Archive for August 2013
They did good music. I still like the defense of their music written by Michael Idov at Slate in 2005.
The band t.A.T.u. was a product that one could only sell, or buy, once. Even as the goth-chipmunk ardor of their 2002 single “All the Things She Said” was steadily denting stateside radio playlists, it was safe to assume there would be no competing teenage-lesbian Slav duo that year. Lena and Julia took the waning Britney-vs.-Christina debate and resolved it as only a reeling post-socialist mind would–Both! Making out! In a way, they formed the ultimate, albeit belated, punch line to the 1990s: liberation as political correctness as farce. Not bad for two girls in Catholic-school uniforms, especially considering there are no Catholic girl schools in Russia. The highbrow reaction was a mix of bemusement and horror, with Gary Shteyngart doing the requisite hand-wringing in The New Yorker. His conclusion: The girls were in need of deprogramming, and the duo’s manager, Mr. Shapovalov, was a man capable of mesmerizing Mesmer.
One small detail spoiled the otherwise immaculate picture of corrupted youth, hair-raising exploitation, and proto-capitalist greed run amok: ”All the Things She Said” was a terrific song. Tightly constructed by craftsmen unknown and given a steely sheen by the celebrated producer Trevor Horn, the killer single ostensibly about same-sex lust was, in fact, a valentine to all of us who like a bit of a challenge with our pleasure. In an era when one good hook is enough to hang an album’s worth of filler on, “All the Things She Said” contained at least five distinct parts, each catchier than the other. What’s more, it drew freely from disparate sources, both above- and underground: goth rock, industrial, sleek ’90s techno. In short, it was a ubiquitous hit that also doubled as a hip discovery—a phenomenon that hasn’t recurred until Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”
The second-highest trend comment at the band’s VEVO page now? “looking at this makes it even more clear what a huge step backwards Russia has taken… wonder what would happen if they released videos and music like this today? yes, I know they would be thrown to prison.”
Alexander Kondakov’s Open Democracy essay “Do Russians give a damn about homosexuality?” makes the argument that there actually has been substantial improvement in Russian attitudes towards homophobia and GLBT people over the past two decades.
The CISR has actually been polling Russians on homosexuality since 1990. Comparison of the data over the years is quite revealing. At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, for example, Russians were asked ‘What should we do with homosexuals?’ Almost half of those polled (48%) answered ‘isolate them from society’, 10% suggested they should be ‘helped’; 16% answered ‘leave them alone’, and 26% were ‘don’t knows’. When the same survey was repeated in 2005, the numbers had changed significantly: 31% of those surveyed answered ‘isolate them’, 10% again wanted to ‘help them’ and 10% were don’t knows, but this time 49% favoured leaving them alone. In other words, acceptance of homosexuality had risen very significantly.
If people were presented with only two options, ‘homosexuals should be treated as criminals’ and ‘homosexuals should be left alone’, then the majority in favour of tolerance is even greater: in a poll run in 2002, for example, 36% of respondents supported criminalisation, 64% were happy to let them be. There was no particular difference in response between different social and occupational groups, although people working for the police and armed forces showed the least tolerance.
On the other hand, when those polled were asked to say how they would define the term ‘homosexuality’, a much more marked homophobic attitude emerged. In a 2001 survey where people were asked to complete the statement, ‘Homosexuality is …’, 36% answered ‘a form of immorality’; 31% – ‘an illness’; 20% – ‘a sexual orientation’, and 1% -‘a sign of talent’ (12% were don’t knows).
There has also been hardening. In my 2008 post on the group and their song, I suggested that the success of T.A.T.u. within Russia was a sign of increased tolerance, of Russian normalization, of the end of that country’s particular Sonderweg in this particular area. It turns out that I really, really underestimated this tolerance, or at least underestimated its durability. Or is it a paradoxical sign of partial success, that GLBT people in Russia have just now managed to become prominent enough and organized enough to become targets?