Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob and the evolution of pop agency

heartthrob

“I didn’t sell out. I bought in.” – SLC Punk

Ten years ago this year, Liz Phair released her self-titled major label debut. Though her critical reputation had waned somewhat by that point, she still had a decent amount of credibility banked, as you might expect from an artist who had made an album as near-universally beloved as 1993’s Exile in Guyville.

It was just enough credibility to hang her with.

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For an ascending community of online critics looking to stake out its territory, Liz Phair was an easy target. Phair had partnered with The Matrix, the songwriting and production trio behind Avril Lavigne’s blockbuster record Let Go. The record featured four radio-primed singles that, if it wasn’t for Phair’s grizzled voice and an out-of-place F-bomb, were indistinguishable from the songs The Matrix were writing for pop starlets like Hillary Duff and Skye Sweetnam. Though the album earned a couple positive reviews from traditional outlets like Entertainment Weekly, the Internets were hash: Stylus called it a “half-assed attempt to appeal to a different radio format,” PopMatters went with “putrid crap” and Pitchfork dropped a rare goose-egg of a score on the album.*

* There’s also a whole bunch of sex, age and gender issues surrounding Phair’s presentation of this record, but let’s leave those for another time.

Did Liz Phair, and Liz Phair, deserve such scorn? Yes and no. The album is, admittedly, an unfortunate one, and disastrous if directly compared to Guyville. The Matrix were starting to reveal themselves as a one-trick pony and, like a VHS tape that’s been copied one too many times, their Avril shtick was starting to wear thin. But the fevered backlash paid mere lip service to two important facts: a) that Phair’s material had been headed in the pop singer-songwriter direction since Guyville, and b) that most of the album wasn’t atrocious, just sadly mediocre. I suspect that had the album been released with merely its Michael Penn-produced songs — The Matrix were brought in when Columbia didn’t hear any hits — it would have been treated as another small step in Phair’s continued decline, not an apocalyptic event.

Phair’s biggest crime, then, was bringing in the professionals.

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Ten years down the road, both the pop and indie landscapes are quite a bit different. Internet culture has blurred the line between trendsetter and trendhopper, between mainstream and alternative, between major label and indie. This fluidity has led to many sonic crossovers, from both the pop realm (“Since U Been Gone,” “Fireflies”) and the indie rock world (“Stillness is the Move”), not to mention liftings and borrowings in style and marketing.

Last month, Canadian duo Tegan and Sara released their seventh studio album Heartthrob. Not unlike Liz Phair, Tegan and Sara’s music has been growing increasingly poppy since their breaktrough records If It Was You and So Jealous; unlike Phair, they’ve continued to garner acclaim while moving in that direction. Two reasons for this: one, their songs continue to be great (and distinctive – especially vocally, where the duo’s combined timbre has a compelling robotic-yet-human sheen to it); two, their transformation has had Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla helping behind the decks, giving the band’s synthesizer sensibilities both taste (sonically) and credibility (promotionally).

Greg Kurstin, who does most of the production work on Heartthrob, is a different story: American-born, he made his mark in UK pop (Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue, Little Boots) before heading back home to write and produce huge hits for Ke$ha, Kelly Clarkson and Pink; we’re talking radio-dominating, number one hits. Yet he’s also done work on records by The Shins, The Flaming Lips, Santigold and Beck.

It was that dual discography that drew Tegan and Sara to Kurstin. “When we sat down and decided that we wanted to make a more poppy record, our idea was to try and find producers who had not only worked with big acts, but also had a foundation in indie rock,” said Tegan, in an interview with MusicOMH. “Greg seemed to understand the world Sara and I were living in.”

In the same interview, Tegan cites influences from Madonna and Cyndi Lauper to Alicia Keys and Katy Perry, expressing an omnivore’s view of pop music that lines up well with Kurstin’s production resume. Note, too, the expression of agency: she’s making it clear that any shift in sound on this album is owed to the duo’s conscious creative direction, contrasting with Phair’s example where explicitly producing “hits” was the goal.

There are two other important contrasts between Tegan and Sara and Liz Phair, both related to career trajectory. Tegan and Sara didn’t have a career-defining debut that Phair did, the sort of record that’s seemingly impossible to live down or follow up. As well, because their popularity and acclaimed have both expanded (unlike Phair’s before Liz Phair), Tegan and Sara’s growing pop influence comes off as far less cynical and desperate. It speaks, again, to agency: Tegan and Sara don’t need hit singles or a radio-friendly sound, but they’re interested in making a pop album on as many of their own terms as possible.

They simply found the best person to help make it happen.

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Tegan and Sara aren’t the only “rock” band with a hip producer in tow at the moment. Though Fall Out Boy have always been mainstream-ready — their brand of emo pop-punk may have been the last gasp of MTV as “music” television — even their most poppy material has always fallen back on the big four-chord punk chorus to sell the band’s (admittedly, endearing) brand of melodrama.

The band’s new single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up),” is different: its chorus explodes in beats and buried riffs, not chords, and the song owes a great deal more to hip hop than merely having 2 Chainz in its promo video. And like with Tegan and Sara, there’s a radio pop hitmaker behind the production console: Butch Walker, whose past work includes hit records with Avril Lavigne, Pink, Katy Perry and countless others.

Similar to Heartthrob, I don’t find anything cynical about Fall Out Boy’s decision to work with Walker, or with what he does on “My Songs.” This is a band whose members have made no bones about their pop ambitions, and it’s not like the track is a huge shift in their songwriting or attitude; it merely goes about their modus operandi in a slightly different way. It’s also, admittedly, not the sort of track that’s going to skyrocket up the charts, and as such, it seems like Fall Out Boy is seeking a certain style of song more than a hit single.

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Heartthrob is even more successful at this pop fusion, to the point where I have no qualms saying that it’s probably Tegan and Sara’s best album. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own sensibilities as much as anything — note the increase in pop discourse here at the blog — but it’s also that it feels like the culmination of the duo’s hardened romanticism. Structurally, the songs aren’t light years removed from those on The Con or Sainthood, but their lyrical directness is rewarding, and their sonic palette — instruments condensed and consolidated rather than separated — pushes those words with extra power.

Just as importantly, though, is that Tegan and Sara don’t limit their emotional range. Though there are less overtly “angry” songs on this album than some of their recent works, that sentiment still sneaks up, buried under doubt, regret and sadness in songs like the excellent “Now I’m All Messed Up.” At varying times, the album is sexy (“Closer,” “Drive Me Wild”), wistful (“I Was A Fool”) and needy (“How Come You Don’t Want Me”). What scares many from pop music is the idea that it’s homogenous, that it lacks the capacity to express as wide a range of emotions and feeling as other genres. But that’s a reflection of economic production models more than the genre itself.

Notably, far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of backlash around Heartthrob: most my friends and acquaintances who are fans of the band are on board, and the album’s earned largely positive reviews — and those that are negative are mixed, hardly the vitriol directed at Liz Phair a decade ago. This probably reflects a changed attitude towards pop, but let’s not forget that the particulars of the scenario are a tad bit different as well. Take this quote from Stereogum’s list of the Top 10 best songs by the band:

in a plastic-pop world when even the most indie-sounding top-40 pop-stars are the result of meticulous major-label round-tabling, the idea of the mainstream airwaves being taken over by self-made queer feminists who have been working their asses off for the past 15 years is pretty huge. It’s heartening.

In 2003, pop acquiescence got you hanged. In 2013, that’s probably still the case – but pop agency can make you a hero.

One response to “Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob and the evolution of pop agency

  1. Pingback: 18 things I learned on my summer vacation (Osheaga festival edition) | McNutt Against the Music·

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