The Queering of Tegan and Sara: Duo Talks Rising Above the Underground, Defying Labels and Being Anti-Marriage

Chris Azzopardi

"The world has changed a lot," Tegan Quin says, knowingly speaking to the queer choir.
And who can argue? In the last five years alone, the LGBT community has made considerable strides in being seen as equals. But the effect doesn't just mean more same-sex weddings and the prospect of mixed-gender bathrooms.
The world changing means Tegan and Sara can change too.
"We love the support of the queer community," says Sara, "but we also needed to set our heights to be included in other places too. We shouldn't just be the 'gay band' – that's not who we are."
Tegan and Sara, then, let the sound of their collective youth – the flamboyancy of David Bowie, the heartfelt resonance of Annie Lennox – guide them beyond the indie-rock fringe they'd inhabited since they formed out of Calgary, their birthplace, in the mid-'90s. Because they could.
Because why not?
Of the switch from Hole-inspired alt-rockers to New Romantic revivalists who went on, in the last few years, to share the stage with pop heavyweights like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, Tegan credits "the mainstreaming of gay culture," which, she says, has "helped propel our band beyond the underground."
If you missed the signs along the way, you weren't listening. Pop had already been bubbling up beneath the surface on their breakthrough LP "So Jealous," released in 2004, and onward through 2009's "Sainthood." But in 2013, the duo shed their punk skin completely. Like a dusted-off early '90s relic, "Heartthrob," their first full-on pop outing, shimmered with retro shine. For the project, they joined forces with super-producer Greg Kurstin, whose radio-ready synth sounds have imbued the pop landscape and its biggest names, from Lily Allen to Kelly Clarkson to Sia to Adele.
"Artists change," Sara explains. "When we were younger we also didn't really like to wear makeup. Now, I'm so sick of having my picture taken where I look normal. We have definitely established what we look like and who we are in our everyday lives, so it's fun to play with not being that."
Take the cover of their eighth studio album, "Love You to Death," for instance; on it, the Quin sisters' faces are streaked in bright, contrasting tribal swirls. That kind of color also runs through the kaleidoscopic beats Tegan and Sara, along with Kurstin, helmed for their second synth-powered soiree and follow up to 2013's "Heartthrob." The guitar that marked their earlier work? Long gone.
"As we've gotten further into our career," says Sara, "we feel more comfortable and excited about challenging ourselves and being creative. That evolution feels really natural and exciting, so that experimentation visually and sonically is necessary after 17 years, I think."
"Love You to Death" is also striking for its overt gayness, evidenced by a liberal smattering of "she" references. Female call-outs aren't the norm for the famously pronoun-shy sisters, who've generalized the subjects of past songs to make their queer experiences universal. Sara says "I Was Married" from 2007's "The Con" was "the beginning of me taking on more directly the political issue of relationships and being gay."
"Maybe in the past we didn't emphasize certain things because we were already being conditioned and pigeonholed as a gay act," she continues, "and we were sort of resentful and like, 'Fuck you, we're not a gay act; we're gay and we're musicians.'"
Being labeled is a "a complicated topic," according to Tegan, who says, "When people call us gay in mainstream pieces, especially if it's a blurb like 'lesbian duo Tegan and Sara,' it feels so offensive and marginalizing because we don't declare heterosexuals, 'heterosexuals.'
"I always want it to be in context with the music," she adds.
So, in their mind, are they pop? Indie pop? EDM? Tegan doesn't care to clarify anymore. "I just gave up," she admits, noting that she's reluctant to call their reinvention "glam" even if their retro, mag-ready makeover would suggest otherwise.
"I feel like I'm grown up lately, that's what it is," she says. "Like, I should wear pants that fit me. And I probably shouldn't wear sneakers onstage. Maybe I'll put something on that looks like I tried. We're at that stage in our career."
In 1999, when the duo released their debut, "Under Feet Like Ours," if it wasn't about the music, it wasn't important. They were more apt to go with the flow then, Tegan notes. The exception? When Elle Girl requested they wear their bathing suits for a photoshoot.
"We were so traumatized," she remembers, verbally assaulting the mere idea with a "fuck no" as she remembers shooting down the opportunity because, as Sara adds, "It wasn't really our aesthetic."
"I was sooooo upset," Tegan continues. "Now, I would just laugh. I don't think the shoot would be able to continue I'd be laughing so hard. But back then, when you're young, you don't know how to say, 'Uh, no.'"
These days, "we're really bossy," admits Tegan, who revels in the visual aspects of their newest releases, a drastic change from their pre-pop days when "we would play it safe."
Lyrically, they're also taking risks.
On "BWU" (i.e. "Be With You") the Quins' resist the concept of marriage despite, as of June 2015, their legal right to wed. To some in the LGBT community, their stance may seem divisive, but Sara, who's in a five-year-long relationship, explains that – though it may be read as such – "it's not a critique of same-sex marriage; it's a critique of marriage and the institution of marriage and the culture of weddings."
Denouncing "the ring" to "prove that you're worthy," the anti-marriage anthem – bouncy, bold and romantic – stands out not just for its uncharacteristically assured feminist leanings ("You can keep your name"), but also its direct openness regarding Sara's same-sex attraction: "All the girls I loved before told me they signed up for more," she sings.
When Tegan first got wind of the track, she says, "I was really moved," stating that they're taking a "very political stance" on the track and "people are either gonna really get this or they're not." She thought of their parents, who divorced when the twins were just 4 years old; their mother found love again with another man and they stayed together until Tegan and Sara were 20. They never married.
"The traditional male-female marriage thing didn't appeal," Tegan says. "It was almost like, 'I am gay so I get out of getting married,' and then all of a sudden it was a big deal around the time we were 27, 28 years old, when Prop 8 was happening. I was like, 'God, this is so weird. I never wanted to get married and it's so strange to want to because I'm not allowed to.'
"I believe in all of the rights and reasons that come with wanting to get married. What I really am is not a wedding person."
Elsewhere on "Love You to Death," there's "Boyfriend," which finds Sara confronting a closeted girlfriend. Is it a sign of the times that "Love You to Death" is, perhaps, more rainbow-swathed than any of Tegan and Sara's previous releases? That it's more "she"-centric? Partly. But moreover, having "always struggled" with using third-person pronouns, Sara says, "It wasn't purposeful that I wasn't acknowledging (my sexuality)."
"As for being more openly queer in our music, for me as a songwriter, I've always thought songwriting is a direct conversation between me and the person that has usually done something bad to me," she continues, breaking into a laugh.
In the past, the duo's gender expression has been nuanced. "Now I'm All Messed Up," a track from "Heartthrob," Sara says, references a girl "leaving her makeup – without emphasis on the fact that she's a girl."
She cracks another laugh, joking, "It's just like, yeah, well, whoever's in my bed is now in someone else's bed and they wear makeup. Maybe they're a Robert Smith. I don't know!"
As the twins continue to forge their pop path, donning more makeup of their own, with sparkly throwback-tinged jams pushing them further from their punk genesis, Sara says there's no going back now. On tour, as the duo promotes "Love You to Death," they're reshaping their past guitar-driven punk standouts to "bring them into the current sound of the band."
In 1999, pop music was different. It was Britney Spears. It was NSYNC. Not exactly the kind of sound the duo aspired to, Sara says. But now, after being the antithesis of pop and acquainting themselves with synths, electronic drum beats and programming, she's "excited to be a part of the wave heralding a different kind of version of pop music that maybe is a bit more of a throwback to pop music, where you could be pushing the boundaries of sex and gender."
"Pop music wasn't stupid, and it isn't stupid," she asserts, referencing Madonna and Kate Bush, trailblazers and personal influences. "Pop music is complicated. And it's expensive to make!"x2028For some fans of their bygone grit, it hasn't been easy to acclimate to their new shiny sonic shift. Tegan acknowledges that "there's definitely a contingent of fans that sort of found us around "So Jealous" and "The Con" – the latter being their darkest, least pop-oriented release – "and those tend to be the ones having the most trouble with this transition." On the flip side, "there's a sense of pride, like, 'Oh, we found them 10 years ago and they've grown up with us.'"
Now, of course, Tegan and Sara, both 35, have gone from coffee houses to stadiums; from winning Outstanding Music Artist at the GLAAD Media Awards to nabbing an Oscar nod for their "The Lego Movie" theme "Everything Is Awesome," a collaboration with The Lonely Island. Even Taylor Swift is a fan – you can hear it on Swift's own pop detour, "1989," released the same year as "Heartthrob." In 2013, the twins made a surprise appearance on the "Shake It Off" singer's "Red" tour to sing "Closer," their first major pop foray.
Yes, the world is changing for us and for them… for the most part, anyway.
"I think as we become more embraced and accepted and more popular it's made (fans) feel like they're still outsiders and we're not," Tegan says, reflecting on how they've queered the mainstream, "and it's like, 'Oh no, we're still outsiders, don't worry.'"


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