there is nothing more alienating than having one’s pleasures disrupted by someone with a theory.
– Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love
Last week, Kelly Rowland released “Dirty Laundry” and Kanye West released “New Slaves.” Kelly’s song was released as a vocal track, disembodied, to the stranger sociality of the digital world. Kanye’s song was released simultaneously in multiple locations, projected in public, his face prominent, his body as much the song as the lyrics and music. On Saturday, he subsequently appeared on Saturday Night Live to perform his song live. Kelly’s song remains a disembodied vocal track. Or, rather, the track bodies her absence. I’m left wondering who can appear in public and how.
Kelly’s song opens with an “us”: “let’s do this dirty laundry.” The metaphor is domestic, collective, as Omise’eke Tinsley’s work reminds me. Women washing in public. An occasion for sociality, where the public:private dissolves. To be in public about the effluvia of everyday life. Kanye’s song proclaims “we the new slaves.” An assertion of fact. I’m struck by Kelly’s invitation and Kanye’s assertion. By the genderwork of invitation and assertion. How collectives come to be.
Digi-commentary on Kelly’s song has focused on how intensely personal it is, how confessional, even as many women have written they “know” and “feel” what she is saying. A chorus of voices who know what it means to “wear pain” and to hide in shame. A chorus of voices. Digi-commentary on Kanye’s song has focused on the “truth” he tells about our minoritized now. He speaks to and for us. His song is not understood as confessional, even though it pulses to “im’ma.” His “I” is understood as our “I.” He is the contemporary race man.
Kanye’s song fantasizes about evading surveillance: “I move my family out the country / So you can’t see where I stay.” Kelly’s song discusses being isolated and ashamed by that isolation:
Nobody can know this
And I was trapped in his house, lyin’ to my mama
Thought it could get no worse as we maximize the drama
Started to call them people on him
I was battered
Family can be an alibi: a form of isolating and disciplining women in the name of protecting them.
Whose stories get to be our stories? Whose stories are understood to have the weight, the force, the urgency that demands collective action? How does anger work? How does pain work? What kind of work must women do for us to understand “women’s work” as “our work”? The “dirty laundry” of racework is that it’s gendered and gendering, distinguishing between those taken to speak for themselves and those taken to speak for us and as us.
What would it mean to accept Kelly’s invitation? To “do dirty laundry” as a collective practice? What would it mean if we accepted that gendered violence is not an anomaly, that it is a collective problem, that it demonstrates lovelessness, and that anger is never enough?
Let’s do some dirty laundry.