The audience cheered, and Sara Quin scoffed. “Where the fuck were you when I was 15?” she asked the sold-out Murmrr theater in Brooklyn last week.
The question was jokey, but it also wasn’t. Sara, of the band Tegan and Sara, had just told a story about the time in 12th grade when she hurled a chair at a classmate who’d sneered during a health lesson, “Fags get AIDS.” In her and her sister’s new memoir, High School, Sara writes of “the dangerous sound” of her own voice when she confronted the jerk, the “spectacularly metallic” crash of the chair into a desk, and her “heaving sobs” after she bolted from the classroom and hid in the drama department. The adults at the school called her to the principal’s office but dealt with her gently. The adults who love her band, listening to her speak in 2019, treated her like a hero.
As she told this story, it had the air of a myth being born—or rather, reborn. Teenagedom might be the phase of life most vividly signposted by pop culture, which has coughed up uncountable tales of bullies and outcasts, cheerleaders and quarterbacks, virginity anxieties and promposals, and so on. In John Hughes movies, and often in real life, teen rebellion stems from a blend of horniness and the quite-plausible fear of turning out like one’s parents. For queer youths, though, angst isn’t necessarily so ritualized. There’s not been a huge library of mainstream work to guide their quest to form an identity, and they may be particularly baffled by dating rituals shaped by the imperative to one day marry and have kids. Lacking models of what their journey should look like only heightens the shock of realizing—and of potentially being ostracized for—one’s difference.
A recent boom in queer coming-of-age works has begun to address this problem, and Tegan and Sara’s emotionally acute pop-rock has been helping out for two decades. Now the 39-year-old Calgary twins fling open their teenage yearbooks for public consumption. In the new memoir High School, they trade off terse, reflective chapters about their adolescence. On their new album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, they rerecord songs they first wrote as teens. On their current tour, they read from the book, play from the album, and screen old home footage—much of it shot in a perfectly ’90s bedroom festooned with Smashing Pumpkins posters and a novelty gumball machine.