Why you should buy t.A.T.u. instead of Rihanna

A few years ago, I thought that Rihanna — just as a person, as a human being involved in a variety of musical projects — was one of the best musical events, vocalists, things of any kind, or what-have-you, of the whole year. This was shortly after, already a star, she suddenly catapulted to an untheorized, stratospheric level of fame (and fan sympathy) following the horrible incident in which she was abused by Chris Brown. I’m not trivializing that event by saying that, quite deservedly, afterwards she was suddenly omnipresent. Her voice, which had always been strange, either deepened or just seemed to deepen into a bittersweet cry filled with pain and rage.

Her own album, Rated R, was a monumental success, mostly on the strength of “Rude Boy,” which is definitely an incredibly “big” sound for what is, at heart, a slinky reggae song about sex. The thing is, though, that Rated R had real depth to it. (So did Good Girl Gone Bad, but not to such a surprising extent.) Even today, not that many people know about “Wait Your Turn” or “Fire Bomb,” but they’re terrific songs. She has something urgent to express each time.

Furthermore, her guest appearances were really mind-blowing. She was a leader on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town.” She was a victim on Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie.” She was a kind of Greek chorus or guardian angel on Kanye’s “All of the Lights.” Whereas Lil’ Wayne, in all of his guest appearances, tended to remind you that this was The Year of Lil’ Wayne, Rihanna actually collaborated with other musicians to produce music that said something about them both.

I’m not going to go into the interesting failures and excesses of Loud, which all the same is still an album worth owning. Let’s skip ahead a bit, to Talk That Talk. For the first time in years, Rihanna reverted to the formula that she’d started with. She recorded one incredible single: instead of “Pon de Replay,” we got “We Found Love.” The song was great. The music video was shocking and entertaining. For crying out loud, Calvin Harris wasn’t even a decent producer before that song, much less a good one. The album, though, sucked. It was mostly filler. “Where Have You Been” isn’t much of a song, when you get down to it. It’s the kind of song that you pretend is good because that’s your only option, like pretending other Joan Osborne songs (besides “[What If God Was] One of Us”) were good. Yes, the video was great, and somebody showed Rihanna a few really tubular dance moves, but it’s still not a very enjoyable song. It was sort of like her version of Beyonce’s equally banal song “Get Me Bodied,” with its signature dance and amazing video.

Unapologetic is more of the same. “Diamonds” is a great single. Everything else is not intended to be filler, and of course at least four of the songs will come out as singles. But these songs don’t go anywhere or add up to anything. Rihanna is numb and bored, and while she’s confessional enough to sing about that, it’s just not galvanizing. On a boasting song like “Phresh Out The Runway,” she seems kinda mean. On a tell-all song like “Numb,” she seems to be treating us like we care about her, and we don’t, because we have no clue who she really is. She’s reinvented herself in so many ways, so quickly, that it’s neither surprising nor affecting for her to be numb. She doesn’t know what she wants to say. A little later, in a very cynical move, she covers “Pony” and calls it “Jump,” hoping that a lot of young listeners simply won’t know who Ginuwine is. It’s sexy, but it’s karaoke.

Meanwhile, the 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane, an album (sort of the only album) by t.A.T.u., has appeared. Remember them? I remember my girlfriend at the time, who was Russian-American, delightedly telling me that some songs done in Russian were getting American airplay. The reissue includes a bunch of nice remixes, an extended version of “Show Me Love,” and much cleaner, more distinct sound than we got the first time around.

Obviously, liking t.A.T.u. was almost impossible, which is why they didn’t succeed or become worldwide stars a la Shakira. It was impossible because of their terrible decision to pose as underage lesbians right out of the gate, without even building up to their “super extreme mega sexy” phase with more teasing, intermediate phases, which is what Britney and Rihanna did (and now what Justin Bieber is doing). Guys couldn’t like them because it made them seem pervy. Girls couldn’t like them because they were such an artificial, yucky, extreme male fantasy.

Now, granted, if you have no place in your heart for the kind of theatrics that make the Prodigy, or The Crystal Method, or (sometimes) Evanescence so awesome, you’re not going to like t.A.T.u. either. But if something inside of you understands the primal sound of unhinged, unrepentant desperation, then this album is a godsend. It sets you free. The girls are literally screaming on these tracks, and the techno roaring behind them sounds like the engine of that car they are driving too fast (in, of course, the wrong lane).  Honestly, not that many American or British electronica acts have ever equaled the squealing, furious whiplash of “Not Gonna Get Us.”

The lyrics seem like free association, and up to a point, that’s probably exactly what they are. But the associations aren’t all that free. On “Show Me Love,” one verse goes like this: “Tell me how you’ve never felt / Delicate or innocent / Do you still believe / That us having faith makes any sense?” On “All The Things She Said,” the singer explains “if I’m asking for help / it’s only because / being with you / has opened my eyes / who could ever believe / such a perfect disguise?”

In “Show Me Love,” the basic form of the romantic power ballad, in which the singer begs her lover to be intimate, mutates into one side of that pitiful interaction which is The Hookup in its most awful form: two drunk people, who’ve known each other forever and used to date, hooking up even though all their illusions are gone. They haven’t even shown each other love yet, and she already is feeling sorry for him (or, I guess, for “her”).

In “All The Things She Said,” we are hearing a conversation with a ghost. As far as I can tell, the singer is “asking for help” getting an ex-lover out of her mind, and she’s completely unsuccessful. Whoever she’s with now just reminds her of the other woman, the one that’s gone. That’s the “perfect disguise,” and when we hear “being with you / has opened my eyes,” there’s nothing triumphant or worshipful about it. Her eyes are now open to her misery.

Even the lesbian video, which was “shocking” and “banned” and so forth, is too weird to be easily dismissed. The fact that they are fake lesbians at all is unnerving, since it’s so clearly a calculated bit of marketing. You’re not asking yourself if they’re lesbians. You’re asking yourself, is everything for Russia really this explicitly for sale? Then, even granting the bizarre “sexy” premise for a second, why is the video so miserable? Seriously, girls, you don’t have to work this hard. There’s crying. Rainstorms. Angry people in bourgeois outfits. There’s a chain link fence and them banging against it and shaking it. The overall effect is that of a melodramatic, over-the-top gay rights video from Mars. The video seems legitimately concerned with homophobia, not to the point of being less exploitative or silly — the rain ends up being a convenient start to a wet T-shirt contest — but certainly to the point of getting in its own way. Beyonce ends “Crazy In Love” with a rainstorm, too, and does so without any of this insane angst.

When it comes time to review a “highbrow” piece of Russian culture, such as the recent noir film Elena, we get critics (in this case, Stephen Holden of The New York Times) writing paragraphs like this:

Post-Soviet Russia in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s somber, gripping film “Elena” is a moral vacuum where money rules, the haves are contemptuous of the have-nots, and class resentment simmers. The movie, which shuttles between the center of Moscow and its outskirts, is grim enough to suggest that even if you were rich, you wouldn’t want to live there.

Holden writes as though this place, this moral vacuum where money rules, class resentment simmers, and the grim landscape is almost unbearable, comes into being ex nihilo thanks to Zvyagintsev’s cinematic vision. Sorry, Stephen, but I already knew a little about post-Soviet Moscow 10 years ago, thanks to 200 KM/hr in the Wrong Lane. Everything he’s describing as being constitutive of Elena was already present in these trashy songs.

On one of the most soul-crushing songs on Unapologetic is called (I’m not joking) “Loveeeeeeee Song,” and features some rapper named Future. I definitely hope he got paid a huge amount of money, because the lines he has to sing go like this: “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression / I need love and affection / I hope I’m not sounding too desperate.”

Sorry, man. You sound unbelievably desperate. So does Rihanna. And what’s worse, you’re apologizing for it. t.A.T.u. sound desperate, too, but they never even consider living any other way. Like a pair of twin Lisbeth Salanders, they really don’t give a fuck about you, either. They are way, way too scared of the future to care what you think about their feelings. This isn’t a techno album, when you get right down to it, nor is it synth-pop. In its own mechanical, tawdry way, the one good t.A.T.u. album is a masterpiece of modern punk.