This is the story of an old woman who could. 

A withered babushka who defied the Reaper’s gaze to follow her dreams.

The wizened dame who said ‘cynics be damned, I’m going to record pop music at the age of 34’. 

When this year’s nominations for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize were announced recently, few were surprised to see Prioritise Pleasure by Self Esteem on the 12-strong shortlist.

Self Esteem is the alias of Rebecca Lucy Taylor, who made her bones as part of indie duo Slow Club before going solo and realising her grand pop ambitions. 

Released in April 2021, her second LP was a joyous burst of liberating pop music that topped numerous album of the year lists. As live audiences returned, Taylor’s gigs became cathartic experiences, and a summer of triumphant festival appearances was crowned with that Mercury nod. 

After years of restraint and frustration on the indie circuit, Taylor has achieved success on her own terms.

And she had the audacity to do it in - deep breath - her MID-30s.

As one journalist recently put it in a review shared by Taylor on Twitter, “Rebecca proves that dreams can come true whatever your age”. 

“Whatever your age”. Fair play.

You have to applaud Taylor for even being able to drag her gnarly old frame into the recording studio, never mind wrench notes from her dwindling ‘Hurt'-era Johnny Cash husk of a voice.

Taylor pointed out that the journalist eventually apologised, but it’s remarkable that a woman achieving pop success in her mid-30s is remarkable.

Long-time Self Esteem fan Laura Doherty, who co-hosts the Lost Map Records podcast, believes Taylor’s relative experience when compared to some pop stars is an asset, not a liability. 

She told me: “I personally - and maybe most women - wouldn’t have had that confidence in their 20s to be able to say what she’s saying and have that perspective on life, so I think of Self Esteem’s lyrics as what you wish a big sister would have told you when you were younger. 

“Would it have made a difference to me, or is it just that millennial experience and having certain shared experiences of men and patriarchy being s****y or relationships going wrong? I just don’t think that necessarily at 21 that was something that was there for me.”

In much the same way as actresses traditionally see their roles shift from lover to mother once they hit a certain age (as satirised by comedian Amy Schumer in her famous Last F***able Day sketch), the music industry has always believed pop stardom is for women in their teens or 20s. 

Self Esteem wears her Madonna influence on her sleeve (and, in the case of her recent Glastonbury performance, on her conical bra), and history’s most iconic female musician is still routinely subjected to criticism and mockery for continuing to act like a pop star while in her 60s. 

When Madonna was the same age as Taylor is now, pop bible Smash Hits reviewed a performance from her The Girlie Show tour with the headline ‘Calm down grandma!’. Yeah, calm down 35-year-old grandma.

God knows how they would have reacted to J-Lo and Shakira playing the 2020 Super Bowl half-time show with a combined age of 93, or Beyoncé currently occupying nine places in Spotify’s top 10 with songs from an album released weeks ahead of her 41st birthday.

That’s to say nothing of Jessie Ware releasing her biggest album at the age of 35 in 2020, 36-year-old Lady Gaga currently touring sold-out stadiums or Kate Bush enjoying her first US number one at 64 with the year’s most inescapable song (give or take Louis Theroux’s jiggle-resistant money). 

Doherty believes wisdom and perspective aren’t the only qualities that make acts like Self Esteem an attractive proposition, saying: “Even just from a financial point of view, there’s a huge market of women over 30. Why would you not give them something that speaks to them and appeals to them? 

“It’s true of any demographic. We need more diversity in our stories and our art. That’s what makes the world interesting, and people are always going to resonate with something that tells a specific truth.

“The idea of the music industry only focusing on cute, tiny white girls that are under 25 as their pop stars is really self-limiting, even for making money.”

She added: “I don’t really think of Self Esteem as being 35, I just like her because I like her work.”

Her age doesn’t have to be a novelty. As Taylor tweeted in relation to that review: “Normalise women and the passing of time!”

Glasgow Times:

After England’s Lionesses won Euro 2022 on Sunday, BBC pundit Alex Scott addressed those who had ignored the women’s game, and said: “I hope you’re all looking at yourselves right now because you weren’t brave enough to see the vision.”

Those within the music industry still reluctant to embrace women in their 30s could do worse than listen to Taylor’s You Forever, and these words in particular: “You need to be braver, ‘cause I did this all without you.”