Taylor and Kanye: How two superstars and four words at the VMAs influenced a decade of pop culture

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Part 1

The moment

Whether you were watching from a couch, a dorm, a bar or in the control room at Radio City Music Hall where the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards were taking place, it was the rare moment in our culture where everyone had the same reaction: Did that actually just happen?

One minute, an effusive 19-year-old Taylor Swift, sparkling in silver sequins, was accepting the prize for female video of the year, gushing about what an honor it was to win a pop-music VMA as a country singer. Then, suddenly, a sunglasses-clad Kanye West snatched her microphone and delivered the quote that would shape the next decade for two of music’s biggest superstars:

“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish. But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”

Beyoncé, in the audience, gaped in horror. “Oh, Kanye,” she mouthed.

“One of the best videos of all time!” West continued.

He handed the mic back to a dazed Swift. The confused crowd, which seconds earlier cheered to hear Beyoncé’s name, started booing. One of Swift’s band members leaped to her feet, leading a standing ovation for her humiliated boss.

As he watched the chaos from a production truck on that night of Sunday, Sept. 13, Van Toffler was in shock. Then the president of MTV Networks Music Group, he’d had a hell of a time luring Swift out of her lucrative and controlled country-music bubble to appear at the raucous annual pop spectacle in the first place. And now this had to happen.

“It was like someone shot Bambi in front of the world,” Toffler recalls.

Kanye and Taylor. Taylor and Kanye. The Nashville songwriting prodigy and the hip-hop phenom shared little in common, but those 15 seconds left them intertwined in ways neither could have anticipated. Over the next decade they both transcended music stardom, ascending to a stratosphere of fame where both became recognizable by their first names to people who couldn’t name a single one of their songs. They became the celebrities you couldn’t help but have strong opinions about, in large part because their actions seemed to hit every fault line of culture — race, gender, mental health, victimhood, media and politics.

That inciting incident in their tangled story was also spectacular television — a badly needed shot in the arm for the VMAs. The show had once been legendary for water-cooler antics such as Madonna tongue-kissing Britney Spears; but it had lately lost its buzz to such an extent that producers had trouble that year even wrangling the cast of “True Blood” to attend.

(As iconic as the moment is, at this point it’s mostly an iconic memory. The video has been scrubbed from the Internet, with only low-quality bootleg versions floating around. MTV declined to make it available for this story; they also declined to comment. Swift, West and Beyoncé could not be reached for comment.)

But the Kanye-Taylor moment raised the bar for other awards shows, which sought to manufacture their own “moments,” and alerted TV execs to the electric new potential of live broadcasts in the social media era. (Twitter, still in its toddlerhood, virtually exploded that night.) It launched thousands of memes, back when we were still trying to figure out what “memes” were, and a catchphrase we’re still not done with: I’mma let you finish. . .

It was so spectacular that some even wondered if it was a stunt. The VMAs had a reputation for this kind of madness, after all, and seemed to have all the right camera angles covered for this one. Producing live television can be a rush akin to the high of a recreational drug, Toffler says; his typical VMAs strategy was, “Put the combustible elements in the room, occasionally light a match, and then . . . see what happens.”

Hamish Hamilton, who directed the telecast, will never forget seeing West storm the stage. He turned to the producers and said, “Oh my God, this is TV gold.”

“That was the phrase I used, I remember it really clearly,” Hamilton says now. “In many ways, it was a moment that TV producers and TV directors of such live shows pray for.”

Yet in that particular moment, Toffler was truly mortified. He snapped into crisis-management mode, turning to a colleague who was friendly with West. “Go find Kanye and please find a way to escort him out of the building,” he remembers saying. “I’ll find Taylor.”

He found her sobbing backstage, flanked by her mother and management team. Toffler tried to comfort her, but she was scheduled to perform “You Belong With Me” — her prizewinning song that night and her biggest pop crossover hit to date — in about five minutes.

Meanwhile, the star-studded crowd, which included Pink, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Perez Hilton, was still buzzing from the unexpected interruption. Wale, the show’s emcee, felt the need to address it from the stage, reportedly telling the audience, “You can’t fault a man for speaking his mind,” a sentiment that only drew more boos.

Toffler raced back to the control truck and happened to bump into Beyoncé. She appeared “shaken,” he said, so he decided on the spot to break awards-show protocol. He hinted to the star that “Single Ladies” — her megahit song that West had rushed the stage to champion — was going to win the final and most prestigious trophy of the night: video of the year. If she stuck around, Toffler suggested, maybe she could help redeem Swift’s ruined evening.

In the waning minutes of the telecast, Beyoncé glided to the stage to accept her trophy, resplendent in a red gown. “I remember being 17 years old, up for my first MTV Award with Destiny’s Child,” she told the room. “And it was one of the most exciting moments in my life. So I’d like for Taylor to come out and have her moment.”

Swift reemerged. The audience went wild. “Um,” Swift said. “Maybe we could try this again?” As she thanked her video director, her fans and “my little brother’s high school for letting us shoot the video there,” she had no idea of the storm that was brewing.

Part 2

The aftermath

“What happened to you as a child?? Did you not get hugged enough??” Kelly Clarkson wrote on her blog.

“It’s like u stepped on a kitten,” tweeted Katy Perry.

“You can’t make a pretty girl cry,” VMAs host Russell Brand said in a radio interview the next day.

Everyone had an opinion about what Kanye did. The VMAs were viewed by 11 million people that year, though the crush of coverage after the fact was more comparable to that of a Super Bowl, which typically gets 10 times as many viewers.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in, accidentally. “He’s a jackass,” Obama said in what he believed was off-the-record banter before a TV interview — a line overheard by another reporter, who promptly tweeted it, leading to one of the first big debates about media ethics in the social media era.

West’s apology on his blog (“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!”) did little to stem the outrage.

There was a rush to connect his outburst to a larger crisis in the culture. It was the same week that a GOP congressman, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, shouted “You lie!” at Obama during a presidential address to Congress; the same week that Serena Williams swore at a line judge when she lost a U.S. Open match. West’s I’mma let you finish moment felt like one of the gathering clouds marking nothing less than the end of civility, some pundits opined. Former president Jimmy Carter appeared at a town hall where he called West’s interruption “completely uncalled for.” West’s co-headlining tour with Lady Gaga was abruptly canceled.

But there was an uncomfortable undercurrent to much of the reaction, which hip-hop journalist and editor Tracii McGregor says seemed to cast West as the angry black man going after the demure young white woman, a scenario presented with little nuance. “It looked really bad,” she said.

A rare appeal for perspective came from Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s husband and West’s longtime collaborator. Sure, West’s interruption was “inappropriate,” he told a radio interviewer, but “He didn’t kill anybody. No one got harmed.”

Part 3

Kanye

He already had a reputation, of course. In 2005, just a year after his breakout album “The College Dropout,” West blurted out during a televised Hurricane Katrina fundraiser that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” West, who was already an A-list producer (for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, among others) before he released a string of platinum records, had also publicly sulked about his own losses at earlier awards shows. Critics chalked it up to a monstrous ego and a lack of self-control. The VMAs episode only cemented this perception.

“As great as Kanye is,” said Soren Baker, author of “The History of Gangster Rap,” “he also gives people a lot of ways to be against him.”

There were some hints that West, who carried a bottle of booze onto the VMAs red carpet, might have some deeper issues. It would be years before he opened up about his mental health struggles, as he was hospitalized in 2016 under a psychiatric hold after erratic behavior on tour, and two years later, revealed his bipolar diagnosis on his album “Ye.”

Back then, people just wanted to rationalize how he could go after a teenage singer on live television. During a chagrined appearance the night after the VMAs on NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show,” West issued another apology, and Leno rubbed salt in the wound by making a pointed reference to the recent death of West’s mother, Donda.

“What do you think she would have said about this?” Leno asked.

West paused, wiped his eyes, avoided the specific question. “I‘m just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt,” he said. He said he would take a break from the spotlight and “analyze how I’m going to make it through the rest of this life.”

As promised, he dropped out of sight for months. He returned the following year with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” a retrospective of his own flaws.

The rave reviews of the record helped to more firmly establish his standing as a musical genius, but his behavioral reputation still couldn’t be salvaged. Though the VMAs moment quickly became a pop-culture punchline, for West — known to brood over perceived unfairness or disrespect — it remained deeply personal. It cast a lingering shadow on him, practically freezing him into a persona he seemed determined to live up to ever since.

West had long been outspoken about systemic social and political problems in the black community and was willing to speak up about topics that no other big-name musicians would touch. But after the VMAs, when he saw so much of his goodwill evaporate, he seemed to become fueled more by his contrarianism than anything. “Soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you,” he sang on “I Am a God” from his 2013 album, “Yeezus.” He lived up to the challenge.

His behavior included tweeting “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!”; describing slavery as a “choice”; interrupting the 2015 Grammys, where he told Beck he should surrender his album-of-the-year trophy to Beyoncé; and endorsing President Trump in their much-photographed Oval Office meeting last fall— a move that he acknowledged horrified liberal allies in the music business.

“if you feel something don’t let peer pressure manipulate you,” West tweeted.

Part 4

Taylor

Making her “Saturday Night Live” debut in November 2009, Swift paused dramatically in the middle of the comic tune that served as 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 . . .” she sang, as the audience tittered expectantly. “But there’s nothing more to say, cause everything’s okay, I got security lining the stage!” Two SNL cast members ran out, dressed as guards, holding up a police sketch of West.

The crowd cheered; Swift beamed. “We have a great show!” she shouted. “Kanye West is not here!”

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Still a few months from winning her first Grammy for album of the year, Swift wasn’t yet a global pop megastar. But she had made an astonishing ascent in Nashville, proving young listeners had an appetite for country music, and impressing industry gatekeepers — who initially scoffed at a teen singer — by writing her own songs, which sold millions.

She was also a publicity savant, with an intuitive knack for doling out just enough personal disclosures to seem relatable yet remain intriguing. Her specialty was writing songs and sneaking coded references into her liner notes that indicated they were about real people, particularly ex-boyfriends and crushes.

Yet in those years following the incident, as she rose to became one of the biggest stars on the planet, Swift, at times, seemed to cling to the role of the damsel in the silver dress with the microphone ripped from her hand, awash in public sympathy and affirmation. After all, playing the underdog had long been part of her story — the excluded middle-schooler who channeled her hurt into songwriting, where she told stories as an outsider looking in. As she sang in “You Belong With Me”: “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.”

“Taylor knows exactly how to manipulate a message,” said Elaine Lui, “The Social” and “etalk” TV personality who runs the website LaineyGossip. Even if Swift isn’t the instigator of a dramatic situation, she added, “there’s this tension and conflict that permeates her work.”

Indeed, an aura of drama and scorekeeping hovered around the songs that lined her path to global stardom. The razor-sharp, Grammy-winning “Mean” is rumored to be inspired by a music blogger’s vicious review of her widely criticized 2010 Grammys performance. John Mayer — one of her increasingly famous short-term swains — said he was “humiliated” by her song “Dear John.” Another track allegedly took a swipe at an ex’s new girlfriend — “an actress . . . better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” “Shake It Off,” her biggest career hit, focused on dismissing the critics and haters.

She commodified her alliances as well as her feuds, posting snuggly Instagrams to show she was friends, not rivals, with Lorde or other female celebrities, or enlisting her highly touted A-list “squad” (Karlie Kloss, Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, Ellie Goulding, etc.) for the “Bad Blood” video. It was an action-thriller take on female empowerment — played over lyrics thought to be a jab at Katy Perry, another frenemy.

In interviews after the 2009 VMAs, Swift insisted that she was a fan of West and had accepted his apology. But the next year, she appeared back at the show to introduce a new ballad called “Innocent.” The performance started with grainy footage of the Kanye incident, and the lyrics were steeped in faux-forgiveness and condescension: “It’s okay, life is a tough crowd / Thirty-two and still growin’ up now / Who you are is not what you did.”

West closed the show, seeming to own all the criticism of the past year by performing the bombastic, vulgarity-filled “Runaway.” What was it like having both stars in attendance that night?

“Awkward,” was all Toffler would say.

Part 5

Kanye and Taylor

The 2010 VMAs could have been the end of their shared story. Alas, it was not.

“It’s a weird dance these two do . . . over the last decade, we’ve seen that play out in a fascinating way,” Lui said. While the media has certainly had a role in reminding fans of the feud, “they themselves keep resurrecting it.”

West publicly complained that Swift “rode” his negative publicity for her own benefit. But then they had a friendly exchange at the 2011 Met Gala. But then West told the New York Times he had “no regrets” about his outburst. But then West and Swift were seen happily chatting at the 2015 Grammys.

Everything seemed to finally come full circle at the 2015 VMAs, as Swift presented West with a lifetime-achievement award. “I’m really happy for you, and I’mma let you finish,” she joked. “But Kanye West has had one of the greatest careers of all time!”

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Their redemption story completely disintegrated a year later. In 2016, West invoked Swift in his new song, “Famous,” with a lyric far more direct than her own coy call-outs: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex . . . why? I made that bitch famous.” The video featured naked look-alikes of Swift and other celebrities. She decried it as misogynistic “revenge porn.”

A bitter and tawdry dispute ensued. Following the release of “Famous,” Swift’s “1989” won album of the year at the Grammys. In her acceptance speech, she made a comment that many interpreted as a dig at West: “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”

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This rankled reality TV mogul Kim Kardashian West, Kanye West’s wife, who blasted Swift for playing the victim. She released a Snapchat recording of an amiable phone call that seemed to show West giving Swift a heads-up about the song — never mind that he apparently said nothing about calling her a “bitch.”

Nonetheless, Kardashian branded Swift a “snake,” and much of the Internet followed suit. The controversy was a stark reminder that Swift and West’s careers would continue to be entangled. Swift released a statement that said she was being “falsely painted as a liar.”

“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one I never asked to be a part of, since 2009,” she wrote.

But that simply wasn’t an option.

The backlash was a rare setback for Swift, typically a master of carefully controlling her image. She vanished from the spotlight and later called it her “lowest point.” When she returned in late 2017 with “Reputation,” she mockingly employed a snake motif in her first single’s music video. On tour, a gigantic serpent towered over the audience, and each concert ended with “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” — about a so-called friend who would “get you on the phone and mind-twist you.”

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(Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

The pair eventually found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum in the arena that has become critical for so many celebrity’s brands: politics.

West went full MAGA, claiming that he connected on a personal level with Trump and that he admired the former reality TV star’s “dragon energy” and “hero’s journey.” In addition to a high-profile trip to the White House, West performed on “Saturday Night Live” with his red MAGA hat and said he was “bullied” backstage for wearing it.

Swift, on the other hand, broke years of political silence to declare she was voting Democrat in the Tennessee midterms. She made donations in support of gun control and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, starting a petition to support the Equality Act.

Suddenly, one of the most notoriously apolitical celebrities of the previous decade was speaking out on favorite liberal causes. The direct contrast with West’s embrace of Trump was impossible to ignore.

Part 6

10 Years Later

The train-wreck moment of the 2009 VMAs struck twin chords of fantasy and fear. The fantasy of feeling so furious that you grab a microphone and shout your true feelings to the world. And the fear of achieving your dream only to have it torn away.

West’s interruption may have been appalling, yet “Single Ladies” was a dazzling, pace-setting video for a song now recognized as the earworm of the decade. Its loss to the less-epic “You Belong With Me” underscored the way works by black artists, particularly women, are often ignored or diminished.

West was ahead of his time. Years later, #OscarsSoWhite protests prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to overhaul its voting structure and expand its ranks to younger and more diverse members, and the topic has also percolated around the Grammys, championed by performers such as Drake.

The incident also taught TV producers how to up their game in the age of social media; how something that lit up Twitter or Facebook could inspire others to tune in, including Ellen DeGeneres posting a selfie at the Oscars and the current craze for anything-could-happen live productions of vintage Broadway musicals. People still say “I’mma let you finish.”

That single mic grab set the stage for the next decade of award-show controversies and made-for-social-media virality. But more than that, it cemented Kanye and Taylor as cultural figures who would be with us for a long while. Maybe you’re still furious with Kanye. Maybe you think Taylor overreacted. Either way, you probably argued with someone about what happened for days and chose sides.

What could be more representative of the coming decade than arguing and choosing sides?

And ultimately, try as we might, none of us will ever be excluded from their narrative.

“They may be the updated version of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston — even 20 years from now, you’ll never be able to separate them,” Lui said. “I think that this story is going to have more chapters — I don’t think that they have washed their hands of each other. It wouldn’t surprise me to talk again in 10 years and have eight more chapters to unpack.”

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2008 and has previously written for the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and the American Journalism Review.

Klara Auerbach is an illustrator and designer with a focus on data visualization and politics. She is an intern working with the design and graphics teams at The Post. She graduated with a B.F.A in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2019.

Credits

Jay Leno and Kanye West photo by Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank; Taylor “Innocent” performance photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Beyonce and Taylor Swift photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images; Kanye “Runaway” performance photo by: Kevin Winter/Getty Images





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