t.A.T.u – I Kissed A Girl (Because I Was Told To)
Flashback to May 2003. The Terminator returned to theatres, Buffy The Vampire Slayer aired its final episode, and I was probably still at the stage of forging sick-notes to avoid either PE or Maths. It was also the year a pair of young lesbian girls exploded onto the music scene. Calling themselves t.A.T.u, the Russian duo achieved a number one with their debut single ‘All The Things She Said’, thanks in part to a nationwide uproar regarding the source material. It seems weird to consider the controversy these days, Katy Perry’s girl kissing antics doing a great job of reminding people that some girls enjoy kissing other girls! The video for the track caused even more of an uproar, as the girls sported Catholic school uniforms and engaged in several passionate kisses. When Britney Spears rocked that look in 1998, there was a similar stir, even though it was later revealed to be her idea, as she was seventeen at the time and seemingly knew the exposure would be beneficial to her career. For this duo however, the reaction was damaging. Whilst Britney Spears always gave the impression of a good-natured youngster who was finding her own way in the world and exploring her own sexual identity in a light, fun way, t.A.T.u essentially made a promise they couldn’t keep with their single.
Despite the controversay, many gay publications agreed that the exposure could do a great job in promoting same-sex relationships. Interviews and live performances were always a platform for the girls to be questioned regarding their alleged relationship, yet answers were always basic and left things unconfirmed.
The controversy continued upon the album and second single release, where more and more information on the group was discovered. Ivan Shapovalov, the man who created the group and A&R’d the album, was accused of exploiting the girls for financial gain, using the lesbian edge as a headline grabber. Further headlines were gained when it emerged he had called pedophilia an ”underserved market”, in reference to the school uniforms featured in the video. Second single ‘Not Gonna Get Us’ continued the lesbian theme, yet the press began to see the girls as employees to Ivan and the music industry as a whole, as opposed to actual artists. The album eventually achieved high sales worldwide, and the group toured successfully, before taking a short break, during which the drama died down.
During this time the band became unhappy with Shapovalov, claiming he was more interested in creating scandal than ensuring the
quality of their material was consistent. The group released a statement saying; ”He made us out to BE lesbians when we were just singing FOR lesbians. We wanted people to understand them and not judge them. That they are as free as anyone else.”, which confirmed once and for all the girls were not in a relationship. The group would not return until August 2005, with the lead single ‘All About Us’. Once again the video caused a huge stir, not for any lesbian action, rather scenes of attempted rape and homicide. Rather playfully, the group added fake newspaper headlines into the video, which featured headlines speculating about the girls sexuality. The single was a success in the UK and Russia, although the accompanying album ‘Dangerous And Moving’ sold considerably less than it’s predecessor.
Despite gaining more control over their material, the band were still relying on uproar to sell material. After this the band went on hiatus, whilst one member raised her new-born baby, and the other worked on solo projects. After the questionable release of a Greatest Hits in 2006, nothing would be heard from the band until 2008. This year saw the Cannes Film Festival release of ‘You And I’ a film that told the story of two young girls (not the band) who fall in love. t.A.T.u appeared briefly in the film as themselves. Star Mischa Barton said of the film; ”I did a film about t.A.T.u., the Russian girl band, and that was interesting. This whole corrupt Russian music industry formed this fake-lesbian band. It’s an odd story, but a fascinating one.”, a quote that demonstrates how so many see the girls as a gimmick as opposed to an actual band. The film received poor critical reviews and has only just been released on DVD.
The band released their final album, Waste Management, in 2009, a release that completely strayed away from their headline-grabbing song and video antics, and predictably saw poor sales. Despite this, it remains their best effort, an album that finds the band actually achieve their own sound, whilst at the same time being completely devoid of shock-tactics and controversy. After this release, the two girls began working on solo projects again, and a statement was made in July 2011 that the band had split up.
It’s strange to think, but the only real legacy the band have is not the material they recorded, rather the furor about the material. They created some catchy songs, even a couple of fantastic songs, yet the casual use of gay identity will forever taint their name. Whilst it’s undeniable they were used to gain publicity and sales, it’s hard to imagine they were not aware of what was occurring behind the scenes. When Katy Perry released I Kissed A Girl in 2008, nobody thought for a second she was being exploited, primarily because what she was doing was even more contrived than t.A.T.u; using her sexuality not to fool people into thinking she was a lesbian, but to turn young males on, a damaging use of gay identity; a dangerous game.