The Complicated Cult Appeal of t.A.T.u’s "All the Things She Said"
Wire fences and rain should never have been this iconic—even in the face of one half of the Russian duo's homophobia.
Foto via Wikimedia.
There is so much that should have been wrong with "All the Things She Said." The track, which was released during the summer of 2002 by Russian pop duo t.A.T.u, was basically the plot of British lesbian drama Sugar Rush set to the sound of some Euro-trance. But Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova weren't queer in real life. They were two openly straight people, pretending to be queer for one song and video. And, more than that, their band had been manufactured by two old dudes who'd set up auditions to find teenage girls who would dress in school uniforms and make out with each other to sell records. If this video had been released any later, t.A.T.u might have found themselves pushed to the same problematic sidelines as Robin Thicke and Iggy Azalea, or more likely, the idea of them wouldn't have even left the board room.
But this wasn't now, it was then, and "All the Things She Said" was an instant hit—to put it lightly. The track was number 1 in the UK for four consecutive weeks, and stayed in the charts for a further 15 weeks. It sold millions globally, becoming certified gold in seven different countries, and platinum in five—not bad for a song that was reportedly written after Elena Kiper, the person who has been credited with the lyrics, fell asleep in a dentist's chair during surgery, had a dream she was in love with another woman, woke up screaming "I've lost my mind" and immediately put pen to paper, like some sort of deranged psychic wizard storyteller who simply had to spin the narrative of her subconscious into a huge club banger.
Of course, the track and video didn't arrive without some controversy. But viewers weren't too bothered about the duo being performatively queer in order to make money when actual queer people weren't given enough airtime. They were more wound up by the image of two girls kissing in skimpy outfits, even though similar heterocentric displays had permeated our screens for years. Richard and Judy campaigned to have the music video banned for "pandering to paedophiles" (despite the fact the whole 80s and 90s had already happened, and nobody complained when Britney was dry humping the air by a school locker in "…Baby One More Time"). ITV banned the video from CD:UK because it wasn't "suitable for children" (again, had anyone noticed the many incarnations of Madonna?!). The BBC then denied banning the music video from Top of the Pops, although it seems weird they didn't show it, considering it was literally the only song people were buying for weeks.
But it's impossible to escape the cold, hard facts of the matter: "All the Things She Said" is a legitimately incredible pop song. Based on sound alone, it deserves to be hung up in the hallowed halls of pop, beside Cher's "Believe" and Selena Gomez's "Fetish." The slow building, echoey synth lines in the intro; the industrial, glass-shattering beats; the sugary soft vocals cushioned between dark, spiky walls of sound; the high-drama chorus that was built to scream along to until your throat feels like it's been swallowing fireballs—"All the Things She Said" is as close to a perfect club track as any 3:48 minutes can be expected to reach. If you want to get to the very core of its enduring appeal, after all these years, it really is that simple.
But there are other reasons the song and video pack a punch. These days, queer visibility might be as popular as millennial pink, astrology and starter pack memes, but back in the early 00s, our lives were only really reflected back to us via the odd soap opera storyline—usually resulting in someone dying—or through the pop cultural tropes of gay men, who were arguably considered more palatable or "fun" to straight crowds than their female or non-binary counterparts. To that end, many of us made do with anything that even slightly resembled our personal narratives, even if it was inauthentic, problematic or straight up trash (see: Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl"). Who knows whether this song would have been so popular if it were released in 2017—at a time when pop stars like Halsey and Kehlani don't shy away from using gendered pronouns in their music—but back then, such tracks were thin on the ground.
So even though t.A.T.u weren't exactly "the real deal," does it matter? Or perhaps it's more accurate to ask: did it matter then? They still put a voice to queer teen angst and confusion, which we then turned into an anthem. In that way, there's an element of queer nostalgia that rears its head whenever this song reverberates across the dark, sticky floors of Dalston Superstore or fills up the sweaty basement at Vogue Fabrics. That said, in the years since, the duo's comments on the LGBTQ community have veered into genuinely shocking, gross territory. "It seems to me that lesbians look aesthetically much nicer than two men holding their hands or kissing. I want to say that I'm not against gays, I just want my son to be a real man, not a fag," Volkova said in 2014, before they both sort of backtracked a few days later. It's pretty wild and also fucked up that they'd capitalize off the LGBTQ community and then shun them afterwards. As with a lot of problematic faves, they give and then they take away.
So yeah, this track truly is the only positive thing this pair came up with—and even that wasn't really their intention. Admittedly, once 15 years have passed, it can be easy to get overly misty-eyed about something just because it managed to make torrential rain and steel wire fences iconic and has a dramatic chorus that sounds great when you're high. But I don't think I'm imbuing "All the Things She Said" with an undeserved sentimentality here. Honestly, listen back to it now—it fucking slaps—and it also offered us actual queer girls the opportunity to reframe a marketing ploy into something powerful in the process—in spite of Volkova's blatant, wince-worthy homophobia. And while this band are so far from being queer icons (please!), the post-Trump need for girls making out in the rain to the sound of some freaky rock-trance hybrid has never been greater. I, for one, am here for it.
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