Tegan And Sara’s ‘Heartthrob,’ Robyn, And The Shifting Gender Norms of Pop Music

I’m late to Tegan and Sara’s excellent Heartthrob, but listening to standout track “Now I’m All Messed Up,” I noticed something interesting. In the song’s excellent, heartwrenching chorus, the twins sing “Now I’m all messed up / Sick inside, wondering where / Where you’re leaving your makeup / Now I’m all messed up / Sick inside wondering who / Whose life you’re making worthwhile”:

What’s intriguing about those lines is not just that they’re good and precise, but that the default interpretation of them would probably be — the rise of makeup for men in certain circumstances notwithstanding — that Tegan and Sara are singing to a woman. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s followed the band for more than half a minute: both of the twins are gay and in long-term relationships with women. But where in the past, those songs and lyrics that clearly referenced women, like the deftly sketched object of desire who is “Dignified in what she does / When she sings the smile that she brings / To all of you unaware of what’s to come “ in “Superstar” were part of what, along with their production, made them kind of a cult group. I think I heard them for the first time at the Women’s Center in college. Now, it doesn’t seem to have pigeonholed them at all. Even if it’s women singing about other women, plenty of guys seem to be able to hear their own experiences in lyrics like these.

A similar kind of identification-bending happens in Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” when she sings that “I’m not the guy you’re taking home,” a bit of language that could be part of a language barrier, but more likely, seems to be Robyn simultaneously conjuring up “stilettos and broken bottles” and speaking in the voice and to the experience of her gay male fans:


It doesn’t seem to me yet that this kind of pronoun fluidity to mix up the gender of the person we imagine as the protagonist of the song, or the expectation that you can identify with a song even if the sexual orientation of the lyrics or the gender of the singer clearly aren’t yours has completely conquered pop music. And of course there have always been cross-gender affiliations between singers and their audiences. But I wonder if this kind of protean approach is less closeted than it once was, if it’s less a form of code than simply a reflection of social and musical reality. Whatever it is, if it gives Tegan and Sara a chance to break out to mainstream audiences while still writing songs that are clearly addressed to women, it makes me very happy.