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t.A.T.u’s ‘All The Things She Said’ turns 20: A controversial queer legacy unpacked

In 2002, Russian pop duo t.A.T.u scandalised with a queer and sexually-charged debut single. But their tale would go down as a strange and messy story of exploitation and homophobia.

By Will Stroude

Words: Emily Maskell; YouTube, t.A.T.u

It’s the summer of 2002 – Tony Blair is halfway through his time in office and the Lord Chancellor’s office has stated that “transsexualism is not a mental illness” – when Russian pop duo t.A.T.u drop ‘All The Things She Said.’ The irresistibly catchy alternative rock track that turns 20 on 9 September, sold millions globally, reaching Number One in charts around the world and spending four weeks at the top spot in the United Kingdom. The song also made history as the first-ever time a Russian act achieved a top 40 single on the US Billboard Hot 100.

On the surface, the instant hit was a clear success. The song’s free-spirited lyrical exploration of queer womanhood seemed progressive and the provocative music video that features a lesbian kiss was a mainstay on music channels, though with varying degrees of censorship. The worldwide acclaim set t.A.T.u, comprised of Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova, in good stead. However, peel back the shiny tape and you’ll discover dark depths of manufactured artistry, queerness being capitalised upon to sell records and a problematic and homophobic legacy. 

At the heart of ‘All The Things She Said’ is lesbianism, which makes the fact that Katina and Volkova are both straight all the more mystifying. However, the track sits in the upper echelons of pop greatness, born to be blasted in clubs and screamed in the early hours of the morning, with a lyricism that is overt in the inclusion of queer womanhood. The song itself is a translated and reworked version of t.A.T.u’s 2000 ‘Ya Soshla S Uma’ (which translates as ‘I’ve Lost My Mind’) and featured on their debut English album 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane. The concept of ‘All The Things She Said’ was conceived by writer Elena Kiper after she had a dream about falling in love with a woman during dentist surgery. She was not gay so was left perplexed by her wayward subconscious. That apprehensive inflection can be heard in ‘All The Things She Said,’ which charts the vocalist grappling with their attraction to women over 3:34 adrenaline-fuelled minutes

Lyrically, ‘All The Things She Said’ evokes queer teenage angst with two girls developing feelings for each other. Surrounded by a wall of electric sound, the hypnotic lines “All the things she said / Running through my head” are repeated again and again through the chorus until it’s the only thing that is going around in your head. The echoey reverb and slow building synths explode with the dramatic chorus that left an unforgettably distinctive mark on the early 2000s club banger canon. The track opens with a synthpop sound before there is a shift into a guitar-based pop-rock style which is rounded off with the drum-loving production touch of Trevor Horn. That vocal transfer seems to portray the writer going from a trance-like state of infatuation to a place of frustration and resentment where teenage angst fights against disapproving glares.

The track’s lyrical exploration of lesbian desire is extrapolated in the music video. The green-tinted visual accompaniment sees Katina and Volkova dressed in school girl outfits singing in the pouring rain and falling snow. Their teachers, fellow students and onlookers stand on the opposite side of a chain fence with umbrellas to shelter themselves from the torrential downpour. As they push against the metal wired bars they are trapped in (physically and metaphorically), the girls sing: “They say it’s my fault but I want her so much / Want to fly her away where the sun and rain / Come in over my face, wash away all the shame.” These sequences are intercut with the pair leaning in close to press kisses against damp skin while their hands comb through wet hair. The conclusion ends on a hopeful note with them finding their escape: the rain clears and they manage to escape the wire fence to walk into the brighter distance, hand in hand. 

The deceptively dark music video, where the gay characters are given the freedom to walk into the horizon together, shows a relationship unchained from the shackles of heteronormativity. A metaphorically artistic music video with an undeniably catchy queer anthem would be celebrated, right? Wrong, according to culture tastemakers Richard and Judy, who campaigned to have the video banned from British TV claiming it “pandered to paedophiles” with the appearance of young women kissing in school uniforms. Similarly, ITV banned the song from its music show CD:UK. In lieu of the music video, Top of the Pops aired a live rendition of t.A.T.u performing the track. The four times the show included the performance, however, the kiss was replaced with footage of the audience.

These campaigns and music shows’ decision to ban and censor the music video shone a spotlight on what was deemed controversial. There have been plenty of videos exactly like ‘All The Things She Said’ but with one difference: those videos didn’t feature queer individuals or couples. The obvious example is to point to Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time’ which sees the performer as a schoolgirl gyrating against the backdrop of a high school but the outrage peddled for ‘All The Things She Said’ was arguably more ferocious. The industry seemed to have a particular issue with a woman’s sexuality when it escaped the boundaries of heterosexuality.

The ‘All The Things She Said’ music video was directed by Ivan Shapovalov, who was also the manager and creator of the enigma that is t.A.T.u. Shapovalov was also credited as the mastermind behind the controversial image of Katina and Volkova, who were aged just 14 when they were brought together as a duo. Continue to peel away the layers of t.A.T.u. (it’s like endless wallpaper), you’re left with, quite simply, a marketing ploy.

t.A.T.u.’s Yulia Volkova (left) and Lena Katina at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles.

As success began to wane, t.A.T.u.’s careully-curated image began to crack, and their position as queer pop provocateurs escaped them to reveal the truth: t.A.T.u., in its most basic form, was two straight people exploiting queerness for controversy’s sake. Even the band name derives from a Russian phrase that translates to “this girl loves that girl”. The sting comes with the knowledge that meaningful LGBTQ+ representation, made by LGBTQ+ creators, in the mainstream was incredibly slim back in the early noughties, but t.A.T.u. found queerness to be marketable. Pretending to be gay sold records, so they ran with it.

It wasn’t simply the group borrowing queer aesthetics for performance art, as so many performers do, but that their queerness was an entirely performative, even pandering, act which was utterly false. In 2007, seemingly in an attempt to save face, Katina and Volkova released a statement. “Many of our fans of alternative sexual orientation thought that we lied and betrayed them,” they wrote. “This is not true! We’ve never done that and we’ve always advocated love without boundaries.” Only a handful of years later, in 2011, it was the end of the road for t.A.T.u. as the group parted ways.

Even after t.A.T.u. disbanded, the controversy continued. “It seems to me that lesbians look aesthetically much nicer than two men holding their hands or kissing,”  Volkova said in 2014. She continued: “I want to say that I’m not against gays, I just want my son to be a real man, not a f*g.” She seemingly tried to backpedal, to little effect, with the statement: “I believe that being gay is all still better than murderers, thieves or drug addicts.” Lena Katina responded to Volkova’s homophobic comments, with an indirect condemnation, saying: “I think everybody should be free to love who they love and be with who they want to spend their life with!”

Katina and Volkova may have tarnished their potential queer legacy but it remains undeniable that ‘All The Things She Said’ remains an iconic track. One can assume the unabashed and uncensored display of queer womanhood, even if it was false, offered a glimpse of representation to some listeners and viewers in 2002. If nothing else, that legacy of (faux) queer visibility making it into the charts is what continues to give ‘All The Things She Said’ a second life.