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Express Yourself: The Story Behind Madonna’s Anthem Of Female Empowerment
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In Depth

Express Yourself: The Story Behind Madonna’s Anthem Of Female Empowerment

With an iconic intro that’s arguably as famous as the song itself, Express Yourself delivered Madonna’s message clear into pop’s mainstream.

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The second single from her gargantuan fourth album, Like A Prayer, Express Yourself saw Madonna storm the dancefloor with a message of female empowerment. From that iconic intro to its budget-breaking promo video and Lady Gaga’s well-intentioned creative homage, this is the story of how Express Yourself continues to make itself heard.

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The backstory: Madonna’s Broadway debut gives her time to create a new run of classics

After the runaway rollercoaster successes of the Like A Virgin and True Blue albums, no one could have blamed the “Queen Of Pop” for taking an extended break from music. 1988 proved to be the first year since her breakthrough in which she had no new records scheduled for release, and Madonna took the opportunity to concentrate on her acting career, with a decent run on Broadway in the David Mamet play Speed The Plow.

Recording for what would be her fourth album, Like A Prayer, took place over five stop-start months in New York City and Hollywood, with Madonna writing eight tracks with Patrick Leonard, one with Prince (the sublime Love Song) and two with Stephen Bray, who had written arguably her greatest dancefloor hit, Into The Groove. Immediately claiming its pace among the best Madonna albums, Like A Prayer would surpass expectation by drawing critical acclaim while selling 15 million copies worldwide.

The message: “If you don’t say what you want – then you’re not going to get it”

Everyone knows Express Yourself for its famous rallying cry: “C’mon, girls, do you believe in love? Well, I’ve got something to say about it, and it goes like this.” Messages in pop were nothing new, but this gender-specific call-to-arms spoke directly to the women who made up a large part of Madonna’s fanbase in the 80s.

When she first broke through in 1984, off the back of the singles Holiday and Borderline, Madonna’s fans were known as “Wannabes” (as in: “I wanna be Madonna”), but, by 1989, they – and their idol – were growing up. “The ultimate thing behind the song is that if you don’t express yourself – if you don’t say what you want – then you’re not going to get it. And, in effect, you are chained down by your inability to say what you feel or go after what you want,” she said at the time of the song’s release.

The release: ‘Like A Prayer’’s second smash hit

Issued as a single on 9 May 1989, Express Yourself’s ascent up the Billboard Hot 100 was swift: it made its debut at No.41 and peaked at No.2 six weeks later (settling behind Simply Red’s If You Don’t Know Me By Now and then Toy Soldiers, the second single by young pop upstart Martika). In the UK, it went to No.5 in a ten-week chart run. The song had a distinct 70s soul-disco aesthetic, perhaps a little reminiscent of The Staple Sisters, but it would quickly earn its place among the best Madonna songs, and it remains a dancefloor-filler to this day.

The video: Pop’s most expensive promo, and a David Fincher classic

If the promo video for the Like A Prayer song had created controversy – and rattled Pepsi executives so hard they pulled their sponsorship of Madonna’s upcoming world tour – then Express Yourself’s clip created waves for more artistic reasons. Its inspired Metropolis-influenced aesthetic and defiant storytelling of sexual and political liberation became a huge MTV hit and more than justified its exorbitant two-million-dollar price-tag – then the highest bill for a music video ever.

David Fincher, who would create later videos for the star, including Vogue and Bad Girl, directed the clip and even came up with the stalking cat sequence, a segment Madonna resisted performing at first but came to thank him for. The Express Yourself video won three awards at the 1989 MTV Music Video Awards, where Madonna performed the song with backing singer/dancers Donna De Lory and Niki Harris, who would later record with German dance act Snap!

The tour performance: Opening Madonna’s most iconic show

Arguably the template for all stadium shows to follow, 1990’s Blond Ambition World Tour set new standards for choreography and stage design. Express Yourself opened the 17-strong setlist and would see Madonna emerging from the stage floor in a dance sequence that referenced the hit video. The song would also later feature in The Girlie Show World Tour and 2004’s Re-Invention World Tour.

The controversy: How lady gaga and Madonna almost came to blows…

In 2011, Lady Gaga launched her second album, Born This Way, with the record’s title track, and listeners immediately seized on the song’s similarity with Madonna’s Express Yourself. Amid a social-media storm, Lady Gaga conceded the tracks shared a very similar chord progression, while Madonna put it more bluntly, saying: “I’m glad that I helped Gaga write it.”

In 2012, the “Queen Of Pop” upped the ante with a controversial mash-up of Gaga’s song and Express Yourself that segued into She’s Not Me, from her own Hard Candy album. Relations improved in time: Madonna posed for a photo with Gaga following the latter’s A Star Is Born Oscar win, and Gaga later tweeted “We love you, M”, shortly after Madonna announced her 2023 stage comeback with The Celebration Tour.

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