Tegan and Sara: A Musical Evolution

By Francesca Lewis

Tegan and Sara 1

Drum roll/fan fare please! The moment you’ve been waiting for has arrived. The headlining act for this year’s Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend has been announced and it is non-other than iconic lesbian indie duo Tegan & Sara.

Formed in 1995 in Calgary, Canada, Tegan & Sara is comprised of identical twins, Tegan Quin and Sara Quin. Tegan is the quieter sister, tending to write songs with literal lyrics and alt-punk sensibilities, while Sara is the more outspoken of the two, tending to pen more metaphorical lyrics and the pop/dance influenced songs that have become the duo’s hits. A disservice many do the band is to think of Tegan and Sara as one amalgamated entity but, like all identical twins, the two are individuals with distinctive personalities that influence what they bring to the musical table. One thing that they do have in common though is that both sisters are openly gay and have been for their entire career, which begin in earnest in 2000.

Tegan & Sara’s early work had a singer-songwriter vibe, a la Ani or Alanis, with confessional lyrics, a heavily folk/blues influenced sound and some spoken word thrown in for good measure. Stand out Tegan-penned track “Superstar” combined these elements with synthy/poppy influences, hinting at the way their sound would evolve over the next ten years. Through their next two albums, they went back and forth between indie-folk and indie-pop, never knowing whether to lead with acoustic guitar riffs or a catchy keyboard hook, a product of the fact that they did not write together but created their songs individually, infusing them with their own tastes and style. The emphasis, though, was still on the “indie” spirit of their music and they were yet to break the mainstream.

Tegan and Sara The Con

By the time they released The Con in 2007 their sound solidified itself with the help of Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Waller’s production, and it is no coincidence that this is the album that really propelled them into the hearts and minds of the indie music critics. The competing sounds that had made their music so polarized were brought together to create a truly original and eclectic record – one that was as folksy and quirky as it was catchy and poppy. In 2009, they released Sainthood, which featured the first song they ever wrote together, “Paperback Head,” and a 1980s New Wave vibe. While this album didn’t do as well as the previous one, critics still praised it as “emotional,” “mature,” “sharp” and “punchy.” As a cautionary treatise on the dangers of buying into your own romantic ideals, it certainly became the soundtrack to this writer’s late twenties.

Sainthood-Cover-Tegan-S

In a shocking, exciting and controversial departure from their indie sound and Sainthood’s mature cynicism came 2013’s Heartthrob. Described by Rolling Stone as “a veritable bouncy castle of lush, up-to-the-minute indie synth-pop and blown-out radio choruses,” the album was produced by Greg Kurstin (Ke$ha, Kelly Clarkson) and is a very deliberate move into the mainstream for Tegan & Sara. Feeling that their Canadian tendency towards humility and caution was holding them back, they decided to aim for the stars. “It was time to shake things up,” they told Spin Magazine, and shake things up they did.

Tegan and Sara Heartthrob

Moody, dreamy and nostalgic, Heartthrob is full of songs deliberately aimed at teenage listeners. Conjuring up images of lovestruck, miserable teens staring out of rain-soaked windows, dancing the last dance at prom and scribbling love notes in the back of their chemistry books, you can really feel that Tegan and Sara channelled their own teenage selves in order to write this.

Fully embracing the literal lyrics Tegan is usually known for and Sara’s pop/dance sensibility, the album has upset some of their more alternative/indie fans. When Sara sings “The first time I saw your face/I knew I was meant for you” on “Love They Say,” it seems that there is definitely nothing subtle or clever going on. However, Sara has said that the song was actually inspired by clichés about romance and how true they feel when you’re in love. Heartthrob, even when it appears to be just another shallow pop record, is actually the product of some very clever, insightful women looking at the parts of themselves – especially their younger, more naïve selves.

Tegan and Sara 3

For queer listeners, the significance of a pop album from a pair of openly gay women cannot be overstated. The fact that these songs will be played on the radio, at the mall, at school dances, is a great leap for LGBT visibility. Tegan & Sara have never played the pronoun game and now, on tracks like “How Come You Don’t Want Me” and “Now I’m All Messed Up,” it is refreshing to hear lines like “I see you by my house/Walking with a different girl” and “Sick inside, wondering where/Where you’re leaving your makeup” in all their open, non-metaphorical glory. Tegan even brings out her political side on “I’m Not Your Hero,” in which she remembers how it felt to grow up in a world devoid of role models she could relate to. The song’s message is one of recognizing achievements – “I’m not their hero/But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t brave” – accepting vulnerability – “I never walked the party line/Doesn’t mean that I was never afraid” – and choosing solidarity over ego – “I’m not your hero/But that doesn’t mean we’re not one and the same.”

At this point in their career, embracing the party spirit, speaking openly about the lesbian experience and finally crossing over into the mainstream, this feels like the perfect time for Tegan & Sara to headline Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend, the the largest girl party music festival in the world. They will take the stage on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Palm Springs, California, the official host city of The Dinah. Buy your tickets here (teganandsara.com).

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