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One of a Kind

Tegan and Sara are the queer icons Gen-Z didn’t know it needed

Tegan and Sara Quin have been around for a while. They started making music as high schoolers under the band name Plunk after discovering an old guitar in their basement. At 18, they recorded Under Feet like Ours in their living room, took a loan from their grandfather, and rented a bus to tour Canada. Since then, they have recorded eight more albums, written a book, started a foundation to support LGBTQ+ girls and women, and performed at the Oscars. Some of their die-hard fans who discovered them during the So Jealous and The Con eras have been very critical of their gradual shift to pop music with their more recent albums Heartthrob and Love You to Death, claiming that they are going mainstream. But Tegan and Sara have always been clear on their willingness to surprise fans with new styles, especially after having found success on the Canadian indie scene. “It’s our job to create, not recreate,” they said. After all, many new fans found their way to them through their mainstream successes like “Closer” and “Boyfriend.”

But although they are usually presented as a power duo, they both have very strong individual presences, like little rebellions from only ever being seen as twins. Tegan presents as more outgoing, usually taking the lead during their famous concert banter. Sara is more reserved, always looking pensive. But their memoir High School reveals far more complex individuals: Tegan’s confidence comes with a deep desire to be heard and Sara’s distant tendency shows a rich but sometimes troubling inner world. So how to reconcile such different albums, eras, and people? Perhaps it is by making themselves relatable to so many – and especially to young queer fans – that they’ve been able to stay relevant for more than two decades now.

The best way to understand Tegan and Sara’s music is through their extensive discography – few pop artists have nine albums, which for fans serves as a sort of archive on the band’s growth. Their music should be looked at like a film in which you get to watch a character grow and navigate different stages of life. If you pay close enough attention to the sounds of each album, you can witness their coming of age, and maybe even yours too. You can hear the loneliness of young adulthood in So Jealous. You can hear deep longing and pain in The Con. You can hear them gain confidence in Heartthrob and the playfulness of self-discovery in Love You to Death. The band’s progression is filled with contradiction, showing how growing up is always messy. Their latest album Hey, I’m Just Like You is the perfect chapter-closer and a snapshot into their careers: all the songs on the record were written while they were still in high school, aided by the tapes that the sisters had gathered from friends and family. The most striking element from their newer and older songs is their willingness to look back to a painful, embarrassing, and formative era with compassion and vulnerability – reflection which they also do in their memoir. In an interview for The New York Times, they share their thoughts on the music from their teenage years: “It wasn’t rudimentary,” they explained, “There was something remarkable about what we were trying to say.” Tegan and Sara’s music flips the narrative that says that  teenagers cannot make meaningful art and encourages their younger fans to take themselves seriously in their passions.  

Although I love the songs that make me feel seen, their most interesting songs are the ones that I relate to the least, probably because they feel like possibilities rather than old stories. “I’m All Messed Up” is one of my favourite songs, especially when Sara sings it acoustically. The song has a very pop arrangement and feels more spaced out than older songs like “Soil, Soil” and “Hop a Plane.” The interjections punched in the background – Sara cries “go” and Tegan cries “stay” – have that undeniable entwined Tegan and Sara feel. It is in moments like those that their music feels the most special: when you see how they complement each other while being almost exact opposites.  

Tegan and Sara stand out not only for their musical achievements but also because they have always been subversive. Their musical influences are very clear in their early albums. They grew up in the nineties and were huge fans of Nirvana, Ani DiFranco, and The Smashing Pumpkins. They were out and had shaved heads, piercings, mullets, and tattoos in a time where women in mainstream music portrayed approaches to femininity curated to be heteronormative. Their queerness was shamed and ridiculed by homophobic and sexist press coverage, with articles calling them “tampon rock” and isolating their music from mainstream listeners. But part of their power has been in reclaiming the spaces they were relegated to. They have become cultural icons of the indie music scene as well as the queer community. Their music has been featured in major queer shows and movies like The L Word and Happiest Season. Even if Tegan and Sara’s look – and in many ways the style of their current music – feels less grungy now, this does not take away from their significance as queer icons. Rather, it is a testament to their evolution as artists and their willingness to explore spaces queer women are rarely allowed to, like pop music. For fans such as myself, Tegan and Sara opened new ways of gender expression, style, and queer desire which feel deeply foundational to my identity. When I was introduced to their music, for the first time in my life, I did not have to change the pronouns of a song for it to fit my own experiences.  I also found the curiosity to explore the style of clothes I wore, and to be more visible in my gender expression. By seeing them sing about their queer love and heartbreak I felt like I could imagine a life that was just as rich and full as the ones I was seeing straight people have. These may not seem like huge instances of self affirmation, but being able to fully relate to something without having to adapt myself to a heteronormative standard felt amazing. Tegan and Sara’s music feels like coming home, and they have built a community that is safe, and queer, and exciting.