Taylor Swift's logic-defying "African safari" fiasco: Why her "Wildest Dreams" music video lives down to the hype

There are good reasons this controversy doesn't seem to be going away

Published September 1, 2015 11:51PM (EDT)


Well-born pop star Taylor Swift probably thought she emerged from MTV’s Video Music Awards looking pretty good. Compared to the costume-changing, dope-smoking ego-flipout of Miley Cyrus, she came across as classy and poised. She was less obnoxious than Rebel Wilson and less lame than Justin Bieber. She didn’t call anyone a “bitch” (or have her sound cut off) the way Nicki Minaj did. And she both put a feud to bed and won the most important of the strange little astronaut statues that night offered. Billboard deemed her -- along with Kanye West, whose brilliant, rambling speech is still drawing acclaim – the big winner of the night.

Taylor Swift took home top honors at the ceremony, winning Video of the Year for "Bad Blood" and bringing up her gang of girls from the visual on stage. The pop star came out as a special guest earlier in the evening during Nicki Minaj's opening performance, when the Harajuku Barbie ripped through "Trini Dem Girls" and "The Night Is Still Young," during which Swift emerged from the back of the stage to meet up with Minaj for "Bad Blood." The two had feuded online last month after Swift interpreted some of Minaj's criticisms as personal swipes. It was short-lived, though, as the two squashed it soon after.

And speaking of West, Swift managed – despite looking very confused while he veered every which way in his description of their conflict at the VMAs years ago – to come out of that one OK.

But as Salon has noted before, the critical tide began turning on Swift over the summer, and it continues to turn. It’s not that everyone hates Taylor now – she remains extremely popular with teenage fans and mostly liked in the press and media. It means, though, that criticism tends to build rather than dissipate, and that’s what seems to be happening with her new video for “Wildest Dreams,” which Britain’s NME has today described as “depicting an African colonial fantasy.”

These days, the counting of racial composition in cultural artifacts can go too far, like the criticism of “God Help the Girl,” the film by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, for being filled with white people. (The film was set among the indie-rock scene of Glasgow, Scotland, a country with a massive white majority.)

But the Swift video, which seems to riff on Hemingway stories, American safari fantasies, and maybe “The English Patient,” deserves the shellacking it’s received from numerous quarters. As a Fader headline put it, “Taylor Swift Went to Africa to Film a Music Video and There’s Only White People in It.” The Daily Dot’s Nico Lang has called it “about as white as a Sunday morning farmer’s market."

This may not need to be said, but the fact that Swift is a kind of walking advertisement for what’s now called white privilege – she’s the scion of several generations of bank-executive wealth, with parents who both moved to Nashville to help make her famous, and then bought part of a record label to ensure it happened, and she already owns numerous fancy houses – so this resonates differently than if she were just another dues-paying Caucasian musician on an exotica trip.

What’s interesting is that Swift’s team seems to have anticipated some of the backlash: The video’s conclusion earnestly advises us that “All of Taylor’s proceeds from this video will be donated to wild animal conservation efforts through the African Parks Foundation of America.” (Has Swift ever done a good deed she has not immediately told the world about afterward?)

This could certainly blow over. It could also shape up as the most ill-advised trip to Africa since a Midwestern dentist headed over to hunt lions.

"Wildest Dreams" stands on the shoulders of half a century of films set in an Africa full of pale faces. Take a look:

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By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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Miley Cyrus Taylor Swift Video Vmas 2015 White Privilege