But it wasn’t just journalists serving up social media hot takes on Kanye and Taylor Swift. Former MTV News Correspondent/Producer (and current VP of Content at First Media) Jim Cantiello recalls how startled he was to see Pink tweeting “Kanye west [sic] is the biggest piece of shit on earth” while she was in attendance at the VMAs. “Previously, you'd have to wait for a VMA post-show to get a celebrity to comment on what went down on stage,” he says. “But now you had an immediate reaction. As a pop culture fan, I loved it, but as a news correspondent, it was a sobering realization that celebrities don't need publicists. They don't need news outlets. They can issue statements directly to their fans.”
Over the past decade, this has drastically diminished the access that reporters have to celebrities. “You see that now with high profile artists,” says Cantiello. “Beyoncé, Taylor, and even Kanye rarely do press. If they have a message, they share it directly. If Twitter had existed during the 1995 VMAs, would Courtney Love and Madonna have faced off near Kurt Loder or would it have been a back-and-forth with hashtags and fan armies?”
We’re currently granted unprecedented access into the aspects of celebrities’ lives that they want us to see, but more honest “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”-style portraits are becoming rarer. Perhaps this is one reason Kanye, who has retained (or even increased) his tendency to overshare, has remained in the spotlight for so long despite moments of self-sabotage that would ruin a lesser artist’s career. Rodriguez sees Kanye’s VMAs incident as a precursor to his livestreamed album releases and post-release edits, both acts of transparency. “With streaming and social, we’ve reached this full-throttle view of Kanye, his musical genius, and his personal madness— that mixed with a little bit of Hennessy is what happened [at the 2009 VMAs].”
On one hand, this personality-driven bent that celebrity coverage has taken on entails less work for awards show producers. “The thing with the VMAs is that you can only script so many scenarios— it’s unbound now,” says Rodriguez. “You know, Britney and Madonna kissing [at the 2003 awards], you could’ve scripted it out that they’d have a moment, back when things were tightly controlled. But now, it’s just the ring— you can push people into the ring and they’ll take care of the rest, and if they don’t take care of the rest, the fans will.”
But with celebrities now more able than ever to control their own narratives, to script their own headlines, how can journalists and critics cover major cultural events to attract readers?
One popular method is compiling “reaction tweets,” which O’Neal remembers, started to become a legitimate source of news around the time of the ‘09 VMAs. “Suddenly, you could build whole articles around what a bunch of random people -- only some of them famous -- had fired off their spontaneous thoughts about, and use it to create the illusion of a sort of consensus,” he says. “[The Kanye/Taylor Swift incident] was the really the first ‘scandal’ that I can remember playing out almost entirely on Twitter.”