Tegan And Sara’s New Book Reminds Us To Take Teens Seriously

In their new book High School and an album revisiting early demos, Tegan and Sara explore how their teen years shaped them — and me.

My friend H. was patient zero for our Tegan and Sara fandom. It was 2001 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada’s notoriously clean and bland capital, and we were in the 10th grade. H., whose singing voice was otherworldly, had found her way into a sorta-band with a girl who was older than us, cooler, and gay, and I suspect that she was the original source for the good word. Tegan and Sara, T & S — queer identical twins from Calgary who were slapping out songs on acoustic guitar that were everything we wanted: pretty and pissy and real.

At 21, Tegan and Sara were only six years older than us — a degree of adulthood that seemed aspirational. They’d made and released their first album, Under Feet Like Ours, independently when they were just 19 and signed with Neil Young’s Vapor Records shortly thereafter. Their second record, This Business of Art, came out in 2000, and in 2001 the label rereleased the twins’ indie debut.

My friend A. burned copies for me, printing off a black-and-white inkjet cover with a quote from Tegan: “When it’s all said and done, I’m still gonna be a girl, I’m still gonna be young, and I’m still gonna be a twin ... people are either gonna like the music or not.” I was teaching myself to play guitar poorly, and A. was actually good. We started learning all the T&S songs we could, spending hours working out harmonies, trying to sound both more and less like them.

After their initial indie rise in Canada, Tegan and Sara’s breakout moment came in 2005 when their fourth studio album, So Jealous, was featured no fewer than six times on the first season of Grey’s Anatomy. For the next dozen years, the band delivered records at a respectable pace of once every three or so years — The Con (2007), Sainthood (2009), Heartthrob (2013), and Love You to Death (2016). With each entry in their oeuvre, Tegan and Sara settled into something glossier and more unabashedly pop. They opened for Katy Perry and shared stages with Taylor Swift. They won Junos (the Canadian equivalent of Grammys) and were twice short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. Their singles would often edge into decent placement on top-40 charts.

On the press circuit for each new album, they often confessed their ambitions for the future: to be at center stage, fill stadiums, have hits that would not only mingle passably on the charts but top them out. But again and again, the definitive, meteoric moment didn’t come. Instead, Tegan and Sara’s success as pop stars has been something harder to tell a story about: They are predictably well liked, consistently good.

Tegan and Sara, T & S — queer identical twins from Calgary who were slapping out songs on acoustic guitar that were everything we wanted: pretty and pissy and real.

Now, 20 years into their career and on the brink of their 39th birthday, Tegan and Sara are looking back rather than ahead: first with the publication of a memoir, High School, out on September 24, and then three days later, with the release of a record of revamped versions of songs they wrote as teens. High School follows the sisters from 1995 to 1998, alternating between the twins’ perspectives each chapter to bring the Quins from the start of high school (grade 10 in the province of Alberta) until graduation. For some 270-odd pages, Tegan and Sara fight, goof off, make and break friendships, and fall in and out of love as each of them, to varying degrees and in her own way, comes to terms with being queer. They go to parties and raves and take turns dropping acid (in a gesture of teenage semi-responsibility, one twin always stays on solid, sober ground). They find their stepfather’s guitar stashed in a closet and begin, in secret even from each other at first, to sneak it out and teach themselves to play. They trudge to friends’ houses and parties underdressed for prairie winter winds. They hog the landline. They wait for the bus.

The book is well written, if not exactly pyrotechnic. What it does well, though, is what good writing should: It commits. On the page, Tegan and Sara have made their late-thirtysomething selves nearly invisible, resisting the urge to project forward in time and speak from the hard-won vantage of the present. Instead, in both emotional tenor and plot, their memoir stays firmly planted where its title promises: in actual, literal, real-deal high school.

While writing and researching the memoir, the Quins unearthed cassettes of a few dozen songs they’d written and recorded as teenagers. Expecting to give their adolescent efforts one cringey listen and then shove the tapes back in a box, they were surprised to find that the songs were raw but good. “Like, really good,” they wrote in an Instagram post explaining the genesis of their forthcoming album Hey, I’m Just Like You: selections from the long-lost teen trove updated and rerecorded with their present-day voices, technology, and access. (In a very 2019 gesture, it’s also the band’s first album created from start to finish by an all-women team.) The Quins have described their ninth studio album as “the record we never could have made as teenagers, full of songs we never could have written as adults.”

In the early aughts, details about the sisters filtered down to us from ad hoc fan sites. We learned that Tegan was the outgoing one — open, brash, heart on her sleeve. The elder by eight minutes, she was a songwriting machine, churning out breakneck lyrics that sank or swam. Sara was moodier, deadpan, more subtle. A less prolific writer, but any song she finished always landed on their next album. Five foot two and change, she was smaller than Tegan by an inch, her face a little narrower, pinched at the bottom like a heart. Tegan’s voice was louder, cutting, clear, Sara’s a notch more staticky with rasp. Tegan was expansive; Sara was a magnet. They were both hot as hell.

Here’s where my teenage relationship to Tegan and Sara gets a bit muddled. If you were making guesses about my sexual orientation on the basis of my CD collection, it would have seemed like a no-brainer: Ani DiFranco, Tegan and Sara, Indigo Girls. My taste pulsed like a beacon. And yet I was, in spite of that, kind of boy-crazy. Not in an overt, heartthrobs-papered-in-your-locker way — I was more of a never-been-kissed doomsday romantic, my heart a pile of slow-burning embers, my brain stuck on a rolling boil. The same summer I spent strumming all my favorite anthems of female empowerment, I was also half-deranged over a boy three and a half years my senior who, at 19, was both shaped like and legally speaking an adult man. I spiraled through daily journal entries testifying to our every encounter, confirmed my future as an English major with an impressive sentence-by-sentence exegesis of the message he’d signed in my yearbook, transcribed our conversations over MSN Messenger by hand.

Loving Tegan and Sara felt the way having hope feels: like a crush on the future.

I was 15 and unemployable, self-exiled to summer school with the intention of polishing off the graduation requirement in math early and ditching the quadratic equation forever (y = mx plus what now? Haven’t had a fucking clue for years). My best friend, R., had recently been anointed by first love. When my summer class ended, I would sometimes tag along as her boyfriend drove us around to movie theaters and shawarma joints. Most days I was alone. I’d take down a doubleheader of Dawson’s Creek reruns on cable in the morning then kill the afternoon flung out on the garage roof in a bathing suit reading Margaret Atwood novels and damaging myself in the sun, hair tacky with lemon juice, willing myself to turn beautiful and blonde. “I am truly festering,” I wrote in my journal. “Wondering how I ever got myself into this rancid summer.”

On weekends, there were parties, the landline ringing midweek with word of someone who knew someone whose parents were out of town. At a party, punch-drunk on rum and Coke, giggling on a bed with H., two boys loomed in the doorway. “You’re totally about to go down on each other,” they told us. “We’re just waiting for you to kiss by accident.” We laughed at the attention.

“You’re a bitch you know that?” my crush wrote to me over messenger one night, accusing me of blowing hot and cold, leading him on, then asking whether we should give “us” a try. I wanted to believe he meant it, begged him to call me, say it offline, make it real. He didn’t. I faithfully copied the whole thing out in cursive.

A bright spot: seeing Tegan and Sara live on the main stage at the relatively small affair that was Capital Pride in Ottawa in 2002. A knot of friends and I went just to see them, arriving hours early to secure our place in front of the stage. The sun went down. Other musicians must have performed, but I have no memory of it. The emcee announced Tegan and Sara with the same quote A. had written on my copy of Under Feet Like Ours. It was embarrassing, Tegan complained when she came onstage, to be introduced to a crowd with some stupid thing you’d said when you were 17.

“Tegan and Sara are amazing!!!” I scream-wrote in my journal that night. “They are actually so hot. Gay Pride made me feel very straight. It’s a boring thing to be. T+S = my heroes.”

Do I sound a little, I don’t know, disoriented? I was attracted to men, they just happened to make me feel like shit. I thought that was normal. Undeniably a part of Tegan and Sara’s appeal was that they liked girls, but my interest was only fractionally sexual. What I felt for them seemed bigger than my body, more important to the person I was becoming — or at least the one I hoped to. I wanted to become a writer, live in what I thought of as a real city, be both invisible and known. I teemed with desire for anything, and something, and elsewhere.

When I say musicians like Tegan and Sara meant the world to me, I mean that quite literally: These artists were emissaries and demigods, ambassadors from a place I couldn’t have told you I longed for. It wasn’t about whom or how they loved — it was what I saw as their way of moving through the world, what they demanded and what they didn’t need to. What I wished for without knowing it: to be free from my own desire to be desired. To have value beyond the attention of men. Loving Tegan and Sara felt the way having hope feels: like a crush on the future.

The stories we tell about ourselves are always in one way or another myth. When you’re famous, self-mythologizing is essentially a job requirement. Most musicians’ memoirs reach into the past to make a case for the present, searching in the life of the unfamous person who once existed for evidence of the exceptional, inevitable star to be.

High School goes the other way. Tegan and Sara cede center stage and give up their mics to Sara and Tegan Quin: bored, closeted, talented teens with plenty to scream and cry and whisper about. And no doubt the results will strike some readers as banal: Who cares about the fight with your mom, the class you ditched, the friend who hurt your feelings? Who wants to read yet another story about getting high?

But what if we saw this not as precious or self-important, but generous, humble, and, dare I say, political: loaning out the powers of adulthood and fame to someone young and disenfranchised. Treating her ideas, her aches, and her art as meriting serious attention. Recognizing that person’s existence as worthy. The political valence of this gesture has special meaning in the context of two queer coming-of-age stories. The Quins are not just reaching back to a time before they were famous, but before they were fully out, even to themselves — when they each battled uncertainty and shame and fear about whom they loved.

If that wasn’t enough, Tegan and Sara have doubled down with the record that coincides with the memoir. In the age of the reboot, when we’ve grown used to living with the ghosts of IP past, it might be easy to miss how wild and oddly brave it is for two seasoned musicians to have rummaged through their teen oeuvre for material to repurpose. But pause for a second and consider what it would mean to record your juvenilia as part of your actual, real-life, grown-up work. Wouldn’t most of us rather, you know, self-immolate than expose ourselves this way? What Tegan and Sara are offering is a kind of strange, time-traveling generosity: an admission that the work they did when they were inexperienced and young was not only valuable, but in some ways better that what they can and would and do make now. It’s more than just repurposed content — it’s a collaboration with the past.

Tegan and Sara’s two new projects engage obliquely with a question we seem to be getting worse rather than better at answering: How old are 16-year-olds, really? How seriously should we take them? It’s an issue that seems especially fraught right now. Think of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg striking for the climate, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School rallying to march for their lives. Consider the young women victimized by the Epsteins and Weinsteins and Moores. Picture the highlight reels of high school sophomores being NBA and NFL scouted; think of countdown clocks marking off time until starlets become legally fuckable. Scattered reference points for this habit we have of affording teenagers both too much and too little credence — making them into celebrities when it serves us, and dismissing them as puppets of adult interests when it doesn’t. Our culture consistently idolizes youth, but disregards the young.

And honestly? It’s complicated. Teenagers are a lot. At 15, 16, 17 — the years Tegan and Sara chronicle in their memoir — most of us are shapeshifters, messy and half-baked, only sporadically ready to have the things we say or do count for or against us. I’d argue that our job as adults is to live with and accommodate that incongruity. And what we owe to teenagers, ethically speaking, is to bear the brunt of their contradictions: to dignify and listen to them as adults, yet still forgive and protect them as children.

When they were 17, Tegan and Sara entered and won a citywide battle of the bands called Garage Warz. Too young, technically, to be allowed inside the University of Calgary bar where the competition was held, they were sequestered in a dressing room for the other performances and required an escort to and from the stage to prevent any accidental serving of minors. Despite being obviously out of place, the Quins not only won the first-place prize, which was time in a professional recording studio to cut a demo, but also earned the attention of local music critics and a spot on the CBC. And from there, it all started happening. With graduation looming, the Quins’ future as Tegan and Sara started to suggest itself.

I’m not ashamed to say that somewhere around this point, High School moved me to tears. Just knowing that Tegan and Sara were going to make it out of their teens, be recognized as special, become themselves. I didn’t fully realize how accurately the Quins had rendered the barometric pressure of high school until a window cracked open and I felt it lift. What a gift it is to live in the future. ●

Suzannah Showler is a poet and nonfiction writer. She is the author, most recently, of Most Dramatic Ever, a book of cultural criticism about The Bachelor.

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