Pop music’s only gay Mormon, the flamboyant frontman of Neon Trees, talks faith, glamour and finding the bear of his dreams
Photos by Jam Sutton
It was in August 2012 that pop musician and singer Tyler Glenn shared ‘25 Things You Don’t Know About Me’ with Us Weekly. At that point, Glenn’s Utah-based pop band Neon Trees had two well-received pop albums under its belt—2010’s Habits, which featured the ubiquitous lead single “Animal,” and a second, Picture Show, that had just been released a few months prior on the back of double-platinum single “Everybody Talks.” But while “everybody” might have been talking, there was one thing Glenn failed to mention in that magazine piece—that he was a gay man, had known since he was 6 years old and had been living a closeted life personally and professionally.
Some might have deduced as much from a few items on his list—“I have seen the entire series of Sex and the City a total of nine times” is a particular standout—but Glenn’s foray out of the closet didn’t see ink until last month’s issue of Rolling Stone, when, now with a third, also well-received album under his belt, Pop Psychology, Glenn admitted to the world that not only is he sexually attracted to men, he has no intention of renouncing the Mormon faith under which he was raised.
Modern day American culture seems to be reaching a point where gay musicians on the radio are no longer a controversial or even novel concept. The mainstream success of pop artists like Adam Lambert, Frank Ocean, Mika and Sia—in addition to lesser-known but critically acclaimed artists like Sam Sparro, Stephin Merritt and Edward Droste of Grizzly Bear—have proven that in the music industry, well-crafted tracks and powerhouse performances are still barometers for success. To be openly gay in the recording industry will never cease to be important, of course, because music is a universal language—a process of sharing experience, from songwriter to artist, but also among listeners. While the road ahead of Glenn is most definitely not the easiest to travel, he is a welcome addition to a rapidly expanding roster of LGBT artists.
But how are fans to reconcile Glenn’s homosexuality with his ingrained sense of personal faith?
Glenn spoke with me by phone the morning after Neon Trees began its latest tour in Nashville—a tour in support of the band’s very first album to debut at number one on the rock charts.
“It was kind of a typical first show, but it was awesome,” he says.
The band’s performances are known to be both raucous and colorful, enhanced by Glenn’s peacock-inspired persona. He’s a lead singer who understands that pop music is as much about visual elements as what exits the speakers, citing bands like Erasure, Depeche Mode and Cyndi Lauper as his childhood pop music idols, all of whom balanced strong songcraft with their dynamic personae.
“I’ve never understood not trying to be a star when you’re onstage, ‘cause it’s like, you’re on a stage. People have come to see you play. I don’t know if it’s just being a fan of over-the-top pop music when I was growing up, but for me, that’s just what I know, so I put that into the band.”
The prior night’s performance had been one of the band’s first since Glenn’s Rolling Stone revelation, and I was curious whether he felt his live show or his onstage persona had changed since coming out.
“It’s funny—we’ve always been a pretty gay band. I’ve never not danced the way I feel. I’ve always worn flamboyant stuff since we started. So, to me, I don’t want people to think all of the sudden it’s a gay show because I’m a gay man. I think it’s still the same energy, and I think if anything is different, it’s a little more celebratory and it’s a little more confident because I’m a little more confident.”
Confidence is a selling point for pop musicians, particularly those who grace stages the world over. Glenn has found that if anything, his coming out has created a stronger bond between him and his fans, remarking that fans who had been following Neon Trees for long time “feel even more connected, so they get some of the nuances in the songs more, and they get some of the comments that I make onstage that maybe before were a little vague and coded.”