Tegan and Sara Forgive Their Teenage Selves in Their New Book High School

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The day Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara wrote her first song, Tegan was sick, and so Sara wore her twin sister’s favorite pair of shoes to high school. Later that afternoon, Sara retired to her bedroom, grabbed her mother’s boyfriend’s guitar (a taboo gesture in the household) and adopted a fake English whine to sing, “Tegan didn’t go to school today/Left me all alone to play,” before changing the chords, “Took her favorite shoes when she went back to bed/Could have kicked her in the head.” When Tegan heard it, she shouted, “We have to record that!” and so their songwriting days began. On paper, it’s an insignificant event, but that first recording would kickstart a lifelong career, one that, so far, has stretched over 20 years and nine full-length albums. They were in 10th grade at the time, newly obsessed with ’90s groups like the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and whatever local punk bands played free matinees at all-ages venues in their native Calgary. They were wholly unglamorous teenagers, and just as embarrassing as those simple lyrics suggest.

Most music memoirs include a similar origin story—the “before they were famous” posturing that feels simultaneously distant and relatable, as if anyone with a support network and good ol’ fashioned talent could’ve made it, too. And yet, Tegan and Sara’s book High School, published September 24, differs slightly from the predictable format. It is not the tale of how the musicians became internationally known, or how they were able to sustain their career for two decades, or even how they managed to bust out of a strictly Canadian music market when so many of their peers struggle to entice listeners across the border. Instead, they offer a hilarious, cringe-y distillation of their adolescence, the holistic portrait of artists as young women that goes beyond your run-of-the-mill biography.

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Tegan and Sara trade off each chapter—written separately and combined in a cohesive fashion I imagine only identical twins could—and detail their first loves, first songs, first kisses, first time fooling around, first time sneaking out of the house, first boyfriends, first breakups with said boyfriends, first girlfriends, first hickeys, first time their mom questioned their sexuality, and so on. I’ve never been able to tell them apart, but in the book, it’s clear—Tegan’s older (by eight minutes, but older nonetheless), more assertive, ready to jump head-first into whatever life offers. Sara’s measured and dreamy; usually writing from her own interior self. They both came to terms with their queerness in different ways and at different points in High School. Their immediate similarities appear to be their appearance and their interest in breaking the rules. Specifically, they dropped a lot of acid in their youth, and drug use makes up a good portion of the book’s first half. As can be expected, much of their delinquent, often psychedelic adventures are totally mortifying (and that’s not even referencing the unearthed photographs of the pair, as teens, wearing tragically oversized sweatshirts—a telltale sign, they write, of pubescent women who’ve learned to hate their bodies—and thrift store chokers, though those are a welcome addition in the book.)

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Both Tegan and Sara’s chapters are delivered in a self-serious tone that allows the reader to empathize with the melodramatic mindset of a teen. In one scene, when a school bully screams “Fags get AIDS,” in what is meant to be a sexual health seminar, and Sara, then still coming to terms with her sexuality, throws a chair in his direction, the weight of those words are felt; they are devastating and inescapable. That pain also comes across in an album that partners the text, Hey, I’m Just Like You, a collection of re-recorded and re-purposed tracks from their adolescence, the very same mentioned throughout the memoir. In the context of the book, it makes for a multimedia experience—not the sort of cheap play at nostalgia it could’ve been, or an attempt to recall their pop-punk-rock roots circa 2007's juggernaut The Con after a less than savory detour into house music. It’s a celebration of the songs they wrote all those years ago after realizing that their simple harmonies weren’t mediocre just because they were young when they wrote them. In fact, on the album and in the book, they ask and answer the questions: What if you return to all the wack shit you made in grade school? And what if there’s actually some merit to it, and you only assumed it was terrible because your environment instructed you to feel valueless?

It’s not hard to find a quote from a famous pop musician claiming that they do what they do to make young people “feel less alone,” or some variant of the cliché. But Tegan and Sara’s memoir and album is that sentiment in action. It is a literal visitation of that time period, free of any rose-colored revision. High School and Hey, I’m Just Like You are raw and silly and humiliating and freeing and fun. If you’re a fan of music memoirs but get sick of the same old narrative arc, I genuinely recommend it. Or if you simply need motivation to validate your teenage self, there’s a lot of that in there, too.

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About the author

Maria Sherman

Senior Writer, Jezebel