Clad in skimpy tank tops, teenage pop stars Lena and Yulia giggle and clasp hands on a Russian television talk show as their hit music video is played for a studio audience.
The camera pans over the audience, lingering on a Russian Orthodox priest who grimaces and crosses himself when the video shows the girls kissing.
The pop duo Tatu – Russian slang for “This girl (loves) that girl” – has long been causing a sensation at home.
But now that the teenagers are also climbing charts around the world, their scanty schoolgirl uniforms, flirtations with lesbianism and in-your-face sexuality are prompting debate about whether this is the kind of cultural export the land of Tchaikovsky and Chekhov wants to become known for.
“Soft but flirtatious lesbian erotica direct on a hit video, and furthermore with underage participants – not even Madonna came up with that,” music critic Dmitry Shavyrin wrote in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.
As a marketing tool, it clearly works, said Dmitry Konnov of Russia’s MTV, whose viewers voted Tatu’s “I Lost My Mind,” about young same-sex love, the No. 1 video in 2001.
The group’s debut album, “200 km/hour in the Wrong Lane,” has sold well over 1.1 million copies, and an estimated 4 million pirated copies. “All the Things She Said” – the English-language version of the Russian “I Lost My Mind” – is topping radio playlists from Colombia to Australia. Tatu is the first Russian band to reach No. 1 on Britain’s singles chart, and now they are taking on the U.S. market.
This week, “All the Things She Said” climbed to No. 20 on the U.S. Billboard chart.
But Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova, both 18, aren’t winning fans everywhere.
Britain’s The Daily Mail said they have managed to “degrade marketing and music at the same time,” while a British TV presenter urged radio stations to ban Tatu, whom critics have called “pedo-pop.” In Bulgaria, officials canceled a Tatu concert that was scheduled for the eve of Pope John Paul II’s visit last year, although officials denied a connection.
“People love us or hate us but nobody thinks nothing about us,” Lena says on Tatu’s Web site.
Tatu was created in 1999 by a former child psychologist who acknowledges that he was trying to produce a sexy, provocative group led by teenage girls.
“Such a thing hadn’t been done,” said Ivan Shapovalov, 36, whose cheeky attitude has made him as famous among Russia’s young hip set as the band he created.
Shapovalov, who jokes about his reputation as an evil Svengali, denied choosing the name Tatu for its slang connotation, saying he was more interested in the word’s principle meaning, “tattoo.”
“I liked that a tattoo is something that you do to distinguish yourself, something that you do to yourself,” said Shapovalov.
He held auditions and chose Lena and Yulia separately. They had both been members of a Russian youth band, which Tatu’s Web site said Yulia was forced to leave for “obscene behavior and corrupting other singers.”
That racy attitude distinguishes Tatu from the other manufactured boy and girl bands on the market.
So does the suggestion of lesbianism.
Tatu’s lyrics and videos allude to such a relationship, an idea both the singers and Shapovalov coyly promote during interviews.
“Everybody thinks we are lesbians,” Yulia teased during an interview on NTV’s Namedni program, while grabbing for Lena’s top.
“Girl,” Lena scolded, laughing.
The Russian media, however, routinely “out” the singers with reports that they were spotted around Moscow with alleged boyfriends in tow.
Such controversies, of course, only bring the pair more attention.
Russian journalists quiz Tatu about what their parents think. Gazeta newspaper slapped the label “Scandal” on a story about the group.
On the respected Russian political talk show “Svoboda Slova,” on NTV, Tatu was invited on as guests for a discussion entitled “What are the limits of permissibility?”
But when the show’s studio audience was quizzed about their reaction, most didn’t see Tatu in a negative light. They expressed more concern about a clip of a Russian politician spewing invective against the United States.
“Tatu – it’s a show,” said Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee. “Russians aren’t afraid of that.”