…scenes from the music video “Express Yourself.”
Returning to the gay community after 10 years, the dust and debris stirred up and left behind from my generation has settled or been collected in the refuse bins of history – the absence, for me, has also fostered clarity. Yet, oftentimes, while walking the streets of the Castro and West Hollywood, just around the corner, I can still hear the reverberations of past disco beats; emanating from some old dance-club location – once a semi-seedy warehouse that has since been demolished or retrofitted into a trendy café. Many of those whom I loved, lusted after, and abused – are long since dead; those that survived often weave tales of excess and hate; one such story: a gay man, now in his 40s, burned and dejected from the scene, recalls wanting to leave it all back in 1989 – a year after I arrived in the Castro. Coming to the same realization that I did in the late-90s, he had already found the homosexual lifestyle far less than glamorous. Yet, after hearing and seeing the song and accompanying music video of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” he decided to stay.
Yearning for a level of love and excitement lacking in a current lover – from the very beginning – Madonna yells out: “Come on girls, do you believe in love…don’t go for second best baby, put your love to the test…make him express how he feels…” Then in the 80s, when music videos still held an incredible amount of power over the public, the rather tame video for Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” was enough to shut down her multimillion dollar endorsement contract with Pepsi, “Express Yourself” reached an apogee of high ritualized propaganda with Madonna bewitching a cadre of muscled enslaved men as she sets them free through the magic of sex.
The video is undeniably entrancing: like much modern art, taking its cue from pornography, it’s a bizarre mixture of the beautiful and the ugly. In a homage to the German film “Metropolis,” Madonna walks about an over-loaded set of Art-Deco: wearing bright green – she is part Wicked Witch of the West and part Glinda from “The Wizard of Oz.” With her familiar in hand, a perfect black cat, Madonna sends out her spirit – glowing eyes amidst the darkness – to give hope among the masses; the men slaving below: as a metaphor for the battered and imprisoned gay male population. Like the eye of Horus – she is all seeing, and all knowing: commanding, not requesting; making followers out of the confused; giving purpose and order to a mixture of lost boys. Slowly, they hear the music, one of them breaks out – and finds solace and freedom inside Madonna’s bed.
When I first heard the song, in a San Francisco gay bathhouse, like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” from the previous decade – it became an instant rallying cry: after the destruction of AIDS, the resulting fear and devastation driving many homosexuals into the underground, the post-AIDS era wanted again the lack of restrictions enjoyed by those who came before the scourge: to express themselves. Yet, like the video itself – it was all an illusion; as St. Augustine remarked: “the apples of Sodom;” beautiful, ripe, and juicy to the eyes – evaporating into dust once touched. The image had power – to sway the hearts of many – some, staid – and died. Others, like myself, whirled to Madonna’s tunes for another 10 years – barely surviving to see another sunrise.
Today, a new generation (see below) continues what Madonna started: flashing eyes of promise – hiding the real presence of hell. And, as Lady Gaga herself refers to them, her “little monsters,” the next generation will be all the more sick.