The difficulty with choosing a favourite song is that it changes from day to day… from moment to moment, if one counts earworms as “favourites” — although if that’s the criterion, the inexorably persistent Funky Town would win hands down and I really don’t want to go there…
There’s a string of choices. David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream. Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away. Uncle Neil’s Helpless. Abba’s Super Trouper. The Stanley Brothers’ Rank Stranger…
Or some French songs: Charles Trenet’s Que reste-t-il de nos amours or Alain Souchon’s On avance…
I could go on. But Author Allsorts have suspended me by the ankles over a burning pyre of Anthony Horowitz novels and threatened to tickle my feet until I make up my mind. As Nikki Minaj pointed out, “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna.” I’ll go for Express Yourself.
Let’s be clear about one thing: I’m talking about the original version, from the 1989 album Like a Prayer. Madonna co-wrote the song with Stephen Bray. Shep Pettibone subsequently remixed it for the video, and it is this version that appears on The Immaculate Collection and, I imagine, subsequent compilations. The remix is effective but reductive, driven by a drum machine and an insistent bassline behind which the actual vocal gets somewhat lost.
The original album mix begins with a blare of brass, half funk, half zonked-out Mariachi band. And then, like something from a manual on Mythic Story Structure, we get the Call To Action:
Come on girls, do you believe in love? Because I’ve got something to say, and it goes something like this–
And it does!
Don’t go for second best, baby–
OK. She has my attention. This is Madonna dishing out good advice like a demented self-help manual — tongue firmly in cheek. But there’s far more to it than that. Express Yourself is a perfect example of transcendental pop: songs that rise above their ostensible content to generate a state of almost religious euphoria. Listening to it, I feel… well, like a better version of myself. Like it’s all possible…
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 till you can’t come down.
The genius of the song is the emphasis that the melody and metre impose on the final seven or eight syllables of each line:
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
This is one of those songs that, without getting any faster, wind themselves up to an exhilarating, visceral intensity as the verses flash past like neon signs on the highway. We come to an apotheosis with a simple, sublime repetition that expresses the inexpressible:
You’ve got to make him express himself — hey, hey, hey hey!
I am, by nature, of a retiring, depressive disposition. I feel most comfortable in corners. I can’t live up to Madonna’s prescriptions, but while she’s banging them out I feel that life is a high path of possibilities, rather than a vale of tears.
Express Yourself is generally written up as a paean to girl-power. And it is that… but more. It transcends its own subject matter so that, for this gentleman of mature years, at least, it’s a massive encouragement. A reason to get up and get on with it. A big, strong hand, to lift me — OK, temporarily: I am nothing if not a backslider — to my higher ground.
Hey, hey, hey, hey!
That says it all, really.
You can listen to the original album version here.
Donald Hounam grew up just outside Oxford. He toyed with medieval history at St Andrews University, and wrote a PhD thesis on apocalyptic beliefs in the early Crusades. He threw paint around at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, then found himself in Dublin where he threw more paint around and reviewed films until his flatmate set the building alight one Christmas, whereupon he scuttled back to England and started making up stories.
He is guilty of two novels featuring forensic sorcerer Frank Sampson: Gifted (2015) and Pariah (2016).