Tegan and Sara's The Con has given me a decade of catharsis — and here's why that really matters
In honour of The Con X's release, Peter Knegt looks back at how the album's 'detailed drama' fosters wellbeing
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer CBC Arts that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Tegan and Sara made me feel old and embarrassed this past weekend.
That probably should not have been my main takeaway from them releasing The Con X: Covers, an innovative compilation of covers celebrating an album I really love, all in the name of raising money for the rights of LGBTQ girls and women. But it was. I mean, how dare I be reminded — via a cover by Cyndi Lauper, no less — that 10 years had passed since I melodramatically listened to "Back In Your Head" over and over on an iPod Nano for days during a particularly tumultuous period with a now very ex-boyfriend?
More than 10 years, actually. The original The Con was released on July 24, 2007, and its anniversary edition came out last Friday, with the likes of Lauper, Ruth B., Ryan Adams, Bleachers, Hayley Williams, Chvrches and Vivek Shraya offering their own reinventions of the album's tracks. All proceeds will go toward the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which they launched in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election to fight for "economic justice, health and representation for LGBTQ girls and women." And all the artists involved — who donated their time — are either outspoken allies of the community or LGBTQ-identified themselves.
Up until [that emotional night seeing them perform at Osheaga], I'd never really thought too much about any effect Tegan and Sara might have had on my own identity or wellbeing as an LGBTQ person. They just made music I liked and would occasionally find relationship-related catharis in. But they had been there through it all.- Peter Knegt
I'll never forget Tegan and Sara's own sexuality being pointed out in extremely dubious fashion in Rolling Stone when The Con first came out. Speaking of 2007-era nostalgia, I subscribed to physical copies of the magazine at the time, and had been anticipating their review of Tegan and Sara's first new release since I discovered them a few albums late via 2004's So Jealous. But then I opened the pages to find this:
"As lesbians who never reference their oppression or even their sexuality, Tegan and Sara don't have men to lash out at, put up with or gripe about. This may be why their uncommonly detailed love songs are so short on drama."
That's how (straight white male, of course) critic Robert Christgau began his review, which doesn't even try to hide its vanilla milkshake of misogyny and homophobia. Or its errors, like how The Con's "I Was Married" — beautifully redone on the covers album by Ruth B. — is very explicitly about both their sexuality and their oppression in its lyrics berating those who opposed gay marriage: "They seem so very scared of us / I look into the mirror for evil that just does not exist / I don't see what they see." Or how he's suggesting that Tegan and Sara — or lesbians in general, apparently — are "short on drama" because they don't romantically involve themselves with men, which leads me to wonder if Christgau ever really listened to the lyrics of a Tegan and Sara song (or knew any lesbians). I mean, The Con alone brings with it song titles like "Burn Your Life Down," "Knife Going In" and "Call It Off" — in other words, drama with a capital lesbian.
Tegan and Sara obviously are so many things to so many people, but a part of the appeal for me personally was the uncommonly detailed drama. Most tracks from any of the albums they released over the course of my 20s can pretty much bring me back to a moment just like Cyndi Lauper's cover of "Back In Your Head" did this weekend. And in fact, they still regularly do (just ask my Spotify algorithm).
But another important part is what Tegan and Sara have done as leaders in the LGBTQ community, even as they pushed through a music industry surely dominated by the Robert Christgau's of the world. Beyond being publicly out from the get go — still something of a big deal for careers that started in the late 1990s — they've been consistently politically and socially active when it comes to issues that effect LGBTQ people. It's a leadership that certainly seems to have reached a new peak with the Tegan and Sara Foundation and The Con X: Covers itself, which created a space for over a dozen LGBTQ or LGBTQ-positive musicians to make their own art from The Con. But it's existed all along simply in the power of the visibility they've offered — something I came to fully comprehend in the summer of 2013, roughly around the 10-year anniversary of my own relationship with them.
I went to 2013 edition Montreal's music festival Osheaga with a group of folks, including my then-boyfriend and my little sister (who were both in their early 20s at the time...and let's just say I was still in my 20s and leave it at that). They were both quite excited about headliner Macklemore, though I was less so, mostly because it was toward the end of a three-day festival and I felt too grumpy and old and tired to fight my way through an insane crowd.
"Oh come on, I know you love 'Same Love,'" my sister had said to me, which led grumpy, old, tired me to suggest I was offended that she was only saying that because I was gay and then go into a rant about how that song (which, in case you forget 2013, was Macklemore's rap ode to gay marriage via his uncle) was a straight man exploiting the same sex marriage debate to make money. This rant killed my sister's buzz, and I didn't blame her. It was an outdoor music festival, not a graduate school seminar.
"He's an ally, Peter," my sister said. "It's a good thing. Sometimes things are actually good!"
Whether she was right or not, though, here's the worst part: I did kinda like that song, especially the sung verse part by Mary Lambert, which had maybe on a few occasions made me privately shed a tear.
We all found our way to the stage for Macklemore, and I anxiously awaited "Same Love," mainly because I wanted to get through it without appearing emotionally affected to my sister. But when it came time, Macklemore didn't invite Mary Lambert out on stage to sing the verse: he invited Tegan and Sara. And when they started singing, I completely lost it. Looking around at the thousands of people singing along to lyrics (you know, "And I can't change / Even if I tried / Even if I wanted to"), thinking about how the different world was when I had first come out a decade earlier, I started sobbing uncontrollably. My sister and my boyfriend sandwiched me with a hug that didn't stop until the song was over, and I felt a kind of emotional release people spend years in therapy trying to find.
Up until that night, I'd never really thought too much about any effect Tegan and Sara might have had on my own identity or wellbeing as an LGBTQ person. They just made music I liked and would occasionally find relationship-related catharsis in. But they had been there through it all, offering their lesbian drama to me so I could get through my gay boy drama. To have them up on that stage that night illuminating me with a moment where the world really felt like it had changed for the good...that was no con. And when I looked around at all the people sobbing along with me, I knew I wasn't the only one who thought so.