Our story takes place a long time ago, in 2003, in this very galaxy. The President of the United States is George W. Bush; blessed by him, the Iraq War is just about to start (still going). The President of Russia is Vladimir Putin (still going). Russian ‘gay propaganda law’ will not be in place for another ten years and, at the moment, the hottest Moscow export is the pop duo t.A.T.u.
A number of American performers and actors — including Eminem, George Clooney, and Sean Penn — are vocal about their opposition to a US attack on Iraq. Award ceremonies being the time-honoured opportunity for broadcasting one’s cause, the 45th Grammys (February 23rd, 2003) warn the participants to abstain from any sort of war-related comments. The instructions are followed, except for Sheryl Crow who, while not speaking on the matter, performs with a peace sign on her neck and a ‘No War’ slogan on the strap of her guitar.
On February 25th t.A.T.u. are scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. An American promoter of the duo suggests they show up with an anti-war slogan of their own, and t.A.T.u.’s producer Ivan Shapovalov comes up with ‘Хуй войне’, Russian for ‘Fuck War’. The singers wear white T-shirts with the phrase hand-written on them. The meaning of the phrase does not become known to the TV network until next day.
Originally, NBC posed two requirements: t.A.T.u. should not kiss or comment on the Iraq War when performing on The Tonight Show. t.A.T.u. do not follow the requirements, earning a ban from any future appearances with NBC. Earning a ban, but also boosting the international sales of their music.
In half a year NBC will start airing Ellen, the show with out-and-proud Ellen DeGeneres. In 2004 The L World will come out, and in 2008 Katy Perry will release her hit ‘I Kissed a Girl’, proving the topic positively ‘meh’. In February 2003, however, the Russian duo ‘blocking their faces with their hands as they kissed during a break in their performance’ while at Jay Leno’s is given significance it does not necessarily warrant.
The reason why Julia Volkova (the brunette) and Lena Katina (the redhead) of t.A.T.u. make out on stage is the same reason they would put on T-shirts with a profane pacifist slogan: to provoke, to challenge, to cause controversy. The musical act was founded in 1999 by advertising executive Ivan Shapovalov and developed by him as a pop-project with heavy sexual undertones and about as much authenticity as male-aimed lesbian porn.
Here is a quote from A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest published by Routledge in 2007:
Shapovalov claims that when he first saw Volkova and Katina perform together and sensed the homoerotic energy between them, he decided on the spot to create an ‘underage sex project’, a girl group whose image would depend heavily on illicit sexuality.
Dana Heller in A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest, p. 111
In Russia their alleged sexual relationship was openly acknowledged to be a commercial ploy, a gimmick admitted to by Katina and Volkova in the Russian media, but elsewhere — especially in the UK and US — the singers became embroiled in the politics of identity and sexual morality.
t.A.T.u. are a performance act in more meanings than one, and a very successful act at that. In May 2003 they represent Russia at the Eurovision with the song ‘Ne Ver’, Ne Boysia’, wearing emblazoned white T-shirts — a modus operandi by that point — and coming third, despite the subliminal messaging.
The title of t.A.T.u.’s Eurovision song comes from the Russian phrase ‘Ne ver’, ne boysia, ne prosi’, translated as ‘Don’t believe, don’t fear, and don’t ask’. That is a prison saying made widely-known by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago (written 1958–1968, published 1973), his non-fiction account of the Soviet forced labour camp system. The phrase contains the advice given to an inmate, suggesting a way to preserve one’s independence and dignity insofar as it is possible. It is an instruction derived from the decades of the most horrific nation-wide experience.
t.A.T.u.’s image is largely based on controversy, with their previous songs suggesting a permanent conflict between the singers and the society (cf. ‘All the Things She Said’, ‘Not Gonna Get Us’). While the theme of lesbianism, in its titillating schoolgirl variation, has been the driving force behind the duo’s success, t.A.T.u. are not picky with their divisive topics. They can scream a prisoner’s motto when representing Russia in an international contest, and they can declare to be anti-war on national American TV. Neither action comes from a place of deep personal belief or experience, but makes for a good scandal.
In 2013 Vladimir Putin will sign a federal law making explicit homonormativity an offence. In 2014 the use of profanity will be declared petty hooliganism and punishable by a fine or arrest. The same year Russia, in a move that will be initially seen as absurd and incredible, will invade Ukraine. In 2017 the Russian singer will be banned from entering Ukraine to participate in the Eurovision contest, taking place in Kiev.
But we are not there yet.
Current album: Gorillaz, Humanz
Current book: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine
Current TV series: Twin Peaks, Series 1 (1990)