Released today in 1989: Express Yourself

Sire W2948

Sire W2948

The promotional clip for Madonna’s Express Yourself was the most expensive of the 1980s. With a budget nearly five times that of Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller (admittedly, his money went further as there were some seven years between the two videos), Madonna’s $5 million bought her lavish sets on a huge soundstage, the best in hair, make-up and costume, crane- and tracking-shots, director David Fincher – and just about anyone else she wanted to involve on the project. “This one I had the most amount of input,” Rolling Stone quote Madonna as saying in an article where they name the clip as her very best 1. “I oversaw everything — the building of the sets, everyone’s costumes, I had meetings with make-up and hair and the cinematographer, everybody. Casting, finding the right cat — just every aspect. Kind of like making a little movie. We basically sat down and just threw out all every idea we could possibly conceive of and of all the things we wanted. All the imagery we wanted — and I had a few set ideas, for instance the cat and the idea of ‘Metropolis’ [ground-breaking 1927 expressionist sci-fi movie]. I definitely wanted to have that influence, that look on all the men — the workers diligently methodically working away.”

The video was shot in April 1989 at Culver Studios in California. The Fritz Lang-inspired industrial imagery, with giant machinery being operated by powerfully-built men rendered vulnerable by the sheer scale of the sets, was combined with the ambiguous styling of Madonna herself: one moment she was a power-suited ‘80s businesswoman with shoulder-pads and a monocle, every inch the chairwoman of the board – the next she was clad in a corset or submissively chained to a bed. What all this might mean has generated much analysis, and with Madonna both the objectified and the objectifier during the course of the clip, the video did seem to be offering a comment on gender politics. Slant magazine later summarized it as “a bombastic masterpiece that heralds Madonna’s uncanny ability to use her consumer-driven image to code her feminist politics,” 2 which seems as valid an appraisal as any. Certainly she bore a striking resemblance to Marlene Dietrich in the scenes where she wore the black trouser-suit, an actress who made use of androgyny in some of her film roles. Returning to the ‘Metropolis’ influence, Express Yourself also explored the relationship between the body and the mind, and hinted at class warfare propaganda with its depictions of manipulated manual workers and a controlling elite. And there was that stuff with the cat and a bowl of milk too.

Using as its soundtrack a special Shep Pettibone remix of the song, the Express Yourself video got its premiere on 17 May 1989 on MTV and was aired on the channel every hour for about three weeks. At that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, it was nominated in the categories of Best Female Video, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Direction and Best Art Direction and (a little surprisingly given the push the channel had given it) it won (only) in the last three categories. Its most significant win in the same year was probably being Billboard magazine’s video of the year at their Music Video Awards. Since then, it has appeared in the Top 10 of a number of lists of the greatest music videos of all-time compiled by some prestigious institutions. Despite not awarding it Best Female Video in the year of its release, MTV included it in the Top 10 of their 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made (1999); Rolling Stone magazine placed it similarly in its The 100 Top Music Videos (1993); as did Time magazine in their The 30 All-Time Best Music Videos (2011).

1 Weingarten, Christopher et al. “The Making of Madonna’s 20 Greatest Music Videos”, Rolling Stone, Wenner Media LLC, 25 February 2015.
2 Cinquemani, Sal et al. “100 Greatest Music Videos”, Slant, slantmagazine.com, 30 June 2003.

NEW SINGLES on sale from May. 22
1980
Hazel O’CONNOR Writing on The Wall (A&M AMS7530)
1981
The JAM Funeral Pyre (Polydor POSP257)
1986
The SMITHS (Morrissey) Bigmouth Strikes Again (Rough Trade RT192)
1989
GUNS N’ ROSES Sweet Child O’ Mine [Re-issue] (Geffen GEF55)
Howard JONES The Prisoner (WEA HOW14)
MADONNA Express Yourself (Sire W2948)
SHARPE AND NUMAN (Gary Numan) I’m On Automatic (Polydor PO43)
SINITTA Right Back Where We Started From (Fanfare FAN18)
TRANSVISION VAMP (Wendy James) The Only One (MCA TVV7)

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