By Chris Azzopardi
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds’ devotion to LGBTQ issues – chief among them: mitigating queer-youth suicide rates – has only escalated in the years since he founded the first LoveLoud Festival Powered by AT&T in 2017. Look no further than the Billboard Music Awards in May, when Reynolds chose to use his brief onstage moment while accepting the top rock prize with his band to bring public awareness to the troubling prevalence of conversion therapy.
On June 29 at USANA Amphitheatre in Salt Lake City, the 31-year-old musician will once again put his global rock-star clout to good use, returning to the stage for the third annual LoveLoud Festival with event co-organizer Tegan Quin, one half of openly lesbian indie-pop twin duo Tegan and Sara.
Last year, Reynolds raised over $1 million for LGBTQ charities, including The Trevor Project, GLAAD, HRC, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, Encircle and GLAAD, among others. This year’s one-day event includes a headlining performance from Kesha, who will perform alongside Reynolds, Tegan and Sara, Daya, Grouplove, K. Flay, Laura Jane Grace, and more.
During a recent call, Quin and Reynolds spoke about the festival’s evolution (more LGBTQ artists … and rainbow buses?!), how Reynolds has set a new bar for straight white men, and hoping to get Beyoncé on the bill.
Chris Azzopardi: Tegan, what does it mean to you that a straight white man, particularly now when the straight white man is not the most popular person in the room, is standing up for us?
Tegan Quin: (Laughs) Honestly, it’s why I’m involved with LoveLoud, because the first conversation I had with Dan, I was just like, “Oh, this is the bar, this is not just where straight, white, cis men should be but where all of our allies should be.” And at this point, it’s fair that we should just all care. Here’s the thing: there’s really, really easy ways to show up and care as an ally. We did it before we started a foundation. We just donate a dollar from every ticket sold to something that matters to us.
I think that Dan is an incredible ally and he’s the new bar, and when he gets up every single time it bewilders and moves me and I’m just like, I can’t believe this! Every time he performs on television in a Tegan and Sara Foundation shirt (laughs) I have a giggle because most people don’t know what the shirts says, but Dan is on national television broadcasting a mission about supporting LGBTQ women and girls and fighting for economic justice and health and representation for an incredibly marginalized group of people in society. I think that it’s absolutely wonderful, because for the people who know what he’s doing it says to them, “I care.” And we should care. And I’m so moved that he cares.
I hate that in 2019 I even have to ask a question like this, but Dan, being a straight white male ally, do you think you’re able to reach people that an out lesbian female artist such as Tegan may not?
Dan Reynolds: Yeah, I think it would be ridiculous to not recognize the privilege that I’ve been given as exactly that: a straight white man. Our LGBTQ artists are just starting to come up on the scene and they’ve been there for a long time. In fact, they probably are more of a backbone in the arts community than a straight white man, but a straight white man is given a stronger voice because of privilege and that’s it. Further marginalized are LGBTQ women, especially those of color. So we have a long way to go, absolutely. But sadly it is going to take those who are privileged to speak up because some people are only going to be hearing them, and that’s the sad truth and it sucks. But the only way to change it is for all hands to be on deck.
Having done this now for three years, do you find you’re reaching the people that you have intended to reach?
Reynolds: Yeah, I think we’ve reached a small margin of the people we want to reach but, certainly, we’re starting to get there. A big part of this year and last year was AT&T live streams the whole concert, so people really, all across the globe, can watch. Because this is way more prevalent than just Utah. Really, there are hundreds of cities that need LoveLoud desperately. We started in Utah because the number one reason for death among teenagers there is suicide and LGBTQ youth are seven times more likely to take their life when they’re not accepted in the home or their community, but that statistic is really prevalent all over the place and Utah just happened to be a place that I grew up in, and I understood the community to some regard, especially the religious community that exists there. So, this has been kind of a learning process for the last three years and we absolutely want to grow and expand and move to other places and raise more money and put on these celebratory events in as many places as we can.
Anybody can watch the livestream. Is there anyone specifically that you think should tune in?
Quin: What was cool about when I got involved with LoveLoud was to hear Dan and the whole team who’ve been involved since the beginning talk about their dreams for what LoveLoud will become, and obviously AT&T is allowing them to live that dream. I think the people who need to watch the stream are the same people who need to come to the show, which is just all of the community that surrounds LGBTQ people, whether you are completely understanding, or OK with it or not, it’s a great place to start that conversation.
I think Dan draws really kind of beautiful pictures for every kid who’s watching the livestream on their laptop, maybe alone at home, who haven’t had that conversation yet, or maybe they’re watching with their family. There’s so many moving moments. It’s not just the music – in fact, it’s what happens in between the music: the speeches and the speakers and some of the other big moments that happen from community members.
To see the power and to see the positivity, I hope a lot of young people watch the stream and feel good about themselves and see themselves represented. I know for myself, personally as a young queer person, I did not see myself represented. In the ’90s the closest representation I had were the few women who were out, like k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, who were amazing, but they were decades older than me. Representation is important, and Dan and LoveLoud and all of us on the board are trying really hard to find representation of everyone so LGBTQ people see themselves and feel good.
What are some next steps the music industry can take in combating homophobia in the industry?
Reynolds: I think affording more opportunities for LGBTQ artists. One of the rad things that Tegan was just telling me she’s doing right now: They’re finishing their record and it’s all produced and engineered by women, which is super rare. And it’s not for lack of women trying; it’s not for lack of women producers. It’s just because people don’t afford them the same opportunities. And especially for LGBTQ songwriters, they’ve been around for a long time but just finally are they being recognized. One of my dear friends is Justin Tranter, who now is being recognized as an incredible songwriter and yet way before he was songwriting for his own band, Semi Precious Weapons, he just wasn’t afforded the same popularity because he was asked to be less queer by so many people time after time. I can just say that absolutely affording more opportunities for our LGBTQ community would be a great start.
Tegan, do you feel like we have to stifle our queerness … you, not we … ha, I’m not in the music industry. But do you feel you or other LGBTQ artists have to stifle their sexuality to get a leg up in the music business?
Quin: No, actually, I think you should say “we.” I think as queer people, of course we have to stifle who we are no matter where we work. My experience is not singular; it’s not mine, it’s ours. We all feel it. I know tons of women in the music business who are not out at work, which is wild to me. But the music business is like every business: men are at the top. And generally, it’s straight men, and if they’re gay men that doesn’t necessarily fare any better for us as women (laughs). Yeah, I think we do have to stifle a part of who we are, our personhood, and I think Dan’s right (about) providing more opportunities for LGBTQ women. Clearly, obviously, all LGBTQ people need that space but for women specifically in the industry that would be incredible. But it’s a double-edged sword. You don’t just want to be known as a queer producer or a queer songwriter. And so we all face this sort of question of, “How much do we make that a part of who we are?”
I think what’s really gonna have to happen is that straight men and men with huge recording budgets and men with power are gonna have to stop making their records with 20 men and start using women – and women at the top. And I think that’s when the industry will really change. All the women we just worked with are all under the age of 30 and that’s a good sign to me. I think Dan’s right: those rooms are getting more diverse and they’re getting more opportunities, but I think what the industry really needs to do is just address the problem with women still. It’s a desert out there for women, so of course it’s hard for LGBTQ people.
More LGBTQ artists are on this year’s bill than during the festival’s first and second year. Can you talk about how queer inclusion in the festival has changed, why that has changed and if there was any pressure to be more LGBTQ-inclusive?
Reynolds: The answer is: yes, yes and yes (laughs). As far as the artists and speakers: this has been a learning project for me. I knew in the beginning that my heart was in this and it was in it because it affected people around me. It was my friends growing up who were Mormon and queer and watching the struggles that they had with that and the acceptance they weren’t receiving at home, and then meeting my wife who’s a fierce activist (who was) living with her two best friends who are LGBTQ and all of them dressing up in wedding dresses and wanting to go handcuff themselves to the Federal Building during Prop 8. So I married a woman who also ignited what was already there for me and who is also the roaring fire behind LoveLoud.
So every straight white man needs to marry your wife.
Reynolds: Yes. But hell no. I got there first! (Laughs) My long answer is that I came into this as, you’re right, a privileged straight white man saying, “Hey, let me help,” and the only thing I knew to help with was my band, Imagine Dragons; it has a big platform and a big following and a lot of that following is families, which is exactly who we wanted to affect. We wanted this dinner-table conversation to destigmatize. So long story short: It started with the band, it launched off the shoulders of the band, and now we’re moving it toward where it should be, which is primarily focused on LGBTQ artists, affording them more opportunities, affording them a stage in front of tens of thousands of people. Between our lineup, between our speakers, it’s a very LGBTQ-focused lineup and I think on top of that it’s all hands-on deck, so we also have some really great mainstream artists who are allies.
What’s the future of LoveLoud?
Reynolds: That it’s everywhere. I want it to be such a household name that it becomes boring so that this becomes destigmatized so people can stop talking about it as an issue. That’s the main goal at the end of the day: for this to be destigmatized so that LGBTQ kids can just be kids and that’s it. I think that’s the goal, and to do that we take it into every city and every home. I want everyone talking about this, I want conservative-religious parents to sit down and have to talk about this with their kids because the kids say, “I want to go to this concert,” and they say, “What is it? What does that mean?” and have the conversation and that starts the destigmatization process.
Would either of you be interested in taking LoveLoud on the road?
Quin: Yeah, I’ve heard some pretty awesome ideas thrown around at some of our board meetings and I think it could be really cool to see LoveLoud in a lot of other places. Again, I’ve said it so many times, but this isn’t just a Utah issue, so I think there’s lots of potential. There’s just nothing like it. Just never had that feeling. There’s just literally never been another thing like this – the closest is, of course, celebrations around Pride every year in major cities, but this is different because it’s everyone coming together for a very, very specific reason and rallying around our youth. But it touches everybody because it really connects with the families, but it also connects with older LGBTQ people. I went with some of my dear friends last year and they were just like, “I needed this as a young person, desperately.” It just makes you really feel so seen when you’re there.
If you could pick a dream artist or speaker to appear at the festival, who would it be?
Quin: For me, personally, I feel like I walk a fine line because I think it would be cool if Madonna came, if Pink did it; I think it could be an amazing thing if Katy Perry came and did it. I think having women like that who have been incredible allies to the community would be so powerful. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, when they got their GLAAD award, I was like, “They should come to LoveLoud!” They would be amazing. But I think Dan just pointed out something really important, which is that often when LGBTQ events happen our allies get the stage and it’s often the LGBTQ artists who don’t get asked to play. And so, I don’t know. There’s a fucking amazing crop of young LGBTQ people: I’d love to have King Princess, I’d love to have Shura, I’d love to have Janelle Monae.
Reynolds: I’d love to have Frank Ocean. I’m just putting these names out just to get the offer out there. I’d love to have Lizzo. There’s a lot of artists, both queer and not. And like I said, I think it’s all hands-on deck. We need everyone, because this is a global issue.
Quin: Every year we’re just gonna keep adding to the list, and Dan’s quite ambitious about what he wants to do and I’m along for the ride.
Reynolds: And rainbow tour buses rolling across the U.S.!
Quin: Rainbow tour buses! I’m into it.
—As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.