Taylor Swift’s ‘Wildest Dreams’ and the Problem with Nostalgia

For ARMED: In recent days American singer Taylor Swift and music video director Joseph Kahn have come under fire for their representation of ‘Africa’ in Swift’s newest hit video ‘Wildest Dreams’.

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By Eden Caceda

In recent days American singer Taylor Swift and music video director Joseph Kahn have come under fire for their representation of ‘Africa’ in Swift’s newest hit video ‘Wildest Dreams’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, in the video Swift plays an Elizabeth Taylor-esque actress who falls in love with her already partnered co-star, played by Scott Eastwood. Set against the backdrop of the African wilderness, she dreams of an idealized world where he loves her, before being awoken to the fact the entire shoot was on a backlot set. In the end the year is revealed to be 1989 and Swift sadly attends the premiere of the film before fleeing without the man who she pined for.

Contrary to the criticism around the visuals, the music video is very clearly an homage to Old Hollywood and the tropes of exotic safari romances as seen in films like Out Of Africa and The African Queen, whereby there is a melodramatic love between a White man and White woman against the backdrop of the isolated and wild African savannah. The familiarity of the concept is easy to swallow for many audiences who love and remember those nostalgic stories of White estate owners in exotic Africa.

It is entirely wrong to target Swift and Kahn and brand them as racists for their part in the video; instead it is necessary to be observant and criticize the ongoing cycle of colonial nostalgia and the continued romanticising of European rule over Africa in the public consciousness. Swift and Kahn are not acting of their own accord – they are simply echoing the long history of Hollywood’s obsession with White settlers in colonial Africa and perpetuating Western pop culture’s refusal to offer any insight into Africa’s colonial past.

Indeed many Old Hollywood films presented Africa as an exotic and uncivilized place that played the perfect backdrop to a traditional love story with a twist. We see White colonizers and land owners in bliss at their estates and no voice for the African people who were oppressed under these regimes. Old Hollywood was the most unrepresentative and least culturally diverse time in film, with few to none African people in the narratives. Therefore it is easy to throwback to such a time of freedom (for White colonizers), romance (of rich White land owners) and exoticness (now that globalization is everywhere). However, ultimately this return to the political exploitation of a region and its people perpetuates the supposed beauty, elegance and energy of colonial Africa.

Kahn has hit back against criticisms of whitewashing, claiming that “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. This video is set in the past by a crew on set in the present.” He added that the video includes black people, was produced by a black woman and edited by a black man. What Kahn seems to ignore is that this video is one of many that continues to spread the glamorous and false version of Africa – the white colonial fantasy of Africa.

The perpetuation of White supremacy by exploiting African landscapes and animals to prop up colonial White romance and White characters is the video’s worst crime. As clearly articulated by Zoé Samudzi, the video portrays “[t]he romanticization of an era of white domination (through violent conquest [and] genocide) because of beautiful aesthestic” and “the literal use of black Africanness as a cultural aesthetic sans the employment of black bodies who created and deeply embody them.”

Melissa A. Fabello also criticises Swift’s lack of intersectional feminism, “The video for ‘Wildest Dreams’ perfectly demonstrates the ways in which Taylor continually misses the mark: By seeing life through only her experience (and that of those similarly socio-politically positioned), she’s unable to notice — let alone prioritize — the needs of the most marginalized. So her feminism only helps herself. That’s white feminism.”

We cannot expect Swift and Kahn to think of all of these political intricacies when establishing the concept for this video, particularly when most of the Western world continues to package Africa with the colonialisation that ruined it. Glamourising a period of death, dehumanization and struggle for African people may have been acceptable in the past, but in this modern day, it is everyone’s responsibility to remember and not erase the reality of colonialism. Popular stereotypes about Africa have a long history and ‘Wildest Dreams’ adds to that collection. Many young people idolize Swift and may not have the same critical eye as others, allowing this to once again portray Africa as the exotic wilderness that American audiences saw it in the early 20th century.

Most of the problem is nostalgia’s ignorance of reality. The intrigue of nostalgia lies in that we want to return to a simpler time where there were less problems and we were less aware of what was going on. Nostalgia is political. The nostalgia of Old Hollywood’s depiction of Africa is problematic because it glorifies the colonial images we have become accustomed to viewing and distracts from the unsettling reality of colonialism.

If we want to prevent more old-fashioned nostalgic scenes continuing the glorification of White supremacy, we need to recall the oppressions of people and start looking at the uglier side of history, including colonialism and displacement. Failure to do this will only perpetuate old problems and see the continued ignorant representation of continents like Africa and Asia. We hope to see more visuals of Africa and Asia in the future, but this should not come at the expense of whitewashed realities and erasure of oppression.

For ARMED Publishing, September 6, 2015.


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