How Mormon pop stars are using their music to support LGBT issues

Posted at 4:50 PM, Jul 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-30 18:50:21-04

Music plays a big role in Mormon life.

Their hymnbook has more than 300 songs, singing is an integral part of their worship services from childhood on, and members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are ambassadors for the faith who’ve performed at presidential inaugurations and once won a Grammy for their rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” On Saturday, as another sign of their love of music, more than 30,000 people packed into the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium for a festival put on by Imagine Dragon’s lead singer Dan Reynolds, the biggest Mormon pop star today.

“They appreciate music here,” LoveLoud Fest executive director Lance Lowry said of Utah. He called it a “very artistic state” and said he grew up on a street where everyone sang, played the piano or danced. Utahns particularly like Imagine Dragons, he said. “I believe Imagine Dragons is probably more popular in Utah than any artist is anywhere.”

LoveLoud, in its second year, was started by Reynolds as a response to a rising teen suicide rate in the state. Using music, the event seeks to start conversations about LGBT issues among the Mormon community, and this year it raised more than $1 million for local and national LGBT organizations.

“The suicide rate is skyrocketing,” Reynolds told COVER/LINE hours before his performance Saturday. “Depression and anxiety rate, especially amongst LGBTQ youth, is skyrocketing.” It’s a crisis, he said, and “people are turning a blind eye.”

The Mormon and LGBT communities have been at odds, notably in 2008 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which eliminated state residents’ right to same-sex marriage. And in 2015, a church policy that barred the children of same-sex couples from being blessed or baptized until they turned 18 and disavowed same-sex relationships became public.

Reynolds described himself as a “conflicted Mormon” who’s trying to fix his culture, and he cited his Mormonism for the reason he, as a straight man, has taken up LGBT advocacy.

“Me doing this right now is me living my Mormonism,” he said. “And what my mom taught me: Love always.”

LoveLoud’s line-up included musicians with and without a Mormon background. There were performances by Zedd, Mary Lambert and Tyler Glenn, the lead singer of Neon Trees who was raised Mormon and came out as gay in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2014. One of Glenn’s sets included songs from his provocative 2016 album Excommunication, about his struggles with faith. It was his first time performing some of the songs in Salt Lake City, and he said he believed in the power of music to change minds in Utah.

“I think music does change people’s minds, but I think Mormons especially love music and I think it’s a big part of the culture,” he said.

Last year’s LoveLoud was documented in an HBO documentary “Believer,” which showed organizers fretting about filling out their inaugural venue, in Orem, Utah. Reynolds cited a statement from the LDS Church applauding LoveLoud for boosting ticket sales from 8,000 to 20,000. “It sold a lot of tickets,” he said.

This year, the festival was bigger, and backed by major corporate sponsors like AT&T, and Utah-based companies Vivint Smart Home, Qualtrics, and DOMO. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican Mormon, declared Saturday LoveLoud Day, and Barb Young, a co-chair on the board of the Utah LGBT resource center Encircle, and her husband Steve, the Mormon NFL star who played for Brigham Young University in the early ’80s and later the San Francisco 49ers, introduced Apple CEO Tim Cook (the Youngs are friends with Cook and made the ask). Cook, who is openly gay and born into in a conservative, religious community in Alabama, wore a black LoveLoud tee and white, red, and green “Equality” Nikes, as he told LGBT youth they are a “gift to the world.”

“Find your truth, speak your truth, live your truth,” he said. “‘Normal’ just might be the worst word ever created.” Cook then introduced Imagine Dragons, who rose up onto the stage as a shirtless Reynolds played a drum.

One of the first things you notice about Reynolds is his stature. Not only is he tall, he’s muscular, and he’s expressive with his arms when he talks and performs, filling up a space. His size reminded this story’s author of paintings of righteously ripped Book of Mormon heroes. A black “X” was drawn on Reynolds’ hand, a visual tribute to the red “X” Neon Trees’ Glenn used during his Excommunication album and had tattooed on his wrist. During Reynolds’ set, he got off the stage to sing and meet fans, at one point draped himself in a sequined rainbow flag.

“We must change our culture,” he told the crowd. “We must change the way we see each other.”

Spencer Cox, Utah’s lieutenant governor, said he thinks things are changing in the state. He said he’s had multiple conversations with people, including Republicans, who want to be better on LGBT issues, and he credits the efforts of Reynolds and others with influencing the public conversation.

“For better or worse, in our society, rock stars have kind of an outsized voice,” he said. “I think it’s a real opportunity when they use it for good.”

Mormons have long been fans of their own pop stars, from the Osmonds in the ’70s to a slew of Mormon rock stars and reality show singing contestants more recently. While many have used their platform to share their faith — from the Osmonds’ The Plan, a concept album about Mormon beliefs about the purpose of life, to the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, who recorded an “I’m a Mormon” ad for the church — the stars of LoveLoud represent a different approach, pushing further than the church has on LGBT issues.

“If the leaders won’t change and the doctrine won’t change, the people need to change, the culture needs to change,” Reynolds said. “We have a generation that is coming up right now that is not okay with any answer but fully loving and accepting our LGBTQ youth.”

He said he’s heard from fans who were emboldened by last year’s LoveLoud. “I’ve gotten tons of emails and messages over the year of people saying they felt safe coming out to their family after LoveLoud,” he said. “I think those conversations are happening.”

Tegan Quin, half of the duo Tegan & Sara, said despite the gains that have been made on LGBT issues, it’s only “better for some of us.” She said she’s noticed fans “look worn down,” and hoped LoveLoud could be “a way to say to our fans, not just Mormon fans and not just the LGBT community here, but to all faith-based communities with LGBT people that we’re here for you.”

Like any good Mormon endeavor, the organizers of the festival have plans to spread the gospel of LoveLoud outside of Utah, to other conservative, religious communities across the country and around the world.

“The goal, I think, would be to take LoveLoud to anywhere that it’s needed,” Lowry, the executive director said. “The sky’s the limit.”

This story has been updated.