I like Taylor Swift a lot — so much so that commenters at another site I write for have suggested I can’t be impartial in my judgements of her material. But I don’t like the new video for her single, “Wildest Dreams.” It’s vaguely yet blithely colonialist, and it evokes a cultural tradition indicative of something that’s gone wrong with the way America understands the world over its past.
“Wildest Dreams” is a swooning melodrama that evokes the dark romanticism of Lana Del Rey, and in the video, Swift and director Joseph Kahn — responsible for previous Swift showcases “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space” — like Del Rey, look to the imagery of classic Hollywood for visual inspiration. In the case of the Swift video, this becomes a darkest-Africa filmset that morphs into an LA premiere two-thirds of the way through.
The Africa evoked is a non-specific and, in Western terms, atavistic one, populated by safari hats, khaki outfits, and, as The Fader put it in a headline: “Taylor Swift Went To Africa To Film A Music Video And There’s Only White People In It.” Indeed, this is an Africa of exotic wonder — extraordinary landscapes and captivating fauna, proceeds of the video to which go to protect — but no local populace. It’s the colonialist’s Africa: a foreign and fecund place where humanity — and civilisation in particular — is an exceptional prescence.
One scene features a biplane with livery of the UK’s Royal Air Force soaring over the safari: the occupying British slaughtered thousands of Kenyans as recently as the 1960s, and the British still deny the rapes Kenyan women accuse their soldiers of committing.
It isn’t as if Swift is seeking to consciously evoke Africa’s subjugation. She sought to conjure the romanticism of the Hollywood of yore: a place that accepted colonial domination of African people as an uncomplicated setting for white adventure.
This imagery is part of America’s cultural memory, which is why it ended up in the video of a superstar who surely had no desire to evoke it in its all its compleixities. Yet why should it have? Liberia perhaps aside, the United States has no real reason to consider African colonialism to be part of its national identity. The victims of the triangular trade largely suffered before the United States became a nation; it was their descendents, American-born, whose enslaved presence marked itself on American memory, and their subjugation was situated within the American South. The scramble for Africa was a European venture.
America, rather, was the first of the post-colonial nations. The rebellion of the thirteen colonies marked the beginning of the slow end of the British Empire. As a country that saw the right of a people to self-government to be a truth self-evident, decolonisation should have always been a firm national creed. And even at the most adventurous extent of the United States’ own empiric expansion, during the early 20th century when it ruled the Philippines, absorbed Hawaii, and claimed a clutch of nations in the Caribbean Ocean as its own, it exhibited a pronounced discomfort with the idea of transforming itself into a colonial power in the European mould.
America has seen itself throughout its history to be a beacon of freedom for the world, and oppressed peoples have understood it to be such. Ho Chi Minh, when seeking to overthrow the French in Vietnam, consciously modelled his Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam after America’s own Declaration of Independence. Ho repeatedly petitioned Harry Truman to support his cause and only after failing to win the United States to his side did he pursue communist backing. The ensuing Vietnam War was a disaster for South-East Asia and one of America’s most ignominious foreign policy blunders of the 20th century.
American fear of communism caused it to oppose to decolonisation in Africa, too, bolstering oppressive regimes against local movements backed by opportunistic Soviet forces, such as the MPLA in Angola. The United States didn’t always oppose colonialism — it worked against the British in the Suez crisis of 1956, for example — but its fear of an expansionist Soviet Union caused it too often to forget its principles and its own founding impulses.
This has caused America no end of problems, both in undermining its moral authority internationally — why should foreigners admire its talk of democracy when it is willing to undermine its own founding ideals of self-government? — and its subsequential absorption into wars of conquest better left in the 19th century.
The other fault in American memory is its unlearning of the Monroe Doctrine. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the anti-immigration activists of today, too many Americans have been willing to forget that, since its inception, their nation has defined itself as part of the New World. Joseph Conrad might have been British-Polish, but Edgar Rice Burroughs was American, and too many Americans have sought cultural affinity with the oppressors of old Europe rather than, as befits their history, the revolutionary New World.