“Long stem roses are the way to your heart
But he needs to start with your head
Satin sheets are very romantic
What happens when you’re not in bed?”
Taken from the album Like A Prayer
US #2, UK #5, AUS #5
I don’t really think the importance of ‘Express Yourself’ can be overstated. In many ways, for Madonna, for feminism in pop music, for videos, for her own live performances, for gender roles in entertainment, it changed things completely. Coming off the masterpiece that was the ‘Like A Prayer’ single and video, it was important that Madonna’s next single continued in the same vein, but took a different direction completely to avoid comparisons. ‘Express Yourself’ goes in hand in hand with ‘Like A Prayer’, and yet stands alone with a strong individual identity.
The song itself is a vocally powerful ode to standing by your man – only if he treats you right. From her cry at the beginning – “Come on girls! Do you believe in love? Well I’ve got something to say about it, and it goes something like this!” – to the little innuendos throughout the song, ‘Express Yourself’ is most of all lots of fun, but with a huge feminist bent to the tone. The woman is taking charge of this relationship, every advance from the man is analysed and discarded if deemed inappropriate or unworthy. You almost expect Annie and Aretha to shimmy in and do a verse of ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’.
The music video is even more iconic and important than the song itself. As a reaction to the suddenly super-macho Michael Jackson who emerged in 1987’s ‘Bad’ and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ videos, Madonna appears at the top of a staircase in a suit, feeling herself up and grabbing her crotch as a symbol of power and self-admiration. In the modern Metropolis, hyper-stylised world she inhabits, she is the queen while men do all the hard work. It was visually and metaphorically very exciting and stands today as one of the most acclaimed music videos of all time. Everything about this was executed brilliantly, from the very foundations of the songwriting to the world it created with the short film it soundtracked.