“Girl Power”: The immortal slogan of the Spice Girls and title of the 1996 album by Shampoo. However, its origin supposedly comes from a zine published by the US punk chicks of Bikini Kill in 1991. In The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, it is written that ‘they articulated an agenda for young women in and outside of music.’ 30 years later, and we are presented with Prioritise Pleasure, the highly-anticipated new album from Self Esteem.
It is a manifesto for the modern girl, a cornucopia of style punctuated by battle cries, all while celebrating strength and vulnerability. Throughout 2021 there has been a steady release of singles and videos, as well as a slam-dunk on this year’s festival scene, all creating anticipation for the album itself. The reviews are in, and they are stratospheric, stars upon stars upon stars as far as the eye can see.
Self Esteem is the creation of Rebecca Lucy Taylor, formerly of Sheffield duo Slow Club. In interviews, she has described wanting the experience of Self Esteem to be without boundaries. You are one; you are included as you listen to her or watch her perform. This is made easy by the raw authenticity she represents.
Sometimes a song can strike you like lightning, paralysing you in some half-forgotten moment while the world around you melts into a soft-focused slow motion. Although it’s often that a song can be like a horoscope and pull you in with the generalised feelings about living that we all feel, you are rarely presented with words and emotions that tug at such specific pieces of you; it’s as though someone has ripped pages from your diary and put them to music, or plucked the memories straight out of your skull.
With Self Esteem, I was presented with that standstill moment as I flicked through my Spotify Discover Weekly on a hot overground train in June. “I Do This All The Time” burst through my headphones, “Look up. Lean back. Be strong. You didn’t think you’d live this long.” The chorus is disjointed, a broken-voiced howl with soft harmonies spread beneath like butter, before you are met with a slow, steady sermon: “Old habits die for a couple of weeks, and then I start doing them again.”
I was transfixed by her honesty and drawn in by the intentional and rhythmic way she spoke. There’s been a resurgence in the musical spoken word, with artists such as Kae Tempest and Sinead O’Brien heading the charge. With “I Do This All The Time,” Self Esteem capitalises on this fresh yearning for the overlap of poetry and production, the desire for recitation and a narrative, and the narrative she gives to us throughout is a compelling reflection of our own.
We are launched into the story by “I’m Fine,” an accusatory statement with the fire of female rage – it is the outburst that comes as the product of silencing yourself for someone else. The following album is peppered with recurring motifs; you catch lines that repeat from one song to the next.
The lyric, “My hunger times my impatience,” appears firstly in “Fucking Wizardry” in an expression of how the feeling opens you up to others taking advantage of your vulnerabilities and being impulsive and reckless in their treatment of you. The lyric then appears again further down the line in “I Do This All The Time”: “Now and again you make complete sense,
but most of the time I’m sat here feeling stupid for trying, my hunger times my impatience equals the problem.” This time the hunger and impatience put us at fault, for allowing our expectation of someone else’s behaviour to exhaust us and get in the way of our happiness.
The whole album explores mutual accountability and how much we can blame ourselves or others for negative cycles of behaviour. It touches on forgiving, or not forgiving, self-love, and balancing that with the utterly human need for love from others.
“Hobbies 2” is fuelled by the apathy of hook-up culture and how women train themselves to match the energy of what they are presented with; for many of us, the modern sex-positivity movement didn’t come with the warning label to teach us about demanding and expecting aftercare till it was far too late.
This is followed by the album’s namesake Prioritise Pleasure, a heavy and pulsating celebration of letting go of the behaviours that are for the sake of those around us and not ourselves. The backing vocals are pure gospel; you can imagine them filling the high and cavernous ceilings of churches. The effect feels like a shared spiritual epiphany.
Recovery and rehabilitation aren’t linear, and this doesn’t just apply to substances. It applies to behaviours, experiences, trauma, and relationships. Despite the power and conviction of Prioritise Pleasure, the songs that follow subvert the expectation of where you would want a Hollywood version of the story to take you.
The mood drops as “I Do This All The Time” explores the grief of the self and the parts of ourselves that we willingly sacrifice; it climbs through your mourning till it reaches that optimistic climax where we promise ourselves that we will be okay again. “Moody” then pushes us back down again; we’re sexting our exes “during the mental health talk,” we’re drinking too much, we’re struggling to accept the reality of a foregone conclusion.
This bargaining stage of sorts continues through “Still Reigning,” where we are once again falling back into the pattern of placing the needs of others (“The love you need is gentle, the love you need is kind”) over ourselves (“I feel everything, and nothing at all”). We relapse into our bad habits, we’re not taking care of ourselves, which brings us to the brilliant anger of “How Can I Help You.”
With a Yeezus drumbeat loud enough for the gods to hear, the lyrics are spat into the face of those who have wronged us in a sing-song-shout of a chant that mimics schoolyard bullying. Female rage is vilified, sexualised, and used against us – it is refreshing to hear it so rawly expressed, especially at a time when so many women feel unsafe at the hands of men.
“It’s Been A While” takes us back to mutual accountability, but this time focuses on how it feels to try to heal when you don’t feel like the other side is letting go of you either. Once more, we are secondary, we are an afterthought, but for as long as we know we still linger there, it will be all the more difficult to move on.
So we need “The 345,” a soft and slow expression of trying once again to rebuild self-love.
It’s a monologue spoken to yourself in the mirror, encouraging the creation of new promoting purpose and motivation in the wake of previous plans falling apart; it’s a gentler spin on Prioritise Pleasure, still encouraging living for the self but whilst trying to figure out how to treat yourself with tenderness.
Following in its wake is “John Elton,” where we truly start to feel the loss and try to figure out what to do with it: “So, this all that’s left of it, a dull ache in my stomach pit, as I try to make the memories fit a less rejecting narrative for me.” Our longing is still present in “You Forever,” and we have come to accept that it may never leave but acknowledge how well we’re doing on our own. The tune is bright and optimistic, we still hold the love, but we are capable of living.
Finally, we reach “Just Kids.” We all remember how we met the people we fall in love with, and maybe we remember it just outside of reality. La vie en rose kicks in, the heady drug of romance clouds over any mishaps or words are spoken out of turn, but that doesn’t matter. The human memory is a subjective and everchanging thing, and we were fortunate to once
be in a place where love could bloom and grow, despite whatever happened next. We’re finally forgiving, both of others and ourselves: “Maybe you didn’t really mean to make me doubt my life, and it really wasn’t okay, but I never did say, and I feel so sorry for you and me.”
Self Esteem’s girl power isn’t only about anger or what defines femininity. It’s about making space for yourself, as a woman, first. It’s about understanding your emotions, knowing where your relationships, your family, and the patriarchy may have adapted and changed who you are and whether you wish to accept those changes or fight against them. It’s about analysing yourself and your relationships, not accepting things as black or white, and about taking responsibility for yourself where you can.
It’s self-care, it’s grief, it’s healing, and the best part is that we can all share these experiences together. We can empathise and understand where our experiences aren’t the same as others; we can support one another through our highs and lows and guide one another when we falter. We can know when to step back, when to allow our emotions to run their course, and when we can forgive.
Prioritise Pleasure is Self Esteem’s moving tapestry about finding your power through the pain, and I hope it inspires us all to accept and love ourselves in a new and exciting way. Changing for the better and learning how to live with yourself is a scary thing, I know. But isn’t it so very exciting?