Self Esteem: The bigger I get, the more threatening I become

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

  • Published
Self Esteem at Glastonbury
Image caption,
Self Esteem performing on the John Peel stage at Glastonbury last month

When Self Esteem played at Glastonbury last month, the crowd started howling like dogs.

To the uninitiated, this might seem bizarre - but barking has become a ritual at the singer's gigs.

It's a response to her song I'm Fine, where a woman describes acting like a dog to ward off unwanted male attention - "because there is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged".

But it's not just women who join in, says the singer. "It's anyone who has ever felt unsafe in the world. There's a collective rage at the injustice of that."

The moment captures the visceral, emotional connection between Self Esteem and her audience.

The singer's fans see themselves in her music, which outlines the absurd contradictions of modern womanhood: be strong but don't be threatening; be true to yourself but wear a nice dress; embrace sex but don't flaunt it.

With dark humour and a clear sense of purpose, Self Esteem challenges all of those ideas.

In the video for her single I Do This All The Time, she is seen hugging herself while reciting the words: "Don't be intimidated by all the babies they have / Don't be embarrassed that all you've had is fun / Prioritise pleasure."

"The amount of women who've come up to me and said, 'I'm 39, and you saying it doesn't matter if you haven't had kids made me feel a lot better'," the singer reflects.

"And I'm like, 'Wow, cool. It makes me feel better saying it, too'."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Before she was Self Esteem, Self Esteem was Rebecca Lucy Taylor. Born in Rotherham, she was a teenage cricketer before forming the cult indie band Slow Club with fellow instrumentalist Charles Watson.

After 10 years of almost-success, Taylor felt trapped. The band were stuck in mid-level gigs, earning next to nothing, and Taylor's ambition to make great big pop songs was stifled by the band's indie-folk following.

She eventually quit, spurred on by watching Ru Paul's Drag Race. "That show changed my whole life," she says. "That whole ethos of not being ashamed to be confident or brilliant. It really did, it changed everything."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Slow Club released four albums before parting ways in 2016

Rechristened Self Esteem, she unleashed an album of full-frontal pop music that catalogued her relationships, insecurities, frustrations and flaws with dark humour and towering hooks.

Jokingly titled Compliments, Please, it earned a clutch of four and five-star reviews, but failed to make the charts. Her commercial underperformance was typical of left-field, independent pop artists but, understandably, this argument did not go down well at her record label.

"I nearly got dropped," says Taylor. "And I understand that. If you look at how much it cost to make that record and promote it, versus what it made, it doesn't make any sense."

Having narrowly avoided the axe, she started trying to make an album that would have more commercial appeal on a much lower budget.

"I was like, 'Well, how do we make this sandwich shop a viable business? Maybe I just need to buy cheaper bread!'" she laughs.

"Then the pandemic hit, and all my crackpot theories on how to save the sandwich shop went out the window, and I realised, I'm an artist full time. If I can't work with this label any more, that's fine, I can probably find another way to make an album.

"And obviously, the second you stop desperately craving something, that's when it kicks in."

Freed from the pressure of other people's expectations, Taylor made the album she'd always wanted.

Prioritise Pleasure is savage and uninhibited, frequently funny and crammed full of memorable lines.

"Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive," she observes over the stuttering beats of Moody. On Hobbies 2, she derides people who try to shame her for enjoying sex: "I'm only human / What are you?"

Image source, Olivia Richardson
Image caption,
Self Esteem's lyrics have ruffled a few feathers. 'Mainly among straight men who are worried about what they might have done in the past", says the singer.

The stand-out track is I Do This All The Time, a largely spoken word song that catalogues Taylor's failings and anxieties, alongside the sexist comments that fuelled them.

"I've always kept a log of these things that men say to me," she says. "I've been a PA, I've been a waitress, and I had all those years in the band, obviously - and I'd write down all these verbatim sentences where I thought, 'I don't think that's OK', but I had to laugh it off or pretend it was nothing.

"So I was like, 'What would happen if I just wrote out everything that had been said to me?'"

Those comments - "All you have to do, darling is fit in that little dress of yours" - sit alongside a verse about a "really well-timed bad boyfriend" who amplified her feelings of worthlessness.

In the midst of it all, a gospel chorus repeats the mantra: "Look up, lean back, be strong... hold on."

And that's the blueprint for the album - put yourself first, even if it makes other people uncomfortable.

"I'm surprised that me wanting more for myself is seen as radical," she says. "But that's what's cool about it and that's what's pricking people's ears up.

"I just want to help the idea of womanhood to change. We're not in aprons and bonnets anymore, and literally people still want you to be."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The star's backing singers act like a Greek chorus, reflecting and reinforcing her message

Released last October, Prioritise Pleasure did everything Taylor hoped her debut would. It charted in the Top 20, earned a Brit Award nomination and ended up on multiple critics' best-of-2021 lists. The Guardian called it "a hugely relatable uncorking of a lifetime's worth of festering emotions" and The Sunday Times compared it to "Fleabag singing choruses written by a 1980s hitmaker".

When the Mercury Prize nominations are announced next week, it would be a shock if Self Esteem was absent.

"Something has happened where there's a legitimacy," she accepts. "I get loads of respect, finally, although I think there's a real discrepancy between my level of press versus how famous I am."

To illustrate, she briefly re-enacts a scene from the Brit Awards. "Mollie from The Saturdays walks down the red carpet: Cheering. Me: Silence. Jodie Whittaker: Cheering again," she guffaws.

"I mean, I'm happy with it like that. As long as I'm booked and busy and paid and no-one's on my mum and dad's doorstep, I'm happy."

The only real downside are the "nasty messages" she receives on social media.

"Every time I'm in the press my Instagram gets a bit scarier," she says.

"I think I'm the problem, if you know what I mean? I'm a threat. And it's not all men, it's women that have benefitted from the system as well. They don't love it.

"The bigger this gets, the more threatening it is - even though all I'm doing is singing songs and doing dancing."

When the noise threatens to become overwhelming, her fans help her regain perspective.

"When all these people who feel different or alone like I do start barking like dogs, it's just euphoria," she says. "It really is."

Self Esteem plays the Latitude festival this weekend with further festival dates throughout the summer.

Related Topics