Self Esteem @ Stereo, Glasgow, 15 Mar
Tonight at Stereo, thanks to Rebecca Taylor's new solo project Self Esteem, pop is powerful
Pop music can be damn powerful. Anyone who’s danced to Robyn alone or ABBA in a crowded room knows this already. It takes skill to capture complex feelings on love, identity or any other subject and streamline them into a catchy chorus. The very best pop writers can take our amorphous, unwieldy thoughts and guide them into a cathartic melody and collective moment. Tonight, thanks to Self Esteem, pop is powerful.
But the night is already euphoric before Rebecca Taylor’s new project perform. Their support act Happy Spendy are harnessing the full power of pop with a glorious rendition of Life is a Rollercoaster. Yeah, the Ronan Keating one. With a cute drum machine, plinky keyboards and guitar, and a charismatic lead vocal from Eimear Coyle, the band do several impressive things: they capture giddy nostalgia for a wonderfully silly moment in pop culture; they earnestly celebrate St Patrick’s Day with a left-field cover choice; and they even rework the song in a way that’s quite sexy. The band embrace the sentimental and the dramatic, which makes them the perfect fit for Self Esteem.
This is especially clear on their closer Flex, a gentle seduction song written by Coyle for her keyboardist. 'Flex your muscles / Show me what to look at', she flirts, while the song floats on breezy chords and an innocent melody. There’s a soothing quality to the low-key approach taken. It’s as if she’s convincing her new partner not just to be comfortable around her, but comfortable in their queerness.
While the support use comfort to translate their message, Self Esteem use confrontation. The band walk on wearing T-shirts branded with 'squirt isn’t pee'. Rebecca Taylor stands in the middle with a determined stare. Her backing singers are on either side, mirroring her pose. They spend their whole set just as composed, matching each song with icy choreography. These aren’t songs that work on subtlety, especially in the live settings. The opener Rollout is lifted with octave-spanning harmonies and punchy live drums.
They’re working with pure pop bombast and feminine energy, which matches Taylor’s taut, unapologetic lyricism. Girl Crush describes the chase in a totally different way to Flex earlier in the night. Taylor stays at a distance, conscious that she might just be a fun experiment for this girl to project onto. ("Please don’t come up to me and tell me I’m your 'girl crush' after the show," she warns. "It’s just a crush.") Much of these songs deal with relationships, but within the specific moments where she’s been made to feel like a bad person for putting herself first. That’s true also for encore highlight The Best, where she refuses to pretend within a toxic relationship, and isn’t seen to be trying enough. Self Esteem’s power comes from taking these moments where people (often women) are seen as difficult or selfish, and twisting them into an accessible moment of communal catharsis.
The band slip off stage, and we wait to see if they’ll reappear, when there’s suddenly singing from a few feet away. The band are huddled around a guitar from inside the crowd. They play a delicate, stirring version of I’m Shy featuring some audience participation. 'I know I don’t behave the way you want me to be / I'd love to change my ways but it's too late', the band sing; all of their voices connect, bursting through and emphasising the moments of silence inbetween the lines. It’s impeccable.