Though TikTok might have you believing otherwise, real visionary popstars don’t come around too often. You know the ones; where songs are vessels for a wider social mood, where every photoshoot and outfit change and video release is a proper event, where interviews are a joy of self-deprecating humour and poignant relatability. Whether they’re in a golden moment never to be repeated, or are a true lifetime icon in incubation, they’re the sort of person you find yourself actively rooting for, seeing every success as a heart-warming that even in this cold, ruthless industry, true magic can still break through.
Rebecca Lucy Taylor – aka Self Esteem – is one such artist, and the sort that you expect is going to be sticking around for quite some time. Going it alone after 11 years in indie-duo Slow Club, her debut record ‘Compliments Please’ sewed the seeds in 2019, demonstrating her prowess for bold, rhythmic pop with a cathartic edge. Having grown tired of dampening down her entertaining sensibilities in order to conform to an ‘indie’ authenticity, it was a delight to see her embodying a new sense of freedom, writing songs that explored bisexuality, autonomy and diverse musical influence, from Hip-Hop drums to all-out girl group choruses.
The success of ‘Compliments Please’ forged a fanbase who stuck around for her pandemic entertainment (an at-home weekly exercise class, an all-female and non-binary virtual festival and a near-constant stream of witty social media posts), but there was a sense that it was a momentum-builder for something even bigger, a real moment where the masses would be forced to sit up and pay attention. And so in April, it was thus; ‘I Do This All The Time’, a new single that was instantly noted down as a song of the year.
It’s difficult to put an exact finger on ‘I Do This All The Time’s unique quality, but if it feels eye-wateringly special, it’s because it’s honest – often devastatingly so. It’s brave too — spoken word over swelling strings, detailing hurt that ranges from the depressingly comedic (“When I’m buried in the ground/I won’t be able to make your birthday drinks but I will still feel guilty”) to the truly agonizing (“It was really rather miserable trying to love you”), without ever breaking its gaze. It is hard to hear and yet sonically remains warm, an invitation to espouse your fears and frustrations before picking up the pieces and rebuilding them. It became a staple on 6Music, a track of the week on Radio 1, and a breathtaking performance on Jools Holland. In years to come, it will likely be looked back on as the song that took this whole Self Esteem thing skyward.
“As all the clichés go, I got into Self Esteem’s first record when I was going through a really tough time,” says Emily Pilbeam, BBC Introducing Presenter and a certified Rebecca Lucy Taylor fan. “It is such a special record to me that makes me want to dance, sing, cry hysterically, go out on the lash, hide away in my bathroom… literally every emotion possible you could have. Of the three tracks she’s released so far, I’ve reacted the exact same way; I’m listening repeatedly, I’m screaming along in the kitchen when I’ve got the flat to myself, I’m smiling underneath my mask when I’m walking to the shops. I’m obsessed. It’s so amazing seeing everyone else respond in the same way too.”
Another ‘moment’ occurred this weekend just gone, at Green Man Festival, when the tent was barely large enough to hold the number of people who had been drawn to her, the further singles ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ and ‘How Can I Help You’ developing her story. In the last few weeks and particularly over Green Man weekend, every third tweet on my timeline was one of praise for her; from fellow musicians, from publications, from fans new and old.
Perhaps most interestingly, there has also been another type of fan in the comments; men who appear to be educating other less-convinced men on feminism in the comments, holding them to account and demonstrating the kind of allyship that we need to see. There will always be those who resolutely refuse to comprehend the notion that a female artist might simultaneously want to wear sexy outfits AND be spoken to respectfully, but like any great artist, Taylor is getting stuck into the issues that can no longer be looked over; misogyny, the constant threat of the male gaze, the comparison culture that convinces us that we need to somehow straddle ‘aspirational girlboss’ and ‘not too much’ at all times. If we consider the background of recent years — influencer culture, MeToo, the senseless murder of Sarah Everard — she feels like a popstar we need to be listening to, to remind us that it isn’t a hopeless fight. It’s been an exhausting time to be a woman and to listen to somebody who actually gets it feels like a welcome exhale after years of thinking of you were only allowed to breathe in.
“I’ve tried to explain it to people and I never find the right words, but the only way I can say it is I’ve never listened to an artist or seen an artist that feels fully representative of me,” says Emily. “Every lyric she writes, it feels like she can see into my soul — either that or she’s got a sweet link up with my therapist. I do reckon part of the reason she’s resonating so much right now is that, fundamentally, we’re all fucking sick of misogyny; when I hear the lyrics “don’t send those big paragraph texts of yours, stop it; don’t”, I literally put my own phone down.”
While it’s been an incredible few years for talented teenagers, we’ve long been woefully short on female popstars that get to breakthrough in their 30s, frequently deprived of people who can guide us through the moments of transitional adulthood second-guessing – “Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have/Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun”; “No need to wait for bended knee/ I’m free”. The strides that Rebecca Lucy Taylor is making feel like a win for us all, a kick-back against the notion that to be musically relevant is to be either a precociously talented trust fund baby or an impenetrable glamazon with a vicious stan army. As likely to comedically ape a Britney Spears photoshoot with a meal deal as she is to make an important statement on consent, Rebecca’s versatility is perfectly befitting of the nuances of modern British womanhood, the freedom that comes from following your own compass.
With ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ coming on Oct 22, Rebecca is about to unleash upon the world a record that levels up on everything that has gone before. As it stands, it would be astounding not to see it nominated for next year’s Mercury Music Prize (a long-term goal of the artist), or to imagine how it might tie in with an upcoming book project. It may have taken Self Esteem a little time, but she’s gotten here by being herself — a good-at-Twitter, proudly Yorkshire, “tall sturdy girl” who just happens to be really really good at putting her feelings into words.
“Music is so subjective — I really do think it is down to the individual what you go for and what you get into, but I guess for me, a true artist is standing for something and being so uniquely you.” Says Emily. “There are still loads of popstars that break through the mould and get into the chart and I have no fucking idea how, but for me, to be akin to Rebecca and to leave a lasting legacy like I truly believe she will, you have to be true to you.” All hail a new era of self-esteem for us all, in every sense of the phrase.
Every week, Jenessa Williams unpacks the biggest topics setting Music Twitter alight. Dive into even more Subtweets in her weekly column.