In an almost forty-year career, 1989 remains one of Madonna’s most controversial.
Her 1986 album, True Blue, had been dedicated to and largely inspired by then-husband Sean Penn. But by 1989, the artist had filed for divorce from the actor, starred in more than one poorly-received film, and turned 30—the age at which her mother had died when she was a child. There was a lot going on, and so Madonna channelled the lot of it into Like a Prayer, an album that traded largely in familial trauma and Catholic guilt.
In March of that year, she kicked off the album with its title track, a gospel-infused rock song that was accompanied by one of the most controversial videos in pop music history. It was protested by a number of religious and family groups, which led to Pepsi pulling a commercial that she was featured in. Her Blond Ambition World Tour would later be denounced by none other than the Pope himself, who called on the people of Italy to boycott the star. “Like a Prayer” wasn’t the first time that Madonna had scandalized the public; as The New York Times put it, she was already known to “[stir] up just enough controversy to advance her career without tipping the balance of public opinion against her.” Still, the drama demanded that everyone pay attention to whatever she had planned for the rest of the album.
The follow-up single to “Like a Prayer” was “Express Yourself,” a clubby empowerment anthem in which Madonna advised listeners not to “go for second best” in their relationships, to find a man who “[makes them] feel like a queen on a throne.” Fair enough for a summer pop song, but its visual accompaniment complicated the message somewhat.
David Fincher’s video for “Express Yourself” made its MTV debut 30 years ago today. It was only the first of Fincher’s Madonna videos (out of four in total) but would remain his most high-concept project for the star. It was the most expensive music video ever made at that point (and, in 2019, ranks only in third place, behind another Madonna video). As Raza Syed wrote for Vice, “Two notoriously exacting talents—the ingénue, the wunderkind—seized on each other’s velocity at precisely the right moment.”
Inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, “Express Yourself” depicts Madonna as the wife of a factory overseer; a balding, stern-looking man who wears a suit and monocle. In a green evening gown, she and her pet cat gaze out of a penthouse and down at the sweaty, muscly men who work for her husband. The camera pays special attention to one of these workers (played by model Cameron Alborzian), careful to highlight that he’s the hotter of the video’s male leads. Two things then happen in tandem. One is that Madonna’s cat escapes the penthouse, eventually ending up in Alborzian’s care. The second is that she changes out of her evening wear and into a suit and monocle, à la her husband. She shows up on the factory floor in said outfit and performs the song’s now-famous choreography, which she’d more or less stick to for live performances from then on (including on the tour, where her iconic cone bra made its first appearance). In the context of the video, the dance summons Alborzian (still holding the cat) up the elevator and to her bedroom, where the two have sex. It ends with her husband noticing his employee’s absence, and, presumably, putting two and two together.
So, what did it all mean? Depends who you ask. For her part, Madonna told a BBC interviewer that “pussy rules the world” when asked about the video’s cat fixation. The sequence where she crawls on the floor and laps up milk out of a bowl—which Britney Spears would later nod to in “Slumber Party”—was one of its most discussed, as was the one where she’s quite literally chained to her bed. When an ABC anchor asked her to explain herself to the people “upset by that,” she was visibly annoyed: “There wasn’t a man that put that chain on me, I did it myself. […] I crawled under my own table, you know, there wasn’t a man standing there making me do it. I do everything by my own volition. I’m in charge, okay?”
Regardless of how one feels about the video’s specifics, most behind-the-scenes anecdotes back up Madonna’s claim that she ran much of the show. "I oversaw everything—the building of the sets, everyone's costumes, I had meetings with make-up and hair and the cinematographer, everybody,” she told author Mick St. Michael. She’d made memorable videos before, having already been one of MTV’s biggest stars for half a decade, but “Express Yourself” set a new bar for music artists who were equally serious about their videos. It wasn’t uncommon in the 1980s for performers like Michael Jackson and David Bowie to splurge on ones that they had major creative control over, but Madonna was really the first woman in pop to see herself as an auteur. The business and creative strategies that we now expect from artists like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga once had to be broken in by Madonna.
As with many Madonna videos, “Express Yourself” is iconic largely for its costumes. The “gender-bending” pantsuit that she chose for her big dance number was another hot topic upon the video’s release. Combined with the crotch-grabbing in the choreography, critics wondered whether she was arguing for “gender fluidity as a road to gender equality.” Her outfit is probably the video’s most visible legacy: Updated takes on it have appeared in everything from Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” to Beyoncé’s “Haunted.” Christina Aguilera overtly referenced the look—monocle and all—in “Not Myself Tonight,” a Madonna tribute that references some of the most sexually explicit moments from the latter’s career. As Erica Russell wrote for MTV News, “[Madonna’s] music, imagery, and confrontational boldness may not seem so revolutionary today in the age of modern feminism, but that’s because she made it so.”
The song itself has been kept alive in many ways, and not just because the Glee cast covered it. It got Kelly Clarkson to Hollywood on American Idol. Its sound and status as an empowerment track likely influenced Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” even if the star only named Madonna as one of its many inspirations. Critics immediately noted the musical similarities between the two songs when Lady Gaga’s was released in 2011. So, too, did Madonna, who performed an arguably passive aggressive mashup of both on her MDNA Tour the next year. Ariana Grande was signed to her label in 2011 after executives were sent YouTube links to her covers of pop songs; one of them may have been her own mashup of “Express Yourself” and “Born This Way.”
“Express Yourself” is one of those music videos where, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen something that’s indebted to it. Its messages about women, sexuality, and feminism are open to multiple interpretations, and that was the point. Three decades ago, Madonna was doing something that she has always been singularly good at: getting us talking.