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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

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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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“Ray of Light” (1998)

"It’s probably, to this day, the longest shoot ever for a music video," remembers "Ray of Light" director Jonas Åkerlund, who traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas to shoot this fast-forward pastiche. "I think we shot 14 shoot days or so. But, we were the smallest crew. My idea was to fit the crew into one car. We found an angle, then we set it up, and then and we were talking shit for a half-hour, waiting for it because it took forever to do these shots." The clip's stationary shots with a flurry of activity had a similar feel to 1982 art-house favorite Koyaanisqatsi (which he hadn't seen) and provided a frantic energy for Madonna's embrace of contemporary house music. Åkerlund would become the only collaborator in Madonna's monumental run to garner the pop star an VMA for Video of the Year. 

Jonas Åkerlund, director: We did a few tests in Stockholm with a film camera so I could to show her the technique I was talking about, and the test actually came out so good, that it ended up the final video. So there’s a lot of shots from Stockholm in there. 

Of course, we didn’t shoot digital — we shot with a big, 35mm camera. We had this diagram that I had in my pocket for the whole production where it said how many frames per minute or per second that we needed to do in order to get the certain amount of footage. So let’s say you shoot one frame every 10 seconds or so? Then you have to do that for 30 minutes to get like five seconds. Stuff like that

We mounted the camera on a bus, I remember, driving around in New York. That was like a pretty big effort for a 20-frame thing [laughs]. Everything was like a huge thing considering how much that actually ended up in the video because it's happening so fast. Every shot was just like such a big deal. I think we ended up using everything we shot, too. The song was long — I remember in the edit thinking that the song was too long because I used up all the footage.

"At the time, I really didn’t think about [winning the VMAs]. I was there with my Swedish friends, just drinking beer and though it was great that the beer was for free. But looking back, it was a life-changing moment for me."

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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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