Tegan and Sara Quin’s songs of love, longing and heartbreak have always struck a chord with their die-hard fans, but in 2013, when the twin sisters released Heartthrob, their punchy and frank lyricism reached a new stratosphere.
In an email statement to CBC Music, the Calgary-born sisters shared that the album was a risky departure, but one they felt driven toward: “Heartthrob will always be a monumental album in our lives, career and catalogue. It was an extreme choice to make that album but one we felt compelled to explore. We felt then, as we do now, that it is our job to take risks and lead listeners to new territory. For us, it was important to shake up the direction of our band by evolving our sound and image.”
In interviews around the time of the album’s release, Tegan and Sara weren’t afraid to admit they were after record sales and hit singles. But as queer artists, they had zero desire to lose themselves in the pop machine — they were going to make pop work for them.
When writing Heartthrob, they sought out Greg Kurstin, a songwriter and producer who had previously worked with Sia, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk and more alt-pop artists like Marina and the Diamonds, Sky Ferreira and Peaches. Kurstin helped produce eight of the album’s 10 tracks, including Tegan and Sara’s biggest single to date, “Closer.” It was their first song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, won single of the year at the Juno Awards and went double platinum in Canada, among other accolades.
When “Closer” was released in September 2012, Tegan told Rolling Stone that she wrote the song about her youth, about the kind of budding intimacy you experience in the early days of courtship: “It wasn’t necessarily even about hooking up or admitting your feelings back then. In fact, that rarely happened. It was the anticipation of something maybe happening that was truly exciting and satisfying. We were perpetually getting closer, yet we rarely got physical with one another, if ever.”
The song’s hazy synths and cheery drums are irresistible, but it’s the fantasy that the lyrics describe that make it such a brilliant listening experience. Tegan and Sara bottled that feeling of excitement and suspense before worlds (or bodies) collide.
Heartthrob is chock-full of radio-friendly tunes inspired by the teenage desires and whims of the lesbian sisters. The bristling uncertainty of new love, the sting of rejection and the excitement of requited feelings are all universal sentiments, but embedded at the core of this music is a secret call to other outsiders who also experienced those youthful milestones a bit differently.
To sing songs from their perspective, designed to be palatable to the masses, was a revolutionary act for Tegan and Sara: “Rooted at the centre of our desire to try new things was a compulsion to queer the mainstream,” they shared via email.
“As indie musicians who had been relegated to the margins, we felt convinced that our music and story would resonate with a wider audience, which is what drove us to try to make something vibrant, relatable and commercial.”
Heartthrob was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, garnering favourable reviews from music world gatekeepers like Pitchfork, NME and Spin (publications that hadn’t always been so friendly toward the twins). It was also shortlisted for the 2013 Polaris Music Prize and won the Juno Award for pop album of the year.
In 2016, super pop producer Jack Antonoff (known for working with Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, Lorde and Lana Del Rey) told Buzzfeed News that after Heartthrob was released, other artists he worked with were deeply inspired by the album. Heartthrob influenced the synth-pop sounds on Swift’s 1989 and Jepsen’s Emotion, both artists who wanted to tap into the sound Tegan and Sara were exploring. “You would go into the studio with an artist and you’d be like, ‘What are you into lately? And they’d be like, Heartthrob. What kinda vibe do you wanna do? Heartthrob.'”
The release of Heartthrob pushed queer visibility into the pop mainstream, and solidified the twins as queer icons in their own right. In 2017, Tegan and Sara released a commemorative covers album of 2007’s The Con, which included renditions by other queer artists. The contributions of Cyndi Lauper, Hayley Williams and City and Colour, alongside emerging queer artists like Vivek Shraya, Shura, Muna, Mykki Blanco and Shamir are indicative of the already influential legacy of the twins’ 27-year career.
Heartthrob’s relevance is enduring, not only for its importance in Tegan and Sara’s discography, but also for the lane it carved for queer pop artists to come.
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