Express Yourself by Lucy Ives

As I remember, a major claim of early ’90s pop was that the real—the real reality of ourselves—exists. The most important thing one had to do while alive was to somehow permit this personal authenticity, this real realness, to express itself. Deee-Lite’s neo-psychedelic groove was in the heart. Paula Abdul’s romantic attraction to an animated cat was a “natural fact.” Madonna constituted a religion of one.

This was, anyway, previous to grunge.

I was often wearing a big hypercolor shirt, the mood ring of the day, which mostly expressed vibrant pit stains. 1992 was the first season of MTV’s The Real World; viewers were apprised that Eric Nies and co-stars, cohabiting before cameras in a duplex at the intersection of Prince Street and Broadway, would finally “stop being polite and start getting real.” It was, additionally, a period of experimental advertising in women’s magazines. Females who had been born or educated during the second wave and who had chosen professional paths had, having arrived at a certain age, real expectations plus bank accounts and must therefore have seemed an anomalous audience to some. Basic Instinct would appear in March. Women’s desire: perhaps it was more like the desire of men than previous (unenlightened) generations had thought?

“The Man’s Diamond,” advertisement ca. 1992

I wasn’t a teenager yet, and perhaps this is why Madonna—which is to say her music videos, her image—hit me as hard as she/they did, even at what was probably the end of her tenure as icon. By 1992, everyone had a copy of The Immaculate Collection. It was first a tape and then a CD. The album’s faux baroque cover displayed an M-shaped crest in gold and powder blue and suggested the languor of an open-plan condo with a centrally located unmade bed. The songs were about sexual prowess (thinly veiled), though they sometimes touched on the matter of survival skills—all this told through the citric piquancy of Madonna’s full range. Released the same year as Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personnae, the compilation gathered into one place the first eight years of Madonna’s ascendancy, from 1982 to 1990 (Paglia somewhat bizarrely opined, “Through her enormous impact on young women around the world, Madonna is the future of feminism.”) The Immaculate Collection was also the first album produced in America using QSound, a then-new production technique that “[gave] the music an illusion of being three dimensional,” according to Stephen Holden’s report of Christmas Day, 1990, in the New York Times.

The system, which was invented by Don Lowe and John Lees, uses a five-foot-tall box the size of a small refrigerator that has a computer console connected to a stereo-mixing console. The system can be learned in an hour and enables an engineer to take any instrumental voice…and, using the computer keypad, create an illusion of sound that seems to be coming out of thin air without a mechanical source.

Whatever this cosmetic “illusion of being three dimensional” was contributing to “sound,” few people were looking to the Material Girl for something genuine. Mainly I recall being unprepared and overwhelmed when the videos for “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” went into heavy rotation on MTV. Madonna was a consummate video star, her symbolic scenarios a revelation. In the Karole Armitage-choreographed “Vogue,” heroic boobs are displayed behind a mostly nonexistent lace blouse as dancers blink and pose elastically in environments of late-neoclassical U.S. glamour, i.e., a mélange of Hollywood, New York, and Parisian interiors (I did not see Paris Is Burning until many years later.) In “Express Yourself,” Dick Tracy meets Tamara de Lempinka for a late-industrial retelling of the Andromeda myth involving rubber dresses, Fritz Lang, mammoth gears, and at least one very wet black pussy cat.

Harper’s Bazaar layout, January 1992, with lyrics from Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” The title page of the story advises: GRAND expressions: For knockout nights, only the most exquisite will do. Begin with an absolute confection of a dress—bright, beaded, in sumptuous silk or tulle. Then, add the pièces de résistance: sparkling earrings and cuffs, ornate bags, sexy shoes—piled on in a glamorous, head-to-toe mix that’s uniquely you.

The Madonna of this moment—post-Live Aid, pre-humanitarian—deified in these two videos, had very small, strong features; she was an angelic, masculine beauty not unlike her obvious forebear, Marlene Dietrich, as whom she would later perform a tuxedoed rendition of “Like a Virgin.” At the same time, Madonna might not have looked like much of anything, and perhaps this was part of her appeal: She was a tiny human with excellent bone structure, and makeup loved her. None of it would, at any rate, have been possible without Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose cones and straps, clips and waspies, ventilated business drag and modernist athletic gear, created a compelling protagonist, cf. 1990’s Blonde Ambition World Tour and 1991’s biopic Truth or Dare—who thrust and squatted her way through an extended deco metropolis, daring everyone to be more real, backed up by a cast of talented dancers. The restrained palette (black with shell; black with white; black; red; white; fuchsia) also looked forward to the heyday of 1990s minimalism in the States: Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs at Perry Ellis and later his own label, certain aspects of Mizrahi and the clawing after a “mod” prep … (by which time, Madonna herself would be well on her erratic way into the single gold tooth, acoustic guitar, and disco interlude of 1994’s lite disappointment, Bedtime Stories.)

If there is any reason to care about this now, beyond the generally stunning identity crisis that is ’90s American fashion, it might have something to do with what anyone was, without understanding much of it at the time, experiencing as feminism’s third wave. Madonna embodied what might now feel like a stale paradox, her “Make him express how he feels and maybe then you’ll know your love is real!” a perplexing mixed conditional. On stage Madonna mimed unceasing pleasure (sex, success, control), but had famously repelled Warren Beatty, among other potential male partners, by refusing to “live off-camera.” N.W.A, in their 1988 anthem, “Express Yourself,” sampling Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, defamed those “scared to kick reality.” Madonna—who sampled everyone from Marilyn Monroe to, well, the Madonna—seemed to claim that only reality could beget more reality, except that in the end she was far more interested in beauty than anything else.

Madonna was best friends with Sandra Bernhard. Madonna was best friends with Rosie O’Donnell. Madonna got into bed with her dancers and “mothered” them. Madonna talked about sexuality and the church. Her name was an imprecation of the mother of Christ. In 1991, in a double helping of decadence, she attended the Academy Awards with Michael Jackson.

Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna perform a rap on The Arsenio Hall Show, 1992

1992 was also the United States Congress’s “Year of the Woman.” The addition of Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Carol Moseley Braun, and Patty Murray to Nancy Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski meant the advent of a record 6% female minority in the Senate. In the lead-up to the election, George H. W. Bush had said, “I hope a lot of them lose.” Madonna was about to depart for her mostly incoherent 1993 tour, The Girlie Show.

As I recall, the years of the slow, hot expiration of Madonna’s star, 1990 to 1992, were some of her best. It was the time of the fulfillment of Madonna’s creation myth, an act of parthenogenesis, or virgin birth. The title of the album said it all, The Immaculate Collection; it suggested that Madonna could not, in spite of her best efforts, give birth to a perfect, real self. What she had created was a flawless parade of plausible selves. Things therefore imploded on a strange note, with the publication of Madonna’s allegedly shocking book, Sex. Some said that she had gone too far, and even Madonna—perhaps wishfully—seemed to believe them. Having successfully followed her own instructions (“express yourself”), Madonna shrugged and trudged back to the market cycle of celebrity, where she is to be found, vacuuming in fishnets and a wig on Instagram, even now today.


from Nineties

I am in the park. All day I have not spoken in school. Gwen and Hannah avoid me. Both of them are so fucking happy right now I wish my heart would finally just explode.

It is an hour before sunset.

I am coming up with a plan for myself. I am going to write down a plan then sign my name and make myself swear to it.

I am near the reservoir.

A herd of emaciated women and men with white signs tied to their backs race by.

I write a poem,

Things are so bad you don’t know what to do.
There is nothing you can do. YOU HAVE TO

Keep working on thinking about how one day
this can NOT MATTER

No one is going to kill you.
It is just people.


Lucy Ives is the author of a long poem, Anamnesis, published by Slope Editions, and the forthcoming novel, Nineties. Her poems have appeared in The Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Fence, Ploughshares, Volt, and 1913, among other journals. A deputy editor at Triple Canopy, she is co-editor of Corrected Slogans: Reading and Writing Conceptualism, published by Triple Canopy and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

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