Who is Self Esteem and why can’t we get enough of her punchy pop?

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 (Olivia Richardson)
(Olivia Richardson)

Wearing an eye-popping pink dress with “work hard” spelt out across the neckline in crystals, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, better known as the musician Self Esteem, appeared to cast a spell over Heaven nightclub on Wednesday night. Her fans were delirious with delight as they sung along to songs from her album Prioritise Pleasure, a riot of bold, catchy pop songs that sum up what it is to be a woman in 2021.

“Stop trying to have so many friends,” she states in her song I Do This All The Time. “Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have… Prioritise pleasure, Don’t send those long paragraph texts, Stop it, don’t, Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life, All the days that you get to have are big.”

Prioritise Pleasure, Taylor’s second album has captured a moment – critics are hailing the return of big, confident pop music, with rich confessional choruses; alternately calling her the UK’s Taylor Swift, Robyn or Britney Spears - Taylor re-created Spears’s 1999 Rolling Stone Cover for NME. Her fans are wearing t-shirts with her lyrics on and some are so ardent that they have got Self Esteem tattoos.

Self Esteem’s songs span difficult relationships, working out who you are and sexual assault. The opening track of the album, I’m Fine includes a recording of a woman describing how she barks like a dog when groups of men approach her on the street because, “there is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged.” When she sings I’m Fine live, the crowd bark along and post recordings on Instagram with barking dog emojis. The song is about a toxic relationship and sees Taylor into defiant mode, singing: “I won’t rein in my need to be completely free!” Watching it live, with fans putting their hands in the air, has been compared to a religious experience, with people feeling like this woman articulates what they haven’t been able to. So who is Self Esteem?

For the first 15 years of her career, Taylor, 35, was in the indie band Slow Club with her friend Charles Watson. They formed in Sheffield in 2006 (Taylor is from Rotherham) and recorded five albums. Daniel Radcliffe was in the video for their song Beginners, in a fetching red Hawaiian shirt. But being in the same band that she’d been in since her teens was frustrating and Taylor didn’t feel creatively fulfilled. Their touring schedule was relentless. Taylor has said: “We said yes to everything, apart from one Wombats support tour. We did one show with them and everyone [in the crowd] was shouting ‘Get your tits out’ at me. We got loads of laddy shit. It was before it was cool to be not a dickhead.”

Self Esteem (Self Esteem)
Self Esteem (Self Esteem)

The last days of Slow Club, before they parted ways in 2017, are captured in the documentary Our Most Brilliant Friends. Its director, Piers Dennis, went on the road with Taylor and Watson and said the film he made is about “friendships, growing up and growing apart”: “Rebecca is so introverted in how she is feeling, but extroverted in how she expresses it. Charles is more closed off.”

Taylor has since spoken about how she felt stifled in the band. In I Do This All The Time, she quotes an old tour manager telling her, “All you need to do, darling, is fit into that little dress of yours”.

She used Instagram to express herself in a way she felt she couldn’t while she was, as she put it “this sweet, heterosexual lady in a band. I just wanted to prove I was a whole being that had other stuff going on”. In 2013, she came out as bisexual and she has jokingly compared her image-change to Miley Cyrus’s rebirth after the safe ground of kids TV. She also sent some demos to Jamie T, who approved. Later, she said: “I needed a man to tell me it was good before I did it, which is the sad thing!”

The name Self Esteem came to her while she was talking to a friend about how all band names are terrible, apart from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and if she started a band she would call it Sex Appeal or Self Esteem. She had hit on something.

Self Esteem marked the start of Taylor’s liberation. She has said it “was the first time I was able not to please anybody but myself.” On Rollout, a song on her debut solo album Compliments Please (2019), she sings: “What I might have achieved if I wasn’t trying to please.”

A meme of the Pope with some Self Esteem merchandise (Self Esteem)
A meme of the Pope with some Self Esteem merchandise (Self Esteem)

The theme of empowerment runs through Prioritise Pleasure. Taylor spoke to the New York Times about how the end of an unhappy relationship informed the album and how, now that she is older, “the therapy’s kicked in a bit, and I care less.” Music helped her process a sexual assault; after feeling like she had to deny who she was, she turned it to “defiant euphoria”. Many of her lyrics are also funny, with Moody’s “sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive” a prime example.

The rest of her tour is sold out but she is playing again in March and supporting Idles (she announced it with a picture of Kim Kardashian holding Pete Davidson’s hand, saying like him she is punching above her weight). Despite all her success, she is self-depreciating, saying she wants to be more mysterious, like Christine and the Queens: “she’s not burping on Instagram”. But she also knows that she has spent too long hiding who she is - and people respond to her authenticity. Taylor has a message that resonates and what’s even better is that she has set it to brilliant pop music.

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