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

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELISE HU, HOST:

Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm your guest host, Elise Hu.

BARTON GIRDWOOD, HOST:

I'm IT'S BEEN A MINUTE senior producer Barton Girdwood. Hi, Elise.

HU: Hey there.

GIRDWOOD: When I say, all the things she said running through my head, what does that make you think?

HU: That makes me think of the earworm from when I started college.

GIRDWOOD: Well, I was 11.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: So that reveals something about both of us.

HU: Womp womp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) All the things she said, all the things she said running through my head, running through my head, running through my head. All the things she said, all the things she said, running through my head, running through my head, all the things she said, all the things she said.

GIRDWOOD: Twenty years ago this week, the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. released their smash single "All The Things She Said." And there's two things that make this song memorable. There is the song itself. It's super catchy. It's super fun. It's a bop.

HU: Super catchy.

GIRDWOOD: And then there's the kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now a band called t.A.T.u. These girly girls are making a mark. And it's really not all about their music.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Take two sweet, young girls from Moscow. Dress them in schoolgirl outfits. Soak them down with water. Then have them kiss passionately. And what do you get? Try No. 1 album in 10 countries and a Top 20 hit in America. Welcome to the 21st century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) I keep closing my eyes, but I can't block you out. Wanna fly to a place where it's just you and me. Nobody else, so we can be free. Nobody else, so we can be free. All the things she said...

GIRDWOOD: So in the music video, the lead singers, Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, famously make out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BAND MEMBER #1: We like to kiss each other.

GIRDWOOD: This is a big deal in the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are you together? Are you girlfriend and girlfriend? Do you have boyfriends, too?

UNIDENTIFIED BAND MEMBER #2: Is it that important for you (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED BAND MEMBER #1: Have you a boyfriend?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED BAND MEMBER #1: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Because I don't. I'm asking - you just asked me. I gave you the answer. Do you not want to answer that question? That's fine.

GIRDWOOD: The song went to No. 1 for four weeks in the U.K. It went to No. 1 in 13 different countries. In the U.S., the song was inescapable on MTV's "TRL."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOTAL REQUEST LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Now the recording artist but make-out artist, as well. Give it up for t.A.T.u.

HU: (Vocalizing).

GIRDWOOD: (Laughter). You know, I don't know at this point, which is the bigger part of the story, the making out or the song, because the two got so tangled up with one another. They made out on "TRL." They made out live on "MADtv." They made out on "Jimmy Kimmel." And, like, I think it's important to note that this all was happening months before Britney Spears and Madonna famously made out on "MTV."

HU: Yes. And then that was super controversial, too.

GIRDWOOD: Lots of girl-on-girl kissing in 2003 (laughter). Not sure what was going on. But the song, the kiss, the whole lesbian narrative was one big package that made t.A.T.u. this global phenomena. And from my own personal experience, I can say that if you put this song on at a queer dance party today, the girlies will go wild.

HU: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) All the things she said, all the things she said, all the things she said.

(CHEERING)

GIRDWOOD: So, Elise, if you don't mind, I'd like to take over the show today to talk about the song, why it resonated so deeply with queer people at the time and what happens when your first taste of your sexuality is based on a lie.

HU: OK (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) This is not enough. This is not enough. All the things she said, all the things she said, all the things she said...

(CHEERING)

GIRDWOOD: I'm here with the queen of lesbian Twitter, Jill Gutowitz. Jill, I'll ask you what I asked Elise. What runs through your head when I say, all the things she said running through my head?

JILL GUTOWITZ: Oh, my gosh. Lesbian secrecy.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: You've recently released your first memoir called "Girls Can Kiss Now." So I hope you're kissing now.

GUTOWITZ: I am. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: And in it, you write, (reading) 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 that you can't necessarily, like, say it out loud. Obviously, these days, that's different. But, like, when I was growing up, that definitely was the case. And so I feel like even if the experience isn't explicitly queer, that the experience of looking out a window wistfully and feeling like, God, I'm just (laughter) - I'm so angsty. Like, I feel like I'm in an Avril Lavigne music video. Like, you know, like, just that feeling of wanting something that isn't there is, like, a very boiled down version of, like, what it felt like to grow up as a, like, closeted lesbian teen (laughter).

GIRDWOOD: I can picture you sitting in the passenger seat of the car, staring out the window, your eyes just, like, off into the distance.

GUTOWITZ: Yeah, just, like, watching one droplet of rain crawl down the window. And I'm just like, that's me.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: OK. So I want to play a little game with you. We know the Bechdel test for...

GUTOWITZ: Yeah, yeah.

GIRDWOOD: You know the Bechdel test. So if we take that idea, I think we have a framework for the Gutowitz test...

GUTOWITZ: OK.

GIRDWOOD: ...For knowing if something is lesbian enough.

GUTOWITZ: (Laughter).

GIRDWOOD: Does it yearn enough?

GUTOWITZ: Wow.

GIRDWOOD: And I want to see if "All The Things She Said" passes that test. Off the bat, do you think it does?

GUTOWITZ: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: OK. OK. Well, let's test out some lyrics first to make sure. 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 is - that's everything I just said in a, like, jumbled, dumb, idiot way - is a poetic way of saying I'm looking out the window wistfully and wishing I was with a woman.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTOWITZ: Yeah, of course, it passes. It's so funny to me that, like, part of the experience of being gay at this point of time was so much about, like, what other people are thinking and what - you know, what they think when they're watching you because it was just very like, I'm being watched. Yeah, of course, that passes. It's lesbian enough.

GIRDWOOD: OK, so let's talk about the music video. We have to say that it's, like, this weird "Matrix" green filter over the whole thing, which I guess is just part of the early 2000s.

GUTOWITZ: Yes.

GIRDWOOD: They're in schoolgirl uniforms. I think we can all think of other schoolgirl uniforms at the time - Britney Spears. It's pouring rain. They're grabbing and hanging on iron fences. There's the - are they kiss, or are they not going to kiss?

GUTOWITZ: There's something about the early 2000s - there was a filter over it. Like, it looks like the movie "Thirteen" or, like, "White Oleander."

GIRDWOOD: Important lesbian classics.

GUTOWITZ: Exactly. Like, all these like - I don't know - films - I'll include "All The Things She Said" music video as a film - that are, like, about, like, girls being bad that have this exact same look to them.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTOWITZ: I love it.

GIRDWOOD: So I have some bad news for you.

GUTOWITZ: Oh, no.

GIRDWOOD: (Laughter). They weren't actually lesbians.

GUTOWITZ: Yeah. Yeah. (Laughter).

GIRDWOOD: OK. So I am going to tell you the origin story of this song, which - do you know the origin story of this song?

GUTOWITZ: I do a little bit, but I really need a refresher.

GIRDWOOD: OK. OK. So I talked to author Daisy Jones, who in her book "All The Things She Said" wrote about the origin story.

DAISY JONES: I should preface this - is that this is a rumor, and it's, like, stuff I've just, like, pieced together from what I've heard online.

GIRDWOOD: It's a love story, sort of, because songwriter Elena Kiper and music producer Ivan Shapovalov were in love. They were working on forming a new pop group fronted by two teenage girls. And in that process, Elena went to the dentist.

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.

GUTOWITZ: Oh, my God.

JONES: And she woke up saying, like, I've lost my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) Yes, I've lost my mind.

JONES: She went home to her business partner.

GIRDWOOD: Ivan Shapovalov, who was also her boyfriend.

JONES: And they apparently added to the narrative and turned it into a song.

GIRDWOOD: She wrote "All The Things She Said" based on a drug dream.

GUTOWITZ: That is so - it's like, no, no, I'm not gay. I was on drugs.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: Right?

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we get back, we're digging into t.A.T.u.'s big lie and why that line changes and doesn't change how the song has been remembered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRDWOOD: So Lena Katina and Julia Volkova were picked to sing this song by the producer and the writer. They were packaged as lesbians from the very outset. Like, that's how they were cast. But it wasn't until December 2003 and a documentary that aired on Russian television that it was revealed the two of them were not actually lesbians, that it was all an act. Does that change anything about the song?

GUTOWITZ: It's so hard to grapple with because I think, like, it does change everything. It means it's, like, completely inauthentic and, like, openly problematic. But...

GIRDWOOD: How so? How is it problematic?

GUTOWITZ: I mean, it feels like, you know, they're, like, trying on an identity and selling it. So it's like they're profiting off of something that at the time was, like, heavily policed.

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: But I - here's my newest contentious opinion - that, like, obviously, it would have been better for them to be queer and for it to have been authentic. But like I said, like, the music video isn't hypersexual, and it isn't super exploitative of, like, women's bodies. There is something about it where it's like - I don't know. How many music videos were there at the time that depicted, like, an emotional - like, an actual emotional love story between two women? And the answer is...

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: ...Like, none - none that were on the radio like that. So it's like - I don't know. There's good and evil in it, you know?

GIRDWOOD: Around that time period, there was also Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." And do you remember that music video where...

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: ...(Singing) You are beautiful?

And it's all these different people that would be considered outcasts.

GUTOWITZ: Right.

GIRDWOOD: And one of them is these two men on a park bench. And I think it might be raining...

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: ...'Cause it's always raining.

GUTOWITZ: It's always pouring on gay people.

GIRDWOOD: (Laughter).

GUTOWITZ: Even if you, like, made it up, like, it feels like it was raining in that video (laughter).

GIRDWOOD: It feels like it was raining. But they're kissing, and that was the very first time for me as a 11-, 12-year-old to see two men kiss. And I remember that feeling of, like, my stomach sinking and being, like, oh, my God, what is this?

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: And that simultaneous, like, inability to look away but so scared of what you're looking at because you'd just

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: ...Never seen something like it before, and it means so much to you. I was thinking about it, and I was like, I've never gone to see if those were just two actors that they put on a park bench and made out. But what does stick with me is not who they were but what I felt when I saw that.

GUTOWITZ: Well, I mean, like, you know, as you were talking about, I'm like - I'm thinking, like - I think intention is important, you know? Like, I think Christina Aguilera's intention there was to show that, like, more than just, you know, straight, white, cis people are beautiful. If they weren't really, like, queer people in real life, like, obviously could have done better with that, you know? But I'm also thinking about, like, the "All The Things She Said" music video. It's, like, it does feel like the intention behind it was overwhelmingly positive and to show love between two women as being, like, something real that exists. It's - I mean, it's also, like - in the music video, there's, like, all those people standing on the other side of the fence under umbrellas...

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: ...Judging them.

GIRDWOOD: In all black with, like...

GUTOWITZ: Yeah, like...

GIRDWOOD: ...Angry looks on their faces.

GUTOWITZ: ...True, like, funeral procession.

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: It does kind of feel like the perspective of the music video is that the people that are judging are wrong. So it's like - it does feel like the intention behind "All The Things She Said" was mostly positive, at least tipping positive.

GIRDWOOD: Yeah. To take it a step further, the two singers, Lena and Julia, have both made homophobic statements since.

GUTOWITZ: Great (laughter).

GIRDWOOD: 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 fag - which...

GUTOWITZ: Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: Does that make you think differently about the song?

GUTOWITZ: It does. It does. I like how you teed me up to be like, no, actually, it's good. And then (laughter)...

GIRDWOOD: It's good, and then that (laughter).

GUTOWITZ: It does 'cause, you know, like, you know, there's, like, the case of, like, Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl," which, you know, was, like, a similar where - I think that came out in 2007 or '08. And at the time, there, like, wasn't that many songs, if any, that were, like, a major pop radio hit that were talking about, like, girls kissing girls. And also that being said, the lyrics were homophobic and painted queerness as, like, something to do while your boyfriend's away or while you're drunk...

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: ...Or whatever. Like, it wasn't, like, a great depiction of, like, queerness between women. But, like, Katy Perry has since, like, come out and kind of grappled with that publicly and been like, yeah, I regret some of those lyrics, and I don't think that now - and, you know, is obviously, like, a big ally to the queer community. So it's, like - in some ways is, like, a forgivable offense. And also, as a queer woman, that is a bop, and I love it. But to hear...

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: ...That, like, you know, there's another version of this where the - a song similarly comes out about, you know, two women being together that is not made by queer women, that then the one of the singers goes on to say - to, like, truly use a slur to describe gay people, that's extremely disappointing.

GIRDWOOD: So there is another moment in your book where you write about how as a teenager and young adult, when you still weren't out, that you went from boyfriend to boyfriend, and you sum them all up as a live, laugh, love sign that hangs above the kitchen sink...

GUTOWITZ: (Laughter).

GIRDWOOD: ...LOL. And all that time you're just staring out the window...

GUTOWITZ: Yes.

GIRDWOOD: ...Watching the rain drip down the side, thinking...

GUTOWITZ: This is it for me.

GIRDWOOD: OK. But wait...

GUTOWITZ: Yes.

GIRDWOOD: ...Now we're in the year 2022, and you have a girlfriend.

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: Do you still have that sense of yearning? Is that still a part of what it feels like for you to be a lesbian today?

GUTOWITZ: I don't know. I mean, like, in most ways, no because, like, I do have a girlfriend, and we've been together for 3 1/2 years. And so - and we also live together and work out of - you know, work from home and are literally always near each other. I don't know how we could yearn for each other. We see each other all day, every day.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTOWITZ: But, you know, I think that, like, yearning was a big, big, big part of my, like, coming out process and when I first started dating. I was always going after people who were, like, not really available or yearning for a girl who was, like, straight and not interested because I think so much of the, like, media I consumed and, like, the stories I was watching on, like, film and TV were about, like, a lesbian who has feelings for somebody who doesn't have them back, or maybe they do. And they kiss, and then, like in "Lost And Delirious," one of them dies. Like, it - just that, like, there's always this element of you can want the thing, and you can maybe even have it for a little bit. But it's not forever.

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: And I think I had to, like, actively work to change my course of thinking around it and be like, that's not normal or healthy to, like, live in the yearn and keep yourself at bay, basically. The goal is to find a healthy and stable relationship with somebody who really likes you back.

GIRDWOOD: Yeah. And that was, like, so core to, like, the narrative of what it meant to be a lesbian and, at the turn of the century, what it meant to be gay, what it meant to be queer.

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: And then, like, here we are in our 30s...

(LAUGHTER)

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

GIRDWOOD: ...Looking at a younger generation that has more representation, that has more diversity of stories, that has representation that's authentic. And I wonder, like - I don't know if there's an answer to this, but do you think that, like, that yearning is something that they experience?

GUTOWITZ: I do. You know, I think that, like, we assume that generally we are, like, past all of this stuff. And, like, maybe in, you know, Brooklyn and coastal cities and Los Angeles, like, you know, I do see, like, a lot of people that I know who have kids that are, like, you know, 10, 11 that are, like, identifying as queer or nonbinary or, like, whatever. And so there definitely is, like, so much progress and a lot of kids and teens who, like, don't experience this kind of, like, repression yearning because people are so much more, like, open and queer. And they can just, like, I don't know, meet a boyfriend or girlfriend or whoever at school and just date, which is crazy. I, like - it literally couldn't be me, couldn't imagine. But I think also we forget that there is, like, mostly people who don't experience that, you know, like, throughout the rest of the country. I do think that there are, like, still a ton, a ton, a ton of queer kids and teens who experience love and desire through yearning still. We do still have a lot of, like, film and TV stories that depict lesbianism or any queerness as, like, a thing that can never fully be. So, yeah, I would say that, like, a lot of people do experience that for sure, even though we, like, feel culturally like we're past it. Like, we're definitely not.

GIRDWOOD: I was in a gym class last week, and the instructor was playing a circuit remix of "All The Things She Said." I felt it. I knew it because it would always be a part of me, that yearning...

GUTOWITZ: Yes.

GIRDWOOD: ...And knowing that it came from a place that was bad. But it gave me something (laughter).

GUTOWITZ: Yeah. No, it's - I literally - like, this sounds insane to say, but I mean it wholeheartedly. It's, like, a part of our history, you know? It's such, like, a part of, you know, queer people's history to have...

GIRDWOOD: Yeah.

GUTOWITZ: ...Not been able to talk - like, talk about these things as openly as you and I are right now. And so I don't - the yearning is deep in our bones, I think.

GIRDWOOD: We can feel it.

GUTOWITZ: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GIRDWOOD: Jill, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about "All The Things She Said." I really like all the things that you said.

GUTOWITZ: Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was a blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) All the things she said, all the things she said, running through my head, running through my head...

GIRDWOOD: Jill Gutowitz is a writer. Her debut collection of essays is called "Girls Can Kiss Now." My editors are the fearless Jessica Placzek and Jessica Mendoza. I am IT'S BEEN A MINUTE's senior producer Barton Girdwood. And this will be the first and last time I hope you ever hear my voice on this podcast. We're back Friday either way. Talk soon, y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID")

T A T U: (Singing) All the things she said, all the things she said, all the things she said, all the things she said, all the things she said, all the things she said, things she said...

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