Tegan and Sara's Cleverly Queer Pop Videos
“Faint of Heart” and “BWU” put some familiar tropes in an untraditional context.
Tegan and Sara’s recent radio-friendly pop stands out because of the singers’ two distinctive voices, intelligence in craftsmanship, and unique point of view—a point of view informed partly by the fact that sisters Tegan and Sara are gay. It’s possible to miss that last fact when listening to many of their songs. But sometimes you’ll notice a “she” where a “he” would be from a straight female singer, and sometimes there’ll be yet-subtler tells within the lyrics.
The band has kept releasing videos for songs off of June’s Love You to Death, the first few of which fell into the category of “pop video anyone could make.” There were cartoon backdrops for the glorious single “U-Turn,” a music video seemingly about familiar music-video conceits for “Boyfriend,” and a very adorable showcase of dogs filmed in slow-mo for “100x.” Their latest two clips are more out-and-proud, in the tradition of their 2012 “Closer” video that staged a raging party filled with gay and straight makeouts. Most strikingly, these new videos demonstrate how queerness can define a person’s life beyond sexual desire and gender identification—it can be an aesthetic, and an orientation toward society.
The latest, for “Faint of Heart,” gathers up LGBT actors—including a number of trans and other kinds of gender-noncomforming young people—for a lip-sync battle on stage. Teen Vogue, where the video premiered, announced, “This is representation at its best,” and that’s certainly a valid interpretation: It gives a category of people who have long been mostly excluded from popular media their moment onstage, literally. “This particular video is especially significant because it features trans actors without focusing on their trans status or transition,” Cooper Treibel, one of the featured performers, said in the press materials. “This shows young and closeted trans people that they are not defined or limited by their trans status, and can hopefully find a sense of pride in their community and in themselves."
Yet there’s cleverness that goes beyond casting in the clip too. Dressing up and singing to a party are big music-video tropes, but here it gets special meaning: The actors are each impersonating huge cultural icons with queer significance. Tyler Ford plays Prince, Treibel plays David Bowie, Ella Giselle plays Madonna, and Olabisi Kovabel plays Grace Jones—all celebrities whose gender-bending was transgressive in its time and is iconic today.
I also love that Elvis Presley is in the mix, played by Dominic Ravina.* The King of Rock is more commonly seen as a straight male icon than a gay symbol, but he has become a visual touchstone both for lesbian fashion and for drag kings. The female impersonator Elvis Herselvis once said, “It is one of the last bastions of masculinity, the right to ‘do’ Elvis. … I personally think he was very queeny; in the 1950s he wore make-up and pink on stage when that was unheard-of behavior for a straight man.” The video also has Eli Erlick and Ni Ching-Marino playing young versions of Sara and Tegan, on stage and in the audience, suggesting rightly that this band is part of the pantheon of queer icons—a pantheon that, the video also suggests, is not actually defined by its members’ sexuality but rather their influence on LGBT people.
The other new Tegan and Sara video, “BWU,” has a very different and poignant meaning. In it, Sara goes around L.A. seeming to propose marriage to various people, including apparent girlfriends and total strangers. But there’s no wedding band within her ring box, and so the first few proposal recipients look at her like a weirdo before she finds a woman who accepts the offer. The subversion of the cliche of a big engagement moment jibes with the song’s message about desiring love and commitment without the formal institution of marriage. Obviously there are straight people who don’t want to get married, but the issue is more fraught among queer people because for so long, they’ve had to construct identities outside of the possibilities of marriage—and have been able to maintain a disinterested outsider’s perspective on the institution’s pros and cons.
“I was happy when the Supreme Court ruling legalized same sex marriage in the U.S.A.,” Sara Quin told EW’s Nolan Feeney when premiering the video. “But I was also relieved that I could finally ‘come out’ as a person who actively dislikes the institution—specifically the assumption that by not participating in the ritual you are a deviant or unlikely to share the same common values as someone who does.” She also explained that dislike’s rooting in her own family history: “After my parents’ divorce, my mom and dad remained friends. I saw their future relationships stretch into decades, but no wedding bells rang. Common law seemed as binding as matrimony, and I grew to see their choices as rebellious and inspiring. As a teenager and then young adult—newly out as queer—I didn’t mourn the fact that I wouldn’t legally be able to marry my girlfriend.”
Again, this skepticism toward marriage isn’t solely restricted to LGBT people, and many feel just the opposite. But an ambivalence about telling the government you’re settling down for life with one person is something that shows up again and again in gay discourse—Looking’s series finale was a recent example. Tegan and Sara are the latest to try and imagine a different kind of happily ever after, part of their ongoing effort to carve a space for people like them in the pop-music world.
* This article originally stated that Cooper Treibel plays Elvis. We regret the error.