LONDON â Rebecca Lucy Taylor â better known as Self Esteem â was onstage at a club here last Friday, performing âIâm Fine,â a pop song with a pounding beat about a sexual assault. The track includes a recording of a woman describing how she barks like a dog when approached by groups of men on the street: âThere is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged.â As strings soared, Taylor and her band started barking and howling along. Several women in the audience joined in.
It was a moment that captured both the irreverence and sincerity of Self Esteem, a budding British pop star, whose second album, âPrioritise Pleasure,â is building her a fan base who say they feel seen by her music.
For more than 15 years, Taylor, 35, has been working away in Britainâs music scene, first in the indie band Slow Club, which she said she left after years of finding her ideas stifled, then as Self Esteem, a name that âjust accidentally become the exact thing I needed,â she said in an interview at an east London bar a week before the concert.
âI have felt very alone most of my life, like âWhat is wrong with me?ââ Taylor said, pointing to expectations for women to settle down and have children. Her recent success âmakes me feel this overwhelming relief that Iâm not a total weirdo.â
If Taylor has a manifesto behind âPrioritise Pleasure,â itâs encouraging people to put themselves first without denying that they can also make mistakes. The âpleasureâ mentioned in the albumâs title can take many forms, she said, including what she was looking forward to doing that evening: going home, ordering take out and watching âSuccession.â
Self Esteemâs rise comes at a time when new attention is being paid to violence against women in Britain following the deaths of Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer while walking home in March, and Sabina Nessa, who was killed while walking through a park in September. This month, there have been reports of women being injected with syringes at nightclubs, a variation of âspiking,â when drugs are dropped into someoneâs drink.
Jude Rogers, a music journalist who has written about âPrioritse Pleasure,â said Self Esteemâs music feels right for the moment. âWe needed a woman to appear who was going to say, âEnough,ââ Rogers said. Self Esteem is âexpressing all the messiness, all the frustration and all the anger of being a woman,â in ambitious pop music,â she added.
Taylor said sheâs been concerned about her safety since she was a teenager, âwhich I guess is like the zeitgeist now.â She started writing the album in 2019, and decided to process a sexual assault she had survived through her music. âAs someone who lives very free, I like to be sexual, I like to do what I want,â she said. âBut suddenly it was taken from me and I had a decision to never enjoy myself in that way again, to never be the person I like to be, or turn it all into defiant euphoria.â
The end of a toxic relationship also informed the album, but the record has a strong thread of empowerment, which Taylor said was a result of more positive experiences. âI finally hit this beautiful cross section of Iâm older, the therapyâs kicked in a bit, and I care less,â she said. While making the record, she stopped worrying about other peopleâs expectations of her and her career.
All those changes led Taylor to write songs like âI Do This All The Time,â a largely spoken word track in which she lists her struggles, including everyday anxieties (âOld habits die for a couple of weeks, and then I start doing them againâ) and sexist comments from old tour managers (âAll you need to do, darling, is fit into that little dress of yoursâ).
Johan Karlberg, a member of the group the Very Best who produced âPrioritise Pleasure,â believes Self Esteemâs success is less about the current cultural climate in Britain and more a response to Taylorâs great songs and her âbrute honesty.â
âPeople like to say theyâre being honest in their songs and interviews, but really they very rarely are,â he said. âRebecca is in everything, and people relate to that.â
At her London concert last week, the relating was nearly deafening, as fans shouted along with their favorite lines (âSexting you at the mental health club seems counterproductiveâ was particularly loud).
One fan, Cat Carrigan, 30, said sheâs drawn to a danceable Self Esteem track called âMoodyâ thatâs both a tale of a relationship collapsing and an attempt to reclaim a common insult used against woman. âIâve been called a moody cow many times in my life,â Carrigan said. âItâs not going to affect me anymore.â
But Rubie Street, 29, said there something else thatâs made her a fan. The songs âare banging tunes, arenât they?â she said. âThat always helps.â
Originally posted on https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/26/arts/music/self-esteem-prioritise-pleasure.html