Critics need to stop getting themselves into a lather over supposedly racist or sexist songs and videos, writes Tiffany Jenkins
FIRST they went for the boys, for Robin Thicke and Pharrell, accusing them of promoting date rape for singing about blurred lines, and they succeeded in having the tune struck off playlists.
Then, they – the bloggers and tweeters, feminists and critics who have replaced the blue-rinse brigade in their social force and are skilled in the arts of outrage – directed their fury at Miley Cyrus. Miley transgressed the shifting lines of what is and is not acceptable in pop when she stole the stage at the MTV video awards, in 2013, by twerking whilst wearing a flesh-coloured bikini, flanked by giant teddy bears. Her act was different to that of her previous TV appearances, such as when she played the innocent youth in Hannah Montana. The rather more obvious performance at the awards ceremony, which foregrounded her crotch, offended thousands watching who preferred Miley’s demure Disney princess image to her half-naked grinding and gyrating.
Then, they went for Lily Allen, slamming her music video Hard Out Here as racist, because of its “denigration of black female bodies”. The action involved the singer and writhing black dancers with champagne being poured over their bodies.
And now, the killjoys are coming for Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift, for those of you who are past your teenage years, is a Nashville star turned pop sensation with perfect blond hair, rosy cheeks and red lips, who comes up with marvellous tunes. She, like her music, is glossy, over-produced, and far from cutting edge, though there is always a tinkling of irony, but come on, this is pop music and she is a pop star – that’s the way it should be.
The outraged of social media are gunning for Taylor because her latest video, Wildest Dreams, is, according to them, racist. It just premiered at the MTV video awards and immediately afterwards the internet went ballistic. She was accused of portraying an “African colonial fantasy” due to the video’s largely white cast despite being filmed in Africa.
The video is fantasy; the critics got that right. Swift stars as a glamorous movie star, circa 1940s, who falls for her co-star who is “so tall, and handsome as hell”. They have a steamy affair, against the backdrop of sweeping shots of the plains, in front of wild beasts – elephants, lions, zebras and giraffes. But he is married and playing away: “He’s so bad but he does it so well.”
Taylor Swift, channelling Elizabeth Taylor, is soon abandoned, portrayed alone at the movie premiere as her lover stands in the spotlight with his wife. Taylor rushes out in her pink satin dress and white fur stole and escapes into the night in her chauffeur-driven car (when doesn’t that happen?) as she sings: “Say you’ll see me again even if it’s just in your wildest dreams.”
You will have seen this kind of thing hundreds of times before at the movies, and will continue to do so. It’s no colonial fantasy – I can hardly believe this needs to be spelt out – it’s just one swoony daydream of an average girl about being a gorgeous bit on the side. Taylor looks fabulous as the romantic lead who is doomed to be loved passionately, but left, sporting, at various moments, high-waisted trousers, the most amazing billowing chiffon dress – in mustard gold, no less – sunglasses, diamonds and emeralds. As so do we all. In our dreams.
How is a simple reverie like this racist? Because, apparently, the video showed African animals but no African people, or at least, not enough. On a blog for US National Public Radio, Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe complained: “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.”
Another critic raged: “I question your pleasure principal if your ‘Wildest Dreams’ are to fall in love in colonial Africa by erasing black ppl from the continent.”
They have gone for her before. Taylor’s video of Shake it Off was described as “perpetuating black stereotypes” because it featured only black people to portray urban dancers, while using white people in its ballet scenes.
We need a reality check about pop music. It is likely that more attention was paid to the wardrobe and make-up of Taylor Swift than to the plot when making the video of Wildest Dreams, but so what? It’s a bit of fun. Does everything filmed in Africa have to come with an academic lecture? Have these critics who are so outraged nothing better to do than deconstruct pop music? Is there no problem facing humankind – man, woman, black or white person – that warrants more of their sound and fury than this 3 minute 45 seconds video, which accompanies a catchy but ephemeral tune?
Scrutinise any piece of pop for the wrong message and you will find it. But is it worth the trouble? Pop is supposed to be of the moment and fleeting. It shouldn’t be policed. No tune will be safe if it is. Not even the Beatles, whose music, some now argue, endorses domestic violence. Don’t believe me? What about the words to Getting Better from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Paul McCartney opens with “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”.
Musicians don’t always help themselves. Some help to politicise pop. Ten minutes into Beyoncé’s act at the Michael Jackson Vanguard award, the lights went down and the word “Feminist” was lit up behind her, and an excerpt played from a talk given by Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
But imagine a tune and video that would offend no one. It would be awful. Pop music by politically correct committee would be dull – all wild dreams and nightmares would be considered inappropriate. We should shake off the offence seekers.