If you were one of the first to watch Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” video released shortly after the VMAs, your first thought about the clip probably wasn’t “racist.” Scott Eastwood and Taylor play a pair of Old Hollywood lovers caught on a shoot in the middle of the African Sahara together as their passionate romance hits its peak and then crashes before them at the film’s premiere back home.
When Swift released 1989 last year, “Wildest Dreams” had already attracted criticism for being a shallow attempt to capitalize on the success of Lana Del Rey. The accompanying video lends itself to supporting these complaints; you can’t get much more Lana than a tragic romance set in the high glamour Hollywood era. Still, the watered-down ballad was chosen as the album’s fifth single — a situation that Taylor’s team might be regretting now.
Just after its release, NPR published a piece written by African activists Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe that condemned Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” video for painting a “whitewashed” version of the continent’s very serious problem with post-colonialism. Using Africa as a backdrop for make-out scenes with Scott was, they said, “beyond problematic.”
“Here are some facts for Swift and her team: Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful. It was exploitative and brutal. The legacy of colonialism still lives quite loudly to this day. Scholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced to colonial strategies. So can other woes. In a place full of devastation and lawlessness, diseases spread like wildfire, conflict breaks out and dictators grab power.”
Like Out of Africa and Lawrence of Arabia before it, Taylor’s “Wildest Dreams” video does shift the role of Africa’s protagonist from its people to colonialism’s perpetrators. As also pointed out by the Inquisitr, the video features virtually no black characters of any kind, minus two guards standing far in the background. Indeed, it does decontextualize Africa — furthering an image of desert sunsets and exotic animals that don’t convey the war-torn and poverty-stricken reality that is true for much of the region.
In defense of Swift, the “Wildest Dreams” video also doesn’t seem to have illusions about being anything more than a painfully sappy romp between Scott and herself. The white pair are the story’s protagonists because it’s the only story being told. For a short music video, taking a razor focus on that one facet is much more forgivable than say, Out of Africa, where a longer story is taking place. There, a filmmaker is given a lot of more time to flesh out ideas, which leaves less room for them to ignore important questions that the work may pose.
Still, it’s unwise to dismiss everything churned out by mainstream pop culture as too trivial to criticize. Press surrounding Taylor’s so-called racist “Wildest Dreams” video has undoubtedly opened up Africa’s colonial history to a segment of the population that might not have given it much thought before; in fact, searches for “colonialism” spiked not after Swift launched the clip, but once critics started to call it racist.
Furthermore, a star power as big as Taylor’s isn’t likely to be torn down by accusations of racism in her videos; in fact, “Shake It Off” faced similar criticism for appropriating black culture. What she has to lose is much smaller than what people sidelined by post-colonialism have to gain with an expanded audience for their stories.
When people ask themselves what purpose pop culture serves, sometimes “the politically correct nitpicking” is the answer. So maybe Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” video isn’t racist, but debating its merits allows us to talk about other behaviors that might be — and educate pop culture junkies in the process.
[Image via YouTube]