Misplaced nostalgia—an ill-conceived, sentimental longing for the past—is the real star of the music video for “Wildest Dreams,” the latest video single off Taylor Swift’s album 1989. Taylor Swift’s 1920s starlet caricature is costumed in Nostalgia. The African safari location for the fake film shoot around which the video swirls is Nostalgia. The production style of the song itself, all gauzy, 80s, synth-pop, is Nostalgia. Even the subject of the song itself about a fleeting romance that was never real and never meant to last is Nostalgia.
And all of it is misplaced, because none of it is real—as we discover at the 2:29 mark in the video—and every instance is an example of excess and exploitation. The starlet is used by the male movie star for sex while they are on location and then discarded once they are back in the states. The way Americans and Europeans used Africa as a playground during the first part of the 20th century with little regard for the people who lived there is callous abuse at its most egregious. Even the two time periods the video evokes—the 1920s and the 1980s—are decades known for the way Americans reveled in fat excess with little regard for what it cost others. “Wildest Dreams” is about being blind to reality in the moment, regretting it later, and trying to find a way forward.
So if your stomach doesn’t turn just a little when you watch and listen to “Wildest Dreams,” you’re not watching or listening closely enough. The video wants you to be ill. As Taylor Swift sings of the time she was taken and tossed aside by a man, as the starlet experiences the same, and as the past sins of our society are paraded across the screen, you’re encountering a sickness called greed. Rather than being incensed by the racism and exploitation on display in “Wildest Dreams,” we ought to be repentant that that racism and exploitation is part of our history and, for some, our present. We need to admit that that kind of life is alluring. It does feel good in the moment. But there is only heartache later. And perhaps the first step to getting better is to acknowledge how big a mistake it was, grieve it, and get out of there resolved to never do it again.