In pop music, even T.A.T.U. can’t last

With the international climate being what it is these days, it seems pretty dumb to talk about something as trivial as pop music. But what’s going on in the international pop scene is a trend that I think warrants some attention.

The world is moving toward a kind of global marketplace, with the United States at its hub. Within the borders of the United States, this movement has manifested itself as a fascination with world cultural figures – trendy people and products that offer the American people a glimpse of the rest of the planet. Foreign cuisine is huge right now. So are foreign movies. Particularly notable is the NBA, where Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies and a host of other international talents have raised the possibility that the NBA may someday enjoy the same borderless appeal that soccer does today.

These are good things in my book, even if the relationship between the U.S. public and the rest of the world is still one of consumerism. Common cultural bonds can help us build an international community that isn’t founded on s—— burgers, flimsy Mickey Mouse hats or UN hostilities. Music could be one of those bonds bringing all peoples together.

Go anywhere in the world and sing a Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff song and you’ll find that their music is revered by damn near everyone. So are the Beatles, the Stones, KISS, U2 and Metallica. I once heard a street musician in Paris play The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” in French, no less.

Of course, this shows more about the world’s fascination with English language music than anything else. By and large, we don’t feel the same way about the rest of the world’s music. When international music does break through, it’s usually as a flavor-of-the-month trend and hyped to so ridiculous an extent that the record-buying public gets sick of it before long. Remember that whole Latin music craze of a couple years ago? Or Afro-pop in the early 90s? Hell, how about this watered down Jamaican dancehall stuff that I’m hearing now-a-days?

Music made outside the United States is marketed as novelty by the music biz, and this is a huge problem. It’s all world music: An undifferentiated mass of music made by anonymous and interchangeable artists from cultures that we just don’t care about in languages we don’t know. However, the ones that do make the crossover into the pop mainstream from the world music ghetto, the Shakiras and Bjorks and so on, are often extremely talented.

But they still have to translate their lyrics into English, go into the studio with American producers and often change their unique sound into something more marketable. And for every artist that successfully crosses over, there are a million that don’t make it and never find a reliable American audience.

One recent successful crossover that is particularly troubling is the Russian girl group T.A.T.U. Just when you think that the industry has decided to take money out of manufactured pop acts and put it into authentic (yeah right – like anything’s authentic these days) singer/songwriters, along comes psychologist Ivan Shapovalov with two 17-year-old Moscow schoolgirls cum pop queens Lena Katina and Julia Volkova.

Shapovalov hires songwriters, producers and voice coaches and gets the girls the right pop music sound. And then – this is the reason I’m even writing about them – he gets the girls to make out and feel each other up onstage, sing lyrics about young girls in love, and then deny in press conferences that they are lesbians. And guess what? Their debut album, 2002’s 200 km/h in the Fast Lane, has hit #1 in nine countries and is currently heading toward the top spot in the U.S. Hey, it’s a damn good act.

I am not kidding about this. It’s ridiculous. Katina and Volkova are attractive girls, there’s no doubt, but they would sell approximately five albums if they didn’t have the whole pseudo soft-core lezbo kiddie porn thing going for them. The hit single, “All the Things She Said” is catchy techno-rock about, uh, lesbians, but it’s pretty damn annoying after you’ve heard it twice. T.A.T.U.’s manager must be an incredible businessman, one on par with Backstreet Boys / N*SYNC impresario Lou Pearlman, but he’s going to make it twice as hard for international artists to make it in the American music industry. If his group succeeds, which it looks they will, I’ll bet the next year will see a fair number of young girls and boys of different ethnicities whoring themselves in the name of pop music stardom. Think about it: Thousands of little Lolitas from around the world climbing up the pop charts. It was bad enough when only American girls did this kind of stuff to get hit records.

I guess the only way to stop this is for us, the record-buying public, to start showing an interest in music from different parts of the world that doesn’t explicitly involve hot lesbian action. It’s not going to be easy, I know, but T.A.T.U. could have just set the formation of an international music community back by about a decade.

So next time you’re in a record store or downloading music, why not try out some Brazilian Tropicalia music? Or some Swedish Black Metal? Or Chilean hardcore punk-rock? Or Japanese hip-hop?

These are American musical forms interpreted by other cultures and infused with their own traditional music. And they’re not just empty marketing ploys to capitalize on the kiddie porn fan in all of us.