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Taylor Swift vs Tegan and Sara

Every so often an album comes along that is so delightful, emotional and perfectly crafted that it’s hard not to spend your whole life re-living every moment of it, even years later. 

For pop fans, the past few years have seen a couple of these poking their heads up above the endless torrent of new music.

This year we were gifted Carly Rae Jepsen’s incredible but hugely under appreciated E•MO•TION, an album full of larger than life hooks and grandiose production. We defy anyone who isn’t immediately cheered up and drawn in by the euphoria of "Run Away With Me". 

On a slightly larger scale, but similar in many ways, was Taylor Swift’s 2014 mega-album 1989, an album so full of determination that it seems to have been scientifically developed  to appeal to just about everyone. Say what you want about Taylor Swift, but 1989 is an album of Thriller proportions. 

You could say that 1989 and E•MO•TION are spiritual siblings. The production on both albums are similar, 80s inspired percussion and glittering synths bouncing around melodies that seem to have been written in heaven.

Yet both Taylor’s and Carly’s albums have an older sibling, a record that hummed quietly underneath the mainstream yet whose impact can be heard throughout.

That album is Heartthrob by Tegan and Sara.

Released at the beginning of 2013, Heartthrob was the original in a trilogy of pop behemoths.

Having developed a dedicated, if niche, following as an alt-rock oufit across a 10 year career, sisters Tegan and Sara seemed to have everything in order. They had a solid sound that had kept them consistently popular. 

However, the band were crying out for a change. In fact, speaking to Rolling Stone, they said: "We have a huge back catalog of guitar-driven music, and the idea of just making another guitar-driven record seemed boring.

While it might not have warranted the Yahoo live stream of Taylor Swift "I’ve gone pop" proportions , the step to go 'mainstream' was a drastic one having lived most of their careers on the fringes. 

However, like Swift, Tegan and Sara managed to do something with Heartthrob that many find hard to do - they didn’t compromise. Working with producer Greg Kurstin (Kesha, Sia, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift), they utilised their skills as songwriters and let someone else create a bigger sound.

The relatable, confessional and angst ridden lyrics and the traditional Tegan and Sara melodies were matched with a gloss of drum machines, keyboards and, of course, synths, creating a product that’s both radio ready and alternative at the same time.

Album opener and lead single "Closer" is an affirming meditation on lust and infatuation with Cindy Lauper-like splashes of colour and tongue-in-cheek lyrics ("All I think of lately, is how to get you underneath me" being an example). The bratty, pop punk chorus has one step in the past and one firmly in the future.

Where, it seems, Carly and Taylor have drawn inspiration from the record, however, is within the moments of solitude and heartbreak. You can hear echoes of Heartthrob’s "Love They Say" in Swift’s "Clean", and the euphoric bounce of "Drove Me Wild" in Jepsen’s "I Really Like You".

Yet, unlike 1989 and E•MO•TION, Tegan and Sara aren’t afraid to show the burns and scars of love, exploring the desperate, dark and contemptuous sides of their personalities. It’s this that sets Heartthrob apart.

Taylor’s image is too protected to allow her to show the raw vulnerability expressed in "Now I’m All Messed Up", a fizzing song about the yearning after-burn at the end of a relationship. The cries in the chorus of "Go, go, go if you want, I can't stop you" and the quiet begs of "please stay" later are equal parts empowering and heartbreaking.

Similarly, the self-depreicating "I Was A Fool" doesn’t mask the desperation that comes with falling in love. While Jepsen’s lyrics may be more youthful that Swift’s, Tegan and Sara tap into the real bones of a situation. It’s still packaged as commercial pop, but underneath there’s a Robyn-esque ability to spell out situations clearly, without metaphors or gimmicks.

Sonically, too, both Carly,Taylor and their producers have mimicked a cleanliness to the production with its rounded, calculated yet wonderfully organic sound. The updated 80s soundscapes, structures and power chords might not be as large or outspoken as they are 1989 or E•MO•TION, but perhaps it’s this faint hint that makes the album enjoyable.

In terms of its legacy, what Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob did was remind people that mainstream pop can be, and often is, deep, alternative, accessible and worth its place in the pantheon of great music.

It’s probably fair to say that without the reminder that weight can be put behind pop, Taylor nor Carly would have created something that balances US Top 40 radio with critical adoration and mass appeal in such a way.

So, if you’re a fan of Taylor Swift we’d whole heartedly recommend giving Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob a listen. You’ll not regret it. 


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