The fraught legacy of the 2009 VMAs, explained.
Ten years ago this fall, there came a VMAs moment that will live forever in infamy. It was the moment in which Kanye West stormed the VMAs stage as Taylor Swift attempted to accept her award for Best Video by a Female Artist and told her, “I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
On one level, the fact that the scandal would go on to have such legs seems absurd. It was such a petty nothing of a moment! A drunk celebrity with a history of being volatile acted out at an awards show: So what? Why was that such a big deal? Why is it so ingrained in our cultural consciousness now, 10 years later?
But the resulting fallout was explosive. What happened at the 2009 VMAs helped define Twitter as the conversation driver it is today. The story foreshadowed Kanye West’s eventual transformation into a pop culture villain, which would be realized with West’s embrace of Donald Trump and Trumpism. It set the narrative that Taylor Swift would always be a pop culture victim, for better or for worse. And the way it has influenced their two images in the decade since follows the lines of major schisms in American culture.
So as the 2019 MTV VMAs arrive, let’s take a look back at the 2009 VMAs and their long, long shadow.
when Kanye took that VMA from Taylor I was like “oh, weird” not “this will psychologically cripple both artists, driving them to madness”
— caitlin bitzegaio (@caitorade) August 27, 2017
Here’s exactly what went down at the 2009 VMAs
Kanye West arrived on the red carpet of the 2009 VMAs clutching a bottle of Hennessy. In pictures of the red carpet on Getty Wire, you can see the level in the bottle gradually dropping as he makes his way up the carpet and drinks more and more. Kanye wasn’t performing that night, but he was nominated in multiple categories, and he was seated in the front row. According to Billboard’s oral history of the evening, he passed the bottle around to fellow celebrities as he waited for the show to start.
Taylor Swift arrived on the red carpet in a fanciful glass pumpkin-shaped Cinderella coach, wearing a glittering silver gown. She was in the process of crossing over from the country music scene to mainstream pop, and for the first time, she’d been invited to perform at the VMAs to sing “You Belong With Me.” She was also up for an award, for the “You Belong With Me” video. The coach and gown were a deliberate reference: Taylor was Cinderella, and the VMAs were the ball at which she could make her entrée into the world of pop music.
Taylor was nominated in only one category, Best Video by a Female Artist. Her big competition was Beyoncé, whose video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” was one of the most acclaimed of the year. But Beyoncé was also up for the far more prestigious Video of the Year award, for which Taylor was not nominated — so when Taylor won the Best Female Video award before the ceremony had even reached its first commercial break, most people didn’t interpret her win as Taylor definitively beating Beyoncé. It was more likely that Beyoncé would get her moment later in the night.
MTV has removed the official footage of what ensued from the internet, so most of the videos available online are low-quality bootlegs that people made by aiming cameras at their living room TV screens. But here’s what happened.
Taylor took the stage in her silver Cinderella gown to accept her award from Shakira. “Thank you so much!” she said. “I always dreamed about what it would be like to maybe win one of these someday, but I never thought it actually would have happened. I sing country music. So thank you so much for giving me the chance to win a VMA Award! I —”
That’s when Kanye sprang up from his front-row seat, rushed the stage, and took the microphone out of Taylor’s hand.
“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish,” he said. “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
The cameras cut immediately to Beyoncé, who was staring at the stage with her mouth agape in apparent horror. “Oh, Kanye,” she mouthed.
The crowd began to boo. Kanye shrugged and handed the microphone back to Taylor as he walked offstage, and Taylor took it and stood silently, lips pursed and body tense, as the audience erupted into chaos: some booing Kanye, and some standing on their seats to give Taylor a standing ovation. Then MTV cut to a prerecorded segment between Eminem and Tracy Morgan.
According to Billboard’s oral history of the incident, Kanye returned to his seat during the commercial break, and Pink came up to him and chewed him out while the rest of the audience glared at him. MTV ushered him out of the building shortly afterward. Kanye was reportedly shocked that he was asked to leave, and he was seen later that evening at the sceney gastropub Spotted Pig in New York City’s West Village.
Backstage, both Taylor and Beyoncé were crying, and producers rushed to try to comfort them. It was a time-sensitive problem, because Taylor was scheduled to perform during the next segment of the ceremony. And while the first half of her number, which sees her singing “You Belong With Me” on a New York City subway car, was prerecorded, the second half — in which she runs out of the subway to perform the final verse on the roof of a taxi — was meant to be live.
Taylor composed herself and got through her performance with dry eyes and a smile on her face, although her voice is noticeably shakier on the final verse than it is during the prerecorded segment. Backstage, a producer tactfully noted to Beyoncé that she was likely to be going onstage herself soon (producers knew ahead of time who was going to win each award, although the musicians themselves theoretically didn’t), and suggested that it might be nice for her to use the moment to hand the spotlight back to Taylor.
“I would normally not say anything,” Van Toffler, the producer in question, explained to Billboard, “but I had two crying artists.”
When Taylor finished her performance, she wanted to leave with her mother, but Toffler convinced them to stay. (“There was a lot of begging,” Toffler says.) Shortly thereafter, Beyoncé won the Video of the Year award for “Single Ladies,” and instead of making her own acceptance speech, she invited Taylor onstage to give hers. “I’d like to give Taylor her moment,” Beyoncé said.
Later that night, Kanye posted a public apology to Taylor and all her fans on his blog:
I’m sooooo sorry to taylor swift and her fans and her mom. I spoke to her mother right after and she said the same thing my mother would’ve said. She is very talented! I like the lyrics about being a cheerleader and she’s in the bleachers! i’m in the wrong for going on stage and taking away from her moment!. beyonce’s video was the best of this decade! I’m sorry to my fans if I let you guys down! I’m sorry to my friends at mtv. I will apologize to taylor 2mrw. welcome to the real world! everybody wanna booooo me but i’m a fan of real pop culture! No disrespect but we watchin’ the show at the crib right now cause … well you know! i’m still happy for taylor! Boooyaaawwww! you are very very talented! I gave my awards to outkast when they deserved it over me… that’s what it is!! i’m not crazy yall, i’m just real. Sorry for that! I really feel bad for taylor and i’m sincerely sorry! Much respect!!
But the scandal was only beginning.
The immediate aftermath was explosive
In the days following the 2009 VMAs, the media latched onto a major takeaway from the story: Part of the reason that no one would stop talking about Kanye rushing the stage was Twitter.
“Kanye storming the stage was the first time I realized just how powerful Twitter was in driving audiences to TV,” Jim Cantiello, who was an MTV News correspondent at the time, told Billboard. “If you opened up your timeline that night, your feed was overrun with reactions. If you weren’t watching the VMAs and you opened Twitter, it felt like you were missing out on the craziest TV moment of all time.”
Twitter was only three years old in 2009 and still evolving as a platform, but the VMAs incident revealed what it could truly excel at: driving conversation during a pop culture moment. It could amplify a scandal as soon as it occurred and keep people interested in that scandal for days afterward. From then on, Twitter would become one of the primary tools that the media used to shape the narrative of news coverage.
If immensely boosting Twitter’s profile was all the 2009 VMAs had done, that would still be enough to immortalize the night, the way the 2000 Grammys were immortalized because J.Lo’s dress that night was so searched for that it led directly to the creation of Google Images. But the 2009 VMAs also set in motion a pop culture narrative so compelling that we’re still dealing with its fallout.
The immediate narrative of the scandal was clear-cut and easy to understand: Obviously Kanye, swigging Hennessy on the red carpet, was in the wrong for rushing the stage. And 19-year-old Taylor, who showed up to the red carpet in a Cinderella carriage with her blonde hair in ringlets, was the innocent wronged party.
Video leaked of then-President Barack Obama opining on a hot mic that “the young lady seemed like a perfectly nice person” while Kanye was “a jackass.” Donald Trump called for America to boycott Kanye West, saying, “He couldn’t care less about Beyoncé. It was grandstanding to get attention.”
“What happened to you as a child?? Did you not get hugged enough??” Kelly Clarkson demanded of Kanye on her blog. She noted, “I think we’re all just curious as to what would make a grown man go on national television and make a talented artist, let alone teenager, feel like shit.”
Taylor was obviously and genuinely appalled by what had happened. But some members of her team also appear to have noticed that the optics of the scandal were doing only good things for her.
Taffler told Billboard he recalled speaking the day after the awards with Scott Borchetta, at the time the CEO of Taylor’s then-record label: “He’s like, ‘Van, here’s the thing about it: Yesterday most of the country had no idea who Taylor Swift was. Today, Oprah Winfrey sent her flowers this morning and asked if she could talk to her.’”
At the 2010 VMAs, Taylor performed her song “Innocent” with clips of the previous year’s scandal playing on the screen behind her. “Thirty-two and still growing up now,” she sang, apparently to Kanye. “Who you are is not what you did. You’re still an innocent.”
“I think a lot of people expected me to write a song about him,” she told New York magazine. “But for me it was important to write a song to him.”
The 2009 VMAs set one narrative: Kanye was a bully and Taylor his victim. But the 2010 VMAs laid the groundwork for a counternarrative that would turn out to have some surprising endurance: Was Taylor Swift secretly being kind of manipulative with her response? And was America’s enduring fascination with the whole thing maybe kind of racist?
“If only West and Swift wouldn’t have played so perfectly into their roles: the innocent White girl and the supposedly menacing Black man,” wrote Yolanda Sangweni at Essence. But Taylor probably had a good reason for continuing to reference the incident, Sangweni concluded. “Perhaps taking the victim route sells.”
The real surprise was the way the scandal lingered over the next decade
At first, what happened between Kanye West and Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs appeared to be a piece of pop culture ephemera, a juicy bit of gossip that would rapidly fade away. Instead, it has lived on to warp the image of both its major participants. Only Beyoncé, goddess-like, escaped unscathed — but every time a new Kanye or Taylor scandal emerges, the VMAs scandal seems to lurk in the background, bringing out the ugliest side of everyone involved.
For a few years after the incident, Kanye and Taylor both went out of their way to appear to publicly bury the hatchet and put the 2009 VMAs behind them. They were seen chatting amicably at public events together. When Kanye won the Video Vanguard Award at the 2015 VMAs, Taylor presented it to him, describing him as “my friend” and joking, “I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish but Kanye has had one of the greatest careers of all time.” Over the course of Kanye’s rambling acceptance speech (he told the audience he had smoked weed beforehand), he apologized to Taylor again for what happened in 2009 and then chastised MTV for hyping up the moment “because it got them more ratings.”
Then in 2016, Kanye released his song “Famous” and the accompanying video, and everything went to hell.
“Famous” is not a song with much plausible deniability. It contains a verse that is clearly, explicitly about Taylor Swift and the 2009 VMAs — and makes it clear that Kanye agrees with Scott Borchetta that he maybe did Taylor a favor that night. Raps Kanye:
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous
I made that bitch famous.
The accompanying video contains footage of Kanye in bed surrounded by lifelike nude figures of various celebrities associated with him, including Taylor. As far as we know, her nude likeness was used in the video without her permission.
As soon as the song dropped, a controversy blew up around it. Kanye said that he’d called Taylor to ask her permission to release a verse about her, and that she’d given him her blessing and said she thought the verse was funny. Through a spokesperson, Taylor maintained that she hadn’t.
“Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account,” Taylor’s rep told the New York Times. “She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message.” Not only that, the rep said, but “Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric, ‘I made that [expletive] famous.’”
Shortly afterward, Taylor appeared to reference the controversy in an emotional and highly lauded Grammys acceptance speech. “As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there, there will be people along the way who will try to undercut your success,” she said. “Or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work … you will look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there.”
The moment was a solid public relations win for Taylor. It neatly continued the narrative that the 2009 VMAs had put in place: Taylor was an innocent victim who was just trying to focus on her music and do her work and celebrate her successes, and Kanye was a bully who kept trying to knock her down at every turn.
But then Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, made a move that changed the story. Kim turned up the heat on the idea that had started to simmer after 2010 and “Innocence” — that Taylor was being manipulative and the turn against Kanye was kind of racist — and brought it to a boil.
In July 2016, Kim posted a series of videos on Snapchat that showed Kanye calling Taylor up to ask for her permission to include a verse referencing her in “Famous.” In the video, Kanye clearly reads Taylor the line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” and asks for her approval. However, the video is cut together in a way that makes it unclear that Taylor ever heard the line “I made that bitch famous.”
“Relationships are more important than punchlines,” Kanye tells Taylor, repeatedly saying that he wants her to be happy with the finished song.
“I really appreciate you telling me about it. That’s really nice,” Taylor says over the phone. She notes that she was of course already extremely famous before the 2009 VMAs, but that there was no reason for Kanye to know that, and anyway: “It’s all very tongue-in-cheek either way.” She goes on to muse over the possibility that it would be good for her public image to be able to say that she knew about the verse ahead of time. “If people ask me about it, I think it would be great for me to be like, ‘Look, he called me and told me about the line,’” she says.
Much like with the 2009 VMAs, the resulting fallout was explosive. And ironically, it was Twitter — the platform that first showed its full potential during the 2009 VMAs — that drove the conversation.
The hashtag #KimExposedTaylorParty trended for hours. Twitter users victoriously declared Taylor canceled, and they flooded her mentions with snake emojis.
Taylor scrambled to cover the damage, defensively repeating that her big issue with the song was the word “bitch,” which Kanye had never told her about. “You don’t get to control someone’s emotional reaction to being called ‘that bitch’ in front of the whole world,” she wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post. But her much-praised Grammys speech suddenly put her in a difficult situation, because the speech had sure made it sound like her big issue with Kanye was that he was taking credit for her fame — and now it was clear that she’d given him her blessing to do so.
The sense that had begun to emerge back in 2010 that Taylor was being a little bit strategic, a little bit manipulative with the way she was playing the whole Kanye situation, returned with a vengeance — only this time, it was accompanied by what looked like a smoking gun.
“She wanted to play the victim,” Kim said of Taylor on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. “It worked so well for her first time.”
The 2016 edition of the Taylor-versus-Kanye feud was a kind of remix of the 2009 version, with one major difference: The social politics of the way people talked about the scandal had changed. In 2009, what mattered in the public discourse was that Taylor had done nothing wrong and that Kanye was rude to her. Readings of the scandal that analyzed its racial politics, like Yolanda Sangweni’s at Essence, were largely siloed to black media.
But in 2016, mainstream media began to talk about whether the whole 2009 VMAs scandal had stuck as hard as it did because it played so neatly into the old racist American nightmare of the aggressive black man menacing a virginal blonde white girl.
Vice looked back at Taylor’s 2009 VMA win as “black excellence thwarted by white mediocrity again” (though it’s worth noting again here that Beyoncé ended up winning the more prestigious award at the end of the night, so Taylor didn’t so much thwart Beyoncé’s undisputed excellence as take home a consolation prize). Vice also noted the iconography of the moment: “Taylor, the innocent white girl, and Kanye, the bullying black demon.”
And as the racial politics of the 2009 incident came in for new analysis, so did its gender politics. Wasn’t Kanye’s dismissal of Taylor’s artistry rooted in a knee-jerk refusal to allow that art made for teenage girls can be worthwhile? Wasn’t the public in 2016 taking a perverse glee in tearing Taylor down in part because she was a woman who made art for other women?
“Swift’s white victimhood complex and Kanye’s gross misogyny are fueling this drama, and no one is a winner,” concluded Elle.
The 2009 VMAs scandal has endured as long as it has because it’s a perfect 21st-century morality tale
Elle was correct. Ten years after the VMAs, neither Taylor nor Kanye has managed to definitively win the feud. Instead, the rest of us find ourselves revisiting the story of their onstage encounter at the 2009 VMAs over and over, reinscribing it with new meaning every time either Taylor or Kanye becomes enmeshed in a new controversy.
While Kim’s management of the 2016 “Taylor exposed” scandal briefly netted Kanye a win, the goodwill he accrued from it didn’t last for long. Before the year was out, he was aligning himself with a newly elected Donald Trump to widespread outrage, prompting yet another reevaluation of his behavior at the 2009 VMAs.
“Everything is darker now,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates of Kanye’s legacy as Kanye embraced Trumpism. And as a consequence, Coates described himself as forced to reckon with the idea that “the bumrushing of Taylor Swift was not solely righteous anger, but was something more spastic and troubling,” a moment that should have foreshadowed Kanye’s turn toward lending his platform and cultural power to Trump without appearing to understand how damaging Trump’s policies could be to black Americans.
Meanwhile, public criticism of Taylor was so intense that she disappeared from public view for a full year after Kim released those videos. When she reemerged to release Reputation in 2017, she was roundly denounced for continuing to play the victim in her new songs, and when she transitioned this year to the Lover era, gossip pages held a flourishing debate over whether she was still, in Kim’s words, “playing the victim.”
“She far from plays the victim,” People magazine declared upon Lover’s release in August. But: “Everyone knows she’s playing the victim,” said Page Six in June of Taylor’s much-publicized spat with Scooter Braun — which is in itself a spinoff of the Kanye feud, because the reason Taylor hates Braun is that he was Kanye’s manager when Kanye released “Famous.”
We seem to be endlessly fascinated by this moment in time, and we probably will be for as long as either Taylor Swift or Kanye West is famous. And that’s because it tells us an enormous amount about why they are so famous.
When we talk about celebrities, we are never just talking about celebrities. Celebrities are bodies onto whom we as a culture project our fantasies, our fears, and our dreams. Taylor Swift and Kanye West are as famous as they are in part because they are very good at letting us project different ideas on to them — about white femininity and black masculinity, about celebrity that feels relatable and celebrity that feels aspirational, about whose voices we value and when and why. The 2009 VMAs were a moment in which all those ideas came screaming out at us.
Encapsulated in that iconic “I’mma let you finish” speech are America’s ideas about race, about gender, about wealth, about what kind of music we are allowed to applaud, about who gets to win and why, about whom we are willing to love and why. It’s all there, pressed and squeezed into those 60 breathless seconds, and every time we retell the story, we find new ways to tease out what the moment and its fallout say about us as a culture. It’s a perfect morality tale for the 21st century, and it’s all told in the language of celebrity.
Plus, can you believe Kanye just stormed the stage like that? Who does that?
Author: Constance Grady