The MTV Video Music Awards have had a fair share of wild pop culture moments over the years: Madonna tongue-kissing Britney Spears. Miley Cyrus “twerking” on Robin Thicke. Lil Mama crashing Jay Z and Alicia Key’s performance of “Empire State of Mind,” and most famously, Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech.
Both West and Lil Mama’s outbursts happened on the same night in 2009, but most media attention focused on the former. With good reason too, since it’s an event that continues to shape the way we look at some of music’s biggest stars, highlighting the evolution of internet virality and remaining an influential force in the lives of its two central figures. Even after 10 years.
So, let’s revisit it, shall we?
Who was involved?
At the center of this 10-year-old pop culture moment is country singer-turned-pop star Taylor Swift (who was 19 at the time), gifted but troubled producer/phenom Kanye West (who was 32 at the time), and supreme superstar Beyoncé (who was 27 at the time)…even if she quite literally wanted nothing to do with this. Other figures, like Kim Kardashian West, Jay Z, and even former president Barack Obama, also found themselves involved.
While the night of Sept. 13, 2009, probably started like any other night would, what happened after was far from business as usual. As Swift walked up to accept her award for Best Female Music Video of the Year, West quickly hopped on stage to crash her speech. As the singer looked on confused, West stated, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you. I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”
This was in response to Swift’s “You Belong With Me” winning in the aforementioned category over Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” This, of course, put Beyoncé in an awkward place, and she was seen in the audience mouthing “Oh, Kanye” in horror. She would later win the more prestigious award — the Music Video of the Year — that same night and invite Swift up on stage with her for the chance to finish the earlier botched awards speech.
How did social media react?
For social media, the impact was instantaneous. Twitter, which was only three years old at the time, was on fire, as was Facebook. But it was the former platform that would morph into the internet’s water cooler overnight. Questions about what happened as well as “Kanye Interrupts” memes circled at an insane rate reminiscent of the reaction to 2004 Super Bowl incident with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake — another infamous pop culture moment that helped usher forth another media platform, YouTube.
What was the impact at the VMAs?
On a night that included Madonna giving a touching tribute to Michael Jackson who had died less than three months prior; a gut-wrenching homage to the king of pop from his own sister, Janet Jackson; Lady Gaga’s bloody “Paparazzi” performance; Lil Mama’s own interruption; and Pink’s a jaw-dropping acrobatic performance of “Sober;” the Kanye-Taylor moment ended up overshadowing everything. The VMAs had always been known for breaking away from typical — and often boring — awards show protocol, but it was clear that this moment had a life of its own.
How did the central players handle it afterward?
Beyoncé managed to escape much of the commentary that followed but West and Swift were not as lucky. The backlash was swift for West with even President Obama calling him a “jackass.” He went on an apology tour that year that started with a now-deleted post on his blog that stated “I’m sooooo sorry to taylor swift and her fans and her mom … She is very talented! … i’m in the wrong for going on stage and taking away from her moment!” From there, he would later re-apologize on The Jay Leno Show the very next night, where he was asked, emphatically, what his late mother Donda West would think of it. He then escaped the public eye for months before re-emerging with a new critically acclaimed album and updating the world on his well-being via The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Swift quickly bounced back from the incident and utilized the increased notoriety (and support) in a way that only she knows how. Before winning her first Grammy for Album of the Year in 2010, Swift made her Saturday Night Live debut in November 2009 and didn’t shy away from poking fun at the VMAs incident during her opening monologue: “You might be expecting me to say something bad about Kanye, and how he ran up on the stage and ruined my VMA monologue…” she crooned. “But there’s nothing more to say, cause everything’s okay. I got security lining the stage!” She then threw to commercial by joking, “We have a great show. Kanye West is not here.”
How about now?
It would be false to assume that the infamous 2009 clash is not still affecting West and Swift, even 10 years later. The incident itself managed to hit all sorts of fault lines including angry black man stereotypes, white female victimhood, and racism and misogyny in the music business.
One could say that the incident very much cemented West’s persona as a hip-hop rock star and the bad guy that everyone loves to hate. So much so that West would eventually trudge down a path that seemed to show that he found more of a reward in being contrarian (even down to his embracing of Donald Trump and MAGA-rhetoric) versus his earlier persona as an outspoken superstar that called out industry bias against black people and the Bush administration for racism against the black community in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One could also say that that same incident cemented Taylor Swift’s carefully-crafted image as an underdog. While this would endow her with the power to allegedly call out bad boyfriends, bad friends (famously John Mayer and Katy Perry), and even the industry itself, this tenuous positioning would eventually subject her to warranted critiques demanding that she answer for allegedly anti-woman lyrics and her seeming willingness to readily embrace a victimhood narrative — as famously called out by Kim Kardashian-West.
This probably isn’t going to be the last time we, West, or Swift talk about the incident that has become a fascinating study on our collective relationship with social media virality, celebrity superstardom, and all of us just along for the ride.
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