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Michael's Number Ones: "All the Things She Said" by t.A.T.u.



March 15, 2003


A song about a lesbian relationship becoming a hit in the United States at a time when gay marriage still wasn't legal. By a duo from a country that rarely exports its pop culture to North America, and where homosexuality is basically illegal at this moment. There's all kinds of contradictions within "All the Things She Said". But I guess that's the way the human experience is supposed to work, isn't it? It's not supposed to make sense, but it does.

In that light, "All the Things She Said" feels like a kind of small miracle. It's also a song that instantly grabs your attention when it comes on the radio. The subject matter is secondary to why it got to number one on my chart; like a lot of the songs I've talked about before, and will talk about in the future, it just sounded different than anything else that got played alongside it.

Lena Katina and Julia Volkova was both born in Moscow in the mid-1980s, when Russia was still under control of the Soviet Union. By 1994, after the Soviet Union had dissolved, the two joined the children's musical group Neposedy. Apparently Neposedy still exists today, almost like the Russian version of Kidz Bop. The girls aged out of the group in 1997, but they eventually caught the attention of music producer Ivan Shapovalov, who wanted to form a female singing group. The two auditioned along with several other Russian girls, and were chosen to form the group that would become t.A.T.u.

By 2000, Shapovalov was producing t.A.T.u.'s debut album, and hired Elena Kiper to write some songs for the project. Among the songs she wrote were what being the duo's first single, "Ya Soshla S Uma", which translates to "I'm going out of my mind". It was the Russian version of what became "All the Things She Said". Kiper came up with the idea for the song while under anesthesia during dental surgery. She dreamed she was kissing another woman, then exclaimed "I've lost my mind!" upon waking up. Shapovalov was accused by the Russian media of taking the idea for himself, but Kiper insisted the song was her idea alone.

"Ya Soshla S Uma" appeared on t.A.T.u.'s debut album 200 Po Vstrechnoy, released in May 2001 in Russia. I can't find any information about the existence of a music chart in Russia around this time, so I have no idea exactly how popular the song or album was at the time in their homeland. In any event, the group caught the attention of American music executive Jimmy Iovine. Iovine hired English producer and musician Trevor Horn to translate the duo's music to American audiences.

Horn was tasked with writing English language lyrics to the melody for "Ya Soshla S Uma", turning it into "All the Things She Said". He also had to rerecord the music for the song since he did not have access to the original recordings. Apparently Shapovalov was a absolute dick during the recording sessions, reportedly making Katina and Volkova cry at one point, and Horn had him ejected from the studio.

According to Horn, he didn't want to use a literal translation of the Russian lyrics because Katina and Volkova could not sing in English very well. Reading that translation, it's also clear those lyrics would've made no fucking sense to American listeners. Of course, you would expect that with most translations regardless of the language. And while songs in other languages have occasionally been hits in the United States, it's hard to imagine the Russian version of the song getting over on pop radio outside of Russia.

Still, Horn didn't change the essence of the song's subject matter. If anything, he makes it feel more urgent and anxious. The chorus opens the song and it absolutely slaps. Repeating the lines "all the things she said" and "running through my head" gives a total sense of loss of control, but if a man was singing those lines, you probably wouldn't give it a second thought. That it's two young women singing those lines must have given some listeners pause to pay attention back in 2003.

The first verse adds to the tension the duo's narrator is feeling, "I'm in serious shit, I feel totally lost/If I'm asking for help it's only because/Being with you has opened my eyes". Later on, it's clear the narrator feels society is looking down on them: "And I'm all mixed up, feeling cornered and rushed/They say it's my fault, but I want her so much."

I think there was a lot at play in why I liked the song so much. For starters, the music is aggressive and pulsating. Horn lets the verses of the song have space for listeners to understand what the narrators are going through, which makes the choruses that much more intense.

I can understand how someone just hearing the queer aspects of the song might be cynical about it. Although Volkova later came out as bisexual, the two members of t.A.T.u. were not a romantic couple. But I don't believe you have to be queer to appreciate, or sympathize with, queer themes in art, the same way being white doesn't preclude someone from sympathizing with Black artwork.

Still, I wonder for myself how much being bullied in middle school because my classmates thought I was gay made me appreciate the subject matter. Not to turn this column into a therapy session, but that shit has a way of creating all kinds of empathy in some people. If I hadn't gone through that, would I have been more cynical about the song? Or would I have just found the song titillating and therefore not taken it as seriously? I hope the answer to those questions would be no, but it's fair to wonder.

The video for the song was directed by Shapovalov prior to the English language recording. Katina and Volkova are depicted behind a fence in Catholic school girl uniforms. There's a sickly green sky and a crowd of onlookers holding umbrellas. You almost feel like the duo is a zoo exhibit, something Russian audiences would've regarded with perverse curiosity or shame rather than with empathy. The two kiss and hold hands while the crowd looks on, and by the end of the video, they make their way to an open field, as if the world itself has opened up to them.

The song wound up being a massive international hit, topping the charts in the UK, Germany, and Australia, among other countries. It didn't have quite the same impact in the United States, but it still reached #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. I have to say, though, that listening to t.A.T.u.'s English language debut album, 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane, there are bangers all over the place. Even a cover of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" works when it has no right to.

The duo's second single was "Not Gonna Get Us", another English language reworking by Trevor Horn. That song didn't have nearly the same impact with Western audiences, and it barely made a ripple at pop radio in the United States. That's pretty much the last time the duo was heard from in the U.S., but in Russia they could still crank out some hits.

In 2005, the duo released their second English language album, Dangerous and Moving, anchored by the lead single "All About Us". They worked with, among others, Jessica and Lisa Origliasso, Australian twin sisters who are better known as The Veronicas. By this time, there was a Russian pop chart, and the song peaked at #5 there, as well as being a top 10 hit in a few other countries, but not the United States. It found it's way to #13 on Billboard's dance chart, but for the life of me, I don't remember knowing much about the song when it was current. (The Veronicas' biggest hit on my chart, 2009's "Untouched", peaked at #11, which feels way too low.)

A few more hits on the Russian charts followed after that, and the duo did record one more English language album, 2009's Waste Management, which I didn't know existed until I wrote this column. They've performed a few times after that, including at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but no new music has come from the duo since then.

I'd love to end this column by saying how "All the Things She Said" became an anthem of queer identity, but that's not exactly how things turned out. In 2014, Volkova appeared on a Ukrainian show where she said she would condemn her son if he came out as gay, saying "a man has no right to be a fag." Needless to say, this didn't sit well with lots of people, including bandmate Lena Katina. Volkova appeared to walk back the comments afterward, but I think the damage was done in people's minds, no doubt including my own.

Today, Russia is among the more repressive countries for queer folks, and its president, Vladimir Putin, is currently trying to conquer Ukraine. It's funny to think that just over 20 years ago, Russia seemed to be on a course to be an equal partner with the United States, rather than a Cold War adversary. Now, we're just hoping Donald Trump doesn't try to turn the United States into a client state of Russia. We're in serious shit, people. Let's hope we don't get totally lost.


Some critics have noted that Katy Perry's 2011 single "E.T." sounded reminiscent of "All the Things She Said". I don't really hear it, but you be the judge. Here it is:

("E.T." peaked at #2 on my top 40, and is Perry's biggest hit, so maybe there's something to the comparison. I regret to inform you that Kanye West will eventually appear in this column.)

Here's a pretty cool cover of "All the Things She Said" by the band First to Eleven:

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