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Kelly Rowland Has a Madonna Moment

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By Mitchell Sunderland • May 29, 2013

Last week, Kelly Rowland released “Dirty Laundry,” a new single from her upcoming album Talk a Good Game (June 18 via Universal Republic) that portrays Beyoncé’s life as The Wizard of Oz and Kelly’s life as The Great Gatsby—an American dream that’s fallen apart. She admits to dating an abusive boyfriend, envying Beyoncé’s solo career and hating the last 10 years of her life. It’s possibly the realest she’s ever gotten on record.

And yet, many fans and critics see the song as a commercial mistake. “You probably won’t hear this on the radio,” wrote Lindsey Weber on Vulture. A girl on my Facebook feed wrote: “it is so awk and uncomfortable to listen to..domestic violence and Beyoncé woes in one song....2 much.” But Kelly Rowland hasn’t destroyed her career. She’s taken a risk and reinvented herself as a confessional R&B singer. In other words, Ms. Kelly is having a Madonna moment.

Comparing Beyoncé’s compatriot to Madonna might seem silly. We perceive Madonna as a global superstar known for breaking sexual boundaries, not a singer whose solo success has been spotty. But no amount of floor humping would matter if Madonna didn’t move listeners in the same way that an artist like Joni Mitchell did by masking confessional poems as dance floor anthems.

Years before Tori Amos discussed rape through piano ballads, Madonna sang “Papa Don’t Preach,” a near five-minute track about abortion that reached the top of the Billboard charts. Although “Live to Tell” is best known as the song Madonna crucified herself to on her Confessions tour, the breakup anthem is as sad any poem in Sylvia Plath’s “I hate my British boyfriend” repertoire. With Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros., 1998), Madonna did what Michael Jackson’s later albums failed to do: offer songs about how much she hated fame without becoming unsympathetic.

The chorus of “Dirty Laundry” proclaims that Kelly has Ray of Light-type confessions to make. “When you’re soaked in tears for years it never airs out,” she sings. “When you make pain look this good it never wears out.” And the only way to wear it out is to confess: “Let’s do this dirty laundry, this dirty laundry / Let’s do this dirty laundry, this dirty laundry.”

From there, Kelly goes on to discuss Madonna’s favorite subjects: Hollywood Babylon and men who treat women like the Whore of Babylon. She recreates events from her abusive relationship: “I’m on the kitchen floor,” she sings, “he took the keys.” Kelly’s portrayal of her relationship resembles Madonna’s marriage to Sean Penn. Madonna never released a single about how he abused her, but she wrote “Till Death Do Us Part,” a little-known song about their marriage from Like a Prayer. The song describes Penn abusing Madonna—“He takes a drink, she goes inside / He starts to scream, the vases fly”—and the cleanup that followed: “He wishes that she wouldn’t cry.”

Madonna, being an empowered woman, ignored Penn’s wishes and wrote this song. Ten years later, she made a similar artistic choice on Ray of Light. “I traded love for fame / Without a second thought,” Madonna complains on “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” after years of celebrating her success as the rest of America dreamed about trading their suburban lives for a day in Madonna’s world.

Similarly, after years of smiling as she dealt with trauma and Beyoncé overshadowing her career, Kelly admits she has lied. “Think I had it good,” she sings, “and they don’t know how bad / Fooled everybody, except myself.” She was mad at everything —her fans, the industry and “her, her, her.”

That last bit has become a media sensation. Disilgold.com wondered if Beyoncé cancelled a tour date the day that “Dirty Laundry” was released because she wanted to kill Kelly’s publicity. (It’s a commonly expressed fan theory that Beyoncé purposely hijacks Kelly’s spotlight.) On Chicago radio station WBEZ, popular music blogger Brittany Julious asked why so much attention has been paid to Kelly’s jealousy for Beyoncé, when it’s a small part of the song boiled down to one line that acknowledges Beyoncé’s talent: “When my sister was on stage killin’ it like a motherfucker / I was enraged, feelin’ it like a motherfucker.”

As Julious notes, it’s easier to discuss Kelly’s Beyoncé envy than the trauma that haunts domestic violence survivors. Where Beyoncé is a celebrity, domestic violence is a controversial, national issue. But Kelly’s decision to criticize Beyoncé is just as shocking as her admittance to surviving domestic violence.

Beyoncé is universally adored because there is nothing threatening about her—she’s the JFK of pop music. She sings about empowerment, has built a healthy nuclear family with fellow pop heavyweight Jay-Z and refers to herself as Mrs. Carter. Beyoncé isn’t Ke$ha, who discusses sex like a man—there is nothing threatening about her lifestyle.

To many, Kelly’s choice to talk shit instead of bowing down to Beyoncé is sacrilegious. But she’s just done what pop stars have done for decades. Like Britney Spears calling herself “most likely to get on the TV for strippin’ on the streets when getting the groceries” on “Piece of Me” or Madonna’s catalog packed with more confessions than a Catholic church, Kelly has revealed the price she paid to ride the Beyoncé express train to fame through song. In the process, she’s disrupted the social order, forcing us to discuss domestic violence and why we love Beyoncé.

What’s more Madonna than that?

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