Last week’s MTV Video Music Awards will likely be remembered as a hot-bed of drama, social issues, and controversy, spurned by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and Kanye West. The slightest mention of the awards show is enough to disturb the silence in any room. This is the effect of popular culture at its finest.
But, there is one music video which can be distinguished as emblematic of the whole controversy, released during the award show and drawing attention to the reflective nature of said popular culture: it is fuelled by the cues of our society and what we deem to be acceptable. Or, in this case, what can not be deemed acceptable.
The plot-line of Taylor Swift’s ‘Wildest Dreams’ is easy to understand: intended to complement the sorrowful lamentations of a doomed relationship, Sunday night was witness to a dark-haired Swift posing sadly as the star of a 1950s Hollywood film against a backdrop of what can only be described as the most colonial of images of Africa.
With Scott Eastwood as the object of her affection, her relentless glances at him are not enough to provide the pair with a happy ending and so, the glamour is for nought and the drive into the sunset is non-existent. So too, as many of us have picked up on, is the presence of non-white Africans.
Reductionist at best, Swift’s ‘Africa’ is stereotypically conveyed with all the patronising ignorance of someone imagining what would constitute as The Exotic Land of Africa, a colonial illustration leaving out the knowledge of it being a continent, complex, rich in many histories, and therefore difficult to package and sell so neatly. Still, it did not stop Swift’s creative team from trying.
So Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video was filmed in “Africa” but what country? Also, why does it only contain animals and white ppl #Taylor
— Lena Olson (@LeynuhPawp) August 31, 2015
Rather than using Africans as props in her new music video, Taylor Swift just sticks to white people… http://t.co/CSMBNMf2sb — Tom Murphy (@viewfromthecave) August 31, 2015
From the depiction of rolling grasslands, wild animals in migration patterns, dry dust flying as Swift kisses her co-star in her throwback hunter outfit, the video enables the audience to see all of these things as mere accessories.
The romanticism of this history is a clumsy, heavy-handed act which calls to attention an out-dated racial hierarchy and is scarily reminiscent of colonial attitudes
They are ambiguously, stereotypically ‘African’ enough to contribute to not only the myth of Africa, more at home in a historically out-dated periodical, and ambiguously, stereotypically ‘African’ enough to warrant more attention on Swift and her lover. It would be easy to make the argument that indeed, she is the star and this is her music video. But what must be recognised is the fact that the spot-light is on a truly horrifying image: Swift’s Africa features white people, complicit in acting the role of colonial settlers under the facade of the creation of a film.
Watch The Video:
Is @taylorswift13 not aware of the legacy of colonialism in Africa or….???????? Know your history, sweetheart. #WildestDreamsVEVO
— Sydney Murray (@sydmurray) September 1, 2015
The romanticism of this history is a clumsy, heavy-handed act which calls to attention an out-dated racial hierarchy and is scarily reminiscent of colonial attitudes: ‘Africa’ can be groomed to fit an image the white person deems acceptable, can be plundered for its beauty whilst the locals remain invisible, and can become the mythical image of exoticism anyone fed on racist stereotypes sees it as.
The video casts a hazy, rose-tinted glow to the white imperialist presence in the African continent, romanticising it so that Swift does achieve that old Hollywood ’50s colonialist film vibe she’s looking for
It is truly as Binyavanga Wainaina writes about in his Granta Magazine essay, “How to Write About Africa:”
“Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”
Swift is not a stranger to the romantic, the evocative, and the unparticular. In fact, these qualities seem to be a staple of her song-writing style, and yet, within the context of the ‘Wildest Dreams’ video, these are not qualities which can be dismissed as simply indicative of her personality.
The video casts a hazy, rose-tinted glow to the white imperialist presence in the African continent, romanticising it so that Swift does achieve that old Hollywood ’50s colonialist film vibe she’s looking for: ‘Wildest Dreams’ can easily be recognised as an example of Western media providing a propagandistic image of the exotic frontier playground, sitting comfortably alongside John Huston’s The African Queen and Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa in these efforts. It is an achieved goal Swift has every reason to not be proud of.
The video is deceptively portrayed as simply detailing a complicated love-affair. As Zak Cheney-Rice concisely explained for Mic:
“It is remarkable that the insidious nature of the African colonial fantasy is so seamlessly glossed over. This matters. When a pop culture product reaches as many people as a Taylor Swift video does, the images it presents have implications beyond their immediate purview.”
Cheney-Rice has every reason to be wary of Swift’s creative products in light of her influence as one of the world’s biggest female popstars, and especially so when said creative products are as disastrously constructed as ‘Wildest Dreams’.
When it comes to influence, it is a by-product of fame which must be handled with responsibility.
It is exactly this which is lacking in this music video, and while director Joseph Kahn may be comfortable to shirk this one must recognise the importance of contentious, important historical landmarks, like the African continent having to suffer under European colonialism, being treated with more respect and awareness and less lazy nonchalance.
Ultimately, it is the fact that these attitudes surfaced so casually in our modern age omitting the truth of Africa’s history and the Black African presence, whether intentionally or not, in the place of romantic fantasy which deserves to be called to attention.
In this case, Swift’s love-story stopped short of occurring between her protagonists and began to cast back to a part of history which needs no affection. It is this which is truly distressing about ‘Wildest Dreams.’
Cover Photo Credit: GabboT/Flickr (CC By 2.0)