I felt a little out of place walking into Self Esteem’s gig at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, west London. She is an artist whose fans are devoted to her – her music seems to inspire not just admiration, but utter adoration. I’ve certainly appreciated the passion, intelligence and candour of the singer-songwriter born Rebecca Taylor – her frankness as a working-class woman in music and an emotional woman in love. I watched her evolution from one half of the Sheffield indie group Slow Club to bonafide pop star (her second solo record, Prioritise Pleasure, topped many albums of the year lists in 2021). But I’ve never quite understood her music – until now.
There is no doubt that Self Esteem’s maximalist pop makes most sense as a communal spectacle. At the first of three sold-out shows in the capital, her live band is minimal – just a drummer and a bassist/keyboardist – yet the sonic impact (thanks also to a sample-heavy backing track) is great. Taylor’s voice soars. But it’s the choreography that makes the show. Beginning with the album’s title track, Taylor and her three backing vocalists and dancers shuffle around the stage like a posse of Michael Jackson impersonators in grey trouser-suits and gloves. Their moves are slick, but Taylor performs them with just enough slack that she still seems approachable – much of her charm, after all, is her relatability.
Throughout a short, energetic set – with multiple costume changes – Self Esteem channels Queen, the Pussycat Dolls and Madonna. Her hits “The 345”, “Moody” and “I Do This All the Time” are highlights. Occasionally the thundering drums overpower Taylor’s vocals – and her witty lyrics – but that’s no problem for this audience, who know every word. “Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have/Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun,” the woman next to me shouts, emboldened by Taylor’s doctrine of self-love.
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A Self Esteem gig comes with its own traditions. There is the nightly collective audience howling, which comes after a sample in which a young woman describes how she barks like a dog at unwanted male attention, “because there is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman who appears completely deranged”. There is the customary slogan t-shirt that Taylor dons for the encore – tonight a very timely “Free Gary”.
At one point Taylor pauses the only song she performs solo, “John Elton”, for which she is accompanying herself on electric guitar, to ask a member of the audience to stop waving their phone torch in the air. “Don’t do that, it’s not a Coldplay show,” she quips. The crowd is in hysterics. A few bars later she stops again – to apologise, she says, to both the audience member and to Chris Martin. “I f***ing love Coldplay. It’s just when you do that, that’s all I can focus on, and I’m trying to access the memory of someone I loved in 2015.”
These few seconds sum up Self Esteem’s charm. She’s funny, and knows her mind, but she isn’t obnoxious. She isn’t interested in upsetting people with no just cause. And what she really wants is to get on with the show to which her fans are so clearly in thrall. Live, Self Esteem’s appeal is indisputable: she is our most humane popstar.
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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe