It’s a chilly December night in Nashville, and Jake Wesley Rogers, an of-the-moment glam rocker with an essence that feels infused with the spirit of queer artists who came before him, is seated at his piano at the storied Marathon Music Works venue. It’s nearing the close of a friendly battle of the bands of sorts with queer R&B artist Bren Joy for Red Bull SoundClash Nashville. Rogers is duetting with his special guest, beloved singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, on her pining ’90s hit “Strong Enough.” With Rogers clad in fabulous threads that hearken to both early Elton John and David Bowie, he and Crow query, “Are you strong enough to be my man?” From the queering of a classic song to Rogers’s clothes and makeup, each aspect of the performance seems purposefully curated to meld a queer past with the present. But it’s all just Rogers living authentically.
“It’s a big part of my mission statement [to live out loud], but it’s not ever really intentional,” Rogers says. “The only intention is that I’m telling my truth. And my truth happens to be something that hasn’t really been popularized until recently and hasn’t been allowed in the mainstream until recently.”
Shuffle through Rogers’s recent videos and religion and queer history coincide. His “Middle of Love” video off the EP Pluto, released in October of last year, pops with salmon hues and a celebration of queer love in a distinct nod to the classic gay film Pink Narcissus. The haunting black-and-white video for his song “Momentary” pays homage to LGBTQ+ luminaries including Marsha P. Johnson and Oscar Wilde as a funeral procession heads to the top of a mountain where Rogers is splayed on a cross resembling a glamorous blackbird adorned in lace, tulle, and flowers.
But there’s no willful blaspheming in Rogers’s religious iconography. It’s an act of love for the 25-year-old to dig into the Christianity that surrounded him growing up in Ozark, Mo.
“I just grew up with [religion] all around me. It was kind of my lens for learning what it means to love and be human,” Rogers says. “When I was able to step away from it and kind of wash myself of the bullshit and come back and be more of an observer [of it] and see myself on my terms, it’s profound.”
He continues, “The reason I wanted to be on the cross in that video, it was less of I want to do this to be edgy and piss people off. It was more [about] what the cross or someone being sacrificed represents. I was thinking of the people who paved the way and the sacrifice they played.” He adds that Wilde, who was imprisoned for being queer, has always been his “North Star.”
Still, Rogers knows that taking to the cross is a bold move and bound to ruffle feathers. He calls out to another changemaker who shook up MTV decades ago with her video for “Like a Prayer.”
“Madonna sexualized Christianity, and I want to queer it up,” Rogers says.
A musician since he was a child, Rogers has made inroads in Nashville, the mothership of country music, where LGBTQ+ folks have historically not been widely celebrated. He released the EP Evergreen in 2017 and Spiritual in 2019, and his soaring vocals and glam style caught the attention of queer Grammy-nominated songwriter Justin Tranter, who signed him to Facet Records/Warner Records in 2020.
With increased recognition, Rogers knows there’s power in his music and queer persona, and it’s clear in the feedback he’s received. On one hand, he’s moved by hearing from accepting parents of queer kids who’ve shared how much their child adores his music. But he truly felt the impact of his art on others when a fundamentalist Christian reached out to say that one of Rogers’s songs led him to greater acceptance.
“He heard one of my songs on a playlist. He just thought it was a pretty song…but realized it was a gay love song. He messaged me and said it was a catalyst for him,” Rogers recalls. “He said, ‘How could something so beautiful be so evil?’”
The exchange was enlightening in terms of where Rogers’s music goes and how it affects those who hear it once he’s put it out in the world.
“I was writing these songs to get out of my own cage, my own closet. [He’s] in a very different cage.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Entertainment Issue, which is out on newsstands April 2, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.