“So what if…” *hits blunt* “…you went back to high school, but with all of your current memories and all of the lessons you’ve learned still intact? Would you do it?”
While you can learn a bit about someone’s experience of adolescence by measuring the fear and anxiety that registers in their eyes upon hearing this ubiquitous modern koan, it’s a pretty meaningless hypothetical — unless you’re Tegan & Sara.
That’s because while researching their new memoir, High School, by excavating and then presenting for consumption their teenage lives as young lesbians in Calgary, Canada, they came across a sizable archive of old demos they’d written and recorded at the time. Those songs form the basis of their excellent new album Hey, I’m Just Like You.
It’s full of adolescent heartbreak, teenage angst, and nascent queer identity exploration — not too distant from the themes present in all of their music, to be honest. And it’s also exactly what you’d expect musically — harkening back to the acoustic folk-rock of their classic first few albums, but with the shiny veneer of the pop rock they’ve perfected in the years since.
But in a crucially unique opportunity — like finding one’s old diary and reinterpreting long-forgotten memories with the wisdom of the present or, of course, getting high and imagining how, via some sort of time travel, you’d re-do high school if you had double or triple the life experience and its concomitant wisdom — they’re able to grapple with their own selves, in the form of those old demos from decades past, and warmly examine, process, and then reinterpret them. For our benefit!
I first heard Tegan & Sara’s music when I was about 16, and for some reason remember exactly where (this is incredibly unusual for me; I do not have a vivid memory). I was in a high school friend’s spare room with another friend, and they were listening to a mix CD she’d made for him. “Check this out,” he said, “it’s two lesbian twin sisters.” He put on “Walking With a Ghost.” This was about 2004, so So Jealous must have just come out (one of these friends was that “cool alternative friend” in high school who knew all the cool bands; I aspired to be just like her). I didn’t like it, though; I thought it was repetitive (it is).
It wasn’t until way later, during my emo years, that I discovered The Con in between Bright Eyes marathons, and then went back to So Jealous, which is now one of my favorite albums of all time. Whenever I want to bask in the nostalgia of those days, now 15 or so years later, So Jealous and The Con are some of the first albums I cue up (Bright Eyes is virtually unlistenable to me now; go figure).
Nostalgia is almost always popular, but maybe never more so than now: retro-style and classic remake video games are currently experiencing a renaissance on platforms like Nintendo Switch and PC, many of us who lived through the ’90s are seeing its fashion make a comeback, and the synths and gated reverb-heavy drums of the ’80s are the foundation of music by current pop queens Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift.
But Hey, I’m Just Like You doesn’t feel like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sure, it’s a cute and buzzworthy project, especially in conjunction with the pair’s new book. But they’re refreshingly candid about what they’re doing: “[W]hen you think back to the things you did 20 years ago, you imagined you’d cringe,” explained Tegan to Apple Music. “But the more I listened to the songs, the less I cringed and the more I thought, these melodies are great!”
While I’m not a famous lesbian pop star duo, I am a lesbian who’s been casually writing and recording acoustic guitar songs since I was a teen. I was curious about their experience, because I cringe at the things I did 20 minutes ago, let alone 20 years. So I did some soul- and some internet-searching. I wanted to see if Tegan & Sara’s experience could be similar to my own.
And, reader, I found recordings of my teenage folk pop songs. Much to my simultaneous delight and chagrin, they were hosted on MySpace, and you can find that MySpace account here. But before you get too excited about the potential schadenfreude, or whatever the feeling is that allows people to enjoy the secondhand embarrassment of watching the first few episodes of reality TV singing competition shows, I lucked out — MySpace “lost” 50 million songs during a 2018 “server migration,” and these songs are now gone. I scoured through old hard drives and found recordings of songs going back to 2013 — but nothing from my teens.
No, “Eric” is not my deadname. I don’t know why my “band” was called that. It’s very disorienting looking at those song titles; I remember that they were all actually written in college, when I was about 18 or 19. I remember what some of them referenced: “She Joined the Army” was about my high school girlfriend, who broke up with me almost immediately upon meeting the boys in her college dorm, and also briefly joined her school’s ROTC. While I don’t remember the lyrics or chords to any of these songs, I do remember the chorus of this one: “She joined the army/ for the red, white, and blue/ she’s stomping and marching/ like she’s always wanted to.” I really want to not cringe, y’all. I hope the melody was great, but I have my doubts.
The rest are mysteries to me. I know that “Coffee” and “Audrey” were both written about girls I met in college. Audrey was a toxic “friend” who refused to define whether we were an “item” and constantly pined to me about her long-distance, equally toxic maybe-ex-boyfriend, and convinced me not to study abroad in Buenos Aires my second year of college because she’d be lonely — one of the biggest regrets of my life, to be honest. And I have no idea what “The Trees in Aberdeen” was about. I don’t know what the trees in Aberdeen are like — or honestly, where Aberdeen even is without looking it up. I also am sure I didn’t at the time. I assume it’s another sad song.
Honestly, I hope those songs are lost forever and I can remember them with fond nostalgia — as better than they likely really are. Reality has a way of delegitimizing the rosy fantasy with which we can, from a safe distance, observe the past – which is the whole point of nostalgia anyway, right? The past is better left where it is. We’ve learned from it, grown from it, and hopefully processed it in therapy. The lesson for me in this is: this kind of project is better left up to the experts. Tegan & Sara clearly are.
Imagine finding out, twenty years later, that you once wrote a song about how much you love your best friend, bandmate, and twin sister, and how that relationship guides and sustains you. And to find that it still rings true enough to revise and record it, together with that person!
Tegan and Sara have mined through their pasts, found the gems, like the one above, and put together a poignant ode to their past selves. And for that I’m thankful; it’s like they went through it so we don’t have to! We can just live vicariously through their public vulnerability and imagine — without evidence — that if we did the same, we’d be charmed, rather than horrified, by what we found.
Because I’d never go back to my teens, especially with what I know now. It was a very difficult, confusing time, and the blunders I committed then have laid the foundation for all of the progress I’ve made since. Except, maybe I’d have said goodbye to Audrey and flown to Buenos Aires for a year instead of sticking around, being miserable, and writing a song about it. Because I wish I had those memories instead of the song. But I don’t have the song! Just the title. Because of this album, I can enjoy Tegan and Sara’s process — and progress — and see myself in it without having to mine my own past for my own skeletons. I think that’s a blessing.