Music

How “The Con” Raised Tegan and Sara to Indie Pop Royalty

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Tegan and Sara’s 2007 album The Con is so sticky it’s impossible to get out of your head. The gently plucking chords ring of fear and anxiety, the lyrics are dense and emotional, and yet it remains — somehow, impossibly — upbeat, its brightness shining through the darkness. It is the album that brought Tegan and Sara into indie pop royalty, that saw images of their faces pinned on the walls of my high school, that made heartbreak seem not only manageable but survivable. But in the past year, playing hits like “Nineteen” and “Back in Your Head” and “I Was Married” just haven’t felt right for the identical twins onstage.

“There were a few times over the last two years where our ‘pop’ show felt like the wrong tone or vibe for what was happening in the world,” says Sara Quin. “It was hard to make adjustments after [all the] horrific events.” She mentions Paris, and Orlando, and Brexit, and Trump. The positivity and fiery synths of The Con no longer worked, and so the band found a way to make them. Last week, in honor of its tenth anniversary, they put out The Con X: Covers, a re-release of their iconic album featuring tunes sung by the likes of Hayley Williams, Mykki Blanco, Cyndi Lauper, and Ryan Adams.

“I still identify strongly with the helplessness and grief I was suffering with at that time in my life,” Sara says, and the covers, each of them in their own unique way, certainly make the inherit darkness of the album more prominent. Ryan Adams takes the upbeat keyboard riff and jaunty rhythm of “Back in Your Head” and replaces it with a distorted electric guitar and a screaming chorus. Cyndi Lauper’s digital bonus track interpretation of the same song whispers, stacks layered vocals on top of a synth beat, and somehow makes the poppiest song on the album a little creepy. Hayley Williams transforms the rapid drums and vocals of “Nineteen” by cutting the BPM in half, doubling the length of the song, and making it a home for sorrow.  The cover turns away from the original and refinishes it in grime and vulnerability. The covers, Sara says, feel “more appropriate for where our heads are at. It’s somber, emotionally complex.”

For the two nights before the 2016 election, Tegan and Sara Quin held church in Washington, D.C. The city had been buzzing for weeks with anticipation over the election, the atmosphere inside the district limits a mix of nervousness and excitement. 

The Quin sisters played two shows at the 9:30 Club. I saw only one, but it felt like relief. Outside was the world, the incessant fighting and constant arguing, but inside this cavernous chapel we were all together. Tegan and Sara were onstage in their white pants, playing songs for a crowd who cheered raucously when Sara, during a little midshow banter, mentioned that “I hope that when we are here on Tuesday that we are about to watch history be made.” (The District of Columbia went 91 percent for Hillary Clinton, after all.)

“I would rather speak my mind and have no career than be silent and popular,” Sara says now. That night onstage Sara described the election season as a “bad acid trip,” and in the days after that sentiment rang truer than ever before. The day of the election, I had “Floorplan,” a 2007 track from The Con, stuck in my head. “(I know) I’ll hold this loss in my heart forever/(I know) I’ll hold, I’ll hold,” they sing in harmony, their voices speeding up through the line “I’ll hold this loss in my heart forever” as if though the memory is lodged forever, the pain of it is already fading. They hadn’t played it at the show, but when I returned to the album track, it stuck with me in a way it hadn’t before.

In the light of the morning after, when there was a temptation to make everything in the world about Donald Trump, my cue-up Spotify playlist with “Floorplan” felt a little too on the nose. So when I reached Sara Bareilles’s cover deep in the back half of The Con X: Covers, it felt like coming full circle.

Bareilles slows down the song on the piano, giving it an echoing hymnal quality. Instead of being about a loss we move through quickly, the song becomes something we’re forced to sit uncomfortably with. Namely, grief.

For the covers album, Tegan and Sara intentionally curated a diverse group of artists in terms of race, gender,  sexuality, and even musical genre. This is in keeping with the band’s outspoken desire to support women, people of color, and queer folks, but here diversity also creates an immense variance in sound and interpretation that many cover albums lose by curating so many similar artists.

“I have always been bothered by the idea that our early albums weren’t thought of as wise or sophisticated or equal to the albums our male peers were being praised for at the time,” Sara says. “Hearing so many different artists at all different stages in their lives sing these songs proves to me that our experiences weren’t adolescent or naive; they were carefully crafted from experience and still hold up.”

Certainly the themes of anxiety, depression, death, and rejection that saturate The Con are just as relevant in 2017 as they were in 2007.  But since election night, the Quins felt inspired to transform those feelings into action. They launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation to support LGBTQ girls and women; all of the net proceeds from the covers album will go to the foundation. They are also touring this album currently in a show that Sara says “feels more appropriate for where our heads are at,” and that it will be a “bring your tissues for your tears kind of show.” A year later, instead of confidence and joy, Tegan and Sara are trafficking in something a little darker, and it’s a testament to just how much range their work has that the same songs can do both.

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