If i was to admit that my love for t.A.T.u. began the moment the video for All The Things She Said was first shown on MTV, it would possibly send out the wrong kind of message. i won’t deny that i found the video surprising and controversial (i was in the company of friends at the time, and our conversation quickly became dominated by it); but above and beyond any pseudo-sapphic high jinks, i was both enthralled by the song and genuinely intrigued by the dark content of both the video and the lyrics. Following my last post, i don’t think it would be fanciful to suggest that what Dubstar was to the 1990s, t.A.T.u. is to the 2000s, their songs bristling with energy and excitement, but often being the vehicle for lyrics that explore and express some very difficult ideas and concomitantly angry emotions. Where Dubstar focused on the comparatively insular dramas of relationship trauma, however, t.A.T.u. face outward at the world around them, their words directed at society itself. Say what you like about them being yet another “product”, but their songs go way beyond such banal intentions; they’re popular without seeking to please – pop it may be, but not in the least bit plastic.
t.A.T.u.’s newest release, the first single from their forthcoming album, is Белый Плащик, transliterated as “Beliy Plaschik” and known in English as “White Robe”. Unlike their previous singles (due to record label upheavals), this has only been available for purchase direct from Russia, which explains its relative anonymity. It’s surprising, considering the incredible success they’ve had, that they’re releasing their music like this – i.e. from a single country only – but it’s not the first time it’s happened (the Truth DVD was – bizarrely – only available from Japan, to the chagrin of many fans). So much for the (im)practicalities: while the single was only released last month, the video has been available for some time (since last November, i think), so the song can’t really be disassociated from it. It recently came to light that this video is a “TV version” however; the DVD accompanying the single contains a more lengthy version, which makes for a fuller experience. Both, though, use imagery at once striking and deeply provocative.
We see Lena, clad in the attire of a prostitute, returning home from her evening’s assignations; Yulia, meanwhile, is cell-bound, lying on her bed, and then brushing her teeth. There’s an especially powerful moment when she abruptly stops, staring deeply at herself in the mirror, before spitting at it and hurling the toothbrush into the sink; a woman on the verge, it seems. Neither this opening nor the subsequent chorus, however, betrays any kind of connection between the girls, and as one takes a shower and the other gets undressed, it actually seems curiously benign (the words, of course, are telling us something different, translated as “Bullet in the heart / Brain on the door / We’re putting on / This white robe / Soul to heaven…”). The second verse makes a lot very clear, very fast: Lena is, also, a high-ranking official in an organisation called (rather believably, thinking of Russia) the “Department of Control”; having changed, she travels to the Detention Centre where Yulia is held captive (outside which she’s harassed by what look like protesters); inside, Yulia is being proffered a last meal, which she casts aside, opting instead for a glass of wine. The second chorus again shows the girls somewhat in parallel, but now much darker: both are marching, Lena with a small troop of soldiers, Yulia being led by two guards; it’s horribly clear where all this is leading. The words stop while the music continues, and here comes the video’s principal shock: as Yulia is tied to the post where she will be shot, her white robe is removed, revealing her to be heavily pregnant – it’s an extremely powerful moment, and makes the nastiness of the scene even more horrific. The firing squad does its job, but in the closing moments a telephone rings – perhaps a last-minute reprieve for Yulia?; Lena looks in its direction, her face enigmatically impassive.
The full version of the video (which also uses an alternative mix of the song, the “No Mercy” remix) throws yet more light on these dark proceedings, although its dramatic timing is not so effective. The protesters outside the centre now appear to be religiously motivated; one clutches a book that he passionately waves in Lena’s direction. And one tiny change: Yulia is given what looks like Tequila as her final drink, rather than wine, perhaps a more plausible choice. Chiefly, though, the longer video highlights a contrast between extremes of pleasure and pain. On top of the detention centre, a party of onlookers (barely glimpsed in the short version) is shown to be enjoying themselves with food and drink, apparently eagerly awaiting the execution; such levity without makes Yulia’s predicament within all the more acute. This contrast is further exacerbated by the surprising inclusion of nudity from both girls (Yulia in the shower; Lena as she undresses and lies on the bed); the short-lived beauty and softness of these images makes the conclusion yet more jarring and unpleasant.
It’s an extremely potent and metaphorical video, and while one could connote all sorts of meanings from its images, the principal interpretation was described by Lena in a recent interview: “The video is a statement against abortion and violence. We’re hoping to discourage women from having abortions, because a baby is a life”. Seen in that light, the video suddenly takes on an extremely pejorative, indeed scathing, view of those prepared to abort their own babies; Lena is seen to be nothing less than a whore and a cold-blooded executioner. By contrast, Yulia – whose white robe clearly symbolises purity and innocence (it’s also the only significant presence of white in the entire video) – is nothing more than the helpless victim, unable to struggle or fight against her enemy. Quite apart from the fact that i agree entirely with these sentiments, this is a profoundly polemical overture to their new album. Its title – which takes on a distinctly unpleasant overtone in the wake of “Beliy Plaschik” – is Waste Management, of which Lena continues: “It’s about how everybody on the planet needs to manage their own waste. Not just literally, in terms of throwing out your garbage, but internally too: people are always doing bad things to each other”. No doubt some fans may wish to avoid these direct challenges, i think it’s going to be exciting to engage with them; “White Robe” has certainly thrown down the gauntlet.