‘Wildest Dreams’: it’s a music video, not a history lesson

Stefan Rhys-Williams

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The perennially outraged have found themselves a new target: pop star Taylor Swift. She stands accused of producing a racist music video, for her latest song ‘Wildest Dreams’. According to the Guardian, it offers a ‘romanticised view of European colonialism in Africa’.

Having watched the video, it’s quite difficult to grasp how it could be interpreted in this way. It’s true, Taylor Swift is white, and had the staggering gall to shoot a video in Africa. She is also dressed in vintage clothing that, I suppose, recalls the colonial era. Other than that, it’s the sort of candy-coated pap Swift fans have come to expect.

Nevertheless, one Twitter user alleged that Swift had ‘[erased] black ppl [sic] from the continent’ because the cast is predominately white. Never mind that, as far as I can see, there are only two proper characters in the video (one of them Swift herself). This is the role of pop star recast as equality and diversity officer.

It’s certainly true that the video does not deal with the crimes of Western colonialism. But, that said, why should it? The video is an accompaniment to a frothy pop song about falling in love. Who is looking to music videos for a thoroughgoing analysis of imperialism? Or enlightenment about any issue, for that matter?

Of course, some musicians are politically astute and some produce songs – and I suppose, at a stretch, music videos – that offer an edifying perspective on an urgent, tangible issue. I think it is fair to say that Taylor Swift does not fit into that category. Nor does she seem to want to.

Swift’s critics seem blind to the distinction between a fictional depiction of something and an endorsement of it. Let’s pretend for a moment that this music video romanticises a period of history when white colonisers horribly mistreated black Africans (by the way, it really doesn’t). Is that tantamount to approval of that exploitative period in any way? Of course not. It’s a music video for an American pop star, not a lesson in history or ethics.

The instinct to scour even the most inoffensive songs, films or books for any whiff of bigotry is a bizarre and troubling one. It’s hard to know whether Swift’s accusers genuinely believe her to be racist. But, if they do, it’s unclear what racism is even supposed to mean any more. When you use language this promiscuously, its sharpness, its meaning, begins to dull.

Stefan Rhys-Williams is a writer based in London.

Watch the video for ‘Wildest Dreams’:

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