Tuesday, May 7, 2013

album review: 'heartthrob' by tegan & sara (RETRO REVIEW)

Let's talk about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Now, before any of you leap down my throat at why on earth I'm even mentioning this topic in connection with Tegan & Sara, well, be patient. For starters, I feel the concept needs to be clarified a bit and expanded upon beyond its TVTropes definition. But in case you have no idea what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, here's the cliff notes: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an attractive, 'high-on-life' female character that seems overstuffed with quirk and personality, and who typically is (for some ungodly reason) attracted to the main male character. Originally coined by acclaimed film critic Nathan Rabin (formerly of the AV Club) in 2005, he viewed the trope as grating and a little insufferable - and having sat through all of Garden State and seen Natalie Portman's performance in that movie, I could well agree. 

However, Anita Sarkeesian (of the now somewhat notorious Feminist Frequency) has in the past deemed the trope simply a disguise for shallow female characters who use their quirk and their spontaneity to disguise their need for male companionship. And while I'll definitely agree with this assessment for the worse entries in this genre, I think it only touches on the surface of this trope and needs to be examined further (yes, I will get to talking about the Tegan & Sara album, give me a few minutes).

Really, the term 'surface' is what becomes important in discussing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because it's a classic case of writers failing to deepen their characters beneath the surface impression, particularly in the modern age of the Internet. In the worst cases, it's used as shallow stereotyping of female characters for the male love interest, but I'll raise the deeper problems that occur even with the better examples of this trope, mostly because it still relies on a surface categorization.

You see, you can have a character with quirks and weirdness and who does odd things for no apparent reason who might seem to fit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl mold, but I argue the second you begin providing a rationale why that character behaves like she does, the categorization doesn't quite fit anymore. Take Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series - by all intents and purposes, she could be described as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least on the surface. She's spacey, she's not quite engaged with everyone else going on, she's distinctly weird amongst a society full of wizards, but as you get to know the character, you realize there are reasons for her oddness (broken family, her father's a nutcase, isolation and loneliness, I could go on) and a deep underlying sadness to her character. And once you find out all of this, she's not really a Manic Pixie Dream Girl anymore, but a fully fleshed-out three-dimensional character. 

But for a character to remain a typical 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl', it all needs to remain on the surface. To me, there's an underlying shallowness to that persona that is quite revealing - the random quirk needs to be for its own sake or for completely arbitrary/nonsense reasons, otherwise the character becomes more fleshed out and loses everything but a surface connection to the trope. But that also becomes part of the problem when introducing female characters adhering to this trope into the typical narrative - because I find it hard to take any of the 'insight' that these characters are typically written to carry as all that profound, or even genuine. Once again, all that random inanity is on the surface, and while occasional nuggets of wisdom might fall out by accident or coincidence (both of which tend to be the worst kind of plotting), I don't really find that character as attractive as I used to.

I think it needs to be noted, however, that the majority of people don't agree with me on  this subject, because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is big right now, particularly in the age of the Internet. It's why Lunajacking became a meme, Jennifer Lawrence has an Oscar for that reprehensible bit of shit Silver Linings Playbook, and Zooey Deschanel has a career. And once again, I get the attraction to random quirkiness - it's interesting and catchy, at least on a surface level, and I certainly get the attraction to it. Hell, some people who know me would argue I've dated Manic Pixie Dream Girls in the past.

But here's the big point that needs to be raised in defence of those girls, and the reason I come down harder on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope than probably even Sarkeesian: it's not real. The girls I've dated who might seem like the traditional Manic Pixie Dream Girls on the surface have all turned out to have depth and complexity and something to say that justifies their quirkiness - and as I described above, that doesn't make them Manic Pixie Dream Girls anymore, it makes them fucking human beings. Sure, people can be shallow and do things for inexplicable reasons, but deep down, there is a rationale governing their behaviour which lends humanity beyond the stereotype. To come back to why I hate Silver Linings Playbook so goddamn much, the reason that film fails is because it initially tries pretty hard to portray Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's mental ailments as real as possible - and then phones it in the third act to craft the crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-com bullshit that strips Lawrence's character of depth so she becomes just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It's dishonest filmmaking, and as I stated in my essay regarding transgressive art, if you want to make your transgression work, you have to pay it off realistically. Silver Linings Playbook doesn't do this, and instead gives us a very 'Hollywood' portrayal of mental illness that's pretty damn insulting at the end.

But putting aside Silver Linings Playbook, I'll still argue the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is pretty alarmingly sexist on both sides, as it becomes rather revealing of some uncomfortable prejudices for both men and women. On the female side, particularly for girls who might see these characters as role models or an image/style they might find appealing, how is this any different at the root than other prevailing cultural attitudes and likes defined by male tastes? Is adapting what is inherently a surface level trope defined by being at surface level what you want? Do you want your views to be marginalized and shoved to the side and not taken seriously because they're viewed as 'cute' or 'quirky' or 'precious'? Do you want to be treated like girls rather than women?

And I didn't touch on this previously, but I think it needs to be raised now, particularly when addressing male preferences for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, particularly the emphasis on the last word in that phrase. Outside of very specific cases, this speaks to a sexual immaturity with men looking not for women who can match them as equals, but girls. Does this mean male obsession with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reveal a desire for girls who are immature by definition and thus need that assertive male guidance, but just quirky and random enough to evoke a sliver of surface thought so we can delude ourselves we're desiring someone who is 'deep'? 

Frankly, the more I think about this issue, the more I think it reflects a lot worse on male preferences than anything. And while it definitely doesn't surprise me the arsenal of man-children who fill the Internet like a bad fungus have embraced this trope, it's a lot more worrying and uncomfortable to see girls and particularly women embrace it without consideration of the implications. And once again, I think part of this links back to the hipster problem I've talked about at great length, and while I will always stress it's a great thing that more people have the freedom to express themselves and be different, it should come from genuine emotion. Not a desire to be different for the sake of being different or fit a certain group - or, to put it another way, quirky just for the sake of being quirky or fit a certain stereotype.

And with all of that, we finally come to Tegan & Sara, indie rock's own Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians.

Okay, that's not entirely fair, but having churned through Tegan & Sara's discography before examining Heartthrob, it sure as hell seems like an appropriate level, at least on the surface (I'll admit it applies more to Sara's songs than Tegan's). The act, a pair of Canadian identical twins from Calgary, burst on the indie scene in the mid-90s, but I became more familiar with them when I picked up their album The Con from 2007. And you know, I was really looking forward to listening to it once I heard some of the initial buzz on the band, praised for deft musicianship and clever lyrics.

What a letdown that was. And maybe it's just exposure to better acts over the past while, but Tegan & Sara did not set off any sparks with me in any significant way. My primary irritation, at least at first, was the vocal delivery - Tegan's delivery was very breathy while Sara's was quite nasal, and I was reminded of a cross between the Dixie Chicks and 90s-era Alanis Morrissette. Unfortunately, unlike both of those acts, Tegan & Sara never really seemed to stretch their range or be all that impressive vocally. And it really didn't help matters either that it felt like their instrumentation was cribbed from any generic indie pop or indie rock act - sure, there were a few places with catchy hooks, but really nothing all that impressive or interesting. The artist I was most reminded of was Ben Lee, a indie pop act from Australia that in his better material juxtaposed lighter, airy instrumentation with darker subject matter, to very mixed results. Critics have never really liked Ben Lee, mostly because his singles tend to be very boring adult contemporary, and even though I do like a few of his songs, I definitely understand how his brand of whimsy can get very grating very fast.

So, if I wasn't impressed by the instrumentation or the vocal delivery, I must have liked the songwriting? Well, here's the big problem, and ultimately why I level the Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians title at them: there are interesting snippets of ideas here, but nothing is fully formed or realized. I'll admit there are the occasional clever lines or interesting poetry, but often times, the songs don't expand on those concepts, preferring to toss them out at random. There's no fully-realized themes or concepts explored with this material, and given they have a better-than-most grasp of lyrical meter, that disappoints me.

On top of that, most of their material feels very 'small'. Like with their vocal delivery, it doesn't seem like Tegan & Sara stretch themselves all that much emotionally or lyrically on these tracks, which can create a painfully inert and insubstantial performance. Take the 2004 album So Jealous, for instance - it's a breakup album and admittedly encompasses many more of the little emotions surrounding a breakup than Taylor Swift can hope to understand. But the problem is that all of those little emotions feel small and petty and none of them come together all that well. Now granted, some could argue that's the point of So Jealous, that when relationships end, there's a flood of little emotions rather than big ones and that they don't always fit together into a clean whole, and sure, the music matches that message, but without an underlying coherence in the delivery (or the fact that none of the songs on that album are all that special on their own), the album lacks emotional punch and it feels very trite.

Or let's consider The Con, which many fans considered their best, and darkest album. And you know, upon deeper reflection, I can acknowledge that it mostly works. But I also find it really damn hard to consider the album as 'dark' by any stretch of the mind. Most of this is an issue of production and mixing, with the distorted guitars buried at the back of the mix and vocals that never quite seem coherent enough. But the bigger problem is that while I can certainly hear the angst and anger in the tracks Tegan wrote, it's constantly undercut by the songs written by Sara, which seem to approach darker subject matter in the way of someone who might have heard a dark song once, but doesn't quite grasp the subtleties (the exception being 'Like O, Like H', where she gets close, but doesn't quite stick the landing). And none of this is helped by songs that are far too short to leave much of an impact, with nothing given time to build atmosphere or emotion. 

Or let's even consider their follow-up album Sainthood, which became a critical darling in 2009, an album that was described by the band as about 'obsession with romantic ideals'. Now this is a fine theme to build an album around, but the combination of some surprisingly weak songwriting and a lighter tone leads to the album lacking any sort of heft whatsoever. Granted, it's not a bad album, and the instrumentation and production is certainly a step above their previous work, but as an album statement, it's disappointingly shallow. Sure, it's chipper and upbeat and occasionally catchy, but the illusion that there's any sort of depth to their lyrics is completely transparent, and despite bits of wit, it's just not insightful as it thinks it is.

And that's really my big issue with Tegan & Sara as a whole: outside of the few good tracks on each album (the good writing from Tegan, the energy from Sara), there's a whole lot of bland, and what isn't bland sounds insufferably pleased with itself and vapid. The songs might seem profound at first listen, but when you consider the few bits that work in context with the rest of the material, it becomes shallow as all hell, and the method of delivery only enhances that Manic Pixie Dream Lesbian image. More importantly, with the smallness of focus and the lack of real energy in the delivery, I can't help but feel there isn't the same sincerity in their music and that enhances the shallow image.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that they aren't exactly a bad act - I mean, I've listened to some bad material this year, and Tegan & Sara don't come close to that. And I'll also admit that some of their material might resonate a lot better with a female audience, because those unique themes do occasionally come up in their music. And yes, I'll also admit that their earlier material that tended to be a little darker and a little more rough had more personality and was generally more tolerable. But with all of that, I still wouldn't consider them all that interesting or engaging, and their vocal delivery will never do anything for me.

So (finally) what do I think of their most recent album Heartthrob, their mainstream pop breakthrough (thanks to Glee, again) which many are calling a sellout?

Well, here's the funny thing - I actually think Heartthrob is the Tegan & Sara album I like the most - but for precisely all of the reasons why the fans are crying foul and screaming for the dogs of war. It is most definitely a modern pop album in comparison to the slightly harder indie rock and indie pop of their earlier material, but I'm not going to hold that again them. In fact, if I'm being honest, I think this album is much more effective than any of their previous material, and it's precisely because it's a pop album. Yes, I know the implication here is that I hold indie rock to higher standards than I do pop music, at least in terms of lyrical complexity and depth, but I think that implication should hold up under scrutiny without issue. After all, isn't the implication behind the whole 'indie' movement is that it's written to be more cerebral and less processed for the uncomprehending masses?

Now, keep in mind that I've always considered Tegan & Sara's material shallow and small, lacking a certain degree of depth and insight that you'd hope to find in indie rock, both musically and lyrically. But while I've criticized the content of their message, I'll still acknowledge that there are nuggets of solid songwriting present all throughout their work. To put it simply, on Heartthrob they show themselves very capable of writing very solid pop songs, complete with all of the connotations behind that. And strangely enough, perhaps because the instrumental pretense was stripped away to reveal the glittery, early-80s-esqe pop, I find the album surprisingly listenable. In fact, taken from that point of view, I'd argue that Tegan & Sara are a great fit for modern pop radio, with a good grasp of modern instrumentation and some deft lyrical chops. Sure, the content is small and shallow and that'll always irk me about the act, but they fit a pop environment better than indie rock. 

So yeah, I'll admit right now that Tegan & Sara wrote a really good pop album in Heartthrob. I wouldn't quite call it a great one - both Tegan and Sara's voices still grate a little too much on my nerves to be tolerable, and some songwriting flubs occasionally annoy - but it's definitely a solid effort, and I'll admit my problems with the vocals are personal. I still have issues with Tegan & Sara's choices to keep their songs small in focus and delivery - I'd like to see more emotion and dynamics from them - but overall, they remind me of a less-controlled Ellie Goulding (Sara's voice really does remind me of Ellie Goulding - probably one of the reasons 'Lights' never really worked for me, come to think of it). But overall, Heartthrob engaged me more than I expected, with the standouts being 'Closer' (a silly love song, but what's wrong with that?) and 'I'm Not Your Hero' (the standout track that seems to directly address the 'sellout' move with some interesting attempts to reconnect with their fans).

But let's circle back to the Manic Pixie Dream Lesbian conversation, and whether or not the brand still fits (it certainly seems to in the music videos) - because in their steps away from their more indie sound, a certain amount of feigned depth is thrown away and replaced with simpler, pop sentiments. And thus an interesting question comes up: if the songwriters are plainly trying to write shallow pop music and not really trying to say something deep or all that meaningful, can you still classify them as Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians? After all, doesn't it show a certain level of calculation on their part to create this image?

And here's where I ultimately have to come down on Tegan & Sara's presentation, even with Heartthrob, and still apply the Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians trope, because even though they're writing shallow pop songs, they are capable of so much more. And you might it hard to believe that sentiment, but there are a few tracks interspersed throughout their indie rock albums (particularly the title track of The Con) that really struck me with the fact that these girls have serious songwriting chops and with something to say, they really could be something. I'm reminded a bit of The Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan, in that there was so much instrumental potential on display, yet the lyrics barely strove to be an apocalyptic album we'd all seen before. I get a similar feeling with Tegan & Sara - they're good enough songwriters and talented enough instrumentalists that they really could produce something emotionally resonant and potent beyond their smaller scope... and instead they chose to make an album of shallow pop music. 

Sure, it's really good shallow pop music - I can't stress that enough how Heartthrob is a catchy, engaging pop album - but I'm reminded of a major league baseball player taking a swing at a t-ball, or a veteran gamer starting on easy mode. Instead of pushing boundaries or diving into challenging topics or (god forbid) actually showing real raw emotion for once, Tegan & Sara opted to take the easy way out, and that disappoints me. And while I don't consider it a surprise - there have been traces of pop tendencies since their very first album - I do think it dampens the impact of Heartthrob for me a bit. 

And this isn't me denigrating pop music - far from it, actually (if you don't remember, I'll stand up for Ke$ha's pop every goddamn day of the week) - and I'll freely admit that the best pop music can be as good as the best indie rock or the best rap or the best metal or the best country. But to me, Tegan & Sara's Heartthrob represents something very calculated and a bit cynical of the band, a choice to embrace shallowness not because they had anything new to say in that medium, but because they wanted a mainstream breakout hit. And because they embraced that shallowness (and the fact that fans both new and old will take their better-than-average pop lyrics just as seriously as their indie rock lyrics, mostly because they're roughly of the same quality), I can't exactly shy away from the Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians label. Sure, they're just writing shallow pop music, but too many people who won't look deeper will see this supposedly different indie act of lesbian twin sisters and think they have so much more to say when really they don't.

And this doesn't even touch on the fact that some great artists have managed to elevate what might seem like shallow pop music into something deeper and emotionally resonant. Acts like Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, or even power-pop acts like Fountains of Wayne have worked really hard to create pop music that is just as powerful as the rock and R&B from which they drew influence - and really, Tegan & Sara can't hope to approach that level of ambition.

So in the end, I guess I can recommend Heartthrob if you like pop music. If you're a fan of Tegan & Sara, you'll probably like this album even with the change in musical style. But it didn't do much for me either way, and frankly, I can't help feeling disappointed.

As for Tegan and Sara... well, you two could be a whole lot more than Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians. And as fun as that trope name is to say, I'd like to never have to use it again.

1 comment:

  1. J-Law is not a MPDG in Silver Linings and if you think so you don't know what that trope means. Merely being a romantic interest in an independent comedy who acts in contrast to a male lead is not a MPDG, especially when said woman is far too psychologically damaged to be that perfect and too strong and controlling to not make the story equally about her.