In the summer of 1989 just before our senior year of college, my friend Jen and I confessed to each over the phone that we were really loving Madonna’s song “Express Yourself.” This was a confession rather than a plain old conversation because we both fancied ourselves cooler and more indie than your average pop music fan. But nobody sang about girl power and washing-that-man-out-of-your hair better than Madge did, and we both had men in there that it looked like they might need to be washed out.
I hate to say it but, musically speaking, “Express Yourself” hasn’t held up for me. The song was remastered and heavily smeared with ‘80s horns somewhere along the way, which hasn’t helped matters any. But that song meant a lot to me that summer, and its sentimental value has endured.School breaks were no good. Love died over them. This had apparently been proven by science.
The song came out when I had my first serious boyfriend, whom we’re going to call Chad. The guy I’d dated earlier in the school year and lost my virginity to had quietly broken up with me over winter break, and the guy I’d dated before that one had ghosted me over the previous spring break, and now Chad and I were heading into summer. We’d ended the school year in love, but he was off to work as a camp counselor a couple of hundred miles away and I was nervous. School breaks were no good. Love died over them. This had apparently been proven by science.
Madonna must have predicted my nerves because she had Like a Prayer ready to go with the single “Express Yourself” coming out right before summer hit.
“Come on, girls!/Do you believe in love?/‘Cause I’ve got something to say about it/And it goes a little something like this!” she called out at the beginning of “Express Yourself.” I’d get excited and think, “What?! What, Madonna?! Say it!” for she was a woman of the world and I needed to learn. Then she’d launch into “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.” I knew she was laying down the goods.
The video was even better. I was fully hypnotized by it. Madonna was newly at her buff, iconic, platinum best, and shirtless men with shoulder-length bobs crawled around what looked like a prison and did pushups to make themselves worthy of her. In my favorite moment, Madonna stood at the top of a flight of stairs in a double-breasted black suit, stuck out her hip and flashed her pointy black bra. That suit and her gesture made such a lasting impression on me that a few years later, I spent far too much money on a talismanic black suit of my own.
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
Everything about this song buoyed me up that summer, and I was starting to need buoying up. Letters from Chad, which had come frequently in June, were starting to slow down and change tone. He’d even signed his last one “Take care of y’self, Chad” instead of “Love, Chad.” That wasn’t good. The last time I’d seen him, we were positively high with in-love-ness, and now the man didn’t even fully spell out “your.”
Unhelpfully, I was also reading Anna Karenina for the first time that summer. Anna Karenina, as we all know, is Tolstoy’s gorgeous novel of romance and doom that ends with the title character throwing herself under a moving train because her lover, Vronsky, has abandoned her.
I projected myself onto Anna and Chad onto Vronsky — I was the sparkling, worldly-wise matron and Chad was the dashing-but-lackadaisical soldier, which was good casting on his end if ridiculous casting on mine. As their relationship faltered, my stomach clenched. But when Anna threw herself under the train to her death, I felt more irritated than sad, recognizing on some level that this was the chumpiest, least Madonna-like move possible. If Anna was standing in for me, she was going have to do better than that. Madonna would have knocked Vronsky onto the platform, stepped over him and ridden that train to some Moscow disco where all the younger, hotter soldiers were.
Here are the two crucial things I learned from “Express Yourself”:
- Your man has to deserve your company and not just vice versa.
- You have intrinsic worth.
The first item was predicated on the second item, which was the big lightning bolt for me.
Before I dated Chad, I hadn’t had a lot of boyfriends. In high school, I didn’t appear on any romantic radars, and only in the preceding couple of years had I begun to receive any serious male attention. By the time I did start having boyfriends, I was so amazed and excited — and the whole operation seemed so tenuous — that I figured I better not rock the boat. I may as well have had signage posted in my brain that read “TINA, BE COOL and DON’T DISTURB THE BOYFRIEND.” And here was Madonna saying, “YES, DISTURB THE BOYFRIEND. TOTALLY DISTURB THE BOYFRIEND.”
Now, Madonna is gorgeous, and I knew that sufficiently beautiful women could disturb the boyfriend and have standards and make requests/demands when necessary or whenever they felt like it. But while I was cute, I knew I wasn’t all that, so I’d never imagined the same rules applied to me. And Chad was troublingly hot. Dead-ringer-for-Michael-Hutchence hot. Out-of-my league hot. Somehow I had come by (and was now most likely losing) a boyfriend who was, at least by superficial standards, a catch.Madonna would have knocked Vronsky onto the platform, stepped over him and ridden that train to some Moscow disco where all the younger, hotter soldiers were.
Then I heard the subliminal message in Madonna’s song. She asked me, “Is he? Is he a catch? He put an apostrophe in ‘yourself’. That’s probably as much of an official breakup as you’re going to get. An apostrophe. Now, a man who shows up for you, a man who gives you no reason to doubt — that’s a catch.”
Meanwhile, as she wrote and recorded Like a Prayer, Madonna was recovering from her abusive marriage to Sean Penn, who’d beat her and tied her to a chair soon after their wedding, so her own man problems were running a little deeper than thinning correspondence.
When I got back to school for my senior year, I pulled the confirmation out of Chad that we had, in fact, broken up. We ending up dating again later in the year and then broke up once more the following summer.
But Madonna lit a spark in me that said I could ask for and receive more. I somehow grokked that I didn’t need to be as glamorous as Madonna to deserve love and respectful treatment — that the right to these things came with being born. Even if I didn’t translate this burgeoning awareness into action right away (or any time soon), the seed was planted.
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 come down
Now, two and a half decades later, I’m married to a man who, in Anna Karenina terms, is way more of a Levin than a Vronsky. For my money, Levin is the best character in the novel and maybe the best dude Tolstoy ever created. He’s a steady, pure, straightforward man who loves nature, loves to work and adores his wife. I’d cast Dave in that part any day. Madonna would approve.
I still listen to Madonna, too, even if I’ve retired “Express Yourself” for groove purposes. But that song burned a different kind of groove in my brain that helped prepare me for the real thing.
Hold out, she told me. Don’t settle. Wherever she is right now, I hope Madonna’s getting some proper love because that lady was right.