ARTS

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January 17, 2003

What Kind of Total Disregard for Humanity Do You Have?

There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance

There's a hole in the wall where the men can see it all

Why on earth singing the above lines with a bunch of friends in first grade was tantalizing is perhaps something I should best not talk about in a newspaper column. But it was, even though there was no idea what watching a bunch of naked ladies dancing might start doing to try and keep my attention. I was a kid--the mere fact of nudity was enough to grab attention. Shit, it might still be. I also badly wanted to travel to France as a result, which may have led to decades of Francophilia only now acknowledged publicly.

Luckily, we have the fine fellows at Miller Lite to fill our heads with ideas of what those naked dancing ladies could be doing with each other--but is it worth staying there, watching as two women in thong bikinis fight in the mud over "tastes great" or "less filling" before the one on top suggests making out as a resolution?

Last summer, e-mails started coming in, whispering about a pair of sapphic sophomores, Julia Volkova and Lena Katina, who make up t.A.T.u., a Russian teen-pop duo. The e-mails would seldom refer to the music--in fact, the buzz was fully in place before even a note could be heard Stateside--but would instead refer to Volkova and Katina's love for each other that had manifested itself in, well, something much more intimate and TV-MA than what we are used to seeing.

Years of anti-Soviet indoctrination made me initially suspicious, and early on the pair made their attraction to each other seem invented just for marketing. Their being managed by a psychologist-cum-video producer just past 30 years old added to the suspicion. Since the summer, though, they seem to have turned up the steam, coming just short of out-and-out coming out. Lending credence, they talk about being the victims of discrimination back home. Their parents were scandalized after the video for "All the Things She Said," and the pair were run out. Apparently, their public engaging in taboo has caused hate mail to arrive from teenaged George Costanzas from the Baltic to the Black Sea--young men dumped for young women.

But what to make of t.A.T.u. remains difficult to decide. However, at the same time, it is a valuable exercise. Volkova and Katina insist that they have received support from gay teens, and Eastern Europe certainly needs to outgrow its sickening homophobia. Yet the girls suggest that the future is too murky for them to identify themselves as strictly gay--"Maybe we'll decide we like boys better someday",Katina explains. Additionally, on their album 200 Km/H in the Wrong Lane, they seemingly devote an entire song, "Malchik Gay," to the subject of getting a boy to, employing another Seinfeld trope, "switch teams." "I long for you to hold me / like your boyfriend... does," Volkova sings. But she also suggests that the task is pointless, that sexuality is indelibly connected to identity, closing with "I wanna be the object / of your passion, but it's hopeless."

Confused yet? The rest of the songs on the album tackle typical issues for seventeen-year-olds. In fact, alienation comes up in nearly every song. Volkova and Katina engage in escapist fantasies at every turn, promising to love one another forever, right before they run away. This thread continues through the videos--"All the Things She Said" shows the girls getting out of a fenced-in area, surrounded by hecklers, walking hand in hand away from the camera, and "Not Gonna Get Us" (almost unlistenably shrill in the original Russian) shows the girls manning a giant truck as yet another means for getting away, being alone, away from the hole in the wall where the men can see it all.

And I'm all mixed up

Feeling cornered and rushed

They say it's my fault but I want her so much

"All the Things She Said"

The duo is scheduling their assault on U.S. shores at either the best time or the worst time, as pop culture seems already saturated with scandals and photo shoots surrounding Christina Aguilera's "new" look. But her look only invites marginalisation of her as a performer. With the "Dirrty" video under her belt (or do belts hide too much skin?), Xtina has veered into being a one-trick pony: the popstar who really, really, really likes sex and has lots of piercings in magical places. As a result, her brand of sex/body-positive feminism gets lost in the mix. Whatever she has to say that's even vaguely interesting about sexuality is pushed aside so that more male gaze-fuelled wild fantasies involving "sweating 'til my clothes come off" can take its place.

The same could be said about t.A.T.u., if they're sincere about their sexuality (they do, after all, cover "How Soon Is Now"...). Among the making out amidst soaking wet t-shirts, mini-skirts, and knee-socks that recall the Vintage cover of Lolita, the issues of homophobia and alienation in the lyrics get lost in layers upon layers of boring male fantasy, the same fantasy that fuels the "let's make out" line that was rather mercifully cut out of the Miller Lite commercial alluded to above. The line between gratuitous exploitation and awareness-raising is a rather thin one, and it seems that, sadly, t.A.T.u. have not yet decided on which side to rest.

Part of me wishes, weirdly, that Volkova and Katina would listen to that age-old homophobic axiom about "keeping it in the bedroom"--sure, perhaps I would never have heard of the group and the rather likeable pop that makes up 200 Km/H in the Wrong Lane if they had, but it seems like I could take them more seriously, or at least feel more comfortable liking them if they moved away from that hole in the wall, avoided the male gaze, and followed the words of Kathleen Hanna in "Eau D'Bedroom Dancing":

There's no fear when I'm in my room

It's so clear and I know just what I want to do

All day bedroom dancing

To you I wanna say

Yr my thing