are fucking every night?”
Tsk all you want, but in the annals of what British tabloids have christened “paedo-pop,” is Julia and Lena’s carnality any more troubling or disingenuous than Britney’s virginity? In any case, to paraphrase someone who made a fetish of tortured repression (more on whom later), let’s measure truth based on whether pop says something to you about your life. In theory, t.A.T.u. should speak volumes to anyone who ever lived through adolescence, even if you weren’t parading about in knee socks and wanting desperately to kiss your best friend in the pouring rain, as the lezzies from the Bloc do in their most notorious video. Their English-language debut is titled 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane—a clumsily poetic evocation of apocalyptic teenage confusion, and of the music itself, which suggests ABBA’s Agnetha and Frida genetically spliced with a Chipmunk each and furiously liplocked inside a wind tunnel. Abrasive, insistent, given to ferocious rhetorical overstatement, perpetually on the brink of implosion, it’s teenpop scaled to the dimensions of teen experience.
America could barely handle a real lesbian’s fake sitcom (though it lapped up a hasbian’s Celestial true confessions)—is it ready for fake lesbians professing real love? The Trevor Horn-produced hit “All the Things She Said,” a cloud-splitting squall of pain, shame, passion, and defiance, complicates girl-I-love-loves-me-back elation with the hurt of peer and parental censure, and stages it all as a panic attack. As soft/loud histrionic as Horn’s signature Frankie/Propaganda sound, it alternates between conspiratorially hushed verses and a frantically repeated mantra charging straight at your brain stem: “All the things she said/running through my head/this! is! not! enough!”
“Not Gonna Get Us” freights us-against- the-world alarm with scythe-like screams and spooky imagery: “Lights from the airfield/Shining upon you.” The obstinate Eurodisco anthem “Malchik Gay” is their “girls who like boys to be girls who do girls like they’re boys” song. But for conceptual ingenuity, nothing comes close to their louder-than-bombs “How Soon Is Now.” Menacing keyboards turn Johnny Marr’s tremolo into a full-body shudder, power chords crunch and oscillate wildly, and the memory of Morrissey’s huffy-wallflower delivery is banished by a mighty squeal: “YOU SHATCHYA MAUF!” Despite the initial incredulity—you are the heir of what species of shyness exactly?—they don’t dilute the original’s monumental self-pity so much as convey it with foot-stamping, door-slamming petulance. For those of us who fell under the song’s spell at an impressionable age, t.A.T.u.’s version at once mocks and absolves the indulgent wallows and turgid poetry and cheap misanthropy the Smiths inspired. It’s a magnanimous, transformative gesture: a classic of gay teen desolation, liberated at long last.