Tegan and Sara Prove Music Still Needs Safe Spaces

Tegan and Sara
Warehouse Live
September 16, 2016

If you came to the Tegan and Sara show looking for some quintessentially '90s-girl guitar, I'm sure you were disappointed.

The twin-sister duo has evolved far away from the confessional indie niche that defined their earlier work. Indeed, the runaway success of their 2013 album Heartthrob has led Tegan and Sara to double down on radio-ready dance-pop with their latest release, Love You to Death. That might be a disconcerting change for fans who took comfort in the old ballads of heartbroken oblivion, but you wouldn't have known it from the rapturous audience at Warehouse Live. The crowd's response was singular: a two-hour eruption of love.

The singers started off their set with a repurposed electropop version of the 2007 hit "Back In Your Head," but that was only the beginning. Steeped in synthesizers, the first half of the set ran through Heartthrob's greatest hits. Songs like "I Couldn't Be Your Friend," "Drove Me Wild" and "Goodbye, Goodbye" all indulged in an easily digestible '80s sonic palate, with each digital dance anthem humming seamlessly into the next. While these songs more or less hit the same note, it was a note that fans adored.

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I still think Tegan and Sara were at their best when they brought out a guitar, which they referred to as an "endangered six-stringed instrument." This led to a guttural rendition of "Northshore," full of chunky riffs and bassy bridge breakdowns. Later on in the set, the duo looked back to their game-changing album The Con. The high-pitched pleas of the title track or the gentle, timeless mourning of "Call It Off" were tender, deep and beautiful in their execution. A decade out from their initial release, these songs still shake hearts and rattle cages.

The show also demonstrated the pair's ability to reconcile their earlier music with their new style. During the performance of "Nineteen," Tegan and Sara refashioned the busted-heart love song into a piano ballad. The change gave the song a pretty and contemplative tenor, one that acknowledged the sisters' emotional distance from that young age. Lyrics like "I felt you in my legs/ before I ever met you," are more likely to inspire wise amusement than cathartic clarity for the singers; by toning down the guitars and drums, "Nineteen" became more a reflection on the tempest of late adolescence, rather than an expression of the squall itself.

But the fact of the matter is that Tegan and Sara could have done Tuuvan throat-singing covers of Journey singles and the crowd would still have been just as effusive as they were on Friday. The sisters carve out a safe space for their queer fans to be themselves in a world that consistently reminds them that they are tolerated, but not embraced. Not every show in Houston allows for expressions of gay love with joyful impunity; signifiers of queer identity can still be met with fulminating glances of quiet defensiveness. The crowd never let Tegan and Sara forget how necessary they are to this vulnerable community, throwing up their hands in the shape of hearts and waving their "LY2D" branded hats.

Tegan and Sara, to their credit, know this, and keep up a tireless touring schedule to champion their LGBT audience. At one point in the show, Sara asked the crowd to shout out if they were straight, and then a moment later, if they were gay. Unsurprisingly, the gay voices dominated. "Remember the sound of that the next time you feel fucked with by someone," Sara said. "I want you to know there is a strong community here in Houston, and we are honored to be a part of it." The pair seem happy to be a beacon to help members of the queer community find each other in a world full of flashes of hostility.

For that reason, it's important that Tegan and Sara have moved away from '90s indie-rock and into a more 21st-century electronic sound. As a new generation of gay youth tries to make sense of an America that can simultaneously legalize gay marriage yet produce a man who murders 50 people at a gay nightclub, they need musicians like Tegan and Sara to provide guidance, solace and hope. Fast-plucking acoustic diatribes are the music of their parents. Songs like the echoing anthem "Closer" or the power ballad "100x" will resonate more than the "Walking With a Ghost"s of yesteryear. By rebooting their style, Tegan and Sara are not only keeping their music fresh; they're keeping it accessible for young gays who need it.

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Katie Sullivan is a sometimes writer for the Houston Press.