It’s Madonna’s 55th birthday, an occasion that you should make you dance, sing, get up, do your thing, strike a pose, take a bow, push your love over the borderline, give it 2 me, and fly like a zephyr in the sky at night. Madonna is Elvis with brains, Michael Jackson with gravitas, Lady Gaga with legend, and Aphrodite in stagewear. She is bigger than mythology, perhaps the greatest celebrity of all time, and the hardest-working self-expresser we know. Today we celebrate her unbeatable career with another seismic countdown: her 55 greatest videos ever. Have your picks all lined up? Good. Get ready to compare notes.
We start the countdown with speedy blurbs of the mentioned videos, but once we hit the #25 mark, we enter serious discussion about the legendary clips, choreography, and poses at hand. This is Madonna, the eternal doyenne of music video, and these are her 55 best videos.
55. “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”: One somber, sepia take.
54. “Jump”: And jump she does.
53. “You’ll See”: Luxurious leftovers of “Take a Bow”
52. “You Must Love Me”: Oscar-winning sadness
51. “Get Together”: Babe in clubland
50. “Turn Up the Radio”: Pumping volume, procuring men
49. “Nothing Really Matters”: Mutations of a geisha
48. “4 Minutes”: Bringing sexy back (to the apocalypse)
47. “Dear Jessie”: An animated love parade
46. “True Blue”: Girl group choreography fits Madonna… like a glove!
45. “Hollywood”: Maid in America.
44. “Holiday” (Blonde Ambition): All across the world, in ev-e-ry nation! (Except when she’s banned.)
43. “Dress You Up”: Virgin Tour vivaciousness
42. “Girl Gone Wild”: MDNA’s B&W bliss
41. “Sorry”: Rollicking roller disco
40. “Everybody”: Cheap and oozing with starpower, then and now.
39. “Give It 2 Me”: Bouncy, bouncy hard candy
38. “Love Profusion”: Lost in a sensual screensaver
37. “Don’t Tell Me”: Lonesome dove meets handsome horsemen
36. “I’ll Remember”: Poetic regret with honors
35. “Into the Groove”: Desperately seeking radio play, getting it.
34. “La Isla Bonita”: Barrio beauty
33. “Fever”: Sweaty, silvery Peggy Lee passion
32. “American Life” (original): Heavy-handed, bad-ass Bushbashing
31. “Hung Up”: Gimme, gimme, gimme this glorious ABBA meditation (after midnight)
30. “Cherish”: Herb Ritts’ majestic mermen
29. “Deeper And Deeper”: Peeling away Edie Sedgwick’s inhibitions in a velvet underground
28. “Beautiful Stranger”: The spry dame who shagged me
27. “Like a Virgin”: Gonzo for gondolas!
26. “Rain”: Hand-colored, tear-streaked double entendre
25. “Die Another Day”
Madonna’s been tortured a time or two in her music videos, but never as severely as in “Die Another Day,” the theme from the same-named James Bond movie. The sinewy superstar is dunked under water, then fights for her freedom, and even engages in a duel with an evil doppelganger. Sigmund Freud: Analyze this?
No Madonna song or video has grown on me more — and maybe I speak for everyone here? — than “Music.” It is the funkiest, whackest, orneriest jam, and Madonna’s ghetto-fab cowgirl persona was her most bombastic in years. Her gold limo ride with pals Nikki Harris and Debi Mazar (and driver Ali G) is fun enough, but the real pleasures happen at the strip club, when a rip-roaring Madonna wings singles at strippers and invites them back into her ride.
Madonna complained to director Matthew Ralston that she looked “too beautiful” in this clip, and you can kind of see where she’s coming from. In this indigo-tinged video, Madonna toasts the chess scene from The Thomas Crown Affair and stirs up a heavy, impassioned romance with Goran Visnjic. She is startlingly gorgeous, and her throes of agony at video’s end occur in only the loveliest, bluest light.
22. “Human Nature”
It’s rare that Madonna gets a chance to be both harsh and hilarious in a music video, and in this tongue-in-cheek, pleather-heavy vid, Madonna basically does whatever the hell she wants. Brandish a chihuahua? Mock and celebrate kinkiness? Sneer at the camera like a bored third-grader? She does it all, and even in black cornrows, she’s a vision of coolness and sexual superiority.
21. “Bad Girl”
David Fincher’s fourth video with Madonna is beautifully shot, dramatically acted, and also uncomfortably slut-shamey. I can’t fully endorse it, but Madonna’s hesitant trysts and strange kinship with her guardian angel (Christopher Walken, exactly the man you want peering at your naked body) make it an unexpectedly emotional video. A solid deep cut from Erotica and Madonna at her Body Of Evidence yellow-blondest.
Bedtime Stories’ sultriest groove is “Secret,” which in turn made for a deeply sultry video. Set in Harlem, “Secret” gives us Madonna as an undulating blues singer with a beau, a kid, and a feel for urban sensuality. The video is also sprinkled with religious iconography, and accordingly Madonna writhes onstage in her patented combo of spiritual and sexual ecstasy.
19. “Lucky Star”
Even on a stark white backdrop, Madonna is a resplendent shooting star. Heavenly body shining and hungry stare perfected, she moves with such skillful abandon. She is dancing, and that’s leagues ahead of the step-touch-step choreography queens we’d see later in music videos.
18. “Burning Up”
Before Madonna humped the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards in a wedding dress, she thrusted away at pavement in a chintzier white ensemble. “Burning Up” is pure, punky, Benatar-esque carnality.
Dita Parlo is a movie star who isn’t quite ready for the matinee crowd. Madonna’s gold-toothed alter-ego swishes about with a riding crop, and the grimy view we get of her BDSM underworld was (is?) only suitable for MTV’s 3 a.m. video block. It’s a seedy sight, but one that forces you to wonder: Would you let yourself go wild?
16. “Papa Don’t Preach”
“Italians do it better,” as a famous t-shirt once said, and in “Papa Don’t Preach” we watch Madonna act on some serious Ciccone angst. She pouts and stomps on a soundstage (throwing her head back and accidentally revealing a bit of above-the-bustier nipple) and comes to blows with her tough-guy dad (Danny Aiello, of course). The urgency in her performance makes this video, as well as the climactic hug in the last second of the story.
15. “Take A Bow”
Ugh, you think you hook a sensitive matador, then it turns out he’s obsessed with pleasing crowds while remaining totally aloof at home. This naturally leads to masturbating to his image on television and pricking your finger with a pin for the hell of it. Sigh. “Take a Bow” is gorgeous and gorgeously melodramatic, with a heartbroken Madonna eventually looking a lot like Courtney Love in the “Violet” video.
14. “I Want You”
The only non-single in Madonna’s catalog to receive the video treatment, “I Want You” — a cover of the Marvin Gaye classic, with Massive Attack — is captivating for a few reasons. For starters, it’s inspired by a Dorothy Parker short story, but more importantly, it’s a tense and suspenseful clip about a woman waiting for and ultimately rejecting a phone call. Killer black-and-white cinematography, marvelous scene-setting, and in every frame of this barebones story, Madonna engrosses us with dread and desperation.
God, remember simpler times when Madonna could just spray graffiti and look jilted at a pool hall, and that would be enough for a beautiful video? “Borderline” is a one-of-a-kind anthem of innocence and romance, and in the video, Madonna’s yearning is contagious — even if she is clad in chartreuse socks and yellow heels.
12. “What It Feels Like for a Girl”
Forget Swept Away, because this clip is the ultimate (read: solely tolerable) Madonna/Guy Ritchie collaboration. As a dead-eyed renegade who sets out on a rampage with an under-reactive geriatric pal, Madonna is both chilling and totally confident. It’s her most frightening performance in a music video, and when she plows that car into a group of strangers, her stoic response makes for her greatest video moment of the 2000s.
11. “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”
It’s easy to dismiss the “Drowned World” video as a poor-little-famous-girl dirge, but the clip is just as much about the ugly comforts of celebrity and its reality-distorting side-effects. This underrated clip is one of Madonna’s most personal statements, and her vocals are downright chilling when she intones, “No laughter in the dark… no fire that I can spark.”
10. “Material Girl”
We can call “Material Girl” a “tribute” to Marilyn Monroe, but I like to think of it as Madonna trumping Marilyn’s stale old shimmying with zealous flirtation and libidinous showmanship. The Madonna of “Material Girl” may have craved money, but what she really pulled in was attention.
9. “Like A Prayer”
Long before Carlos Leon, there was Leon, the single-named model who swept up Madonna in a blaze of religious ecstasy, sexual liberation, and choir-loft sin. Mary Lambert’s incendiary clip may have scared off Pepsi, but it gave us a ravishing Madonna at her most defiant.
8. “Bedtime Story”
The Mulholland Drive of Madonna’s video oeuvre, “Bedtime Story” is a living, convulsing fever dream. It’s also the Bjork-iest video she’s ever done, which is no surprise considering Bjork is the song’s primary writer. Unconscious bliss, honey.
7. “Ray of Light”
During that brief moment in 1998 when Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker could’ve been twins, Madonna kicked off a new leg of her career with this fiery, caffeinated blitz. Her dancing alone is a revelation — like Michael Stipe in “Losing My Religion,” but with rabies and a jean jacket.
6. “Justify My Love”
The first banned Madonna video holds up well in all its carnal, hallucinatory eeriness, even if its Wayne’s World parody is just as recognizable as the Mondino original. Nothing compares to its final moment, when an overjoyed Madonna scurries out of her hotel room with the glee of a successful criminal. Indeed, she’s pulled off a major operation — and apparently cured that serious migraine.
“Veronica Electronica,” Madonna’s Ray of Light alter-ego, debuted in a midnight-colored desert seance where the trail of Mendhi on her arms wanders like the song’s cryptic, but commanding lyrics. She levitates, morphs into a dog, turns into a flock of birds, and performs other magician’s-assistant tricks that would’ve fit right in Desperately Seeking Susan. A peculiar and arresting video.
4. “Oh Father”
Two great tastes that taste great together: Madonna’s upbringing and Citizen Kane. David Fincher is, to date, the director who understood Madonna’s fire, vulnerability, cheekiness, and talent best, and in “Oh Father” he turns her motherless childhood into a film noir masterpiece worthy of Orson Welles. It’s hard to pick a favorite image: the sno-globe cemetery, the disturbing coffin, the looming, gigantic door, or any frame of Madonna’s somber, awe-inspiring performance.
3. “Open Your Heart”
True Blue is the album where Madonna became superhuman, and in the video for the outrageous and provocative “Open Your Heart,” she shows you everything: Her gall, her peepshow chutzpah, her chair-humping abilities, and the sheer joy she takes in being as sexual or ridiculous as the moment calls for. Only Madonna could make a line like “I’ll make you love me” one of the most empowering lyrics of all time.
2. “Express Yourself”
Truthfully, the battle for Greatest Madonna Video can only come down to two clips: “Express Yourself” and “Vogue.” “Express Yourself” is her biggest and boldest concept video, a man-machine dystopia with a sexually stifled Madonna as the reigning empress. When she emerges from her ivory tower with that pinstripe suit and monocle, we bear witness to one of the nerviest, freakiest dance sequences ever put on film. Crotch-grabbing? Leering? Strutting? Madonna makes every wild move a stride toward disabling the overbearing, thundering, deeply phallic contraption responsible for her repression.
“Vogue” wins. “Vogue” is not only a pristine and elegant and ebulliently gay spectacle; it is the definitive Madonna statement. Madonna’s charisma is wrapped up in theatrical arrogance and proud self-consciousness, and that’s exactly what vogueing celebrates. If she’s a sexualized robo-factory foreman in “Express Yourself,” here she’s a steaming pin-up with a fully equipped gay army framing her face, angles, and authority with unending geometric precision. “Vogue” goes beyond mere gay eleganza and achieves an untouchable fabulosity worthy of Marlene Dietrich’s approving hat-tilt.