t.A.T.u.'s 'All The Things She Said' is a lesbian bop, but should it be? : It's Been a Minute The Russian pop duo t.A.T.u released their smash single "All The Things She Said" 20 years ago this week. To this day, the bop is a queer staple, but should it be?

From t.A.T.u to Britney Spears and Madonna, the early 2000s were full of straight women dabbling in queerness for profit. In this episode, senior producer Barton Girdwood sits down with author Jill Gutowitz (Girls Can Kiss Now) to talk about how these moments gave young queer millennials a taste of their sexuality even though it was all an act. They discuss whether or not a false representation can still be meaningful, and how the basic formula of "All The Things She Said" gets lesbianism right — even though so much of it is wrong.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at IBAM@npr.org.

The lesbian anthem was actually written by straight people

The lesbian anthem was actually written by straight people

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t.A.T.u. performs on stage at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on May 31, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. Robert Mora/Getty Images hide caption

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Robert Mora/Getty Images

t.A.T.u. performs on stage at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on May 31, 2003 in Los Angeles, California.

Robert Mora/Getty Images

When you come across the words "All The Things She Said," what runs through your head? The catchy smash single from 2002 — or the lead singers infamously kissing?

In your defense, it's impossible to separate the two.

In September 2002, the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. released their smash single "All The Things She Said." The song is a grungy euro-dance track, and the video features the lead singers Lena Katina and Julia Volkova dressed in schoolgirl uniforms and making out in the rain. The video was banned from UK television for being "not really suitable for children."

That did not stop the song from becoming a global sensation. It topped the charts in 13 countries, and in the United States the duo would perform the song over and over on live television. During performances, they made a point to do as they did in their video and make out.

LOS ANGELES - MAY 31: t.A.t.U attends The 2003 MTV Movie Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on May 31, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES - MAY 31: t.A.t.U attends The 2003 MTV Movie Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on May 31, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

But here's the thing: neither Katina or Volkova identified as lesbians or queer at the time. Neither did the songwriters or producers who created the track. It allegedly came from a dream songwriter, Elena Kiper, had when she took anesthetics for a dental surgery.

From Harry Styles to Katy Perry, debates over queerbaiting have raged online, and t.A.T.u.'s "All The Things She Said" fits squarely in that lineage. But despite roleplaying as lesbians for their own success, is there something redeemable in how they represented lesbianism at a time when no one else would put two women kissing on camera? And if so, what does that representation say about what it meant to be a lesbian in 2002 versus in 2022?

It's Been A Minute senior producer Barton Girdwood talked this out with author Jill Gutowitz (Girls Can Kiss Now) and journalist Daisy Jones (All The Things She Said). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So Jill, what runs through your head when I say, "All the things she said running through my head?"

GUTOWITZ: Oh, my gosh. Lesbian secrecy.

You recently released your first memoir called "Girls Can Kiss Now." In it you write, "All of the wistfulness of staring out of a car window, that yearning for something, anything to whisk you away from your sad, dull life, that's lesbianism." Why is that lesbianism?

GUTOWITZ: I think so much of lesbianism is yearning for another person in a way that you can't necessarily say out loud. These days that's different. But when I was growing up, that was the case. Even if the experience isn't explicitly queer, that the experience of looking out a window wistfully and feeling like, "God, I'm just so angsty. I feel like I'm in an Avril Levigne music video." That feeling of wanting something that isn't there is a very boiled down version of what it felt like to grow up as a closeted lesbian teen.

I think we have a framework for the Gutowitz Test for for knowing if something is lesbian enough. Does it yearn enough? And I want to see if "All The Things She Said" passes that test. Let's test out some lyrics:

I keep closing my eyes, but I can't block you out.

Want to fly to a place where it's just you and me, nobody else so we can be free.

GUTOWITZ: That is it. That's everything I just said in a jumbled way. That's a poetic way of saying, 'I'm looking out the window wistfully and wishing I was with a woman.'

I have some bad news for you... They weren't actually lesbians. I talked to journalist Daisy Story, author of "All The Things She Said" and she pulled together this rumored origin story of the song based on internet lore. This is a love story...sort of. Russian songwriter Elena Kiper and music producer Ivan Shapovalov were dating and making music together. Their main project was forming a new pop group fronted by two teenage girls. In that process Kiper went to the dentist...

DAISY JONES: She was having dental surgery and was on some strong medication, as you get when you go to the dentist, and had a dream that she was kissing another woman. She woke up saying, "I've lost my mind!" And that and that refrain was going around and around in her mind for a while after this dental surgery. And she went to her business partner and turned it into a song.

Essentially she wrote "All The Things She Said" based on a drug dream.

Lena Katina and Julia Volkova were then picked to sing this song by the producer and the writer. They were packaged as lesbians from the very outset. It wasn't until December 2003, in a documentary that aired on Russian television, that it was revealed the two of them were not actually lesbians. Does that change anything about the song?

JILL GUTOWITZ: It's so hard to grapple with because it does change everything. It means it's completely inauthentic and openly problematic. They're trying on an identity and selling it, so they're profiting off of something that, at the time, was heavily policed. And here's my newest contentious opinion: that obviously it would have been better for them to be queer and for it to have been authentic. But the music video isn't hypersexual, and it isn't super exploitative of women's bodies. I don't know how many music videos at the time depicted an actual emotional love story between two women. And the answer is none, none that were on the radio like that. So there's good and evil in it, you know?

To take it a step further, the two singers, Lena and Julia have both made homophobic statements. For example, when asked if she would condemn her son for being gay, Julia responded, 'Yes, I would condemn him because I believe that a real man must be a real man. A man has no right to be a f**.' Does that make you Think differently about the song?

GUTOWITZ: Oh my God. It does. You know, there's the case of Katy Perry's 'I Kissed a Girl,' which was similar. At the time there weren't many major pop radio hits talking about girls kissing girls. That being said, the lyrics were homophobic and painted queerness as something to do while your boyfriend's away or while you're drunk. But Katy Perry has since come out and grappled with that publicly and been like, 'Yeah, I regret some of those lyrics.' So it is, in some ways, a forgivable offense. But to hear that there's another version of this where a song similarly comes out about two women being together that is not made by queer women, then the one of the singers goes on to use a slur to describe gay people, that's extremely disappointing

Looking at a younger generation that has more representation, that has more diversity of stories, that has representation that's authentic, I wonder, do you think that yearning is something that they experience?

GUTOWITZ: I do. I think that we assume that generally we are past all of this stuff. Maybe in Brooklyn and coastal cities I do see a lot of kids that are identifying as queer or non-binary and a lot of kids and teens who don't experience this kind of like repression and yearning because people are so much more open. They can just meet a boyfriend or girlfriend or whoever at school and just date, which is crazy. That couldn't have been me. I couldn't have imagined. But there are still a ton a ton of queer kids and teens who experience love and desire through yearning. We do still have a lot of film and TV stories that depict lesbianism or any queerness as a thing that can never fully be. Even though we feel culturally like we're past it, we're definitely not.

This episode was produced by Barton Girdwood. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at IBAM@npr.org.