Yet the band noticed other changes too—for one thing, their audience got a lot gayer. Throughout their career, Tegan says, they’d seen reviews of shows in which male writers would talk about being shoulder to shoulder with lesbians, and it just never matched what they were seeing from the stage. It had taken so long for them to get substantial coverage in queer media outlets, to score invites to LGBTQ organizations’ fancy parties and galas. Suddenly queer fans of all genders were coming to their shows and telling them they’d never heard of them before.
“Oh my God, who wants to go to Gay Pride and listen to ‘So Jealous’?!” Sara interrupts. “I mean, Jesus, we didn’t sound like fun gay music at all.”
“But that’s what I mean!” blurts Tegan. “There was this total disconnect. We were covered as a gay band, which limited us in the mainstream, but then in the queer community, we were not the icons everyone was making us out to be.”
During the rollout of Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara were frank about their ambitions. They wanted pop radio airplay, they wanted to hit arenas. They’re less concerned with those benchmarks now. It doesn’t feel worth it to them to hustle from radio station to radio station all day just for DJs to play their song once out of politeness. And playing the game of mainstream success feels especially pointless when the rulebook has been thrown out. Hey, I’m Just Like You’s lead single, “I’ll Be Back Someday,” with its crunchy guitars and manic chorus, perhaps sounds less destined for Top 40 than past singles like “Closer.” But in an era when 17-year-old Billie Eilish has become the coolest artist on the planet with her freaky genre-less creations, who even knows?
“It’s the wild wild west out there, and Hey, I’m Just Like You is our cultural answer to that,” Tegan says. “It’s our way of saying, ‘You’re going to us find us or you’re not, but we’re for everybody.’ I’m not choosing a lane.”
Of course they hope critics say nice things, and they hope sales aren’t disastrous. But this time, they mostly just want to have conversations, real conversations, about their work. Conversations about the themes that stretch across the book and the album: how It Gets Better, and also how it doesn’t. How everybody gets overwhelmed about what they’re doing with their lives, even adults. How the things that happen to you in high school—the bullying and the insecurities and, yes, the letters from your cousin’s friend—shape you and “become threads that stay with you your whole life,” Tegan says.
Sara jokes that if the only milestone they achieve this cycle is a Terry Gross interview, she’ll be thrilled. “There’s something so profoundly depressing about this, but to be taken seriously at that age would have been an impossibility,” she says. “It’s like we’ve gone back in time: ‘They’re finally ready for us, Tegan!’”
A few weeks after we meet, on the day of their 39th birthday in September, they tape an episode of Fresh Air.
On the day Heartthrob came out in January of 2013, Katy Perry, still riding the high of her blockbuster Teenage Dream album, tweeted about it in all-caps. Her validation gave the band a noticeable industry currency—their record label rejoiced, radio DJs brought it up in almost station visit. “It sent a message that the record, and our band, was to be taken seriously in the pop world,” Tegan says. It occurred to the pair that they could make a more concerted effort to do the same for other artists, particularly queer musicians and young women, and become the supportive voice they wished they’d had coming up. They started going out of their way to introduce themselves at events and offer support over DMs. They gave their cell phone numbers out and wrote a one-sheet of advice they could pass along to up-and-coming bands. They used their platform to spotlight Hayley Kiyoko, MUNA, Shura, Alex Lahey and others.