Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”: A Small Change Would’ve Made All the Difference

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The thing is, it’s a hot song. And the video is beautifully shot. And Taylor Swift looks great as a brunette. It sucks that one tiny shift – one small decision to go left instead of right – could’ve prevented Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” video from being the least bit problematic.

As it is, I’ll be honest – I didn’t find the video problematic when I watched it, because the problematic elements have already happened. It’s clear that the Joseph Kahn-directed video is using 1950s film, many of which (like 1951’s The African Queen, or Mogambo from 1953) were about white people in Africa. That – the fact that 1950s film so often used Africa as an “exotic locale” without taking the people who lived there, or Europe and the US’s history of colonialism into account – is the major problem. And films that do that today – flinging white protagonists into danger in “exotic” locales, like the Ewan McGregor/Naomi Watts film, The Impossible – should be called out for continuing that tradition today.

My hesitation with calling out a music video like this – unlike, say, calling out Swift on her use of black, female bodies in “Shake it Off” – is that the things you’re calling out are not things that this video is actually doing. When criticizing the video, NPR had some “facts for Swift and her team: Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful.”  Meanwhile, The Daily Dot thinks that “An homage to a love triangle about white colonialists is going to present some, uh, challenges…” The thing is, the video isn’t about white colonialists. It’s about Hollywood actors. (Some might argue that those are one and the same, and that’s another conversation). The thing being romanticized in this video is 1950s Hollywood and, well, romance.

The other criticism surrounding the video is that it takes part partially in Africa but doesn’t feature any black people. The thing is, even Africa itself isn’t actually Africa in this video, as we see halfway through that they’ve been filming in front of a hastily painted backdrop. The point, of course, being that nothing about this – the relationship between the actors, the locale, any of it – was real. It’s interesting that no one is taking that point and applying it politically, as it points out the fact that Hollywood would portray Africa without actually going there. The point of the song, as well as the video, is that All of this is a lie.

However, that’s just my personal reaction to the video, and considering that I’m descended from a different group of people who were colonized entirely differently, it’s not one I would impose on anyone. I understand that the criticism of the African elements in this video come from a very real place, and that anyone who purports to be an intelligent, relevant artist in the 21st Century needs to understand that we live at a time when marginalized people are not only speaking up more than ever before, but have the Internet at their disposal to organize and fight for recognition in a way they never have before. Gone are the days when you can get away with saying “This is my art, and I can do what I want!”

Art affects people, and artists have a responsibility to their consumers. I’m not saying that it’s not also about self-expression and making your own point. I’m saying that if you have a blind spot with regard to race, or gender, or physical ability, or sexual preference, and someone calls you on that, you have a responsibility to have that conversation in good faith without getting defensive. If you didn’t want to communicate with people, why did you become an artist in the first place? Which is why Joseph Kahn’s subsequent response to the criticism has been problematic in and of itself.

In addition to being willing to have the conversation when people tell them they’ve misstepped, artists of the 21st Century also have a responsibility to take issues like this into account before they make anything. This isn’t stifling an artist. In fact, it’s expanding their world view and providing them with options. In the case of this video, where once there was an easy use of a recognizable trope of the African colonialist film, there could have been some creativity about what other images we could see in a video like this. African safari movies weren’t the only things being made in 1950s Hollywood. Taylor Swift and Scott Eastwood could’ve been in a US desert locale filming a Western; they could’ve been a private detective and a client in Film Noir; or they could’ve been filming a period piece in modern day, adapting something like The End of the Affair.

There are so many choices that could’ve been made here that would’ve looked just as beautiful, and made just as much use of period costume, while also taking marginalized people into account, and there’s literally no reason why it had to be Africa except “That was my vision.” Unless the video was specifically created to raise money for African wildlife preserves? At the end of the video, it says that proceeds from the video will go toward wild animal conservation efforts through the African Parks Foundation of America. This is a fine cause to be sure – preserving the environment is hugely important – but perhaps the decision could’ve been made to also support an African charity that involves supporting the people there, not just preserving the animals and parks as a vacation destination for non-Africans to experience an “exotic locale.”

Artists are free to see their visions through. But if’ they’re not going to be responsible with what they create and take oppressed people into account, the very least they can do is, when they’re called out on something, ask “How did I screw up? Explain it so I understand,” then say, “I won’t do that again.” The world is full of too much pain for artists to thoughtlessly contribute to it.

(via USA Today)

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Image of Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.