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The Madonna Timeline: Song #140 – ‘Express Yourself’ – Summer 1989, and ever since

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

COME ON GIRLS!

DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE?

CAUSE I GOT SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT IT

AND IT GOES SOMETHING LIKE THIS…

The time is right now.

The moment is at hand.

In a world where a madman runs the most powerful nation on earth, the only thing left to do is resist.

We can no longer rely upon the Democrats or the Republicans to put our country first.

It will be up to We the People to save America.

It’s what our Founding Fathers did, and it’s up to us to preserve our legacy and define our future.

In a makeshift protest gathering to that very end, Madonna recently performed an acoustic version of one of her most iconic anthems – ‘Express Yourself’ – and almost thirty years after its inception the words ring with just as much import and power as they did back then.

It was the Women’s March, and what had happened to bring it about had left many of us, including Madonna, feeling helpless and concerned. She knew that we had just given our country over to the tiny hands and inept care of a traitor. She went on to say a few disparaging remarks about our illegitimate President and his increasingly shady and lying White House. But underneath it all was her perennial message of self-empowerment, shaded with a newly-realized reliance on all of us working together for something better.

“Can you hear me? Are you ready to shake up the world? Welcome to the revolution of love. To the rebellion, to our refusal as women to accept this new age of tyranny. Where not just women are in danger, but all marginalized people. It took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the fuck up. It seems as though we all slipped into a false sense of comfort, that justice would prevail and that good would prevail in the end. Well, good did not win this election. But good will win in the end. So what today means is that we are far from the end. Today marks the beginning; the beginning of our story. The revolution starts here.”

DON’T GO FOR SECOND BEST BABY, PUT YOUR LOVE TO THE TEST

YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW, YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE HIM EXPRESS HOW HE FEELS

AND MAYBE THEN YOU’LL KNOW YOUR LOVE IS REAL.

The power of a good pop song lies in its ability to endure. To inspire copycats. To become a rallying cry for whatever emotion or event is on hand. Madonna channeled the greatness of this country’s most enduring freedom, and expressed her disdain for our current Clown-in-Chief in her own way. It’s been her way of life for the last three decades.

This is one of the Top 5 Madonna songs of all time in my humble estimation, joining the elite of the elite such as ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Vogue’, and my personal fave ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’. It is Madonna’s greatest clarion call to emotional arms, a defiant anthem for self-empowerment, and a celebration of the love that we all deserve to so demand.

YOU DON’T NEED DIAMOND RINGS OR 18 KARAT GOLD

FANCY CARS THAT GO VERY FAST, YOU KNOW THEY NEVER LAST, NO, NO

WHAT YOU NEED IS A BIG STRONG HAND TO LIFT YOU TO YOUR HIGHER GROUND

MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE A QUEEN ON A THRONE, MAKE HIM LOVE YOU TIL YOU CAN’T CALM DOWN. 

Summer 2012: The last time Madonna performed this song in a proper way was on her anger-fueled ‘MDNA Tour’ – it was the first ray of light in that dark night of majesty. Following a demon-filled hell-set of flames and fury, she suddenly appeared as a cheerleader, pom-poms and all, with a flying marching band above her head. As cartoon images of working women appeared behind her, she sang out her signature hit and seamlessly slipped into a bit of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ in the slyest shading of shade. Using the controversial rip-off as a way of reinventing her own song was genius; tacking on a bit of ‘She’s Not Me’ was the icing on an icy cake. Look it up, indeed.

I’d not really listened to the song in a while, but given this new context it fit into the proceedings quite well, coming as it did on the tour that supported her divorce-laden MDNA album. (Interesting to note that the original ‘Express Yourself’ was from her first divorce album, ‘Like A Prayer’.) It was clear that after all this time, Madonna’s main credo was still to be found in this 1989 classic, perhaps her most glaring antidote to the ‘Material Girl’ manifesto that had previously defined her early career.

DON’T GO FOR SECOND BEST BABY, PUT YOUR LOVE TO THE TEST

YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW, YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE HIM EXPRESS HOW HE FEELS

AND MAYBE THEN YOU’LL KNOW YOUR LOVE IS REAL.

Summer 2004: Madonna made ‘Express Yourself’ a military exercise in arms during the ‘American Life’ segment of 2004’s Reinvention Tour. Barking orders to her troop of gun-slinging gentlemen, she switched out the intro to ‘Come on boys, do you believe in love?’ and the gay guys saluted in screams and sing-a-longs. I was glad to see her resurrect the song from a too-long dry-spell, and it definitely deserved to be on one of Madonna’s more hit-heavy tours.

I have a distinct memory of strutting down the streets of Manhattan after this concert. Suzie and I had just parted ways at the subway stop, and with a sense of inspiration and empowerment I walked in the direction of my hotel. An insignificant moment: a moment alone in the city, feeling like I was on top of the world. I didn’t realize how young I still was. We never realize how young we are. On that night, the metropolis sparkled in hazy summer form, and the loneliness that sometimes accompanies a walk in New York had dissipated like the summer storm that struck right before the concert. In many ways I was still just a boy who believed in love, and at that high of a moment I wanted to sing about it too.

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?

YOU DESERVE THE BEST IN LIFE, SO IF THE TIME ISN’T RIGHT THEN MOVE ON

SECOND-BEST IS NEVER ENOUGH, YOU’LL DO MUCH BETTER BABY ON YOUR OWN.

DON’T GO FOR SECOND BEST BABY, PUT YOUR LOVE TO THE TEST

YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW, YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE HIM EXPRESS HOW HE FEELS

AND MAYBE THEN YOU’LL KNOW YOUR LOVE IS REAL.

Fall 1993: “I’m gonna take you to a place you’ve never been before!” We go back in time further, to a moment when the world was a circus and Madonna was on her Girlie Show tour. I was in-between girlfriends. (Told you the world was a circus.) Madonna’s place in it was shifting too. Following the tumultuous ‘Sex’ book release and ‘Erotica’ album, she had been shaken off her pedestal by a fickle atmosphere that had been waiting for such a stumble since the ‘Like A Virgin‘ days. We have never been shy about our blood-thirst that way. The insanity of being Madonna came through on that tour, and in ‘Express Yourself’ it found disco glory and dance release. She descended from a giant disco ball, a future peek at ‘Future Lovers‘, then brought back the first of many disco infernos in a blonde afro wig, platform shoes and glammed-up sparkle. She was a showgirl no matter what, and at all costs.

As I made my way through the circus of my life, trying to make sense of my sexuality, trying to make everyone happy, trying to figure out how best to navigate the world of relationships and messy romances, I wanted to scream. When the world threatened to overwhelm like that, I found strange solace and release in that silly Girlie Show performance. She threw her hands up at the end of it, dancing with abandon on the end of the catwalk as longtime companions Niki Harris and Donna DeLory twirled behind her. “Cause you know they always do! (Every time!)”

AND WHEN YOU’RE GONE HE MIGHT REGRET IT

THINK ABOUT THE LOVE HE ONCE HAD

TRY TO CARRY ON BUT HE JUST WON’T GET IT

HE’LL BE BACK ON HIS KNEES, SO PLEASE…

It was too soon to ask, ‘Have I said too much?’ and at various points in our lives we said more than we should have. When taken to an extreme, expressing yourself is bound to get you in trouble. For all the times I felt my heart break, there were one or two others I had broken along the way. I didn’t see that then. It was better to be bold and brash and bitter, to banish the love before it stood a chance of turning to hate. There’s no denying that Madonna stomped on a few hearts along her rocky romantic journey. Taking that as license to do the same, I turned any hurt I had into rage.

I walked to the beat of the bridge of this song, gleefully imagining the regret those who passed me by would one day feel, stamping out all my anger and disappointment onto the sidewalks, defying anyone to get in my way, staring out at the world with a vicious and potent gaze of fierce vehemence, of battle-worn heartbreak, of the kind of madness that comes only from being denied love. Love was a battlefield and this was my battle cry.

DON’T GO FOR SECOND BEST BABY, PUT YOUR LOVE TO THE TEST

YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW, YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE HIM EXPRESS HOW HE FEELS

AND MAYBE THEN YOU’LL KNOW YOUR LOVE IS REAL.

Summer 1990: The Blond Ambition Tour.

A sweaty mass of oiled-up shirtless men.

The spinning cogs of a rainy metropolis.

A gold-chained monocle.

A pin-striped suit.

Jean-Paul Gaultier’s cone bra.

She opened the legendary Blond Ambition Tour with ‘Express Yourself’ – an extension of the original video for the song, brought to thrilling life with her soon-to-be-iconic back-up dancers. It would be captured for posterity in ‘Truth or Dare’, and like any good gay-guy-in-training, I promptly learned every choreographed step of the performance, and even found a monocle to make it legit down to the accessories. My stage-fright and shyness and social anxiety would never allow me to get very far, but behind the door of my bedroom – where “no one else can see” – I never tired of dancing there all by myself. Maybe one day I’d dance with someone else, but if the lesson of this song was anything, it was that I might be happy dancing alone. I might have to be.

{A fascinating side-note: the origins of that Blond Ambition performance actually run back to the MTV Video Music Awards in the fall of 1989. It was there where she first grabbed her crotch and, less-acknowledged, introduced a bit of voguing into the mix.}

Summer 1989: The follow-up to the ‘Like A Prayer’ single is released, along with the video.

The silky chartreuse dress.

The muscular dirty men.

The teasing lingerie peep-show.

The cat and the milk.

The monocle and the chains.

It was classic Madonna. All the elements that she would play with over the years were on full-display, all the kinks and giggles, the winks and nods, the tease and please. Above all else, it was a piece of pop art, the very best sort of video the medium could provide. With a few deft images, she pulled the gaze of men, women, and all of us in-between, marrying those Metropolis-fueled fantasies to a song and instantly creating a pop culture anthem that we’d be discussing decades later.

The original video was directed by David Fincher (who would later go on to direct ‘Vogue’ and the cinematic ‘Bad Girl’ along with an impressive body of films). It called out to my growing gay lexicon, resonating with something deep within me, something I could not name or categorize, but that I understood in a way that I’d never understand football or spitting or beer.

This was a world filled with beautiful men, commanding women, and an art-deco atmosphere that favored freedom above all else. The freedom to live, the freedom to love, the freedom to express yourself. It was a world captured by Herb Ritts, drawn by Keith Haring, and choreographed by Vincent Paterson. Informed by visionary gay sensibilities and the shirtless male models whose job it was to support and strut behind her, Madonna has always been at her best when surrounded by great gay men and women. Yet rather than emasculating those around her, it made everyone a little more powerful. Far from chaining herself, Madonna had found the ultimate freedom. “A lot of people don’t say what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want.” For all those reasons, ‘Express Yourself’ was and remains a monumental signature song for Madonna – mantra and lifestyle and credo in one.

A kaleidoscope of memories is the gift of many a classic Madonna song, and the memory of ‘Express Yourself’ that may mean more to me than anything was made in the summer of its release. It is my first memory of the song. My brother and I were in the family station wagon, on one of the last vacations of our youth, heading to Cape Cod. Already we were growing apart – my brother and I, and all of my family from me, it seemed. Yet we stayed together that trip. I made a bet with my brother that Mo Vaughn, a famous baseball player at the time, was in this song. He knew the song, and knew that Vaughn wasn’t in it anywhere, so he challenged me and took the bait. I waited and sang/talked my way through the part in which he appeared: “So if the time isn’t right, then Mo Vaughn!” He cracked up laughing. There was, and there is, no happier moment than cracking my brother’s exhausted veneer of dealing with my zaniness and making him genuinely bust up laughing.

The wind rushed through the windows in that fourteenth August of my life, the splendid sea-scented wilderness of the Cape washed over us, and the sun drenched the inside of the station wagon. We were enjoying the final days of a summer and a childhood that would be gone too soon. Madonna had unwittingly charted of course for my adult life. No longer would I be a shy scared child, but I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that the sun was warm. My brother and I were laughing in the backseat of the station wagon. The rest of the season stretched out, school felt a far way off, and the funk-fortified groove of a Madonna song made my world happy for a little while longer.

“WITHOUT THE HEART,

THERE CAN BE

NO UNDERSTANDING

BETWEEN THE HAND

AND THE MIND.”

SONG #140 – ‘Express Yourself’ – Summer 1989, and ever since

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