Madonna’s “Express Yourself”: An Anthem of Empowerment

I distinctly remember discovering my homosexuality in the summer of 1989, shortly after I had turned 12. Concomitantly, I discovered Madonna’s music, and the first song to pique my interest was her latest single, “Express Yourself.” Queer that I am, it immediately spoke to me, and remains my personal favorite, as well as the video, primarily because of its outspoken nature in regard to human identity, including the role love and desire plays between men and women, hetero- and homosexual alike.

Every time I hear “Express Yourself” it brings an instant smile to my face, particularly the rip at the beginning of the video edit and the hook of the first, spoken, lyrics:

Come on girls,
Do you believe in love?
’Cause I got something to say about it
And it goes something like this . . .

The song is fundamentally important to me on many levels, least of which is because I automatically equate it with my burgeoning homosexuality at the time, and more important, because it forces me to recognize that I am a human being with dignity, deserving of respect, socially, sexually, and romantically. It is on these levels that “Express Yourself” functions as not only a feminist anthem as originally portrayed in its lyrics and video, but also as an anthem for the homosexual male and all human beings. When Madonna was interviewed concerning the video at the time, she said, “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.” This is true not just in terms of your career, but also in respect to your romantic and sexual relationships.

We must learn to live by the words “Don’t go for second best,” the mantra of “Express Yourself.” To do this defines a human being as someone who believes that their individual needs and desires are paramount—this does not necessarily point to selfishness but to self-confidence and positive self-interest. Putting ourselves first prevents us from being used or abused in our relationships—if we do not command respect it is because we have no self-respect, thus we allow anyone to step all over us and take what they want from us without recompense. And that is no way to live. This is the general idea behind the song. “Express Yourself” is a song about self-empowerment; it is a song that says we don’t need others if those others are going to drag us down and take our dignity, our humanity, away from us through their lies, games, and indifference. If someone we love or desire is not interested in us or is not ready to join us on the path toward a fulfilling relationship, then we must gather our inner strength and go forward because as Madonna sings,

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 last verse epitomizes Madonna’s absolute point: Human beings seem to believe that they cannot survive without a romantic partner or someone by their side in a relationship. The weight of this fear and the ignorance as to the indomitable strength of the human spirit in the face of life’s struggles essentially belies the failure of people who believe their lives depend on the love of another; in other words, that the love of another automatically completes them.

Madonna teaches us to stand on our own, to understand and love ourselves by taking back our dignity and self-respect when our relationships do not grant us the love, respect, and freedom of identity we deserve as is our natural right. As the lyrics of the song reveal, material things, the money that behind those things, and acts of seduction are superfluous and ultimately meaningless if our relationship isn’t grounded in honesty, respect, and compassion, where each mate provides the other with the mental and emotional comfort and stability which is so often required in a relationship, and whose strength then extends outward to the other spheres of our lives.

No matter which way you cut them, relationships are about power and what makes them beautiful is their power dynamics. But when the power of one partner outweighs that of the other, then there is an imbalance that must be rectified, and if it cannot, the partner who finds themselves unfulfilled and put in a submissive position must walk away, showing the other they will not accept being used or abused and turned into a forgotten, silenced partner in the relationship. It may hurt to leave the relationship but your self-respect and self-confidence is what matters most in this instance, and you shouldn’t think you have to stay in an abusive, unloving relationship where you are unsatisfied and unhappy. Sooner or later your partner may very well see the error of their ways, 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

But when your partner comes back and apologizes, you both must understand that “What you need is a big strong hand / To lift you to your higher ground,” and make you feel like “a queen on a throne,” like the one person who is more important than anyone or anything else in the world. What you don’t need is a lover who is going to throw you down, cast you beneath them, forcing you to answer to their every desire and pleasure without reciprocating in response to your own. A man or woman who puts you down and tries to enslave you is weak because they fear the fluid nature of the power dynamics that exists in any true, honest, and loving relationship because the possibility that their love and desire will be so strong that it will cause them to lose control and be viewed as “weak” overwhelms them, and, as is part of our psychological makeup as human beings, we fear being weak or seen this way because we don’t want to be used or abused; it is a mark of our struggle toward constant self-preservation. And so the delicate nature of the human psyche extends to the conflicts and communion between two individuals in a sexual and romantic relationship.

Madonna’s power lies in creating music that everyone can relate to. Madonna’s songs convey the strength and power of the human self when we don’t allow ourselves to be taken for granted or taken advantage of. When we learn to respect ourselves then that respect will earn and receive the respect of others, from acquaintances and friends to family and lovers. The lyrics of “Express Yourself” and Madonna’s performance in the video define and depict a strong, assertive woman whom we should imitate if we want our needs and desires to be met in both our careers and our relationships.