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Oct 19

T.A.T.U. – “All The Things She Said”

Popular23 comments • 2,280 views

#948, 8th February 2003

Nobody could claim that time and changing norms have rendered t.A.T.u. problematic; they were glaringly, undeniably skeevy from the off. Executive producer Ivan Shapovalov – who masterminded the duo’s anime schoolgirl look and teenage lesbians on the run schtick – seems like a more honestly sleazy Malcolm McLaren (Bow Wow Wow edition). All the trolling, none of the philosophy.

To which Shapovalov might say, well, you let me get away with it. His follow-up to t.A.T.u. was niqab-wearing “terrorist pop star” N.A.T.O., a bit of Islamophobic pantomime. It touched on much rawer symbols and taboos and the project was a flop. With t.A.T.u., on the other hand – conceived in the year “….Baby One More Time” smashed charts worldwide – the group were surrounded by a teenpop culture where suggestions of underage sex worked like a black market currency. If time has changed how t.A.T.u feel, it’s by shrinking the measurable difference between them and the pop that surrounded them. Shapovalov was just saying the quiet part loud.

I wanted to touch on the controversy first because it was so obviously central to “All The Things She Said”’s success. The scandal, the look, the video, the grubby are-they-or-aren’t-they gawping around whether Julia Volkova and Lena Katina were ‘actually’ lovers – all this stuff is why we get to talk about this record. But this song also launches t.A.T.u. ‘s violently distinctive sound, which is what makes it worth talking about.

t.A.T.u’s records fall into a tradition – the Crystals, the Shangri-La’s – of trying to capture an idealised immediacy of teenage emotion in sound. Their particular speciality is a panicked defiance, a stark conflict of we two (Lena and Julia, or the listener and whoever they want the record to be about) against a remorseless world. This is crisis pop, its melodrama outlined in the punishing glare of a searchlight. “All The Things” works as a kind of origin story – the realisation of love as a cataclysmic turning point.

It’s an origin story musically, too – t.A.T.u. songs deal from a limited, but highly effective, deck, which “All The Things She Said” sets up on its Russian original and which Trevor Horn’s production on the English version turns into a winning hand. There’s the high, vulnerable solo singing set against dual-attack chanting and shouting; and the cyclic rhythms of club music used to create an impression of desperate motion which can never end in escape.

For me, subsequent releases – including the group’s work after they gave their Svengali the push – ramped the melodrama up even more effectively than this did. As the sensationalism around the group died down, the sensation in the music was dialled up: “Not Gonna Get Us” and “All About Us” are the same basic idea as “All The Things” but distilled to an even higher proof.

Whether any of this – by accident or, less likely, design – speaks to anything specific in lesbian or LGBT experience isn’t a call I can make. I’m not sure, if I’m honest, it resonates all that well with teenage experience. I can’t remember my emotional life as a teen being this dramatic – but I can remember wanting it to be. There’s a tendency in pop writing to back-project life-or-death intensity onto youth, which overlooks the way most of it is frustrating, or confusing, or just boring. But that very monotony creates the gaps which vicarious extremity like “All The Things She Said” can fill. Its emotional voyeurism is as potent as its actual voyeurism is gross.

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Comments

  1. 1
    David Howell on 22 Oct 2019 #

    Of course, queer (and indeed specifically lesbian) experiences are themselves heterogeneous, and I’ve no doubt that “All The Things She Said” resonated with some and very much not with others.

    In any case, this somehow isn’t the most skeevy number one of the year. But the song that is gained that status at least partly in retrospect, and the fact this could be coded as more explictly, shamelessly skeevy is because it played that game as overtly as anything since Frankie Goes to Hollywood at least, and the specific card it played was “lesbianism as imagined by straight men.”

    But as pop? Even at the time, a time I’d internalised all too much homophobia, I could tell that it worked. And it worked because its improbable merger of deliberately grubby rock and early-00s dance-pop worked, with a desperate turbocharged intensity and indeed motion. (The parent album was called “200 km/h In The Wrong Lane”!) So it has a touch of 80s synthpop (I’m specifically thinking Soft Cell!) about it, mixed in with the made-to-order club-pop you’d expect from a debut pop single from two young European women in 2003 – and a frontloaded chorus that gives the song a structure that I’m pretty sure was more common before and after this moment than it was in 2003. This song stood out even in a world where its hypersexualisation didn’t, and that almost certainly explained how it could not only get to number one but stay there for a month (in this chart era!).

    In fact, this entire period of time is a pause in the turbo-charged chart turnover. This is the second four-week bunny in the last three, the one in between was a two-weeker, and there’s three more four-weekers and a six-weeker in the next nine months, meaning 2003 has significantly fewer chart-toppers than any of the years around it.

    Worth noting that it was this very year – the very height of their fame – that t.A.T.u. entered Eurovision. Unsurprisingly, they were the hottest of favourites, and it was a major shock when – in one of the closest finishes ever – they finished third, behind winners Turkey and a Belgian entry in a constructed language (!). The Russian broadcaster lodged a formal complaint claiming they lost because Ireland had televote issues that caused them to use the jury vote (that at the time existed solely as a backup) and claimed they’d have won otherwise – the EBU launched an investigation that confirmed that procedure was followed, and it turned out it wouldn’t have changed the winner anyway.

  2. 2
    Purple K on 22 Oct 2019 #

    #1 I remember that year’s Eurovision as clear as day (it’s, in my opinion, one of the greatest editions ever, if mostly for nostalgic reasons), I remember watching their hilariously off-key shambolic performance and thinking “do they honestly think they’ll win with THAT?!”. I was relieved that they didn’t in the end.

    Anyway, back to ATTSS: I stand by the fact that the song itself is really good and holds up pretty well, but you can’t deny the gross male-gazey aspect of the way the whole thing was marketed. I’d imagine if this was being pushed in 2019 there would be an avalanche of think pieces about how problematic it is. And of course, it would still be a mega success considering we live in a climate where in the last couple of years we’ve seen rappers get big hits off the back of scandals that in any sane world should get you permanently blacklisted, so clearly society has not learned any lessons on that front and the theory that bad publicity is better than no publicity still rings true.

  3. 3
    ThePensmith on 23 Oct 2019 #

    There’s already a great deal written about Tatu and this song by pop critics for which it would be superfluous for me to elaborate on. My own memories of this song will probably more than suffice instead.

    I remember it coming on the music channels when I was round a friend’s one day in that dead period between Christmas 2002 and New Year’s Day 2003. Or rather snatches of it when we were channel hopping, not really paying attention to it. It was only until a few weeks later, when I was back at school in one of the coldest Januarys for many years that it was playing on the radio system on my school bus, and I thought to begin with it was Alisha’s Attic who had been dropped from their label 18 months prior.

    Once it became clear that this was a record that wasn’t going to go away easily, I got bored of it quickly, as for me it’s quite shrill to have to listen to over and over again, especially for four weeks on the trot. Even the clearly PR generated ‘controversy’ about them seemed skeevy as you mentioned Tom – the infamous Richard and Judy ‘ban this filth’ rant to Polydor who released it here in the UK springs to mind – and it suggested they weren’t going to be around for very long. It just all seemed very hype over substance to me.

    That said ‘All About Us’ – and the flop follow up ‘Friend or Foe’ from their second album were far better records, but they came at the point the public at large had written them off and didn’t care anymore. One last anecdote from 14 year old me: the in joke amongst me and my friends was that we thought Lena Katina beared an unholy resemblance to the French speaking Tilly from 90s pre-school show Tots TV. Google it and tell me you can’t unsee it. As for ‘All The Things She Said’ – a 4 from me.

    #2 watch then, and a series of largely far better records were kept off the top in its wake – in week one it was Kelly Rowland, with her touching, pop rock leaning tribute to victims of the many US high school shootings on her solo debut proper with ‘Stole’. Even now it has such a powerful if very sad message, but not in a preachy way.

    For its second week and fourth week when it rebounded there, it was the superb ‘Cry Me A River’ from Justin Timberlake. It was around this point I’d taken the plunge and bought the ‘Justified’ album. Timbaland really set the template here production wise for a lot of what would follow from him over the next five years, both for himself and other artists (much of them bunnied), but Justin did a great vocal turn on this and this is one song and video I’ll never get bored of. This was also around the time he performed with Kylie at the BRITs on a medley of this, ‘Like I Love You’ and Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ that became the talking point of my entire year group, male and female alike, the following day at school. It was one of those big pop moments in a year that had so little of them.

    Third week was the first Fame Academy runner up Sinead Quinn, with her self penned pop rocker ‘I Can’t Break Down’ which did actually lead for #1 at one point during the week before succumbing on Saturday sales. A gutsily sung if sadly barely remembered runner up, her debut album ‘Ready to Run’ was full of much better material including her top 20 follow up ‘What You Need Is’ that sounded like Chrissie Hynde on speed, but alas she was shown the door by Mercury by year’s end too. She’s now happily married to one of the guys from The Feeling, I believe?

    The second week of this at number one was also the start of Radio 1’s reactivated Sunday top 40 show, this time going under the name of ‘The Official Chart Show’, hosted by former Key103 DJ Wes Butters from Salford. He lasted just two years in the slot and proved divisive from the off as the show changed format – now all the week’s new entries were played, but only the top 20 was played in full, the top 20 albums were counted down in the first half hour and there was often live sessions to try and generate interest and ratings with the commercial radio rundown, now rebranded to Hit40UK – Liberty X were the first guests on Wes’ first show as I recall.

    I felt on the whole Wes got better as he went on and settled more into the slot, but whoever was going to take over from Mark Goodier who’d been doing it for so long was always in for a rough ride. He still presents local radio in Manchester as far as I’m aware, and he is forever immortalised every Christmas when ‘Love Actually’ is re-run on telly as he announces Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) as the Christmas number one on there. He also had an unusual way of pronouncing Busted as ‘Boostid’.

  4. 4
    AMZ1981 on 23 Oct 2019 #

    I touched on All The Things She Said when we discussed Sound Of The Underground (and also said I wasn’t sure which way Tom would come down on this so I’m relieved he gave it a 7). The comparison I made between SOTU and ATTSS was that both were manufactured artists striking lucky with a strong song being framed as an explosion of talent.

    I must admit that I liked ATTSS then and I still do now. The whole concept is ultimately an excuse for soft porn but by happy chance the attached song is pretty good, although to be fair the best bit is the one not involving the t.A.T.u girls – namely the synth break that follows the introductory chorus. In a way it foreshadows the eighties inspired hits we’ll meet in five or so years time. Perhaps time hasn’t been particularly kind to it and it certainly didn’t become the radio staple/ floor filler I thought it would but in early 2003 it certainly cut through the playlists.

    For British music fans they were pretty much one hit wonders as well and a novelty one at that; Not Gonna Get Us was the slipstream follow up but an attempt to fill Wembley Stadium with girl fans in school uniform was a spectacularly bad push of luck. Of course in Russia they have a longer career arc and most importantly they weren’t really Lesbians which makes ATTSS a very strange import from a country that would become notorious for human rights abuses directed at its LGBT population. It should be noted that Julia Volkova (while claiming to be bisexual) has made some deeply homophobic statements while Lena Katina has gone against the Russian grain by speaking out in favour of tolerance.

    And maybe, just maybe, with sixteen years hindsight ATTSS did hold an even better record off the top. I was aware of Stole at the time but never really paid the lyrics much attention (confession time – I have a hearing deficiency which stops me from properly catching lyrics) and hadn’t seen the video until five minutes ago. It’s a genre crossing record and a genuine piece of artistry that deserves to be better remembered.

  5. 5
    Lee Saunders on 23 Oct 2019 #

    Haven’t contemplated writing about this because although its a 10 for me its really only a 10 free of the notoriety that umbilically surrounds it (as opposed to explicitly present within it, as a song), which makes me wonder whether its really a 10. And then I listen to it and of course it is. It is however the last perfect score I’ll be giving for many Popular years, unless I change my mind on anything before then (there’s one coming up in 2003 where that might happen).

    But the song is one of the most crucial records of my early pop days and no matter how many times I play it, this is rainy greyness at its most effervescent, from the trance synths that open it up to the Unfinished Sympathy-style closing smog and all the showstopping melodrama between.

    (Speaking of Massive Attack, 100th Window was at #1 in the album charts for a week at the same time as this and I can’t help but connect the showery feel of the two and other things from the chart run, like Cry Me a River, Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming and indeed, a certain march in London. Not that I’m trying to reach for anything here ofc, not that there necessarily is anything to reach for, but this all strikes me personally because my own early 2003 memories are the polar inverse of perhaps a lot of people’s).

  6. 6
    implodingme on 23 Oct 2019 #

    I feel you’ve been too generous here, the production may be decent but these are pop singers that cannot for the life of them actually sing.

  7. 7
    mark sinker on 23 Oct 2019 #

    extremely incorrect: they’re terrific pop singers, especially as a duo

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 23 Oct 2019 #

    I remember there was a lot of chatter in the media around the time this hit but I can’t for the life of me think what channels were used to distribute the information – I’m guessing TV and radio and of course any censorious reaction only served to raise its profile.
    Trevor Horn revives the processed vocal effect used on Video Killed the Radio Star and combines it with the crashing rhythms of Art of Noise – but he also manages to create some space in the production that gives it some room to breathe. Despite that I find the song a bit relentless and the video feels like an early example of clickbait.

  9. 9
    implodingme on 23 Oct 2019 #

    #7 Mark Sinker: They sound shrill, off-key, thin, reedy and needling to my ears. If you find those qualities make for terrific pop singers then more power to you but I have to disagree.

  10. 10
    PinkChampale on 23 Oct 2019 #

    Surprised by the lukewarm responses, I think this is incredible. No matter how cynical, confected and skeevy the whole thing is, from the first to the last second I totally buy into the desperate, heartstoppimg intensity of it all.

    Also, it cannot be forgotten that (acknowledging there’s a tiny figleaf of plausible deniability) this song contains the line “come all over my face, wash away all the shame”.
    I mean, bloody hell.

  11. 11
    PinkChampale on 23 Oct 2019 #

    Hah, agree with all of “shrill, off-key, thin, reedy and needling”. Just in a good way.

  12. 12
    mark sinker on 23 Oct 2019 #

    yup, those are precise descriptors of why they’re so very very good :)

    a fancy word for when “off-key” is a positive quality is “desafinado”; another is “blue note”

    the lyric just abt get-away-with-able:
    Want to fly her away where the sun and rain/Come in over my face, wash away all the shame

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 23 Oct 2019 #

    This is a very good pop song (in either the Russian or English versions: the Russian chorus hook translates as “I’ve lost my mind, I need her”) – and performance: the theatre, the hilarously too-blatant attempts to shock (a female Russian FGTH?) ; and a fine introduction to what (again, in either the Russian or English versions) is a very solid, but not outstanding, pop album. Frankly, getting Trevor Horn on board is a sound idea at least 90% of the time.

    And the cover of “How Soon is Now”, not on the Russian version of the album, is a thing of moderate wonder as well.

    I didn’t rate it at the time so highly, but the follow-up single, “Not Gonna Get Us” is at least just as good (again, in either the Russian or English versions),maybe more atmosphere-creating, the madness of youthful attraction in fast electro-pop.

    But yeah this piece of comic theatre was never gonna last. But while it did – it was fun.

    (In pretty much every case the Russian lyrics are less forced or false than the English translations or semi-translations)

  14. 14
    flahr on 23 Oct 2019 #

    Lots of uses of the word ‘desperate’ which I can only agree with (and that it’s a positive). The chorus is a magnificent marriage of lyric and music; the overlapping crush of voices circling and repeating is exactly what all the things she said running through the narrator’s head must sound like.

  15. 15
    RenegadeChic on 24 Oct 2019 #

    This song for me really coincided with the advent of Freeview digital TV channels in the UK, on which it was on heavy rotation, along with songs like Sound of the Underground, I’m With You, Lifestyles Of The Rich & The Famous, and a lot of Busted songs. I honestly don’t know if anyone would have talked about the band without the skeevy side of the song, with the intense seeming relationship between the girls propelling them around the world. The package is what people buy into and the music is not usually enough in isolation. Another russian act with different lyrics and it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

    Taking that away for a moment though, I agree with the writer that their sound is worth talking about. The high NRG dance plus rock format works incredibly well for them and was distilled very well by Trevor Horn on the first two records,, though I think Dangerous & Moving dials back a lot of the dance stylings too much. The biggest shame for me, having kept an interest in what they were doing musically (aside from the tragedy that is the destruction of Julia’s voice), is that I think their third album Waste Management, in particular the long transcendental version, is exceptional, going back to the high NRG sound of the first album and being much more polished. Yes lyrically they felt pretty tapped in terms of the relationship theme, that facade was done, but I genuinely think it’s got the strongest music and production of the three records and it’s a shame it didn’t go anywhere. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

  16. 16
    will on 24 Oct 2019 #

    Yes, manipulative cynical concept/ brilliant record. But…what on earth does ‘skeevy’ mean? I’m in my late 40s.
    I’m loving the sound N.A.T.O though! She sounds like something pulled from the mind of Chris Morris.

  17. 17
    Lee Saunders on 24 Oct 2019 #

    This was, of course, the first Russian No. 1, but its trancey intro might even connect it to the first ever Russian chart entry, thirteen months previously – PPK’s ResuRection (#3).

  18. 18
    Purple K on 25 Oct 2019 #

    #15 Oh yes as someone who spent a lot of my early teen years with music channels like The Box etc playing in the background at home, I remember those songs you mentioned being in high rotation at the time.

  19. 19
    Mark G on 25 Oct 2019 #

    I believe they had booked Wembley (Arena? Stadium?) in the wake of the massive hit that this was. That it got cancelled due to low ticket sales is probably because people may well commit to a single but they need more “knowledge” before they’ll commit to the price of a ticket and the time taken to go to a large gig and the costs therein..

    A massive mistake by the powers that be, obviously. “Let the fox see the rabbit”, basically.

  20. 20
    weej on 25 Oct 2019 #

    I have problems with the word ‘shrill’ – not saying anyone should be banned from using it, just they should think about how it’s never applied to men.

  21. 21
    weej on 25 Oct 2019 #

    Also re: #16 – etymology of ‘skeevy’ – https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/skeevy-meaning-origin

  22. 22
    Renzo Pianoman on 2 Nov 2019 #

    I remember two prominent male music journalists (both of them recently of Melody Maker) who posted in a forum I was part of back then, getting unreasonably excited about this and the video preceding it (in which one of the duo appears to be pleasuring themselves). Grown men apparently one step away from being Vic Reeves’ thigh-rubbing perverts.

    At the time I thought, ‘the Internet has actual actresses kissing each other, even in school uniform sometimes, can’t you go and watch that and come back when you’re done?’ But now I realise that wasn’t the point, it was about normalisation, of freely being able to admit they had their hands down their frothy trousers over the thought of lesbian schoolgirls instead of having to be satisfied with furtive Philip Larkin scribbles.

    Ant and Dec made a joke about this, with one of them pretending to try and kiss the other in order to get a number one single (because “that’s all tATu had had to do”). The sad thing is that they were probably right; this feels like it’s a good song that got pushed to the very top by similarly prurient old white guys too ashamed to openly admit they fancied the Sugababes, fighting its corner as youthful energetic pure pop.

  23. 23
    Coagulopath on 8 Nov 2019 #

    What’s that (dubious) quote about how if you’re taking flak, you’re over the target?

    t.A.T.u. was over the target. However you feel about their music (I don’t love it) they succeeded as kind of a cultural magnifying glass, enlarging certain trends in late 90s pop until they were impossible to ignore.

    Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” was a magic trick. t.A.T.u.’s “All The Things She Said” was a guy on Youtube, explaining how to perform the trick with invisible threads and spirit gum.

    “I have problems with the word ‘shrill’ – not saying anyone should be banned from using it, just they should think about how it’s never applied to men.”

    Maybe you notice the word more when it’s applied to women.

    I searched Pitchfork’s review archive. Of the first ten uses of “shrill” to describe singing, seven of the singers were male.

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