Out of Africans?

Taylor Swift’s latest music video is getting some heat for its idyllic portrayal of colonialism. Having watched the video, I can see why. The imagery does parallel that of so many other colonial (and post-colonial) fantasies, from the literature of the 18th century to the films of the late-20th and early 21st centuries.

Yes, as the director has since pointed out, the video is not so much set in a colonial idyll as much as it is set on the set of a motion picture depicting the colonial idyll. Which is an important difference. It’s not so much a colonial fantasy as a meta-“colonial fantasy”Unfortunately, that subtlety is likely lost on viewers in the four minutes it takes to watch the video.

Moreover, the director’s insistence that “the key creatives who worked on this video are people of colour” is actually irrelevant: white people by no means have a monopoly on the production and re-production of colonial fantasies, and the skin-color of those responsible for them in no way diminishes their impact (if anything, it might lend them legitimacy.)

The problem with something like this doesn’t stem from any malicious intentions, but rather from the way it normalizes a particular image of Africa and the colonial period. That it is “only” entertainment is precisely the point. It almost subliminally contributes to a problematic pre-existing narrative. It is not significant in and of itself–rather, it is another brick in the wall. With millions of views, a rather substantial brick, but still just one of many.

As art, however, it also represents the product of an artist (or, really, artists’) vision. Swift, the director, et. al. certainly earned a few snarky tweets and some commentary from those concerned about these sorts of things, but they don’t deserve any long-lasting scorn. Not unless this sort of thing becomes a habit. No, if anything, some critical discussion may be a rather significant silver lining to this otherwise small cloud.*

*Unless, of course, commentators alienate those amongst Swift’s fan-base who dip into the conversation.