With a mix of unforgettable (and at times regrettable) performances, bizarre acceptance speeches, and both staged and unstaged viral moments, the MTV Video Music Awards have given us some of the most iconic pop culture snapshots of the past three decades. The telecast that hosted everything from the Britney-Madonna-Christina triple-kiss to Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke has long prided itself on being the antidote to typically staid, predictable Hollywood award shows.
But even those used to the loose, anything-goes vibe of MTV’s marquee awards show had to rub their eyes on Sept. 13, 2009, when the night appeared to go way further off the rails than anyone anticipated in the very first act — thanks to an incident that set the pop world on its edge, and which continues to echo loudly to this day.
That moment was, of course, the Kanye West “I’mma let you finish” bum-rush of Taylor Swift, during the latter’s acceptance speech for best female video winner “You Belong With Me.” An emphatic ‘Ye made it clear that he thought the Moonman should have gone to his friend, Beyoncé, for her classic “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” and let the Radio City Music Hall crowd know as much. It was a shocking breach of awards show etiquette, even for the VMAs, on a night when there were so many other potential next-day headlines.
“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!” West, 32, opined as Swift, 19, looked on in a mix of shock, confusion and embarrassment, cradling the silver Moonman — which matched her floor-length silver dress. The camera cut to a bewildered Queen Bey, who mouthed the words, “Oh, Kanye!”; the next day, Pres. Obama was caught off-the-record calling West a “jackass” by a reporter. (The video of the stage crash has been scrubbed from MTV’s archives and is only available in bootleg versions on YouTube; a spokesperson for MTV had not returned requests for comment at press time. Kanye West declined to comment for this piece.)
As show executive producer Jesse Ignjatovic (of Den of Thieves) tells Billboard, after more than 15 years at MTV, going into the night it felt like the show had the potential to be a “seminal VMAs based on the talent and level of performances” on tap. In case you forgot, this was also the VMAs where Lady Gaga showed up with Kermit the Frog as her date and later exploded in a bloody, baroque, instantly iconic performance of “Paparazzi,” P!nk swung from the rafters for a balletic aerial swoon through “Sober,” and Lil Mama notched the night’s second unexpected stage crash when she wandered out to interrupt the broadcast-ending TV debut of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” On top of all that, just four months after the death of MTV icon Michael Jackson, sister Janet Jackson was set to kick things off with her visceral tribute to her recently departed brother, following a cold-open MJ homage from Madonna — an opening act VMA producers were certain would blow the audience away, and dominate the internet by the next morning.
Even with all that firepower, though, bring up “2009 VMAs” and most people’s memory from the night will be the totally unscripted Kanye/Taylor moment that hijacked headlines before the first commercial break. Years before we had a Twitter president and social media became the reflexive go-to place to air grievances, freak out or share goat yoga videos, that 15 seconds of WTF confusion helped turn the three-year-old social media service into the world’s go-to digital watercooler — while also setting the tone for the pop star pair’s now-decade-long uneasy public relationship.
Billboard spoke to journalists, MTV writers, producers, correspondents and executives who were in the house, backstage, in the production truck and on the red carpet that night to get the whole story of what happened before, during and right after the Tay/’Ye incident. That includes what you didn’t see on TV (or Twitter) that night. (Editor’s note: The writer was an MTV News staffer in 2009.)
“THIS IS NOT GOING TO END WELL…”
Whitney-Gayle Benta (former vice president of talent relations, MTV News): My story starts on the red carpet, where I saw him [Kanye] with that bottle of Hennessy, which surprised me. I remember being like, “Are you okay?” Because I knew him very well and it seemed very out of character for him to be on the carpet like that. The VMAs are very different from the Grammys, but I’d never seen him in any way with a bottle of liquor, and I think he’d been well-trained by his publicist that he was going to be photographed. I definitely said something to him. I was like, “What’s up with you?” And he was like, “I’m here living my best life.”
Van Toffler (former president, Viacom Media Networks Music & Logo Group): I was in the truck that night, as I always have been. I acted as an executive producer, and those shows were tightly scripted to a point. But as I would say to [former MTV VP of news, docs and specials] Dave [Sirulnick] and the outside producers, “Let’s control what we can control, put the combustible elements in the room, occasionally light a match, get out of the room and wait ’til shit happens.” Some years it happens and some years it doesn’t, and that year it happened.
Benta: In that moment I think [West] was a bit… I don’t want to say uncontrollable, but invincible, and at the time to keep the peace we just didn’t challenge him. I just remember thinking, “This is not going to end well.”
Jayson Rodriguez (former staff writer, MTV): The most shocking thing was from the red carpet seeing him with the Hennessy bottle, that leather shirt open to his navel, dark glasses… and holding the neck of that bottle and seeing the level of it go down and down in picture after picture, as he made it into the venue and kept drinking. That struck me. It was uncharacteristic. His bombast, the interruption, fighting for what he believes in, that seemed normal-ish — now it’s his hallmark — but those images were very stark.
Jim Cantiello (former correspondent/producer, MTV News): For the pre-show, we were positioned in the wings in Radio City, so we were catching [dancer/choreographer] Wade Robson rushing past us for the big Janet Jackson tribute number, and I had a final hit in Radio City in the house where all the celebs were sitting. We were coming off that weird Eminem/Bruno stunt [at the 2009 MTV Movie Awards] where everyone was like, “This had to have been planned, right?” [Eminem has since admitted that the stunt was a set-up.]
The first moment I realized something was off was during the pre-show, standing inside Radio City, maybe 10 feet from where [Fall Out Boy bassist] Pete Wentz was sitting, watching all the celebrities getting into place and I had to do a live hit to hype up the show. First, I see Amber Rose come in in that insane cat suit — which looked so, so good — and I was like, “Ooh, look what Kanye’s girlfriend is wearing…” And then my eyes went to Kanye, who was a bit uneasy on his feet and holding a giant bottle of Hennessy. “Oh, cool, he came prepared.” I saw him make his way through the aisle and he started to pass his Hennessy to other celebrities, and I thought that was the funniest thing ever.
Hamish Hamilton (director, 2009 VMAs): This was probably my third or fourth VMAs, and they’re always a bumpy ride for a director, because you never really know what’s going to happen. They’re complicated shows to do creatively, logistically, and there’s always a large number of egos in the room, and nervousness from performers who haven’t done it before. I remember that moment quite well, because as a director and as a producer, you kind of pray for moments like this — moments of notoriety, moments that we’re talking about 10 years later.
James Montgomery (former senior correspondent/on-air talent, MTV News ): I was in Radio City as people were settling in between the red carpet and the show. I was walking around and I talked to Pete [Wentz] and he told me, “Man, Kanye is so drunk. Kanye came up to me inside Radio City and gave me his bottle of Hennessy, and he made me take a swig. The dude is so wasted.” I remember seeing later photos of him with Amber Rose with the bottle in one hand, and a handful of her ass in the other.
Cantiello: Wentz took a big swig, Justin Bieber was nearby — at this point he had just broken through, he was 15 or 16 — and in my head I’m starting to catalog what my next hit is going to be. “Oh I can joke that [Bieber] took a big swig from Kanye’s bottle and say, ‘Just kidding!'” I’m getting ready for my hit and the production truck gets in my ear and asked what I’m going to hype up in the room, what’s the vibe and I’m like, “OMG, I have to talk about Kanye showing up with booze and he’s passing it around, and he’s already having a party before the party starts! This is awesome.”
And the truck is like, “Hmm… we noticed Kanye on the carpet, he doesn’t seem to be in a good place, please don’t glorify his behavior. Do not glorify Kanye. What we need to do is hype up the big Michael Jackson tribute that opens the show. Joe Jackson just arrived… we really want to focus on that story at the top of the show because that’s what’s kicking us off.”
One of my biggest career regrets at MTV is not going off script and talking about what was going on in the room, because I think it would have been such a wild seed that got planted, not knowing what was going to go down. I would have been forever tied to this… any time they showed a clip of this during recaps, they would have shown me saying, “Kanye showed up with booze, this is not going to go well.” But I took the company line and said, “Joe Jackson’s here!” And I totally stumbled on live TV, and fumbled through a terrible hit where I stuttered Joe Jackson’s name 10 times. Why was I talking about Joe Jackson?
“THIS IS TV GOLD!”
Jesse Ignjatovic (executive producer, 2009 VMAs): It was the summer that Michael Jackson died, so that was a big story going into the show. Knowing we had Janet there performing with her brother via the synched-up video… Madonna giving that long speech to open the night… I thought those would set the tone and be some of the big moments. Plus, Gaga had an iconic performance, Beyoncé gave a great performance, Taylor going from the subway to the New York streets and performing on the top of a taxi… having been at MTV since 1992, I felt like this was going to be a seminal VMAs based on the talent and the level of performances.
Toffler: I had asked Taylor to be on the show — I was managing CMT at that point — and I saw how impactful she was in the country world, and she was trying to cross over into pop and doing it quite effectively. Having executive produced the CMT Awards, which was a much more controlled environment — musicians show up for rehearsals and they listen — that’s not what happens at the VMAs. I was a little bit on edge in that she was entering a different sphere, and I’d worked [Big Machine CEO Scott] Borchetta and her mom that it would be okay. And I felt it might be.
Kanye was not performing… but he had a front row seat. Because we were always concerned about how everything looked on television, we didn’t want these big bulky bodyguards on camera, so we didn’t have security in the front of the talent section.
Cantiello: Days before I did a “seat card” segment from Radio City, where I showed off where the celebs would be sitting on the big night. And Kanye’s seat card was several rows back, like in the eighth row. I cracked a joke like, “Jeeeez, who decided to put Kanye alllllll the way back here? Who did he piss off at MTV? He’s not gonna be happy about this. Somebody’s gonna get fired.” And then the morning of the VMAs, the producers realized that they didn’t have enough men towards the front of the theater for cutaways. So at the eleventh hour, they moved Kanye up towards the front.
Ignjatovic: I had huge expectations from all those numbers and then the show started and it kind of happened. It was act one… a very long act one, with Madonna speaking, then Janet. And then we went into that award, and then the Taylor/Kanye thing happened.
Cantiello: We were watching on a monitor from our basement spot, like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is going on?”
Benta: I saw it on the monitor in house and was like, “Oh shit, it’s that Hennessy!” Of everything I predicted could go wrong, who could have known it would be that?
Ignjatovic: I was shocked. I’d never seen anything like that… especially with our winner and another huge artist on stage. It wasn’t like, “there’s a fan up there, go get ’em!”
Cantiello: I vividly remember the cut-away of Beyoncé half-smiling in disbelief and her mouth like, “Oh Kanye!” It’s now a gif that is used in every comment ever in a Kanye story. I remember thinking, “This is just for female artist, not video of the year — why is he so bent out of shape about this?”
Ignjatovic: I remember the truck was in shock, and I kept thinking in the first moments that he was going to get to a place where he gives her a big compliment. And it just didn’t come. Like the audience, we were just reacting to it in real time… whatever he had done in the past, it just seemed unfathomable that that would happen. You watch Beyoncé’s reaction, everyone couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Hamilton: There was an awful lot of strange energy in the truck, like, “Oh my God, get him off! Get him off! What is he doing?” A number of people were really nervous and wanted to get him off the stage, but how do you do that? I wasn’t going to send a bunch of people to rugby-tackle him. I turned around in my chair and I said, “Guys, this is TV gold!”
Ignjatovic: From my recollection there was no talk of cutting his mic. It all happened so quickly and in the moment we were all just thinking that it was going to resolve, and it just didn’t… Typically you have a lot of contingencies when someone doesn’t come out or something goes wrong technically. You can go to tape, or the host, or NOC [network operations center]. But this was a different kind of scenario, because it was two artists on stage.
Hamilton: There was a real dilemma in my mind as to whether you cut to Taylor. The Beyoncé reaction shot was important in my mind, then I thought about, “Do we cut to Taylor or not?” And I said no. It was difficult to register where her head was at an in that moment, so I took the safe option not to cut to her. There was just so much going on and it was so noisy, so chaotic [in the truck]. It’s instinct and experience.
Dave Itzkoff (culture reporter, New York Times): There was a lot of disbelief and anger in the house, and shock that palpably went through the room. But for me, because I’m so cynical, I presumed it was a stunt that was orchestrated in some way and all the participants had to be in on it.
Cantiello: Then I had that moment, like, “Did we know this was going to happen? Did we set up Kanye?” We gave Kanye a seat in the front row… we know he jumps up on awards shows. The thought definitely crossed my mind: “Oh, is this a Bruno/Eminem thing all over again?” Then I saw Taylor’s reaction, and Beyoncé’s reaction, and the audience disbelief in the room, and I thought, “No, no, MTV would never pull anything like this, because this is potentially hurting artist relations on three of the biggest artists in 2009 right now.” They’re not going to throw gasoline on this and hope that something explodes.
Hamilton: Curiously enough, what happened downstream at MTV towers is that they cut to a safety shot of a wall for a good few seconds. I was like, “What the fuck?!” It was very odd, but that was pretty quickly changed. I still don’t know by who.
Ignjatovic: There wasn’t that moment where we were like, “oh, [now] we’re rollin’!” It was one of those nights when it went a little sideways early. It’s a long show and given that it had such A-level talent we got back [on track], but it was still always going to be tinged by what happened in the first act.
Hamilton: The whole thing was less than a minute and it was done. To be honest not a lot could be done other than cutting their mic and I wasn’t going to make that call and I didn’t. That would have been a very different moment.
Montgomery: The crowd in Radio City just turned on [Kanye] — people were booing and hissing. During the commercial break, he went back down to his seat and P!nk walked up to him and got in his face. I wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation, but she was pointing in his face and nodding her head back and forth, and giving him her two cents about how fucked up this was and then stormed off. Then he was sitting there next to Amber Rose with his arm around her, and you could feel everyone in Radio City glaring at his back.
Ignjatovic: After that situation played out, we had to get ready for act two, and we obviously had an artist who had to perform immediately after commercial. So I had to make sure the talent team was attending to her and she was getting ready. We just had to regroup and keep things moving.
Cantiello: I knew Taylor had to perform soon after that, and my brain went to, “How is she going to recover form this and get her head right after being bullied on television after her first big TV moment winning a VMA?”
Hamilton: It’s fair to say that in the truck in the moment there were a lot of very different moods: terror, oh my goodness, [and] this is absolutely fantastic… it was everything you pray for and then some. It’s happened a couple of times to me in trucks, when some defining moment like this occurs, and there are so many conflicting views and a lot of people standing around you saying different things. As a director you have to have that moment of clarity. I had a real moment of clarity: “This is going to live forever.” Absolutely, one million percent.
Ignjatovic: Your goal in those moments is to react in real time and in that situation it played out, but then also we had to get ready for act two. You have to stay in the game and not get too rattled, because we had nine more acts to go. We’d just started the night.
“YOU NEED TO GET KANYE OUT OF THE BUILDING…”
Hamilton: After we cut to commercial there were three conversations I remember half-hearing: “Okay what happens to Kanye now? How do we make sure Taylor’s okay? And how do we make sure Beyoncé’s okay?” The biggest concern was for Taylor, and making sure she was cool with it.
Toffler: Once it happened, we went to commercial break and I said to Dave Sirulnick, “Dave, you need to go get Kanye out of the building and I need to go see Taylor, her mom and manager, because she was set to perform one or two acts later.” [Sirulnick declined to speak with Billboard for this story.]
Because of my relationship with Taylor and her camp, I was going to deal with her. Her mom and she were crying, and I profusely apologized and I said, “I’m sorry, we didn’t know. I know you have to perform in the next act and let me think about a way we can make it right for you. We’re dealing with him now and I’m so sorry it ruined your moment.” I didn’t anticipate I’d have a crying artist and mom to deal with — literally right before she has to go out on Sixth Avenue and stand on a car and sing her song.
Montgomery: [Kanye] was kind of hunched over, and you could tell he could feel the weight of everyone’s stares. Within the next 5-10 minutes, he was ushered out of his seat and I followed behind him — and out in the darkened hallways of Radio City, I saw him going up and having a very long, heated conversation with Dave Sirulnick about what happened. Dave saw me trailing behind and told me I wasn’t allowed to go up there. I waited at the foot of the stairs and watched them have a very animated conversation. Kanye was very upset about this, and he was kind of shocked that he was being asked to leave. I just remember it being a very chaotic moment where everyone was [going], “Is this really happening?” and everyone being very angry.
Cantiello: There was a stream of people coming down to do press after it, and I remember the All-American Rejects [singer] Tyson Ritter, and he was like, “Kanye’s a jackass” or something — like, “What the hell’s he doing?” I remember Billie Joe from Green Day had strong words like, “What the hell was that? Let the girl have her moment!”
Itzkoff: Kanye was up for several awards that night, and every time they mentioned his name there would be a ripple through the audience. It upset the attendees in the room, and there would be more boos from the audience. Wale made a remark about Kanye — “You can’t fault a man for speaking his mind” — and people groaned and booed. It did not go over well.
Toffler: I’m almost front of house at that point, and I have to go back to the truck. I see [Big Machine founder] Scott Borchetta and I say, “Please have her stay, I will figure out a way to deal with this.” I walk behind the stage — and sure enough there is Beyoncé and her dad, and she is crying. She was like, “I didn’t know this was going to happen, I feel so bad for her.” And that’s when it started to click in my head, and maybe hers, about potentially having the whole arc play out in that one night.
I think perhaps for the only time in history at the VMAs — we knew who was going to win the awards, we had a plan for it [but did not tell the artists ahead of time] — at some point I let her know that she was probably going to be up on the podium at the end of the show for an award. And wouldn’t it be nice to have Taylor come up and have her moment then? I had to indicate to her that she needed to stay, and perhaps this is a way to have this come full circle and let [Taylor] have her moment. I would normally not say anything, but I had two crying artists.
Jonathan Mussman (former senior vice president of production, MTV): I was tasked with getting News set up in the pre-show and producing the outside elements, including the Taylor performance. A week before, we were in the Times Square station filming the interior portion of the “You Belong With Me” performance in a subway car, which was 98 degrees with 120% humidity, where the only thing that was air-conditioned was the subway car, which was very faint. That already set up a very, very hot-under-the-collar theme for the show. That part went off okay — we worked through the night on the S train and Taylor was great — so then we were preparing for the night of.
Hamilton: The Taylor live set-up was coming, and it was live-live, and I remember some fairly frantic discussions going on about whether she could do it.
Mussman: Dave [Sirulnick] comes on: “Jonathan! Jonathan!” He quickly explains what went down and I’m not understanding what he’s saying. I can’t comprehend it. “Kanye did what?” He’s almost to the point of barking. “She’s coming out to you! Accept her, greet her, get her!” I’m getting nervous because we have hundreds of casted audience and dancers ready to hit their marks, [Swift] is crying and upset and I’m consoling her moments before she’s to perform.
Hamilton: I do remember that Taylor was determined to get it right. She really dealt with it with true dignity and professionalism. Maybe after the immediate shock and sadness, she pretty quickly channeled that energy into determination.
Mussman: We get her prepared, and thank God she’s a real pro. She got it together, and we had makeup on stand-by to control the look, and she did an amazing performance.
Toffler: It was not easy [to get Kanye to leave]. But after [Swift’s] performance, I had to go back to Taylor and Scott and her mom and say, “This is what could potentially happen at the end of the evening and you can have your moment to do your speech.” There was a lot of begging, but fortunately she agreed to stay, and Beyoncé agreed to do a wonderfully gracious thing. So the Shakespearean arc played out over the course of the evening.
“SOCIAL MEDIA WAS NOT OUR FOE BUT OUR FRIEND”
Cantiello: We were close to the press room, and as soon as [Kanye] jumped up I could hear everyone whooping and hollering and everyone’s laptops going on fire and live blogging… their BlackBerrys going off.
Rodriguez: This was before you’d text people 2,000 times a day, so I’m emailing [reporters Montgomery and senior hip-hop editor Shaheem Reid], who were in the house, and they’re both feeding me details, like “P!nk giving Kanye the middle finger.” So I was checking the Getty [photo] wires and I see pictures of him chugging Hennessy — this was pre-Instagram — and like 200 retweets of pictures of Kanye with the bottle. The story was immediately doing gangbusters, because we were the authority on VMAs.
Cantiello: In 2009 Twitter was not really yet a thing, but I was also the Twitter correspondent, so I was asking people to use hashtags. But we didn’t have service in the basement — so I was constantly logging onto Twitter to see what they were saying, but we couldn’t access it.
Itzkoff: I wasn’t even on Twitter at the time this happened, and another person in my section sitting with me was showing me on his phone that searches for Kanye were zooming by.
Toffler: We were MTV, we wanted to be almost everything to youth culture, but that night made me realize that social media was not our foe, but our friend — because all these emails and everything started to come in about this moment and it lit up everything. People couldn’t stop talking about it and ratings went up. It was like, “We just need to feed this beast, and then it can feed television as well.”
Cantiello: Kanye storming the stage was the first time I realized just how powerful Twitter was in driving audiences to TV. 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. It’s also noteworthy to remember that back in 2009, there were no algorithms dictating your feed. Your Twitter timeline was in chronological order. It was ideal for “live blogging” TV. So when a “moment” happened, everrrrrrryyyyyone talked about it and you couldn’t ignore it. Fans took sides immediately.
Ignjatovic: We’re still discussing it because it happened in real time on live television. By today’s standards, when you have stuff that plays out on social in real time, those are the things that garner a lot of attention and reaction and that’s what that was. But it was in a visual medium, and the fact that it was just so shocking and unexpected [made it historic].
Cantiello: The immediate collective response of viewers and celebs alike crystallized the knee-jerk hot take reactionary aspect of social media. It’s kind of ironic that Kanye’s “hot take” on stage was basically a tweet personified.
“WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO DEAL WITH THIS TOMORROW…”
Toffler: At some point you throw up your hands and say, “We’re going to have to deal with this tomorrow, but we have two hours left, and let’s get through this thing.” It’s kind of insane and that’s the addiction of live television. Because I’m a crazy fanatic about chaos, it maybe fueled the fire more. It definitely had us revisit the whole notion of security.
Cantiello: We were the ones to talk to Taylor afterwards. She only did a little bit of press and only one interview — and it was ours, which happened at the very end of the show. It wasn’t until the very end of the night, when Beyoncé won and invited Taylor up, that Beyoncé came down first and I said, “Beyoncé, can we talk, please?” And she said, “No, no, no — I’m not doing press. The person you’re gonna want to talk to is coming down soon.”
Then Taylor came, definitely way more composed. She took some time to figure out what she was going to say, and gave a very subdued interview. She addressed it in a very matter-of-fact way. She said, “That moment of winning a Video Music Award was mind-blowing and I felt really good, and when Kanye first jumped up on stage I was really excited because I’m a huge fan and then… I was not as excited.” It was fucked up, but as someone who worked at MTV it was so cool to feel like you were part of MTV history.
Toffler: You just have to let musicians follow their muse or their greatness, and sometimes they achieve greatness and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but it’s never mediocre. That’s what that show highlighted. It wasn’t the first show we had people doing chaotic, nutty things — and it wasn’t the last. But in its wake, a lot of shows tried to fabricate or force inorganic, unique moments, and they feel forced. This didn’t feel forced at all, because it wasn’t. Those are the moments you remember the most, the blemishes on the art. You just have to let it stay in and not overproduce it.
Cantiello: I had this Verizon-sponsored position, which was in front of the MTV News one, so everyone was coming to me first. So, at the last minute, out of nowhere [former MTV News talent] Kim Stolz raced into my shot and we were both interviewing her. So poor Taylor Swift is being double-teamed by two MTV News reporters who are foaming at the mouth, like, “Tell us about this insane pop culture moment that just happened!” For me, I remember thinking in that moment, “Holy shit, this generation finally has its Courtney Love vs. Madonna VMA moment!” What’s crazy is that 1995 VMA moment was in the post-show, the after show — this was in the guts of the show, and it just felt like The Moment.
Toffler: In my conversation with Scott Borchetta the next day after I called to apologize… 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.” It felt like, “Wow, If I could have 10 of those a show going forward and didn’t know about it I’d sure love that!” I spent the next several VMAs trying to barter a Taylor/Kanye moment, which never really happened the way I wanted it to. It forced us to look at social media and embrace it.
“ONE OF THE MOST TRANSFORMATIVE MOMENTS IN POP CULTURE”
Cantiello: I don’t know that when that moment happened I expected it to [still] be feeding a narrative… how many albums later? I feel like it’s part of her story more than it’s his story, partially because he’s had so many tabloid moments since then. I didn’t realize in 2009 that she would still be talking about it 10 years later. As a legit Taylor fan, I’m bummed that the story still has legs, and continues to evolve and morph and get uglier and uglier.
Montgomery: It was very weird to be in the room where one of the most transformative moments in pop culture over the past decade transpired. If you look at everything that’s happened since that moment, in terms of Kanye’s narrative of being the villain and Taylor’s of being the victim… it really impacted pop culture in a way no one thought would happen.
Toffler: I never imagined we’d be talking about it 10 years later. It’s also just the two particular artists are so still very loud in culture — that’s a big part of why people are still talking about it.
Montgomery: It seemed like such a weird, small, unplanned moment that became this gigantic thing. It was unquestionably unplanned… It kind of changed the way that they [MTV] were encouraging more of those moments going forward, by putting random people together and trying to see what happens.
Rodriguez: Those are the best VMA moments. MTV historically tries to manufacture those moments — they try to create a narrative of the night, whether it’s them manufacturing stunts like the Madonna-Britney kiss, or trending to a big artist… the VMAs work best when they’re teetering on the brink. But the Kanye thing had an aftermath that was darker than intended, and that’s why we still remember it.
Ignjatovic: The long-lasting piece of it to me is that somehow it was one of the rare times on a live show — particularly a live awards show — [where] you had a real, organic narrative play out in real time before your eyes. An artist who came up and won an award and was interrupted in a shocking way, a real negative moment, and she comes back and has this glorious moment right after that, and the night plays out.
Producers like to script things out and plan the narrative of the night, but this was its own narrative that played out in front of millions of people’s eyes. That is why it lasts in my memory, and why it’s one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever worked on.
Itzkoff: People forget all the other things that happened that night, because Kanye’s interruption was the thing people take away. Now you see the legs this one incident had, and how it continues to define the relationship between two pretty major artists — and the fault lines in our culture that it points to.
P!nk and Pete Wentz were unavailable for comment for this piece. Billboard also reached out to Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Scott Borchetta, Tyson Ritter and Billie Joe Armstrong for comment.
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