Taylor Swift’s best song and best (if problematic) video. Why?
A story of a film actress shooting a film in Africa and caught up in a love affair. She fell in love on the shoot, he moved on. It sits naturally next to her public posture, the misty lack of distinction between a pose and a social self. She’s always as much of an actress as a singer and there’s little fuss made about a distinction or any postmodern implications following therefrom. They dyed her hair black.
What succeeds? The vulnerability of the acting. The articulate direction, hitting impressions moment to moment but no slush and weirdly without cliche. The tiny character bits - the hapless director, the camera woman. It’s a perfect miniature. The warm summery color, the then the blue-orange of New York.
The direction is pretty much perfect It’s all a sequence of shots, five seconds at the most - visual tweets. She’s always been rather extraordinary as an actress at that length - a glance, a snarl, a tantrum, punctuated moments where context would be beside the point. The aesthetic is pinup - it’s almost one Vargas after another.
Part of it is the songwriting, the theme repeated at first tentatively then, chorus by chorus, swells to an avalanche of feeling sweeping you away, if you want to give yourself up to it. There’s the repeated hiccup in the writing - “standing in a nice dress” - which to me is a poignant lack of imagination in the speaker. She can’t think of anything better to task for.
Why do people hate it as much as they do? Because they really do hate it. There’s the race thing - it’s an Africa without Africans which even for a 1940s film shoot is a bit much. It’s a flaw, a missed opportunity and a signal failure of representation.
And there’s Swift’s bland barbie-doll planetary ideal physique which is almost too obvious to mention. And her egotism - she doesn’t sing about anyone but herself. I just don’t see a huge meanness in that - she’s the show, and it would be forgiven in a man. And yes she’s the willowy blonde sexpot icon. She just seems too boring to be that mean or significant. Her self-enclosure seems to say, “invest in me if you want, I’m available for that or not.”
She doesn’t really have positions and I suppose that’s a failing too. But that’s not the same as not standing for something. She stands, functionally, for the right to feel and for the lyric “I,” for self-assertion, for voice. For those who choose it, there if you need it.