jakub | March 15, 2023

joy and catharsis from an alt-pop hero

At the end of Self Esteem’s latest headline show in Oxford comes a moment of pure joy. With the encore wrapped up and bows taken, Shirley Bassey‘s ‘This Is My Life’ starts blasting through the speakers. On stage Self Esteem (real name Rebecca Lucy Taylor) and her band break into dance and begin singing along, imploring their audience to join in. It’s an apt way to end an infectious performance that’s already been filled with ample moments of catharsis and ecstasy.

Tonight’s euphoric show is part of Taylor’s sold-out ‘I Tour This All The Time’ run, a lap of honour for her 2021 record ‘Prioritise Pleasure’. A critically lauded album of alt-pop anthems, it tackles subjects like misogyny and the patriarchy head-on, armed with lashings of observational dry wit. While initial gigs in support of the album took place at intimate venues like London’s Heaven, this latest tour has shifted over 43,500 tickets. Given that Taylor has already played one of three shows at the Hammersmith Apollo as part of this run, tonight’s setting — the 1000-capacity O2 Academy Oxford — feels cosy by comparison.

Opening with ‘Prioritise Pleasure’’s title track, where Taylor dramatically stands atop a set of steps in the centre of the stage, the audience’s energy is electric from the off. Screams of the chorus’ “I’m free” assertion practically drown out the band’s vocals as Taylor and her trio of dancers/vocalists (Levi Heaton, Seraphina Simone and Marged Siôn) move as one thanks to some slick choreography.

Taylor and her band are all initially bedecked in coordinating grey suits reminiscent of David Byrne‘s recent tour outfit, but said suits are peeled off to reveal a set of red ensembles complete with balaclavas (soundtracked by audio snippets from the TV smash Happy Valley). This costume change aspect of the show, alongside some tight-knit vocal arrangements, prove that everything we see tonight has been considered and thoroughly planned out, making the overall performance more akin to the spectacle of the arena-size pop shows we might witness by the likes of Rosalía.

Self Esteem
Self Esteem performing live (Picture: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

New track ‘Mother’, with its elements of ‘90s dance and electronica, briefly turns the venue into a sweaty club as red lights, matching the on-stage costumes, light up the room, while the moving ‘John Elton’ settles things down as Taylor sits front and centre with just a guitar for company. The Yorkshire star’s powerhouse vocals, which soar across the venue tonight, are only matched by the ease with which she delivers her on-stage banter. As the audience expresses their disappointment at being told that they’re about to hear the last song of the main set, Taylor quickly quips back: “Come on, you’re meant to be the smart town… we’ll come back on!”

It’s the moments of collective catharsis that shine the brightest, though. ‘I’m Fine’ sees the audience howl along (a reference to the track’s lyrics: “If we are approached by a group of men / We will bark like dogs and people always laugh”), while the end of ‘You Forever’ is met with almost a minute of rapturous applause. By the time we reach ‘I Do This All The Time’ there are tears in the crowd, with every word of the anthem being belted back at Taylor. As the final lines of “I’ll take care, I’ll read again, I’ll sing again, I will” fly over rippling strings, it’s an affirming moment of liberation — one that only Self Esteem can provide.

Self Esteem played:

‘Prioritise Pleasure’
‘Fucking Wizardry’
‘Just Kids’
‘How Can I Help You’
‘Love Second’
‘Girl Crush’
‘John Elton’
‘The 345’
‘You Forever’
‘I Do This All The Time’

‘I’m Fine’
‘The Best’
‘Still Reigning’

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