Russian Scandal Pop A t.a.T.U. for Terrorists?

From the man who brought you the adorable lesbian pop of t.a.T.u. comes the next new low in Russian music: Terror rock. Ad-man/producer Ivan Shapovalov, responsible for the briefly-famous fake-lesbian duo, has unveiled Nato, his newest starlet who sings in Chechen and dresses like a suicide bomber. Is this Shapovalov's next ticket to shock-pop success?

By Jens Mühling in Moscow

Nato: even fiercer than a pseudo lesbian(photo from her concert on January 14th).

Nato: even fiercer than a pseudo lesbian(photo from her concert on January 14th).

The Tinkov Brewery is usually just your average Moscow nightclub, but tonight something's gone haywire. A screen behind the stage is showing CNN live, and the latest news flashes by, full of pictures of destruction from Iraq to Banda Aceh. Two Russia Spetsnaz commandos are stationed on either side of the stage in full camo-gear, body armor and face masks, their Kalashnikovs at the ready. Has there been a bomb threat? Is a Mafia war raging out in the streets? Are the Chechens just outside the city?

Actually, none of the above: tonight is the debut performance of Russia's newest, trashiest music sensation, Nato. "Don't worry," the singer with dark black eyes says as she arrives on stage a half-hour late. "It's my first concert, and anything can happen. But everything is going to be fine!" The CNN commentary fades slowly into a steady techno beat, soon joined by live drums and a heavy guitar riff opens up. As Nato lifts the microphone to her lips and starts to sing, the audience strains to hear her voice over the noise. But no matter how they crane their necks, they can see nothing of her face, hidden behind a black veil that shows only her eyes. The lyrics, too, are a bit of a mystery, as Nato doesn't sing in Russian, but in Chechen and Georgian. One thing is clear: Nato's outfitted to look like one of the infamous "Black Widows," the female Chechen suicide bombers.

Ivan Shapovalov is at it again. With his "discovery" of the pseudo-lesbian pop duo t.a.T.u. two years ago, the 37 year-old producer shocked the Russian public and made the girls internationally famous as Russia's first export pop group. But Shapovalov went too far with his little favorites: Julia and Lena got tired of playing at being lesbians, and last summer they sent their producer packing. Since then, they've sunk without a trace. One of the two supposedly got married, but otherwise no one in Russia has heard anything from them since.

Shapovalov, however, started looking for a new gimmick right away, and this time came up with Nato. The singer's first concert, billed as "a musical terror attack against all effectation" was supposed to happen last year, and was actually planned for Sept. 11. Just before the show was supposed to happen, real terror broke out in Beslan, and the show was cancelled by Moscow authorities. Instead, Nato circulated a music video over the Internet, complete with scene in which the singer blows herself up.

Fans aren't impressed with Nato's guards' habit of firing paintballs into the crowd.

Fans aren't impressed with Nato's guards' habit of firing paintballs into the crowd.

Just why Nato dresses like a "Black Widow" and what her background is provides hearty grist for the club's rumor mill. "She's from Chechnya," someone in the crowd whispers. "She's an orthodox Muslim," some else claims to have overheard.

Neither one, as it turns out, is right. Nato, according to her handlers, is half-Georgian and half-Russian, and about as Muslim as Lena and Julia were lesbian. Is the whole thing just calculated for effect? Sure, the gimmick is hard to overlook, but Shapovalov is hitting a nerve no one else in Russia dares to go near -- the subject of terror is just too taboo. The question of whether Nato is just slick, calculated marketing or provocative art remains open.

Nothing can shake up the Russian public right now like flirting with terror. Shapovalov knows this, and is playing coy with the media because of it. "What sort of provocation are you talking about?" he shoots back when asked about the in-your-face content of the show. "I don't see anything provocative here. Just listen to the music, and you'll get it." Nato writes all her lyrics herself, and they're allegedly all about love. Yet despite the oriental melodies, the sound is decidedly Shapovalov -- most of the tunes sound like Turk-pop versions of t.a.T.u.'s hits.

As a finale, Nato performs "Chor Javon," a catchy song with clear hit potential that's going to be released as her first single. As soon as she puts down the microphone, the guards jump on stage and fire paintballs into the crowd with their fake Kalashnikovs. Alexy, a 24 year-old concert-goer, gives the whole thing a tired smile. "I'd imagined this would be way more radical," he says. "Machine guns, the whole silent guard routine -- you're really not going to shock anyone with that kind of thing these days."


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