That Taylor Swift video. Yes, I saw it. The short of it is that it annoys me.
Let’s get into some of the issues Swift’s video for her latest single, “Wildest Dreams,” brings up. Swift is playing a 1950s Elizabeth Taylor-type who is shooting a film on location in an unspecified African Savannah with her dashing co-star Scott Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s son). They fall in love on set, or do they? It seems back in America, Eastwood’s character is married (or at least in a committed relationship) and all of the flying around in planes and whatnot was just on-set flirty shenanigans. Like several movie stars in the business, he was only catching feelings because of the character he was playing, not because he was actually falling for Swift’s character. Heartbroken, Swift leaves the premiere early, with Eastwood chasing after her.
What got in people’s craw was the fact that the video itself was shot on location in Africa, with various shots of the wildlife, including giraffes, lions, and whatnot. All of the people in the video are white; there’s not a black person to be found.
Many decried this music video as glorifying colonialism. The Hollywood Reporter cites three different writers in their article about the video: Lauren Duca of The Huffington Post, The Daily Dot’s Nico Lang, and Zak Cheney-Rice of Mic. The three writers assert that Swift indulges in white privilege by showcasing the visibility of the white presence in foreign countries that became victims to colonization, such as Africa. They also state that the invisibility of actual black African people from the video erases any acknowledgement of Africa’s suffering at the hand of colonialism.
Here’s what Duca had to say:
Instead of the cultural appropriation that has become almost status quo in today’s pop music, Swift has opted for the bolder option of actually just embodying the political exploitation of a region and its people. It’s brave, really. Almost as brave as moving sensuously in the vicinity of a real-life lion.
If you’re going to pay tribute to a Meryl Streep movie, Out of Africa is an undoubtedly odd choice…An homage to a love triangle about white colonists is going to present some, uh, challenges to an artist who just wants to make a three-minute music video to put on her VEVO page—and Taylor Swift found that out the hard way. The singer debuted her vid for “Wildest Dreams” at the VMAs Sunday night, and even the most casual observe would have noticed that–for a clip that’s set in Africa—it’s about as white as a Sunday morning farmer’s market. Featuring Scott Eastwood…the video wants to have its old-school Hollywood romance but ends up eating some old-school Hollywood racism, too. And it’s sadly indicative of its star’s own shady racial politics.
Lastly, Cheney-Rice wrote:
Throughout [colonialism], Western media put forth a specific vision of the colonial relationship, which can be summed up simply: Whites were heroes, savors or adventurers in a wild and savage land. Blacks were primitive, sub-human, incompetent or–in some cases–completely invisible to the white gaze, and therefore unimportant to white interests.
The image of Africa as a frontier playground is on full display in Swift’s video. Not a single black Africa person is present, let alone one of specified origin among the continent’s 54 countries. We see a land rich with wildlife but devoid of humans–a trope that reinforces notions of Africa as feral and exotic. The video also takes place in the mid-20th century, a time when such “classic” Hollywood efforts as The African Queen, and Out of Africa were either filmed or set–and which romanticize a version of the era that overlooks the anti-black violence and slavery on which the lifestyles depicted were built.
They aren’t wrong. The lifestyle depicted in Wildest Dreams is based on colonialism without a doubt. The fact that filming in the savannah or in the Australian outback is generally looked at like a sci-fi film shows that there’s still one of many vestiges of white colonialism still in effect (even if the music video is directed by an Asian director, Joseph Khan). But as for how I really feel about it, my overall feeling about the video is general annoyance at the video and at Swift for not being creative in her work.
It is odd that no black person was seen in the entire video. But personally, I’d be even more peeved if there were black people in the video, since they probably would have been cast doing subservient junk, like serving Swift the Movie Star her drink or mending her hems or something. The black guy they would have gotten would have been a lion tamer or something to suggest that he knows the land because he’s just as wild as the terrain itself. To me, casting black people in stereotypical and demeaning roles would have been offensive to insane levels if she had black people doing what they would have done in actual old films. To defend himself, Kahn did say the and the team behind the film (which included several black people, he notes to NPR), felt that to add black characters to the proceedings would be rewriting history. To be fair, some would feel it highly suspect if something set in the 1950s had a 2015 sensibility to it.
However, that doesn’t negate the fact that the lack of anyone black provides a moment to pause at what implicit messages the music video puts out. Indeed, it does suggest that Africa is something that has to be tamed or, needs to be tamed just enough so that the foreign colonizers still feel like they’ve conquered something, but “kept integrity” to the region (similar to how gentrification feels). It suggests that Africa is an alien world, not a world continent. Swift and Eastwood might as well have been filming on Mars based on their portrayal of the savannah. The lack of a black presence on film erases the black presence in Africa, making it seem like colonialism and the problems that came with it didn’t exist. At its absolute worst, showing an African landscape that barren of people makes Africa—at least that part, anyway—look like it’s been, for lack of a better term, exterminated.
Overall, though, my thoughts about the lack of black people in the video are that it seems like there’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality to even making a video glamorizing Hollywood’s past. If they did put black people in the film, they’d risk offending if you were to go with the climate of the times. If they put black people in contemporary roles in the video, someone would indeed say they were rewriting history. If they didn’t put black people in the video, as they decided to do, then you’d have this outcome, with people saying they’re glorifying white colonialism. I think the fact that there is such a catch-22 shows how damaging colonialism and racism in general is to the world. It ruins everything from the big—people’s lives—to the small—a standard music video.
The lack of different faces and the Cleopatra-ness of it (in terms of budget and the video’s subsequent lambasting by members of the press) also puts the focus squarely on Swift and the same handful of immature motifs that litters her work.
I am sure that even though Khan directed the video, the idea was purely Swift’s. Although she has passed her teenage years, she is still putting out junior high work; her lyrics still speak of underdeveloped feelings on love, her persona is still that of the high school “nerd” who was bullied, even though she herself was a superstar at the time. That’s not to say she wasn’t ever a victim of mean girls at some point in her life, but its one thing to write about it as a kid and a different thing to write about that same motif from the same point of view as an adult, especially one who’s matured in the music business and has supermodel/actress friends (a group that creates the same High School Clique atmosphere Swift alludes to hating in her music, but perpetuates in real life, with her at the center).
At this point (and with this budget), “Wildest Dreams” should have truly shown a mature, wiser Swift. She could have still been traipsing in a barren African landscape, but she could have at least been on the Katy Perry end of things. As it stands, “Wildest Dreams” is just a big-budget version of the same Swift storyline: A girl falls in love with a boy and then finds out the boy has a much more alluring “mean girl”girlfriend, leading the main girl to question and doubt herself, leading the audience to pity her and offer her their sympathies. The story, from a mass consumption perspective, is old.
As Lang points out, Swift has already come under fire for a lack of racial understanding with her “Shake It Off” music video, what with crawling under a tunnel of twerking women. But her recent tone-deafness with Nicki Minaj’s irritation with the VMA nominations, might be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to the public’s reception of the video. As I wrote in this article, Swift’s self-centered (or, as some would say “white feminist”) attitude made her miss the entire point of Minaj’s Twitter discussion. Instead of realizing that yes, MTV does have a bias towards who it gives nominations to, she thought the discussion was all about herself, leading her to condescendingly say that she’d be happy to share the stage with Minaj if she won.
“Wildest Dreams” seems to combine all of the old and new irritations people have with Swift and have touched all nerves at the same time. People are getting annoyed with Swift’s message and privileged outlook, and it’s time for her to do some damage control before things get too out of hand.
In the meantime, there are tons of music videos you can watch that do feature Africa in unique and affirming ways. Check them out at Colorlines.
Personally, Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” just annoys me, not to the level of taking up pitchforks or anything, but just to the level of experiencing intermediate irritation. But what do you think about it? Give your opinions in the comments section below.