Tegan And Sara Are The 21st Century's Genre-Fluid Community Organizers
It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
In 2015, the usually staid Academy Awards ceremony was colorbombed by a giddy performance of The LEGO Movie's "Everything is AWESOME!!!," an EDM-pop trifle nominated that year for Best Original Song. Breakdancing construction workers in bright orange vests mingled with cheerful cowboys, who doled out canary-yellow Lego award statuettes to audience members. The three members of The Lonely Island, who co-wrote the song, bounced around the stage while sporting powder blue prom tuxes. Questlove pounded away on the drums beneath primitive drawings of Lego people—and the song's co-producer, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, tickled a keyboard while a red energy dome perched precariously on his head.
Within this multi-hued mayhem were the song's featured vocalists, Tegan and Sara Quin, cool as cucumbers despite the gleeful chaos around them. As the song started, rainbows pulsated behind the duo while they belted out the relentlessly optimistic hook. They later popped up throughout the performance to bop along with the dancers and earnestly sing various lines, their all-black outfits in striking contrast to the bright color palette. Although "Everything Is AWESOME!!!" didn't win the Oscar, the performance was a playful triumph.
That Tegan and Sara were in the thick of this absurdity, singing about the joy of being part of something greater than themselves, also represented a victory of sorts. The Quins — identical twin sisters born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada — started out as iconoclastic lone wolves who traveled by themselves to early shows, hockey bag full of merch in tow. Even after graduating to shows backed by a band, the duo's us-against-the-world mentality didn't fully disappear, partly because their songwriting approach never quite fit into a neat pigeonhole.
As their career gained momentum, the pair also had to navigate the fraught gender and sexuality expectations they faced as queer women musicians without much modern precedent. In a poignant interview for The Con's tenth anniversary in 2017, Sara expressed regret she hadn't found a mentor earlier in her career. "I'm not blaming any one person," she said, "but I just feel like we were isolated from the queer scene, we were isolated from the indie-rock scene. We never really fit in for whatever reason." But in recent years, this dream of a support system and inclusive community has come true: After nearly two decades of honing their sound and pushing back against sexist and homophobic stereotypes, Tegan and Sara have amassed a fiercely loyal fanbase that celebrates the siblings' radical individuality.
This spark of singularity was present even early in Tegan and Sara's career. Signed to Neil Young's Vapor Records, the pair started off playing spunky folk-pop — their first widespread release, 2000's This Business Of Art, was a funky album with debts to hip-hop, Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette — which soon evolved into something musically undefinable. On 2002's If It Was You, the swaggering "Time Running" benefits from churning guitars; the brisk "Monday Monday Monday" is a kicking-leaves-in-autumn acoustic pop tune with a bittersweet core. Later, on 2004's So Jealous, fizzy-candy keyboards pockmark the pogo-pop "Speak Slow."
Tegan and Sara's ambitions and talents coalesced on 2007's Chris Walla co-produced The Con, a landmark album about the complicated calculus of loss, desire and vulnerability—and how much more overwhelming these things can seem when you're trying to navigate your own emotional maelstroms. After kicking off with "I Was Married," a wrenching song directed to those who object to same-sex marriage ("They seem so very scared of us / I look into the mirror for evil that just does not exist"), the album unfolds like a scribbled diary, with an ornate soundtrack of spidery acoustic guitar, buzzing keyboards, antique pianos and perforated electronics. With it, Tegan and Sara affirmed their status as indie-pop auteurs who relished defying genre aesthetics.
Both Tegan and Sara openly identify as queer, and the latter wrote "I Was Married" about her then-common-law partner. Although the song represents one of the pair's first deliberate lyrical references to their sexuality, neither woman has ever hidden this fact; they both came out before the band blew up. Still, the sisters have never wanted to have their art pigeonholed by their sexuality, gender or even twin sisterhood, Tegan once told an interviewer — although she later admitted that they "accepted that we were going to be seen as a 'lesbian band'" once they found a niche in the alternative music world. "We were okay with that," she said.
Others they met along the way weren't necessarily as accepting, as the pair still dealt with sexism, homophobia and marginalization. In one particularly horrifying instance, Sara recalled a female radio host who asked the sisters if they were "incestuous" and "sexually physical with each other" onstage. In that same interview, Sara further described the "incredibly gendered music industry" the sisters encountered early in their career — and how they didn't fit the "feminized girly, heteronormative" kind of women they saw at the time. "We were queer," she said. "We were not only outspoken about our sexuality, but we didn't look like other women and we didn't wear makeup and we didn't allow ourselves to be sexualized in a way that seemed to be instinctive to a lot of people."
By carving out their own version (and vision) of womanhood in response to these stereotypes, Tegan and Sara made it clear they were forging their own creative path forward. In the duo's music, there's also clear evidence of a desire to operate outside people's expectations. They weren't content to make either electric or acoustic music, for example; they considered the boundaries between analog and digital instruments to be porous, as evidenced by the fanciful electro-rock hybrids on 2007's I'll Take The Blame EP. And although their lyrics were inspired by romantic relationships, the sisters consistently tried to dig deeper, examining the entire emotional universe around heartbreak. They employed fresh spins on familiar tropes — "Walking With a Ghost," for example, a deceptively simple song about trying to shed the memory of an ex — and didn't shy away from bold (and sometimes brutal) self-assessments: "I feel like I wouldn't like me if I met me / I feel like you wouldn't like me if you met me."
With each album they released, Tegan and Sara sold more records, amassed more fans and booked bigger tours. They also made moves to ensure others had role models: Starting in the latter half of the '00s, the pair made a concerted effort to be more outspoken about political and social causes — and adjusted their musical parameters to fit their increasingly vocal activism.
After 2009's ragged Sainthood, which boasted aggressive, spiky punk ("Northshore") and soul-pop grooves (the piano-driven "Alligator"), the duo took a leap of faith toward the mainstream. They collaborated with superstar DJ Tiësto on the wistful, emo-electro single "Feel It In My Bones," and DJ Morgan Page on the melancholy, bruised dance-pop of "Body Work." Soon after, Tegan and Sara pivoted again, to frothy, roller rink-worthy synth-pop with an '80s new wave lineage — Cyndi Lauper and Prince especially on 2013's Heartthrob, and shimmering electro and percolating R&B on 2016's Love You to Death.
This evolution was very in character. Rather than waiting for the pop world to notice them, Tegan and Sara instead invited themselves over and made themselves at home in the mainstream. And the gamble paid off: The duo performed "Closer," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts, with Taylor Swift, and opened for Katy Perry on an arena tour. In the process, Tegan and Sara blurred the boundaries between mainstream pop and indie-pop, in much the same way as other like-minded sonic souls Blood Orange, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, and MUNA.
With this dramatic sonic progression came a subtle lyrical shift, toward songs that specifically mention romantic relationships involving women. On "BWU," Sara declares she doesn't want a "white wedding" and laments, "All the girls I loved before/Told me they signed up for more." The airy synth-pop single "Boyfriend," written about a woman who wasn't ready to commit to Sara, toys with the gendered expectations built into being a "boyfriend" and "best friend," but adds the heartbreaking kicker: "But I don't want to be your secret anymore." The song is relatable for anyone dating someone indecisive, although the implications of someone queer being a secret are far more painful.
And the Sara-penned "Now I'm All Messed Up" is heartbroken over a significant other who seems to be straying: She wonders "where you're leaving your makeup" and laments, "You say you never really loved her anyway/Why do I take this lonely road?" Even the gender-neutral romantic songs, such as "Closer," an open-hearted song about physical contact, feel more tender and vulnerable. That Tegan and Sara started explicitly mentioning queer desire as they made a mainstream pop push is significant. Queer artists have long graced the pop charts—to name a few, Elton John, George Michael, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Boy George, The B-52s—but references to their own queerness have tended toward oblique nods and hiding-in-plain-sight gestures. The Quins' genre fluidity created space for today's crop of out pop stars, Hayley Kiyoko, Halsey, and Troye Sivan among them, to write overtly queer pop songs.
To Sara at least, the appearance of gender-specific pronouns wasn't necessarily meant to be a statement. "I'm not even sure that I'm doing it because I'm trying to break new ground," she explained. "It was just discovering a new way to write — I like to write to the 'you.' To me, it's the most emotional way to do something." Tegan and Sara's nonchalance about gender and sexuality was nevertheless a blueprint for artists who identify as gay or queer—and speak openly about it—but prefer that neither they nor their music are defined solely by their identity: Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan, Alex Lahey, Julien Baker, and PVRIS' Lynn Gunn, to name a few.
The sexism, homophobia and stereotyping Tegan and Sara dealt with could've easily curdled into resentment. However, instead they channeled frustration into action, and combated misconceptions and ignorance with education and information, in order to construct a welcoming, inclusive place for artists and fans. Accordingly, since moving into the pop realm, Tegan and Sara have embraced their status as queer role models in a much more public, high-profile way. They launched the nonprofit Tegan and Sara Foundation, which "fights for health, economic justice and representation for LGBTQ girls and women" and boasts a "commitment to feminism and racial, social and gender justice." In recent times, the pair have leveraged the band's huge online following to promote philanthropy—a birthday fundraiser for an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, or a recent Queer Health Hackathon—or to make bold political statements, such as speaking out in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Two decades into Tegan and Sara's career, the Quins' immense growth is easily traced through their album covers. The cover of This Business Of Art featuring a slightly unfocused photo of the sisters as tomboyish teens; neither are close to looking at the camera. If It Was You is the equivalent of an affected MySpace profile selfie: The shaggy-haired pair are looking mock-surprised, as if they had just been told a shocking joke. By Sainthood, they're as serious as a senior picture—both are figuratively looking off the cover, facing the future—while Heartthrob features their faces both obscured and peering out from a peeling façade, signaling a new beginning. And, finally, on Love You To Death, the sisters are pictured wearing angle-creating makeup that exudes sleek self-assurance.
That willingness to document their deeply personal evolution—and insist on visibility for it to boot—is enormously powerful. "Although the music that we've written isn't political, the foundation of who we are is very much so — being women, being out, being assertive and writing our own music is a political statement," Tegan Quin said in 2013. "Every time we step out on stage is a political statement. When I look out into our audience, I see a lot of people who need direction — and they want us to speak for them. We do our best."