Taylor Swift Might Be Racist, But NPR Also Isn’t That Smart
Taylor Swift has released the video for her latest single, “Wildest Dreams”, to an overwhelmingly negative public response. The video portrays romance between Taylor (in a brown wig) and another ‘actor’ on a film set in 1950s-era Africa, so The Guardian (along with everyone else) is calling the video an ‘African colonial fantasy’, or ‘colonial garbage’, and ‘a glamorous white colonial fantasy’. It’s all true—the Hemingway-esque reverie video features no character of color, and makes use of imagery (‘exotic’ landscapes, dramatic weather, lions) and symbolism that could well have come straight off the pages of Joseph Conrad’s well-known racist narrative Heart of Darkness. Even the song’s title—”Wildest Dreams” is reminiscent of highly backwards ideals; equating Africa with fantastical, supernatural experiences was the #1 way for racist colonizers to talk about a country they didn’t understand and absolutely didn’t care to understand.
Director Joseph Khan—also behind Taylor’s recent female revenge girl squad fantasy music video ‘Bad Blood’—defended his work, stating that the concept was “based on classic Hollywood romances like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as classic movies like The African Queen, Out of Africa and The English Patient, to name a few.”
NPR is enraged. Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe 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.”
This confused me. Do Viviane and James know who Taylor Swift is? Do they know Taylor Swift has made her career off writing awesomely catchy pop songs about nothing other than her princess fantasies, hung out with Lena Dunham a few times and decided she was a feminist, and is possibly the most white-washed, digestible brand of role model in celebrity America? Do they remember her ‘Welcome To New York’ campaign, a series of videos accompanying a single that Julianne Escobedo Shepherd called “a gentrification anthem so obtuse it makes one wonder if she is, in fact, trolling at this point.”?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold our favorite pop stars accountable for acts of blatant ignorance, but I also frequently question the ignorant public conversation about said favorite pop stars. Taylor Swift lives in a world so removed from ugly realities that it seems completely obvious shemight make a video like this one and be unaware of any problem it might pose. Or, as Julianne suggests, she might consciously make it and not even care—the more we talk and write about Taylor, the more she gets paid, and the further away she gets from being able to see the issue with NPR’s summary of her actions:
“She packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans.”
Would you care, if you were Taylor Swift? Isn’t the notion of privilege basically synonymous with the ability to not have to give a shit about dehumanized Africans? I’m not sure what the proper response should be. I guess I’m just saying that in addressing racism, we have to make an effort to understand the effects of it on those who benefit from racist social structures. In the words of one blonde black-culture-appropriating starlet: shake it off, NPR…shake it off.