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Express Yourself: The Making of Madonna’s 20 Greatest Music Videos

The directors who worked alongside the MTV-era maverick tell their stories

Madonna

Since first storming MTV in 1983 with the poetic, lo-fi "Burning Up," Madonna's music videos have spent more than 20 years sparking conversations about fashion, feminism, sex, religion and what you could and could not show on television. To help her realize these 67 clips — one of the most rapidly changing visions in pop history — she teamed up with some video and photography's most celebrated artists, including David Fincher, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Herb Ritts, Mark Romanek, Chris Cunningham, Stéphane Sednaoui, Jonas Åkerlund, Luc Besson and more.

"Madonna was the one you had to get," says Michael Hausmann, director of her mid-Nineties clips for "Take a Bow" and "You'll See." "That was the video that would be the most airtime. It was, in some ways, kind of more important than having a movie out. More people were watching it, that’s for damn sure."

To celebrate our cover star, we caught up with many of the directors behind some of the most iconic (and controversial) images in music history.

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“Express Yourself” (1989)

The first of Madonna's collaborations with David Fincher is also her best — and one of the priciest (at $5 million, it was the most expensive video ever made at the time). Heavily influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with its sci-fi cityscape and surreal factory scenes featuring men struggling with giant machines, "Express Yourself" is a perfect melding of Fincher's expressionist impulses with Madonna's shape-shifting allure. Here, we see her juxtaposed against various versions of herself, each representing a different kind of seduction: A pantsuit-wearing, Marlene Dietrich-like figure with a monocle; a shimmying coquette in a corset; a submissive wife chained naked to a bed. Meanwhile, Fincher's camera swoops and cranes and tracks around the impressive sets and through fields of blown-out light, expressive shadow, and thick layers of steam. (The director's feature film debut, Alien 3, would actually repurpose some of this aesthetic.)

"This one I had the most amount of input," said Madonna. "I oversaw everything — the building of the sets, everyone's costumes, I had meetings with make-up and hair and the cinematographer, everybody. Casting, finding the right cat — just every aspect. Kind of like making a little movie. We basically sat down and just threw out all every idea we could possibly conceive of and of all the things we wanted. All the imagery we wanted — and I had a few set ideas, for instance the cat and the idea of Metropolis. I definitely wanted to have that influence, that look on all the men — the workers, diligently, methodically working away."

Both Metropolis and "Express Yourself" end with the same epigraph: "Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind." But what was for Lang a plea for reconciliation between workers and bosses becomes, for Madonna, a creative credo.

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