RAYE and radical relatability

Young women artists are defying the music industry’s rules—and liberating us all

March 09, 2023
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The sixth track on RAYE’s My 21st Century Blues, “Mary Jane”, is a former addict’s haunting ode to the substances she depended on in the years preceding the release of this debut album. It is a devastatingly immediate way of writing about addiction—we are transported straight into the middle of her torturous dance with the chemical salves she used to dull her pain. “Codeine,” she sings, “You hold me better than any man did... Red wine, you always gave me the best advice.”

There is nothing polite or sanitised about this album. It grapples with some of the lowest moments in the 25-year-old’s life as she charts her battles with addiction, yes, and with body dysmorphia; the aftermath of sexual assault; the emotional yoyo of a toxic relationship; and the grip of misogyny on the music industry. It is this unfiltered quality that makes the album remarkable—in order to bring it into to the world, RAYE (real name Rachel Keen) was forced to leave her record label, Polydor, and distribute the album herself as an independent artist. The story of My 21st Century Blues is the story of a new era in which young female artists are wrestling back the narrative—their own narratives—from the “white men CEOs” whom RAYE instructs to get their “pink, chubby hands” off her mouth. 

I am a year older than Keen. We grew up at a time of terrible sexism in and around the music industry—from tabloid commentary about Britney Spears’s so-called “paunch” to the assault and slut-shaming of Rihanna by Chris Brown to the public vilification of a 20-year-old Miley Cyrus for her “Wrecking Ball” video. The message was loud and clear: music by young women is unserious, and the bodies and choices of young female artists are fair game for scrutiny and abuse. Madonna captured the paradox of the sexuality of the female pop star in an impassioned speech at the Women in Music Awards in 2016: “I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean a female entertainer… There are no rules—if you’re a boy. If you’re a girl, you have to play the game… You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact that this grim status quo had not only on young women artists but also on the imaginations and self-conceptions of teenage girls listening to those artists. For me, pop stars felt like sirens of impossible glamour and sexiness: sassy, but only in a hot way; sexual, but only for the male gaze. They felt aspirational and intimidating, and sometimes they were just another stick with which we could beat ourselves up—for not measuring up. Songs such as Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” or the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” or Britney Spears’s “Work Bitch” were laced with internalised misogyny. They felt like clarion calls for unattainable standards—this is how you should look, feel and behave, they seemed to say. This is the way your sexuality should be expressed. It never occurred to me at the time that if these women were given unconstrained access to the mic, they might also express similar feelings, struggles and self-doubts to my own. 

Many women artists were fighting tooth and nail to be able to release powerful and authentic music. In 2013, 16-year-old Lorde became the first woman in 17 years to top the Billboard Alternative Chart with her song “Royals”. In 2016, Beyoncé released the album Lemonade—a groundbreaking work of black feminism exploring race, infidelity and rage. It was also in the 2010s that Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion erupted onto the scene with radical confidence and sexual bravado, while Taylor Swift was carving out the career that would, in 2022, make her the highest paid female entertainer in the world. These women expanded the terrain that women artists could occupy and the subjects their music could tackle.

But the rules of the industry were still unavoidably present: making or breaking women artists’ careers and limiting their opportunities to be vulnerable, to reveal all sides of themselves. 

If we want to build a society that is less toxic for young women, giving them access to music that reflects this vulnerability could be transformative. Writer and choral conductor Amelia Nagoski, co-author of Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle, argues that the greatest source of burnout for women is the gap between the expectations that society places on them and the reality of their lives. “Part of our primitive nervous system knows that the safest place to be is in the middle of a herd,” Nagoski says in an interview with Prospect. “We feel driven to conform to society’s expectations of us for basic safety, even if we know these expectations are wildly unachievable.” She believes that the solution to the persistent anxieties that many women struggle with is to build a community—perhaps, I wonder, one where women can be their messy, imperfect selves. In building our own herds, we might achieve the sense of safety Nagoski believes we need, without conforming to wider societal demands. 

For Croydon-born Keen, the battle to release authentic music through her record label was a seven-year fight that she would never win. Polydor was happy for her to write floor-filling lines for other artists, including Beyoncé and Little Mix, and for her to lend vocals to the likes of Jax Jones and David Guetta. But they would not support her to release her own album, unconvinced that her eclectic musical style and direct lyrics would be a commercial success. In an impassioned tweet in 2021, she wrote: “I’ve done everything they asked me; I switched genres, I worked 7 days a week, ask anyone in the music game, they know. I’m done being a polite pop star. I want to make my album now, please that is all I want.” 

The album she would go on to make is a careering journey through her early twenties, with juddering oscillations between strength and vulnerability, heartbreak and euphoria. There is, however, always a steady undercurrent of rage. The standout track, “Escapism”—an R&B electropop banger that hit number one in January 2023 after going viral on TikTok—tells the story of a hedonistic night out that Keen embarks upon after a breakup, during which she seeks solace in drink, drugs and sex: “Doctor, doctor, take mercy on me,” she pleads, “I don’t wanna feel.”

Many of her songs are an expression of deep emotional pain—in the ballad “Ice Cream Man”, she gives a raw account of her sexual assault by a music producer. But throughout the album, she also retains a sense of humour and lightness of touch: “I’m already acting like a dick… so you might as well stick it in,” she sings in “Escapism”.

It is this nuanced shading of light and dark that makes this album such a joy. This is music as storytelling, and I see vignettes of my own story in My 21st Century Blues. Who among us hasn’t, at some point, been “a heart broke bitch [in] high heels… in the back of the nightclub, sipping champagne” (or at least a cheap glass of white wine)? In “Body Dysmorphia”, Keen writes candidly about her urges to cut off pieces of her own face—capturing the violence of the self-loathing that so many of us feel. In February, she posted a video on her Instagram account of herself performing “Ice Cream Man” in her underwear: “As insecure as I feel about my body, I wanted to sing this song as naked as I feel inside the lyrics,” she writes in the caption. Far from seeming distant, aspirational or like criticism, this is music as validation. Her vulnerability is a direct rejection of the emotion that defines so much of the female experience: shame. 

Keen is one of a host of British women artists who is are finding voices by flatly ignoring the expectations of the mainstream music industry. Rotherham-born Rebecca Lucy Taylor, known as Self Esteem, only found success when she left indie band Slow Club and started writing about periods, assault and body image on her terms. “I was tired of being this sweet heterosexual lady in a band,” she told the Guardian. From Little Simz’s subversive feminist rap “Venom” (“Never givin’ credit where it’s due ’cause you don’t like pussy in power”) to the comedic genius of South London-based R.A.E’s “Damn Jermaine” (“I saw you down the street (what), kissing up Elaine), young women artists are releasing music that brims with anger and wit and honesty. 

Commercially, Polydor missed a trick when they failed to recognise the potential in Keen—not only did “Escapism” spend 12 weeks in the top 10 singles chart, but My 21st Century Blues debuted at number two on the UK albums chart, only narrowly missing out to Shania Twain’s Queen of Me. But for Keen, while these accolades are a vindication, they are not her most important motivation. In June 2022, she told the Independent that the purpose of her new music “isn’t to be the number one artist. It’s to be the most honest and authentic I can be. To honour all these different sides of me.” In telling her story in her own words, RAYE is liberating us all.