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Madonna - Express Yourself (1989)

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  • 80's Score80's Score80's Score 80's score: 2.69
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“Express Yourself” is a song by American singer-songwriter Madonna, from her fourth studio album Like a Prayer ...

“Express Yourself” is a song by American singer-songwriter Madonna, from her fourth studio album Like a Prayer (1989). It was released as the second single from the album on May 9, 1989 by Sire Records. The song was included on the greatest hits compilation albums The Immaculate Collection (1990), and Celebration (2009). “Express Yourself” was the first song that Madonna and producer Stephen Bray collaborated on for Like a Prayer. Written and produced by them, the song was a tribute to American funk and soul band Sly and the Family Stone. The main inspiration behind the song is female empowerment, urging women never to go for second-best and to always express their inner feelings.

“Express Yourself” is an upbeat dance-pop and deep funk song that features instrumentation from brass, handclaps and drum beats, while the chorus is backed by the sound of saxophone and percussion. The lyrics talk about rejecting material pleasures and only accepting the best for oneself; subtexts are employed throughout the song. “Express Yourself” received positive reviews from critics, who applauded the gender equality message of the song and complimented the song for being a hymn to freedom and encouragement to women and all oppressed minorities. Commercially, the song peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Madonna’s eighth number-one hit on the European Hot 100 Singles chart. It also reached the top of the singles charts in Canada and Switzerland, and the top five elsewhere.

The accompanying music video, directed by David Fincher, was inspired by the Fritz Lang classic film Metropolis (1927). It had a total budget of $5 million ($10.31 million in 2019 dollars), which made it the most expensive music video made up to then, and currently the third most expensive of all time. The video portrayed a city full of tall skyscrapers and railway lines. Madonna played the part of a glamorous lady and chained masochist, with muscular men acting as her workers. In the end, she picks one of them—played by model Cameron Alborzian—as her date. Critics noted the video’s depiction of female sexuality and that Madonna’s masculine image in the video was gender-bending.

“Express Yourself” has been performed on four of Madonna’s world tours, and has been covered by the female leads of the Fox TV show Glee, who performed the song in the episode titled “The Power of Madonna”. The song and the video are noted for their freedom expression and feminist aspects, and its postmodern nature entranced academics, by resisting definition. It has also left its mark on the work of subsequent pop acts, including the Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga.

Critical reception

“Express Yourself” received mainly positive reviews from critics. J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Madonna: An Intimate Biography called the song a “funky dance anthem” and reacted positively to its message of a “female call-to-arms in communication and self-respect.” Stephen Holden of The New York Times observed that Madonna repudiated the philosophy of her previous single “Material Girl” (1985) in “Express Yourself”, which he described as “a 30-year-old’s view of life unshadowed by rebellion and lingering lapsed Catholic pain.” In another article from the same newspaper, Carn James declared it as one of her most exuberant songs. Santiago Fouz-Hernández and Freya Jarman-Ivens, authors of Madonna’s Drowned Worlds, complimented the lyrics of the song, and added that it apparently espouses “gender fluidity as a road to gender equality.” In his book Madonna As Postmodern Myth, journalist Georges Claude Guilbert described “Express Yourself” as a hymn to freedom, “an encouragement for all women and all oppressed minorities to resist, to express their ideas and their strength faced with tyranny.”

Biographer Mary Cross noted in her book Madonna: A Biography, how the song paved the way for its music video and became a testament to freedom. Authors Allen Metz and Carol Benson noted in their essays on Madonna, how she decimated “patriarchal, racist and capitalist constructions”, by the way she pronounced the word “self” in “Express Yourself”. They added that the opening line “Don’t go for second best, baby” transformed the song into a postmodernist anthem. Scholar Sheila Whiteley noted in her book Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity, and Subjectivity, that Madonna’s acknowledgment of the pastiche and of being capable of imitating musical style was interesting to her, but given Madonna’s ability to manipulate image, the musical exuberance of “Express Yourself” did not appear surprising. Mark Bego, author of Madonna: Blond Ambition declared that “the song that most reflected the Madonna everyone had come to know and be shocked by was ‘Express Yourself’.” O’Brien was impressed with the song, and gave a detailed review:

“Express Yourself” is a feminist call-to-arms, complete with muscular brass playing and soulful voice. Here Madonna is the anti-materialism girl, exhorting her female audiences to respect themselves. That means having a man who loves your head and your heart. If he doesn’t treat you right (and here’s the revolutionary rhetoric) you’re better off on your own. Like a female preacher, Madonna emphasizes each word of the chorus, invoking God and the power of orgasm. In parts Cosmo-woman, girl-talk, and swinging dance track, it presages the deliciously declarative stance of “Vogue” and shows Madonna moving from introspective to survivalist mode.

Professor Maury Dean wrote in his book Rock ‘n’ Roll Gold Rush: A Singles Un-Cyclopedia, that the main appeal of “Express Yourself” lay in its teen appeal, although he understood that at its core, it was addressing a very important issue of female liberation. Kevin Phinney from Austin American-Statesman commented that with “Express Yourself”, Madonna struck out her “Material Girl” persona, there by demonstrating once more that no image of hers is concrete. Based on the lyrics of the song, Ken Blakely of Philadelphia Daily News declared the song as a rare example of good taste and good advice from Like a Prayer. Andy Goldberg from The Jerusalem Post was impressed with Madonna’s vocals on the song, complimenting the soul inlfluences. Rolling Stone’s J. D. Considine called “Express Yourself” an unabashed groove tune and felt that it seemed “smart and sassy, right down to Madonna’s soul-style testimony on the intro: ‘Come on, girls, do you believe in love?” Don McCleese from Chicago Sun-Times declared the song as one of the highlights of the album, feeling that it would become anthemic. Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine while reviewing Like a Prayer, announced “Express Yourself” as the “most soulful performance” of Madonna’s career. He added that the song “turned Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ image on its head, denouncing material things for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine from Allmusic wrote that the song consisted of “deep funk” music.

Chart performance

In the United States, “Express Yourself” was the highest debuting single at number 41 on the Billboard Hot 100, for the issue dated June 3, 1989, and after four weeks reached the top-ten of the chart, at number six. It eventually peaked at number two, held at the runner-up spot for two weeks by the Simply Red song, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and the next week by Martika’s “Toy Soldiers”. “Express Yourself” was present for a total of 16 weeks on the Hot 100, and placed at number 55 on the year-end chart. The song reached the top of the Dance Club Songs chart of Billboard, while on the Hot Adult Contemporary chart, it peaked outside the top-ten, at number 12. “Express Yourself” was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in August 1989, for shipment of 500,000 copies of the single across United States. In Canada, the song debuted at number 82 on the RPM Singles Chart and reached the top in its ninth week. It was present on the chart for 17 weeks and was the eighth best-selling Canadian single for 1989.

In Australia, “Express Yourself” debuted on the ARIA Singles Chart at number 36 on June 4, 1989. After five weeks, the song reached a peak of number five on the chart, staying there for one week, before descending the chart. It was present for a total of 19 weeks on the chart, and was certified Gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) for shipment of 35,000 copies of the single. At the year-end charts of ARIA, “Express Yourself” was the 28th best-selling Australian single of 1989. In New Zealand, the song debuted at number five on the RIANZ Singles Chart, and reaching a peak of number two after three weeks. It was present for a total of 12 weeks on the chart.

“Express Yourself” was released in the United Kingdom on June 3, 1989, and entered the UK Singles Chart at number ten, moving to its peak of number five the next week. “Express Yourself” was the 20th best-selling song of 1989 in the UK, with the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) certifying it silver, for shipment of 200,000 copies of the single. According to the Official Charts Company, the song has sold 209,000 copies there. “Express Yourself” was Madonna’s eighth number one single on the European Hot 100 Singles chart, reaching the top on July 1, 1989, and staying at number one for three weeks. In Belgium, “Express Yourself” debuted at number 16 on the Ultratop chart on June 10, 1989, and reached a peak of number three. In the Netherlands, “Express Yourself” debuted at number 27 on the Dutch Top 40, and reached a peak of five on July 1, 1989. The song reached a peak of number three in Germany, where it remained for two weeks, before spending a total of 18 weeks on the chart. On the Swiss Singles Chart, “Express Yourself” was one of the highest debuting song on the issued dated June 11, 1989. After seven weeks, the song reached the top of the chart for one week, becoming Madonna’s third number-one single there.

Music video

The music video was directed by David Fincher and filmed in April 1989, at Culver Studios in Culver City, California. It was produced by Gregg Fienberg, under Propaganda Films, with editing by Scott Chestnut, principal photography by Mark Plummer, and Vance Lorenzini as the production designer. “Express Yourself” music video was inspired by the Fritz Lang classic film Metropolis (1927), and featured an epigraph at the end of the video from the film: “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind”. The video marked the first appearance of the Shep Pettibone remix of the song. It had a total budget of $5 million ($10.31 million in 2019 dollars), which made it the most expensive music video in history at the time it was made, and currently the third most expensive of all time. “Express Yourself” had its world-premiere on May 17, 1989, on MTV and was an MTV exclusive for three weeks, being aired every hour on the music channel. The concept of the video was to portray Madonna as a glamorous lady and chained masochist, with muscular men acting as her workers. In the end, she picks one of them—played by model Cameron Alborzian—as her date. When Fincher explained this concept to Madonna, she was intrigued and decided to portray a masculine persona. She was dating actor Warren Beatty at that time, and asked him to play the part of a slave working at a factory; Beatty politely refused, saying later that “Madonna wanted the video as a show case of her sexual prowess, I never wanted to be a part of it.” She then thought about Metropolis and of its scenes displaying factory workers and a city with tall skyscrapers. Fincher liked the concept and it became the main backdrop for the video. In Madonna ‘Talking’: Madonna in Her Own Words, she commented about the development of the video.

This one I had the most amount of input. 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. I definitely wanted to have that influence, that look on all the men—the workers, diligently, methodically working away.

Madonna mentioned jokingly in a 1990 BBC Television interview on the program Omnibus, that the main theme of the video and the cat metaphor represented that “Pussy rules the world”. She added that the idea of the cat licking the milk and then pour it over, was the director’s. “It’s great but believe me I fought him on that. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it’s just so over the top and silly and kind of cliched, an art student or a film student’s kind of trick. I’m glad that I gave in to him.”

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