Thursday, February 6, 2003

Mark MacKinnon

p. R3.

The great pop 'n' porn swindle

Russian duo Tatu is burning up the charts, thanks to steamy video antics between the young women. Could they be courting controversy just to sell records?

MOSCOW — A girl named Britney Spears became an overnight sensation a few years ago when she appeared in her first video dressed as a naughty schoolgirl, kilt, pigtails and all.

The Russian pop duo Tatu have done her one better. The pair, 17-year-old Julia Volkova and 18-year-old Lena Katina, donned similar uniforms for their debut English-language video All the Things She Said , added some rain to soak their white blouses and threw in a few passionate kisses between the leading ladies.

The lyrics of the song — for those still paying attention to them at this point — scream of frantic teenage infatuation. Lesbian infatuation, to be precise, in case you misunderstood the clumsy kissing and pawing in the video.

A sensation in Russia for several years now, Tatu has been rolling across Europe in recent months, hitting No. 1 virtually all over the continent since releasing their first English album, 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane , which has now sold about 1.5 million copies. This week, Tatu became the first Russian band to hit No. 1 in Britain.

Next stop is North America, where Billboard magazine has pegged the group to take over the "next big thing" mantle any moment now. In Canada, All the Things She Said is already No. 33 on the charts and rising.

But their rise, like Spears's — and Madonna's before that — has been plagued with the controversy that follows whenever someone breaks a mainstream taboo. While gay kissing has become gradually more common on television, it's generally been seen only at an hour when conservative parents can shield the children. Tatu — whose name is derived from Russian slang for "this girl (ta) loves that one (tu)" — are on European MTV, in front of teenaged eyes, almost 24 hours a day.

While the lesbian routine is dismissed by many in Europe as bad acting, the girls' ages, outfits and overtly sexual behaviour have drawn fire nonetheless.

In Britain, where the band shot from No. 78 in its first week on the charts to No. 1 this week, the girls' antics were denounced as promoting pedophilia by a popular husband-and-wife daytime talk-show team. Child-protection group Kidscape called the group "pathetic," and said Tatu's videos were targeted at "dirty old men."

Bowing to the pressure, BBC's Top of the Pops show has chosen this week to show concert footage of the band performing All the Things She Said , rather than the somewhat prophetic video, which shows the girls kissing inside a cage while a crowd of grim-faced adults looks on disapprovingly. In another video — already a hit in Russia — one of the girls is shown in the bathtub, apparently masturbating underwater.

But it's the girls' whole image — not just their videos — that has infuriated some.

"I think they should ban it, I think radio stations should take it upon themselves to ban it," Richard Madeley, half of the Richard & Judy talk-show team, said on the air recently. "We are being told that these girls actually have underage lesbian sex in real life, and we are being told by their manager that he spotted a gap in the market — a pedophile gap in the market."

Ivan Shapovalov, creator and manager of Tatu, rejects the pedophile label, but says openly that the target audience is older men in search of "underage entertainment." Billed "Nabokov's envoy on Earth" by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, he confesses he got the idea for Tatu after looking at popular Internet pornography.

He says the fact that the girls' behaviour has caused such outrage in the United Kingdom — he expects even more in North America — shows that those countries are not yet comfortable with some aspects of sex.

"Any provocative project can arouse controversy, especially in those countries where they are scared of sex," Shapovalov said in an interview yesterday. "Only when they are cured of this illness will they react normally to such things. I don't know how much time they'll need for that."

Katina and Volkova themselves seem to revel in the publicity a few smooches have brought on their previously unheard of act. Both have said they genuinely feel love for each other, but that one day they want to have husbands.

In one recent interview, Katina ratcheted up the heat, saying she and Volkovna have been a couple for four or five years: "We work together and we sleep together."

But Volkovna recently gave a more plausible rendition of the pair's history, given that they are often spotted around Moscow in the company of boyfriends. "We wanted to do something original, to be different from everyone else."

Shapovalov can't wait to see how well the couple do in North America, where society, he says, is even more conservative. The more scandal the girls create, he says, the higher the sales will be.

"The more conservative a society is, the more resistance they'll give, and the more success we'll have. The worse, the better. It's the rule of show business, scandals are the best promoters."

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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