How Tegan and Sara are Queering Toronto's Mainstream Pop Circuit

Torontoist

14 Comments

culture

How Tegan and Sara are Queering Toronto’s Mainstream Pop Circuit

The pop band is expanding its appeal to the masses.

DSCN0769

Exist in Toronto’s lesbian community long enough and you will become accustomed to all the usual tropes: that you will likely know your ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend; that U-Hauling is a reality for many; that Canadian pop band Tegan and Sara are gay lady favourites.

I’ve never moved in with a girl after the second date, but Tegan and Sara are two of my favourite musicians. Their broody and melodious fifth album, The Con, played on repeat throughout high-school as I came out to my mother, my brother, and my classmates. I attended my first Tegan and Sara concert in 2013, and found myself surrounded by other queer women basking in a sense of community as we danced for hours.

As a teen who faced bullying and harassment coming out, being surrounded by women so comfortable with their identities put me at ease. Brought together by music, we shared a connection—a sense of solidarity.

My girlfriend, Arielle, recently came out. I wanted her to experience what I did, to feel that belonging in music that spoke directly to our community. So, when I received a media invite to a semi-private Tegan and Sara concert at the Hilton Toronto this past weekend, she tagged along.

But, to my surprise, we didn’t feel as connected to the community as I thought we would.

DSCN0781

Tegan and Sara Quin are identical twins who both identify as gay. For a majority of their careers, their identities have been brought to the fore by reporters and fans alike; how they interact as sisters, how they reconcile being queer in an industry fettered by homophobia and transphobia, and how this shapes the way the pair are perceived.

I am among those who enjoy Tegan and Sara, both for their music and personalities, and because they represent my community. The band has been championing queer issues since the early 2000s. Most famously, in 2011, Sara called out rapper Tyler, the Creator for his sexist and homophobic lyrics in an open letter. Then, the band received backlash for the letter. Five years later, sentiments against homophobia and transphobia in popular culture are widely held. Tegan and Sara, in large part, are one of the first major indie artists to stand up for LGBTQ communities. These days, musicians are playing catch up.

Their music is just as political. Songs—such as “I Was Married,” which discusses issues surrounding gay marriage before it was legalized in the U.S., and “Someday,” with explicit references to coming out—spoke to my realities in a way other artists hadn’t. Before I got to know the vast catalogue of LGBTQ artists in Toronto alone, there was Tegan and Sara.

But since my teenhood, the duo has (rightfully) exploded into the mainstream pop circuit. Their seventh album, Heartthrob, was a departure from their past indie sound—and it garnered massive radio play. Their latest release, Love You To Death, is chock full of catchy pop radio hits. No longer is the band a lesbian cult favourite; they’ve become pop idols for the masses.

And it’s that mainstream audience who Arielle and I were surrounded by at the concert. The queer crowd I anticipated was instead filled with the kinds of folks you’d find at a Katy Perry or Taylor Swift concert (Tegan and Sara have played with both recently). Teen girls hugged their boyfriends at the front of the stage, while another couple paired off behind us, grinding (nauseatingly) to a piano rendition of “Nineteen.” The opening act, JR JR, even made a distasteful joke bordering on transphobic: “I wrote this song after I had a dream I woke up a [transgender] woman,” frontman Joshua Epstein said. “This was before all the Caitlyn Jenner stuff.” The weight of the statement seemed to fly over the rest of the audience’s head. The almost exclusive queer crowd I encountered three years ago at my first Tegan and Sara show had dissipated.

DSCN0756

It’s perhaps an error of my own bias: as a queer woman, I expect to see more queer women enjoying other queer artists. But there’s a universality to Tegan and Sara’s music, one that’s far more accessible now that the pair have broken into the mainstream.

In an email interview with Sara Quin, I suggested that much of their music is coded for gay women like me—that is, written from the perspective of a woman romantically involved with other women. “I don’t see our songwriting as being coded,” Sara responded. “In some cases ([such as new single] ‘Boyfriend’) it’s been a fun challenge to gender myself, which hopefully gives an interesting perspective to those of us—not just in the queer community!—who sometimes feel stifled or empowered by gender roles.”

This universality is what makes Tegan and Sara such a powerful act: while queer women like me can relate to their music, so too can the rest of the population. It’s not that they are no longer political, or don’t speak to LGBTQ communities. Rather, the pair is transcending audiences, finding a place in the mainstream where few queer and trans artists have the opportunity to go. They are both queering and subverting the mainstream.

“Identifying with us as queer women seems like less of a challenge for people than it used to be,” Sara adds. “Our experiences are relatable regardless of our identity and that is truly a step forward.”

That role has helped Tegan and Sara reach beyond the cushy Toronto queer community. In 2011, the band headed to India and played shows to die-hard fans. A friend of the band, Vivek Shraya, told me the crowd was dedicated in a way she didn’t imagine. “They were requesting B-sides,” she told me over coffee last month.

Arielle may not have had the typical lesbian experience at the Hilton show, and perhaps that is unlikely to happen in the future. But it’s still a powerful, moving experience to see two queer women from Canada rise to the top and become pop stars—and that makes all the difference to young, out women.


The Hilton Concert Series brings once-in-a-lifetime concerts to members around the globe. Tegan and Sara begin their Canadian tour in September.


Did you want to see more LGBTQ journalism at Torontoist, like our extensive Pride 2016 coverage? Support our Patreon campaign for as little as $2 a month so we can add Al Donato as a staff writer dedicated to LGBTQ issues. Every dollar goes back to contributors, and your support makes our award-winning local journalism possible.

Comments