Today's artist is one who achieved Top 20 status with the debut single of his group. He was also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as the Mormon Church, before publicly coming out as gay. This young man is called Tyler Glenn.
Tyler Aaron Glenn was born on November 28, 1983, in Temecula, California. After high school, he served a Mormon mission in Nebraska. Tyler had known he was gay since he was six years old and had been living a closeted life for decades that choked his spirit and threatened his sanity.
Like Glenn, the other three members of Neon Trees were raised Mormon. And while the band has no overt religious affiliation, it credits the Church of Latter-day Saints' strict ordinances against drinking and drugs – which the members have adopted as band rules – with helping its rise.
Glenn and Neon Trees guitarist Chris Allen were childhood neighbors in Murrieta, a San Diego suburb known for its large Mormon population and scenic vineyards – to this day, Glenn has a surfer-dude stare and proclivity for the word "stoked" that is straight-up Southern California. The second of four children born to a stay-at-home mom and a dad who sold medical devices, Glenn grew up loving Pop stars like Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul and taking ballet classes. "All my brothers were in soccer, but I was terrible at sports," he says. In seventh grade, he became curious about the Morrissey pictures on his Latino pals' folders, discovered the Smiths and transformed himself from choirboy to New Wave brat. He started listening to the New York Dolls and frequenting thrift stores, where he put together wild outfits that got him called "fag." By high school, he was playing in a "terrible" garage band and hoping to find his musical soulmate, convinced being a singer was his calling.
Most other 16-year-olds at Glenn's church, the Alta Murrieta Ward, would stand in front of the congregation and say a prayer over the sacrament on Sundays, but Glenn got stonewalled. "I wasn't allowed to because of the way I looked – they said I was a distraction," he recalls dryly. Glenn papered his bedroom walls with images of Bruce Springsteen and sneaked out of the house to try the usual teenage temptations. "I think I felt worse about masturbating than drinking," he admits. He had a girlfriend and says he was "in love with her, as far as I knew."
When he left high school, Glenn did something that surprised even his parents: He announced he was doubling down on Mormonism and going on a two-year mission to convert people to the faith. "I was like, 'I'm 18, I'm either going to go to college, which I have no interest in because I want to be in music, or I have to go on a mission,'" he says. Overnight, he went from a punk whose hair was slathered and spiked with Murray's pomade to a clean-cut proselytizer in a standard-issue suit. For two years, he lived as a hungry vegan in Hastings, Nebraska. He rose at 6 a.m. and knocked on doors offering lessons in the faith and ultimately baptized 17 people. He held on to his music dreams, though: "You're not allowed to listen to secular music, so I would go into the closet and jam," he says.
Before he left for Nebraska, Glenn had gotten amped about continuing to write songs with Allen, who he says was "my other half," musically. "We knew the band name, we knew the sound we wanted to go for. It was 2002, and the whole post-punk New Wave thing hadn't really come back yet." But when he returned, 30 pounds lighter and brimming with ideas, the revival was in full swing without him. "Bloc Party, the Killers, the Rapture – I was pissed," Glenn says. "This is the sound I thought we would have."
Devoting himself to God hadn't erased Glenn's attraction to men. A month after he moved back home, he finally gave in to his urges and went on his first gay date, nervously meeting the online hookup at a casino, where they had sushi. "That was the first time I'd ever kissed a guy, and I was like, 'This is exactly what's been missing in a physical relationship,'" Glenn says. In his early twenties, meeting men online was his only option. "I found myself in situations that I normally wouldn't have ever put myself into, and that scared me," he says. "It got dark. It was dangerous."
In 2005, like many young Mormons seeking like-minded friends, Allen moved to Provo (his day job: masseur) and the 21-year-old Glenn followed, looking for a fresh start. Telling a pool-hall owner they were the band scheduled to play that night, Glenn landed the group its first show, and Neon Trees became part of the small but active Provo music scene; bassist Branden Campbell and drummer Elaine Bradley joined soon after. Campbell knew drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. of the Killers from high school, which opened the door to an opening slot with the Las Vegas band. More breaks followed, including a major-label deal, which brought about their 2010 debut, Habits.
Their first single, Animal, climbed to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Alternative Songs chart.
The album was a medium-sized hit in the US, the UK and Australia. All of its tracks were either written or co-written by Glenn. The album's opener was Sins of My Youth; Glenn managed to sneak his personal fears over coming out in it:
Would you love me still if I were to confess
That I had a little too much fun
Back when I was young
1983, a song named after the year of Tyler's birth, was their second single. It was a hit on the US Alternative and Rock charts.
The album's third single was Your Surrender. This was also a US chart hit, though not on the Hot 100.
In The Next Room also received a lot of airplay and was given a proper video.
Finally from the first album, here's Girls and Boys in School, a song that's great to dance to.
Everybody Talks, released on December 20, 2011, was the lead single to the band's second studio album, Picture Show (2012). It was their biggest hit, peaking at #6 in the US Hot 100. It also peaked at #10 in Australia.
For Lessons in Love (All Day, All Night), they collaborated with Kaskade.
Moving in the Dark was used in a NCIS episode:
Artistdirect.com gave the album a positive review, and mentioned the song, I Am the DJ as a standout track.
An acoustic version of Mad Love was included in the soundtrack of Dallas Buyers Club in 2013:
As his band grew, Glenn's torment about his sexuality – whether he'd make it public, or bottle it up for eternity – started to take its toll. His secret was compounded by an affection he'd developed for a man working closely with the band. "I had my crushes on guys throughout high school, but it was never an overwhelming thing until my twenties," he says. "Then I'd be dating girls and in love with my straight friend, and it was the worst feeling in the world." On tour opening for the Offspring in 2012, Glenn started to get aggressive with the unfriendly, bottle-chucking crowds, spitting and cursing at unruly audience members. After an especially rough night in Vegas, Campbell chewed out Glenn for his antics and Glenn fell apart. He didn't stop crying all the way to Utah, and when he got home, he decided everything simply needed to stop.
"My mom took control and found me a therapist," Glenn says. Speaking with his new confidante, a Mormon woman, immediately gave him relief. "I felt like a human," he says. "I could be Tyler from the old days, and I wasn't 'Neon Trees guy.'" When his label came calling and sent Glenn into writing sessions for a new album, he decamped for Mexico with longtime collaborator Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult, an old pal who had co-written Neon Trees' two smash hits. As the record progressed, Glenn felt an overpowering itch to tell Pagnotta what he was really writing about. The producer's response to his coming out still makes Glenn tear up. "He was like, 'Tyler, I love you, and I'm so excited for you.' And that's when I was like, 'Really? Wait. It's OK?'" he remembers, his voice shaky with emotion. "It blew my mind. This changes everything. And of course then I wanted to tell the person next to me on the plane."
Emboldened by the strides he'd made in therapy, as well as by his friend's reaction, Glenn started to test the waters. The first single from Pop Psychology (the band's last album, released on April 22, 2014), the chiming Sleeping With a Friend, is indeed about getting with a straight man. It's one of their best songs, actually. I love the 80s vibe.
The doo-wop-flavored Teenager in Love was inspired by the guy Glenn pined after for three years, while maintaining a two-year relationship with a woman he'd resolved to marry. "She broke up with me in a half-page note that was like, 'I love you, but you'll never love me the way I need to be loved,'" Glenn says, taking a breath at the memory. "At the time, I was really crushed, but it was a relief. The last thing I want to do is be that guy that gets married and lives the double life. There's so many of those people in Utah."
The album received good reviews: At Entertainment Weekly, Kyle Anderson graded the album a B+, remarking how the release was "a 40-minute master class in the kind of Pop that moves both the body and the brain." Jerry Shriver of USA Today rated the album three stars out of four, stating that "these witty, bright and relentlessly danceable tunes also explore plenty of universal young-adult angst." Heather Phares of AllMusic rated the album four stars out of five, remarking that "Even if Neon Trees sometimes try a little too hard to be serious on Pop Psychology, it's some of their most heartfelt music and some of their finest."
I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends) was their second single from this album:
Voices in the Halls was a standout track, a contemplative song about past affairs:
Another song with an 80s vibe was Text Me In The Morning:
First Things First was an autobiographical song; it also felt like a turning of the page.
A good cover of the 80s classic Don't You Want Me appears on the deluxe edition of the album:
The last track released by the Neon Trees was this non-album single, called Songs I Can't Listen To. The video featured Tyler and Dustin Lance Black in romantic situations. It came out in 2015:
Tyler finally came out as gay in a March 25, 2014 interview to Caryn Ganz (which interview helped a great deal on the writing of this story). "I was going to learn to drive for my 30th birthday, but I came out instead," he announced to the world.
"I've always made jokes off and on because I do wear extravagant things, especially onstage," he says. "I also want the world to know I'm not gay just because I wear a glitter suit."
Now Glenn sees an opportunity to reshape the idea of a gay rock star. "I've gotten tired of kind-of gay or straight people being pop culture's gay [spokespeople] – like Macklemore," he says. "It makes me wonder, 'Are we ready for an actual gay pop star and not just the safe straight guy saying it's OK?' I appreciate the fact that Michael Stipe was able to just be who he was, and it rarely overshadowed the music."
Immediately following his coming out, there was minimal fuss, because Tyler still identified as a Mormon, trying to balance these two very conflicting identities. Glenn wasn't quite that naive, though, and recognized that Mormons around him were "compartmentalizing" in a big way. "There are some things we definitely are going to have to face," he said, "especially with Elaine (Bradley, the group's drummer) being actively LDS," a.k.a. Latter-day Saint. "If there are more political situations that come up where the church gets involved, I wonder what that will do."
Unfortunately, Tyler's worries proved to be spot on. In November 2015, the LDS Church announced children of same-sex married couples could not be baptized until those children are 18 years of age and disavowed homosexual relationships, including those of their own parents. This announcement shocked Glenn. “It was terrifying to feel the rug pulled out from under me,” he said. He no longer self-identifies as Mormon, though he has not resigned.
Almost immediately, he reacted with music - songs that he said he wants to reach LGBTQI youth in need of guidance and support. The result was Tyler's first solo album, Excommunication (2016). In this album, with the suitably designed cover, a close-up of Tyler's face with big a scarlet X drawn all over it, he examines how losing his religion felt, from anguish to liberation. While the album is as catchy as any of his work with Neon Trees, it's clear why he needed to record and release it on his own. These are easily some of his most personal songs: "I never asked to fall from grace," he sings on Sudden Death (OMG), which opens Excommunication with ground-zero feelings of shock and betrayal.
Going solo also lets him try on different sounds for size, whether it's the R&B-tinged anthem Shameless or Trash's defiant Electropop.
Here's Shameless, with its great "in your face" video:
Trash was the album's lead single. In the song's video, Tyler lets out all his anger and frustration over the betrayal he experienced by his religious leaders. The song and video deeply touched other LGBTQI people that were kicked out of the Mormon church because of their sexuality.
Here are some people sharing their own experiences in the comments' section of youtube:
"I grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and was treated like "Trash." A something to be thrown away because of being gay. There are too many bad experiences about the way I was treated as an LDS member. In my late teens, a Bishop's court was held where I was excommunicated because of my 'homosexuality.'"
"They did the same to me except I tried to kill myself. They then backed off long enough for me to have time to "get help" which lead to me requesting my membership removed. Best part is the strong Mormon family they had me stay with ended up breaking apart after the priesthood holder, the father, was arrested for giving handjobs to men at his massage therapy job. Talk about irony."
"My missionary companion got kicked out for being homosexual. He hadn't acted on his feelings in the field. He just happened to tell me and then his next companion. I got into some major shit from the mission president for not telling on him. When he was being sent home he told him that I also knew. I left the mission never being a D.L. Z.L. or A.P. nada! It was punishment. The other one got sent home for 'medical reasons."'
As he shares frank, catchy confessions like G.D.M.M.L. Grls (God didn't make me like girls), Glenn ends up speaking for many others as well as himself.
Similarly, there's a sense of joy that's infectious, particularly on Gods + Monsters and Waiting Around, where Glenn's sense of relief is palpable.
Here's Gods + Monsters:
... And here's Waiting Around:
Moving, funny, and danceable, Excommunication is some of his finest music yet. In fact, I think that going solo actually suits Tyler. Hopefully we'll get much more great music from him in the future!