Happy birthday to my most problematic fave, “All the Things She Said.”
Every time I listen to this song, I hear it for the first time. I’m startled by the way the drums crash in at the beginning, hypnotized by the laser-show synths in the middle, flattened by the acoustic guitar that gives way to something resembling strings under the second verse. The production is absolutely bonkers: manic one second, tender and depressed the next. It sounds like the hormonal mood swings it’s trying to imitate, which is no small feat—especially considering everyone involved was essentially an amueter at the time. There is so, so much that I love about this song. And then there’s... everything else.
And there’s so, so much else. There’s the faux-lesbianism, obviously. Then there’s the way Julia Volkova’s faux-lesbianism mutated into some really noxious homophobia. Then there’s the whole ableist Lyudi Invalidy debacle. Then, of course, there’s Ivan Shapovalov, the child psychologist-turned-ad exec-turned-hyper-controlling svengali who dreamed up the idea for the song and band after watching some teen-centric porn (an origin story he absolutely loved to scandalize Western journalists with).
But, even knowing all of that, I can’t bring myself to cancel the song. Or the video. Because, ultimately, I think the whole “Russian Lolita lesbians” thing is something of a red herring—at least as far as the appeal/legacy of “All the Things She Said” is concerned. At risk of sounding contrarian: I really don’t think the song took off because Julia plants a chaste, slow-motion kiss on Lena in the video. Ditto the (extremely gratuitous) upskirts. In fact, I think all the controversy obscured something essential: “All the Things She Said” isn’t particularly sexy. It’s hysterical, heady, and angsty as hell.
In English, the girls are in “serious shit” and “feel totally lost.” In Russian, they’re “mad,” “insane,” it’s an “S.O.S. situation.” In both, they’re grappling with the life-changing implications of their desires—not, like, having a little too much fun at a slumber party. It’s a song about feeling like the world will reject you for what you want, while knowing that the status quo “IS. NOT. ENOUGH.” It’s the song’s all-consuming angst that aughties teenagers glommed onto, not Shapovalov’s lecherously obvious fantasy.
Case and point: t.A.T.u. superfan-slash-pop luminary, Charli XCX, has repeatedly cited the group’s electo-anguish as the source of their appeal. When asked what she’d like to record with Taylor Swift after she joined the Reputation Stadium Tour, she said “something super emo… like t.A.T.u.’s ‘All the Things She Said.’” The primary inspiration for “Cross You Out,” her chilly, moody collab with Sky Ferreiera? t.A.T.u. And it’s not just Charli XCX! Lots of people heard t.A.T.u. in Halsey’s “Nightmare,” a song about female anger and ambivalence.
TL;DR: “All the Things She Said” endures because what teens were hearing in 2002 was different than what adults were seeing.