Before Tegan and Sara were typecast as a radio-friendly indie-pop duo, they played indie-rock music. And before all that, they were two teenage sisters writing acoustic folk songs in their basement and bedrooms. Their first two albums, Under Feet Like Ours and This Business of Art, were dutifully inspired by the likes of Ani DiFranco and ’90s punk, trudging them through the Canadian alt-scene carefully and cautiously. But it was their third record If It Was You that projected them to new ground and space—both sonically and professionally.
Albeit not one of their biggest selling records, If It Was You was responsible for a major shift in perspective—from precocious school girls desperate to find their footing in the world to two young adults with angsty electric guitars and a fiery passion. The LP was produced by the same duo that did the New Pornographers record Mass Romantic, an album Tegan and Sara claim to be obsessed with at the time—a sure full-circle moment for the two.
The climb to the top for most musicians is difficult. But for Tegan and Sara in 2002, it seemed that even finding a sturdy platform to start on was tough. The duo didn’t adhere to standards and norms pushed upon them; they had chopped asymmetrical hairdos, sang in cracks/rasps/growls, made fun of each other relentlessly, and most importantly: they didn’t sing about boys. Although they weren’t explicitly mentioning girls all that much in their work just yet, they sure weren’t writing about men. Those in the industry were wary if not uncomfortable by Tegan and Sara’s ability to be themselves so unabashedly. During an era of Christina Aguilera, P!nk, and Britney Spears, the two queer sisters had lyrics on If It Was You that sang:
“I don’t think we have to be like this forever / There’s more to life than love and being together”
“Oh, what’s wrong with you?… I say damn your moods swings, damn your mood swings”
The record opens up with “Time Running,” a song whose pure anguish simply doesn’t translate through the studio recording. Tegan with her smoker’s growl in tow takes the lead. She guides listeners by the hand, starting them up on a trip through the world via an unconventional female perspective. Here, Tegan fills listeners in on the time she was too lovesick to think straight, how exhausting that testament is, and that there is so much more she could be doing with her life than fawning over someone.
The balance on the record between Sara’s songs (pop-leaning, doe-eyed) and Tegan’s songs (rough on the edges, cheeky but charming) make for one cohesive LP not devoid of your occasionally crude pop song. Like “Monday Monday Monday” in which Sara finds herself in an unstable hot-and-cold relationship. With her tendency to write a strikingly memorable hook, the annoyance she portrays is almost tangible. She frustratingly wonders what’s wrong with her partner while also admitting she lays awake at night and misses them when they go.
Upon first listen, this is an innocuous indie-rock album with themes of longing, guilt, and insecurity. It isn’t until further context and introspection that the listener is clued in on the fact that a song like “I Hear Noises,“ isn’t simply about a disintegrating romantic relationship. Tegan admits she’s disappointed waking up next to her partner in the morning, “You call me up and let me know / That my sick guilt is so unwelcome.”
Fans deduce two possible meanings behind this track. One being: a heterosexual relationship that Tegan has found herself stuck in. A tale too commonly told; young gay people believing they can forge a straight relationship and ignore protruding gay feelings. The other more likely theory is that Tegan is in a queer relationship with internalized homophobia that eats at her incessantly. She flips through the television and looks “…for sad sick people like me” while confessing she hears noises in her head, and feels “sadness inside you.” Whichever theory the listener chooses to believe, it remains true that either perspective resonates deeply with an audience that was too often alienated by the mainstream—closeted queer people.
For the time period that they were in, writing lyrics about queer guilt and shame was brave. Tegan and Sara helped edge open the door for more queer musicians to come. And as for those musicians, many take solace in past Tegan and Sara songs (ie: The Aces, Hayley Kiyoko, PVRIS). Not a single track on this record explicitly mentions women or uses she/her pronouns—but it is heavily queer-coded. And sometimes that’s all a fanbase needs.
“Don’t Confess,” became the quiet queer girl ballad for those bubbling to the brim with hidden feelings; a girl aware that she should say something but scared of the reality that holds. Tegan asks instead for “a little smile my way” just to get herself through to the next day. She affirms that she will not confess nor deny, but every second she “spends waiting” will drag her closer to her grave.
No matter how keen or competent Tegan and Sara were with their lyrics, they faced insults and criticism to an overbearing level. On top of the fact that they were women, it seemed to anger people that these two could not be boxed into a single category. Almost like they were too quick to catch, Tegan and Sara were lightyears ahead in their musicality. This inability to be defined put a fork in the road of all their critics. But that didn’t stop SPIN magazine from calling them a “Wicca-folk nightmare,” or Pitchfork from labeling them “tampon rock.” The sexism aimed at two young women who refused conformity was brutal. But after nine studio albums, countless international tours, and a New York Times best-selling memoir, they’ve made a career off proving people wrong. One where they can in fact be themselves and make art the way that they want—not by the rules of some label.