When I first watched Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” music video, I was absolutely wonderstruck (in reference to Swift’s 2011 fragrance of the same name). Swift is a downright beaut for all three minutes and 54 seconds of the video, eliciting both admiration and envy from me and my less-than-glamorous life. With short, dark brown curls and a classic red lip, Swift is reminiscent of a young Elizabeth Taylor. She plays an actress in the 1950s who falls deeply in love with her insanely hunky co-star, Scott Eastwood, while filming in an undisclosed location in Africa. Bright blue waterfalls spill off of rocky ledges, and giraffes graze to their hearts’ content. When the couple returns to the States for the red carpet premiere, Swift finds Eastwood lip-locked with another woman—his wife—evoking the typical Swift response of emotional turmoil with a matching expression of despair. As cheesy and melodramatic as the video may be, I still find myself watching it on YouTube at least every other day. Why? Because it’s so dang enchanting.
Yet so many people saw an entirely different story told in this short video—something that I hadn’t seen the first, second, or even 20th time I watched it. Others saw a film reeking of white colonialism and an inexcusable misrepresentation of African lands. Quite honestly, through my privileged eyes, I hadn’t noticed any of this. It wasn’t until I read the criticism and watched the video through a new lens that I was able to see the glaring flaws. While it’s clear that the video is set in Africa (where much of the filming was done), the overwhelming majority of the cast is white. In a few shots, if you squint your eyes and lean forward so that your face is about two inches from the screen, two black African men can be seen strolling in the background. Other than that, the video focuses on a white actress and her white co-star with his white wife and a bunch of other white people. In Africa. Ugh.
Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe of NPR write, “We are shocked to think that in 2015, Taylor Swift, her record label and her video production group would think it was OK to film a video that presents a glamorous version of the white colonial fantasy of Africa.” In response to such criticism, the video’s director, Joseph Kahn, released a statement: “This is not a video about colonialism but a love story on the set of a period film crew in Africa, 1950….We collectively decided it would have been historically inaccurate to load the crew with more black actors as the video would have been accused of rewriting history.” While I love Swift and am eager to jump to her defense, I have to admit that critics like Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe raise a good point. Romanticizing Africa and excluding the African people was careless and irresponsible. While I agree with Kahn that adding black actors to the fictional camera crew portrayed in the film would have been historically inaccurate, I do think Swift’s production crew had the responsibility to incorporate African people into the video by showing glimpses of their lives, even if just for a few seconds.
While Swift’s video is set in the 1950s, we must remember that we don’t live in the ‘50s any more. As an affluent white American with great influence on Western culture, Swift should have realized that by setting her music video in Africa, she was taking on the African burden. She had the responsibility to shine light on their culture and to allow their stories to be told. Instead, the video just washes over the entire continent of Africa and portrays it as a fantasy land where the animals roam and the white people come to play. As aesthetically pleasing as it may be, it’s both negligent and tasteless. But then again, maybe a place like this only exists in your wildest dreams.