9:25 p.m. Kanye West runs onstage to protest Beyoncé not winning! Oh man, this just turned into an episode of ‘Monday Night Raw,’ and Kanye is the heel. There’s chaos. Taylor is totally confused. The cameraman has no idea where to go. Everyone in the press room is confused.
11:32 p.m. Reporters crowding around Taylor as she describes what happened. She was excited that Kanye was there… Oh man, she’s describing this as it’s being shown on the TVs. Entire dissertations could be written about this moment!
Those are excerpts from music critic Maura Johnston’s liveblog of MTV’s 2009 Music Video Awards, from ten years ago this Friday (Sept. 13), a ceremony best remembered for Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s Best Female Video acceptance speech. As Johnston observed, West’s infamous “Imma let you finish” caused chaos; as she predicted, many entire dissertations (or, in the lower-brow parlance of our times, thinkpieces) followed. It was an incident that every outlet focused on music, culture, or celebrity gossip had to cover.
“It was a combination of the outrageousness of the act meeting the burgeoning technology that allowed for public feedback as well as celebrity feedback,” says Jayson Rodriguez, at the time an MTV staff writer tasked with an instant-reaction write up of Kanye’s stage-crashing. “It put all of those in a Petri dish, on top of the visceral image of this sweaty, leather-clad Kanye attacking Taylor Swift. I think all those put together made it a powder keg.”
In 2019, we’re no stranger to such powderkegs. A celebrity drops a controversial song, uploads an Instagram Live confessional, gets accused of a crime, or acts like a jackass (as then-President Barack Obama described Kanye after the VMA stunt) on national television; people — critics, celebrities, politicians, civilians — react instantly. In 2009, the social media echo chamber hadn’t yet reached its full-throated volume. Liveblogging was still a thing. “Twitter was in its adolescence, Instagram wasn’t even a thought,” recalls Rodriguez.
He remembers emailing back-and-forth — not group-texting, as he would today — with coworkers who were stationed on the VMA red carpet and inside of Radio City Music Hall, where the ceremony was held, gathering details that would prove valuable when eventually writing the night’s biggest headline.
“One of our digital producers sends us a picture of Kanye inside the theater — you see him [holding a] Hennessy bottle, you see that he’s sweaty — he’s definitely having his sip,” says Rodriguez. “That was just background information, but now, we’d probably be live-tweeting this. I TwitPic’d that shot, but at that time, virality wasn’t as combustible. It probably got a couple likes, and that was it. The idea of things going viral on Twitter… it wasn’t happenstance and second nature like it is now. Nobody’s covering it second-by-second, beat-by-beat, whereas now, every red carpet writer would be streaming it, tweeting it, so even before the interruption, there would’ve been content posted everywhere and he would’ve been trending.”
Jennifer Armstrong, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly at the time of the 2009 awards, compares the news cycle of the Kanye/Swift incident to Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Halftime “wardrobe malfunction” that occurred five years prior, in that “it went from a strange blip to, ‘Oh, I see, people are really upset about this.’”
“It was certainly… a lot,” she says of media coverage of the incident. “Even in the moment, I remember thinking that people were making a surprisingly big deal out of it… Like in the moment I just thought, ‘Oh, Kanye is Kanye-ing and, incidentally, he’s not wrong. [Beyoncé’s] ‘Single Ladies’ is great.’ Then suddenly there were thinkpieces and Taylor Swift (I think somewhat coincidentally and somewhat relatedly) really blew up that year as a mainstream star.”
The day after West’s tirade, Sean O’Neal (then an A.V. Club staff writer) compiled many of those thinkpieces into a list of “Very Important Theories,” the title’s sarcasm highlighting what O’Neal saw as a bizarre search for “meaning” in an awards show controversy. “Whatever ‘fun’ there was to be had in this spontaneous moment of a famously unabashed jerk behaving like one, then writing an all-caps rant about it, was pretty short-lived,” says O’Neal. “Almost immediately it became this flashpoint for discussion on race, on sexism, on attitudes toward pop music, on mental health.”
The media landscape is no longer a stranger to such thinkpieces that rope pop culture events into larger discussions of more dire issues, and while such an approach would seem to demand increased nuance, those critiques are coming out faster than ever. O’Neal sees this as an “increased need to find these minor controversies and react to them, in order to stay on top of the traffic wave as it’s cresting.” He continues: “There’s no time to reflect; if you’re writing about something that happened a week after it’s ‘trending,’ you may as well not even bother. It’s almost entirely guided by what social media latches onto — you’re always chasing the story, rather than creating it.”
That speed and hyper-reactivity wasn’t there yet in the 2000s. “I have very vivid memories of going from the pace of a weekly entertainment magazine — which was fast compared with my monthly magazine friends! — to minute-by-minute coverage,” Armstrong says of the late ‘00s. “I remember joking with my colleagues that soon our bosses were going to permanently strap our laptops to our chests so we could just blog nonstop to keep the website fed. This was when I started getting reprimanded for not answering emails promptly after work hours and being issued a Blackberry in order to be instantly responsive.”
That may have seemed insane in 2009, but with most publications now staffing “night” and “weekend” editors, it’s a harsh reality of the speed-obsessed, sleepless media landscape. “Our news cycle is moving faster than it ever has, demanding more coverage, more content, more hot takes,” says Maggie Coughlan, currently the Editorial Director at Page Six, who was on staff at AOL’s now-defunct celebrity news site, PopEater, in 2009. “I think if [the West/Swift incident] happened today, this moment would have an even greater lifespan than it actually did.”
Johnston agrees, adding that if the 2009 VMAs played out today, “the coverage would probably play out on social media, for the most part, and it would be even more insufferable than it was 10 years ago.”
“I think a lot of nuance and sense of scale has been lost — not to mention the fun,” says O’Neal, speaking to the changes wrought on publications by instant-reaction culture. “Nothing is hermetically sealed; nothing is just kind of amusing. Everything has to have a narrative. Everything is the best, the worst, the most amazing, the most symptomatic of a burgeoning trend in pop culture or America. And if you can’t immediately find a hot take on what it all means, you’re not trying hard enough. It’s grueling, frankly.”
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.”
Coughlan sees the event as a blueprint for future coverage. “I think now we’re looking for that Kanye/Taylor level moment in every awards show. What will be the takeaway, the breakout, the talker? Who is wearing the most over-the-top dress, who has the best quote? We’ve stopped covering awards shows as experiences and more as a series of digestible, standalone moments. Very few viewers have the attention span to sit through the entirety of an awards show.”
Our shifting attention spans have changed media outlets, and in a cyclical sense, have also altered the social media platforms that initially ushered in those changes. “It’s not surprising that all social media platforms pivoted their chronological nature since ,” says Cantiello. They’re all geared to keep you hooked and engaged for as long as possible. The more response your tweet gets, the more Twitter will push it to more users. And what better way to get a reaction than to say something controversial?”