Tegan and Sara Discuss “Selling Out” vs. “Stepping Up” in Rolling Stone Documentary

My relationship with Tegan and Sara is complex and rooted deeply in my heart. I love them. They helped me crack open a corner of my queer life I didn’t even know existed. I have listened to their albums over and over, watched hours’ worth of videos of their concert banter late into the night, read the entire Autostraddle archive about them. I am one of thousands of their fans like this. You are likely a fan like this.

Their new short documentary in Rolling Stone, “Dear Tegan and Sara: Inside The Band’s Bond With Fans,” addresses the evolution of their relationship with their fans: from their early days playing for friends in coffee shops and dive bars, to their recent mega success sharing the stage with Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Macklemore.

“We didn’t just sign a record deal and then have success,” Tegan said, looking back on the band’s early days, when they played coffee shops and bars and sold their own merch. They spent many years having the time and space to build strong relationships with their fan base, which several fans described in the documentary:

“Your music made me feel like there was somewhere to be, like there was somewhere to feel something.”

“I think it’s important – not just for youth but for others of us – to look up to.”

In 2013, as Heartthrob climbed the charts and “Closer” blasted on Top-40 radio, the Quin Twins went on tour with Katy Perry, and performed with Taylor Swift, and then Macklemore. The fan base of the earlier years raised its collective eyebrows and let its disapproval be heard, accusing them of selling out and leaving their loyal fans behind.

As for me, I wasn’t a fan until Heartthrob came out, at which point I also started to appreciate the back catalogue. Because of this, I’ve always held a particular admiration for the way Heartthrob came into the world, and a fascination with the long road Tegan and Sara walked to get there. I am at a point in my life and my career where I gain a ton of inspiration from artists who became successful by working hard at their craft, getting better, and evolving over time. Instead of wringing their hands in this documentary and saying, You think we sold out? Welp, sorry you feel that way, they come out strong and confident. They are entirely unapologetic for the success they have achieved, while still being understanding of the place where the disapproval voiced by many in their old fan base comes from. As Tegan says,

“This is the only industry that I can think of where people are criticized for success. …We’re still the same old Tegan and Sara… Why would anyone, as a fan, criticize us for being successful? While it might have seemed like we were selling out what we were really doing was stepping up.”

I love that she says this. I have plenty to criticize about Tegan and Sara, but none of it is about them performing for 15,000 people instead of fifteen. What I respect and admire most about them is how upfront they are about their ambition. They work hard for what they want, and they’re pretty transparent about what that means to them. We should be thrilled to see them stepping up, because it means we get to ask for more from them. I hope, as they continue to solidify their success, we see more from them speaking out on LGBT issues less familiar to mainstream audiences than marriage. I hope we see them elevate other queer musicians and artists. I hope we, as fans, hold them accountable to using their platform that they’ve worked to build for the benefit of our communities. I hope we hear more incredible music to cry to. I hope we hear more incredible music to dance to.

Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Wow, that video gave me so many feels. I love T&S so much for so many reasons, and it really pained me to hear Tegan talk so defensively about the backlash they were met with when they released Heart-throb.

    I want to give her a hug and explain to her that it isn’t about her fans not wanting them to be successful. It’s more similar to a parent being afraid and protective when sending their kid away to college. Here is this amazing, vast, wonderful new world that they’re crossing the threshold into, and in a way that means leaving us behind – the people who have loved them and lifted them up since they were two brash teenagers from Saskatchewan with bad haircuts.

    I totally understand Tegan’s reasoning for touring with Katy Perry (my own views on KP aside). I would have loved to have heard that reasoning when it happened.

    If anything, this video makes me want to support them even more – even if it means losing more of that connection with them. Sigh. Life is complicated!

  2. They are so sweet and I wish them all the succes in the world! I haven’t really kept up to date with their music (or any music tbh) but it is not because they are now big and famous or anything.

    I do think that in general people that like you from the beginning, will hate it when you go popular or mainstream. When you have a little bistro that people love, the same people will hate it if you team up with a big restaurant chain and sell your food to more people. Or if you are a niche writer that suddenly gets big by writing popular detectives, your early fans will hate it. I think that is stupid, but it is not unique to the music industry.

    • I’m really happy to see this success, and I do hope it continues. But I also understand the worry about the things that will inevitably change when a music act gains a larger following – a more tenuous tie with each fan, higher buy-in to see them live, etc. It’s petty, I know, but it feels a bit like having to share your favourite toy with the whole playground. I know it’s more complicated than that, but I do understand the backlash, even if I don’t completely agree with it.

  3. I see everything they’re saying in the video, but there are impacts to the fans that come with their success. Like, I’m so happy for Tegan and Sara, but as they become more successful, I worry that their ticket prices will get more expensive. Or they’re constantly delegated to an opening act. I went to see T&S when they toured with Fun. and it was disappointing that, even though T&S were out promoting their album and Fun. wasn’t, Fun. headlined. I paid full price to see them open and play for like a half hour. Maybe that was my bad money choice, but I want to see my favorite band headlining (which they did do a year and a half later).

  4. The only time I use the term “selling out” is when someone changes their sound drastically in order to cash in.

    I will let you compare their first album with their most recent album and make that call for yourself.

    I think they are both smart, talented, and awesome to their fans, and for those reasons I don’t hate on them. But I do personally think that where they have taken their music is right to the garbage can of commercial mediocrity, and by its very definition, that actually IS selling out.

    I’m not super mega angry at them because I have no personal investment either way. I like their first album and everything since was pretty crap (in my personal opinion), so I’m not a heartfelt fan. So this isn’t a bitter tirade, simply an observation from someone who is also a musician and who understands the industry.

    • Tegan and Sara wrote their first album when they were around 18 years old, and Heartthrob when they were 31 or 32… Whether or not you like their more current albums, I think it would be even worse if they kept writing the same stuff over and over again for 10+ years.

      Bands that have been around for a long time always end up changing their sound in some way, because, well, people grow up, things happen that make them see the world in a different way than when they started (off the top of my head I can think of Death Cab for Cutie or The Black Keys as two recent examples).

      Maybe they did sell out maybe they didn’t… I just don’t think it’s fair to compare their first album to their latest when there’s such a huge gap in between them.

  5. I had never even heard of Tegan and Sara before I came out. I only started listening because everyone talked about them, but I never understood what the big deal was. My friends all bought tickets to a concert a few years back, but h

    The only Tegan and Sara song I listen to on a regular basis is the one from the Lego Movie. The rest of them sort of blend together…

  6. If you start consciously making your music as broadly appealing as possible and not just work in service to the art, you’ve lost the right to call yourself and artist. And if you try to sell me products like a corporate shill you can fuck right off. They’re the definition of “sellouts”. They were insanely successful already, with awesome careers, the love of their fans and the respect of their peers. This kind of “success” they want now is sick and insane. Unhealthy to the soul or the ego. We don’t need more “successes” like this, we need people who stand for something.

    • I completely understand the frustrations that Heartthrob brought on (like these) but they continually say in interview that their priorities have changed; that they are hoping to settle down and have more stable lives. Musicians don’t make a lot of money from the kinda success they have for quite a while (although more recently – but still before HT – they were probably doing fairly well for themselves) and it’s understandable to want to get more mainstream coverage.

      I prefer their old music and I think HT is unmistakably a bid for mainstream recognition, but the sorta venom you’re articulating seems so unnecessary and unsympathetic. They never exactly said they wanted to be committed to either radical living or radical art.

    • I understand the broad concept of suspicion towards anyone who would do a deliberate disservice to their art in order to take home a check, but I find this attitude directed towards T&S to be pretty unreasonable. I would also try to be careful not confuse “making money” with “selling out” because it’s this type of attitude that contributes to the problem most artists face today, being taken seriously as professionals i.e. people who need to get paid in order to continue producing their work and meeting the demands of a growing fan base. It’s a commonly held, romanticized notion that artists should by definition suffer for their art, and that somehow “exposure” equals “success.” Tegan and Sara are in a position to have figured out how to earn a living doing what they love in a society of our own making where money is inescapable, and they seem genuinely happy making popular music. Who is to say they aren’t being authentic in that way, other than the fans who somehow feel left behind? It’s those people, the ones in the back screaming “but what about ME!!” that could use a lesson in ego.

    • That’s a little harsh. It’s undeniable that Heartthrob was designed to be more broadly appealing than T&S’s earlier work. It’s a well crafted pop album, and I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. Making accessible music that a large number of people enjoy (that also happens to bring more attention to queer artists) actually seems quite positive.

      Personally, I suspect that T&S just don’t have the inspiration right now to make the sort of music they were making early on. Most artists don’t stay at a consistent peak of creative energy, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to. Heartthrob might not have been a work of high art, but it was a good album that brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.

  7. I feel very lucky that I saw them at Enmore… A smaller venue in Sydney for The Con. There was a lot of banter and it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I then saw them for Sainthood at Luna Park and the audience was much larger and broader.

    Instead of a more queer audience there were lots of young guys saying they were going to give the band the D because obviously lesbians just haven’t heard of a penis before.

    The audience changed significantly and with that the atmosphere changed. Instead of being in front of the stage I sat up high away from people who made me feel uncomfortable.

    I love T&S with all my heart and I found them when I really needed them on my journey. I will jam along to Yellow Demo all the way to Heartthrob and beyond. They are still my babies, I just won’t be seeing them live again.

  8. Okay, so the Taylor Swift concert with surprise!Tegan & Sara was the best day of my life and QuincestxSwift is my OTP ever since. If it required selling out for it to happen, WORTH IT.

    Real talk: When I first heard Closer, I was disappointed. But Heartthrob is currently the only CD in my car and it has grown on me to the point that I love it for what it is. A Tegan and Sara dance party. Then again, they could probably switch to KPop and I would still love them. They feel like family.

  9. I think most fans are not mad that T&S are making money or writing poppier sounding songs. It’s their touring choices. There’s a big difference between Taylor Swift, who hasn’t written homophobic songs to my knowledge, or Macklemore, who wrote an anti-homophobic hit, and Katy Perry. I was really disappointed when they chose to tour with her. Not because it was a big audience but because Katy Perry used homosexuality to get ahead with “I kissed a girl” while simultaneously disrespecting it, and then she used Tegan and Sara to win over LGBT audiences without really addressing what our problem with her was in the first place. Katy Perry blatantly appropriates LGBT culture, not to mention various racial groups. Tegan and Sara should stand up against that sort of behavior.

    • Thanks a lot for your comment, I really agree with the points that you made. I do think visibility is important and working with these mainstream audiences may mean reaching people who they might not have otherwise. However, I think who Tegan and Sara choose to collaborate with matters. With Katy Perry, they chose someone who is problematic in many ways as you state with her cultural appropriation and of course her problematic use of queerness. There are so many artists that they could have ultimately chosen to collaborate/tour with and it seems like from this video they they are not taking full ownership of the meaning and impact of their decisions. Of course many mainstream artists have similar issues, but I still think that there are plenty of other artists who could have been a better choice and who have been less offensive to many of the communities that their fans are part of.

      • Yeah, I think this is a really interesting and important point. I’m way more interested in taking issue with their touring with Katy Perry because of the silence it speaks to KP’s history of cultural appropriation and queer appropriation than I am in taking issue with their touring with KP because it elevates them in the music world. I’m interested in thinking more about how their relative political palatability (within the scope of the left-leaning side of the political spectrum) intersects with their popular success. T&S rarely push the envelope when it comes to politics.

  10. Well the whole concept of “selling out” is really a lazy copy selling idea advocated by indie hipster types who write for blogs and magazines and really has no journalistic integrity whatsoever.

    Any serious lover of music and music history should educate themselves. When one of the edgiest,most influential bands of its time and probably Rolling Stone magazines favorite band ever, The Who, skewered this idea in 1967…in an album, aptly titled, The Who Sell Out, which to this day I can turn on my TV and hear songs from in advertisements for various products.

    Ask yourself ? Are the bands who didn’t license their music that smart for not doing it? Or is is better to have your music in the public’s conscious for years and get paid for it ? That’s all Katy Perry and TSwift are to TnS, not ALL, but as a business move they give them access to more people. Also remember very very few bands are even afforded this opportunity. It’s like being asked out by the hottest, coolest girl at school.

    Secondly, TnS have taken a shitload of gay artists with them as opening acts over the years so to me I see them as being extremely proactive in this area.

  11. I really don’t think that Tegan and Sara have sold out at all because they are still writing their own music and still have their friends working for them. Also, their music didn’t drastically change for the sake of popularity at all because one can easily hear how their sound changed from punk to pop with each album.

    If they were to truly to sell out and morph into an industry machine, then they would fire everyone except them and hire expensive producers and song writers who would make them millions. But they haven’t done that.

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