In the week since Taylor Swift dropped her video for “Wildest Dreams,” both she and the director have come under fire for racism, glorifying colonialism, exoticizing Africa, etc. But I haven’t yet seen anyone write about what’s missing from the video: wildness.
While lions and cheetahs and thunderstorms may be stand-ins for raw sensual passion, the dreams in this video fall neatly within social convention and the narrative history of women pining for a man to take them on grand adventures. This is the same dream that white people have been dreaming from the colonization of Africa in the 19th century all the way through the terrifying savior fantasy of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It’s the same dream that women have been told to dream since we were little girls, beauty promoted as the only path to self-actualization and adventure.
As the kids might say, it’s basic.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad.
The most nuanced criticism I’ve read of the video so far has focused in on Swift’s problematic reliance on nostalgia. In her introduction for The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia thus:
Nostalgia (from nostos–return home, and algia–longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it also a romance with one’s own fantasy.
I cannot think of a single word that better describes Swift as an artist or why her work is so emotionally powerful. The first time I heard her music, I envied how freely she expressed her teenage romantic fantasies – from the fantasy of being remembered forever by a truck-driving country boy every time he hears a Tim McGraw song to having a literal Romeo & Juliet romance that ends in a wedding. She didn’t worry about how she might be perceived. She went all over the map, hitting every approach to female-satisfaction-via-male-attention. She was shameless, and it worked.
Swift has evolved a lot as an artist and a human since those early days, but in this one dimension her music remains the same. “Wildest Dreams” is a fantasy on top of a fantasy on top of a fantasy. Scott Eastwood might as well be James Dean. The video is a layer cake of powerful cultural touchstones and common romantic tropes, spiked with the near-universal pain of unrequited love. That’s what makes it so resonant – and, according to its critics, so problematic.
As she has grown up, grown more famous, and entered into newer cultural spaces, Swift’s reference points have changed, as have the reference points of her broader creative teams. She’s no longer singing just to a country audience that wants to hear about pickup trucks or teenage girls who dream of being swept off their feet, and her videos no longer end with a hint that the dream is about to come true. The romance of “Wildest Dreams” is acutely painful because she recognizes that it’s all a fantasy, that it, in fact, has always been unreal, and yet still it’s what she chooses to dream.
The fifth shot in the opening sequence is a stage light. From that moment on, the artifice is clear. This is a film. They’re acting, most of the time. All this romance takes place in settings where we are forced to question how real they are: exotic landscapes as film backdrops, wild nature tame enough to writhe next to, muscled masculinity as a performance, red lipped-rosy cheeked femininity as costume, a stunning gown made more dramatic with the help of a giant fan, and, finally, the artifice of Hollywood and the realization, for the audience, that not only was the relationship was never the all-in romance she wanted it to be, they never even went to Africa.
In the sense that Swift is now self-aware enough to acknowledge that these dreams are just that, she’s grown. But today, after I watched the video for the first time with a friend whose career has taken her across the African continent many times, I was both overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and the outfits and underwhelmed by its approach to wildness.
A hot, tough, angry white dude + a gorgeous, thin white woman in couture have a steamy affair that can’t last forever? We’ve seen this movie before. Taylor Swift can travel to Africa, but for now, she can only reference other people’s ideas of what the continent should look like. Her approach to romance is no different. The best she can do is remind us that none of these fantasies are real and probably never were.
A truly wild dream might take us out of the past, our tropes, idealized gender expression, and the heritage of whiteness to a place where people dream differently. That’s not something Taylor Swift can do for us right now. But you know what? She’s only 25, and she’s been courageous enough to evolve in public thus far. I have faith that someday she’ll get tired of this persona, too. And when she does, she’ll bring millions of people with her.
At least, that’s how it goes in my wildest dreams.