It was the stage-crash heard round the world — and whether you watched it live, followed it on Twitter immediately after, or caught up about it at work or school the next day, it was impossible to live through the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and their ensuing aftermath without the night’s signature incident being permanently seared into your brain.
As far as pop culture moments go — especially ones that, compared to genuine real-world tragedies, are relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things — it’s hard to think of many more generational than Kanye West grabbing the mic from an unsuspecting, mid-acceptance-speech Taylor Swift, to defend the honor of his good friend Beyoncé. Billboard‘s staffers certainly remember everything about their early experiences with the seismic event, and we’ve all been living with the fallout from it over the decade since. Below, six of us share our Tay/’Ye memories, and how we feel about the whole thing looking back ten years later.
1. All right, let’s start at the top: Where were you and what were you doing the first time you saw or heard about the Kanye/Taylor incident?
Katie Bain: I wasn’t watching the show! But obviously I heard about what happened after the fact. It became unavoidable, something that permeated your consciousness even if you weren’t actively paying attention, like the Kardashians.
Tatiana Cirisano: I was watching the VMAs with my sister in the living room of my parents’ house, so I saw it all happen in real time.
Stephen Daw: I was a freshman in high school at the time, and I actually didn’t watch the award show that night — it was a school night and I was probably finishing up some homework. But I remember going into school the next morning, and before classes started, a friend of mine asked me if I had seen “that crazy Kanye thing last night.” I said no, and we found someone with a phone that could play the video, watching it before we all ran off to class.
Bianca Gracie: Can you really call yourself a pop culture-obsessed millennial if you can’t remember this iconic moment? I was starting the fall semester of my college freshman year in Boston, and a few fellow music geeks and I gathered in our dorm lounge to watch the VMAs. I remember being super excited to see Lady Gaga perform, but of course wasn’t expecting Kanye West to completely sideline the entire show.
Andrew Unterberger: I was watching on my couch in Brooklyn with a couple friends — still just for fun (and for my own personal blog LOL), since I wouldn’t start writing about music professionally for another couple years.
Denise Warner: I was at home, but I wasn’t working that night. (At the time, I was an editor at AOL, for the now defunct PopEater, a celebrity and entertainment news site.) I still watched the VMAs both because I wanted to and because I knew we’d have follow up coverage the next day. I saw it play out in real time.
2. What do you remember your initial reaction being to the incident? How big a deal did it seem to you at first?
Katie Bain: It didn’t strike me as that big a deal! I was entertained by it, frankly, and as a Beyoncé superfan my initial reaction was that Kanye was making a salient point regarding the excellence of the excellence of the “Single Ladies” video. (Although I felt for Beyoncé in the audience looking panicked, embarrassed and slightly amused.)
Tatiana Cirisano: For the first couple of seconds, I assumed it was a planned stunt. But once the boos from the audience and the look on Taylor’s face solidified that this was not a drill, my jaw dropped. It felt like a huge deal. I was a big Kanye listener at the time and not really a fan of Taylor Swift, but more than anything, I just remember feeling so bad for her. She looked helpless, and the whole thing was physically painful to watch. Katy Perry’s immediate, all-caps tweet about Kanye’s stage-crashing put it best: It was like he stepped on a kitten.
Stephen Daw: At first, I remember just thinking it was kind of funny — as a 14 year old, I definitely didn’t have the wherewithal to think about how it affected either of the people on the stage and tried to file it away as another celebrity fail. But watching it later, I definitely started to feel bad for Taylor, because how could you not? After watching it, I absolutely recognized that it was a big deal, mainly because not one, but two of my teachers that day spent the majority of their class time turning Kanye’s bum-rush into a teaching moment about respect and graciousness. That was a pretty clear barometer for us — when your teachers are taking time out of their planned classwork to talk about something that happened on an awards show, it’s become a galvanizing moment.
Bianca Gracie: My mouth was agape, that’s for sure. I think all I could utter was: “Oh shit!” It was so cringeworthy to the point where my friends and I thought it was staged. I was an incredibly diehard Kanye stan at the time, so I blindly rooted for all his drastic decisions. But I didn’t understand his reasoning behind this one…until I saw photos on Twitter of him chugging that massive Hennessy bottle. Then it all clicked — that dirty brown will make you do some crazy things!
Andrew Unterberger: I thought it was a weird thing, but just one of many that happened at the VMAs that night. I definitely didn’t grasp the sort of culture-shifting significance of the moment: I’d grown up on award-show stage crashers, who were discussed for a week or two and then quickly moved on from. Plus, it was hardly the first time Kanye had pulled a stunt like this — just the first time he’d interrupted a star nearly on his level, and on another star’s intended behalf.
Denise Warner: Our team only had one person online, so I thought, “Oh, I better sign on to see if I can help.” If I remember correctly, it happened pretty quickly after the Michael Jackson tribute, which was supposed to be the big deal of the show. I knew Kanye/Taylor would eclipse that. Did I know then that it would change how we covered awards shows and entertainment in general? No, although that started pretty immediately after. As far as the effect on Kanye and Taylor themselves? No idea in the slightest.
3. What’s one detail about the entire stage-crash incident that really sticks with you all these years later?
Katie Bain: Honestly, how embarrassed Beyoncé looked when they panned to her, and her clearly saying, “Oh Kanye.” I also vividly remember seeing photos of Kanye on the red carpet earlier in the evening clutching a bottle of Hennessy with Amber Rose — that’s when things clicked about the machinations behind the situation.
Tatiana Cirisano: The 20 seconds of pure chaos between Kanye handing back the mic and the cut to commercial break must truly be the longest 20 seconds that have ever passed on Earth. The camera pans to Beyoncé (looking horrified, but also amused) then to Taylor (who’s still just standing there, frozen) and then to the audience (in a bizarrely cinematic shot, given the circumstances). Meanwhile, all anyone can hear is a mixture of boos and anarchic yelling from the audience.
Why didn’t the show cut to commercial earlier — or literally anything else? (The moment was gold for TV ratings, but still.) Why didn’t anyone sweep Taylor away — and why didn’t she just leave the stage herself? It was a rare, peeling-back-the-curtain moment of watching a room full of some of America’s most powerful people have absolutely no idea what to do.
Stephen Daw: Definitely the deafening silence from Taylor after Kanye handed the mic back to her, while the crowd violently booed him. When I first watched the clip, I was waiting for her to say something back to him, and when the show abruptly cut to commercial, it was almost crushing. The fact that Taylor couldn’t find the words to continue talking was kind of heartbreaking, and that an audience full of artists and industry executives were loudly booing Kanye felt wildly unprecedented. When else, in award show history, have people loudly booed a nominated artist? It may have been warranted, but it still felt crazy to watch.
Bianca Gracie: That infamous Yeezy shrug! He really gave zero fucks being on that stage to interrupt what was meant to be a defining moment for Taylor, and his body language has come to define his entire media personality. His shrug, along with Beyoncé muttering “Oh Kanye!” from the audience, has transformed into one of my most-used GIFs.
Andrew Unterberger: The shrug for sure, and also just how Kanye kinda materialized onstage out of nowhere. There was zero sign of him while Taylor was talking, but in the time it took for the VMAs to cut to P!nk in the crowd for a reaction shot and back, Kanye had already seized the stage, the mic and the moment — making the whole thing that much more jarring and unbelievable. I’d also love to get an explanation for what was generally going on with his hair that night.
Denise Warner: Outside of the general craziness, it has to be Beyoncé’s reaction.
4. What’s your biggest memory from the seemingly endless fallout to the incident — either from one of its participants, or from the dozens of celebrity commentators who sounded off on it, or from the millions of viewers who turned it into an early social media event?
Katie Bain: When President Obama called Kanye a “jackass” with a big grin on his face. This thing went all the way up to the top.
Tatiana Cirisano: Obama getting caught calling Kanye a “jackass.” It was just the cherry on top of the whole absurd situation — to which, apparently, not even the president of the United States (a textbook Mr. Nice Guy, at that) was immune. It also happened to be the same week a GOP rep shouted “You lie!” at Obama in Congress, another unexpected, instantly meme-d outburst that inspired this memorable, 4.8 million views-and-counting mashup.
Stephen Daw: Oh, it was absolutely Barack Obama’s leaked comment, no doubt. At the time, before we had a President who won’t stop tweeting about what he thinks at every given moment, it was just unprecedented to have the president weigh in on pop culture, especially not by calling someone like Kanye “a jackass.” That was an ridiculously revealing thing, to have the president be so candid and cutting, which I feel only further exacerbated the already excessive media attention the story was getting.
Bianca Gracie: There were many celebrities who dismissed Kanye following the incident, but when then-President Obama called him a jackass that’s when it really clicked for me. The moment transcended from being part of the VMA’s wild history to becoming part of pop culture conversation, to where even the president had an opinion on it.
Andrew Unterberger: President Obama’s reaction was definitely an eye-opening moment, but the one that really sticks with me is Taylor’s year-later VMAs response: “Innocent,” a sneak preview of the Kanye-themed song that would prove the lowlight off her third album, 2010’s Speak Now. The performance and the song struck a really sour note to me, and was perhaps the earliest indication that this feud had more fuel to it than could really burn out in 12 months’ time.
Denise Warner: It’s the almost immediate backlash that Swift received, how critics said she played the victim too easily. And how that narrative stayed with the singer/songwriter for a long time, unfortunately.
5. How surprising is it to you that the incident ended up shaping so much about both artists’ careers and narratives from there? Would you have believed at the time that it’d still be such a big part of their stories a decade later?
Katie Bain: No. Honestly, it’s strange to me. Obviously what Kanye did was rude, and I really felt for Taylor standing there awkwardly saying nothing after he left the stage, but we love these people because they entertain us, and while this wasn’t scripted, it was and remains very entertaining. People point to Kanye’s hubris in this incident, and obviously we know he has an ego — but ultimately I love that he was stanning for Beyoncé rather than himself, and offering viewers a real, unscripted human moment.
Tatiana Cirisano: I thought we’d always remember the incident, but as a funny moment to look back on — not as an event momentous enough to shape their narratives as artists. Taylor, then a relatively new face, might’ve been particularly vulnerable to these sorts of public first impressions having a lasting impact. And as many have pointed out, her music has always been infused with a sense of innocence, and plight of the underdog — her VMAs prizewinning song included the quotable “she’s cheer captain / and I’m on the bleachers.” Of course, Kanye’s give-no-fucks attitude and propensity for rants have been his trademarks from the beginning. But did I have an inkling that we’d still be entwined in Kanye-Taylor drama a decade later? Nah.
Stephen Daw: Immediately after it happened, I certainly didn’t think that this would become as influential in both of their careers as it has — it seemed like an important pop culture moment that we would remember for a long time to come, but not to the degree that it has persisted. Even today, seeing how deeply the narrative has been embedded into both of their careers is still a little wild. But I do think (with the benefit of hindsight) that it’s an understandable phenomenon: when you have as much media attention as these two had following the incident, it’s clear that feelings were going to be hurt and narratives were going to be formed.
Bianca Gracie: I was not expecting this incident to become this big at all, or that we’d still be discussing it a decade later. It was a sharp turn of events that became a double-edged sword for both artists. I had no idea who Taylor Swift was in 2009, and her first VMA win-gone-sour catapulted her into this inescapable household name. She was no longer just a country singer; her name was now mentioned along other pop stars — many of whom supported her following the incident. And as for Kanye, I think this solidified his brand. He always spoke his mind (remember the “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment from 2005?), yet the 2009 VMAs really established his penchant for controversy, and not particularly caring about the aftershock of his actions.
Andrew Unterberger: I saw neither the enormity nor the longevity of the moment coming. The only thing about it that I will give myself credit for sorta grasping right away was that it meant that the VMAs, after an absolutely miserable half-decade of sliding relevance, were officially back, the way the Slam Dunk Contest was back after Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis electrified the NBA world in 2000. For most of the next decade, the juice that the Taylor/Kanye incident (and Gaga and Beyoncé and some other A-listers) injected into the ’09 VMAs kept it as the most exciting awards show in entertainment.
Denise Warner: If you had told me 10 years ago that we’d still be talking about this, I wouldn’t have believed it. I knew it would be a big deal in the moment, but I definitely never imagined it would have gone on this long. It hasn’t faded. I wonder what the next chapter will be, honestly.
6. What is it about Kanye and Taylor — this incident, and everything else that’s gone in between them in the ten years since — that you think continues to fascinate us so much? Do you think it will ever end?
Katie Bain: I think we’re fascinated by the unabashed, unapologetic rudeness and braggadocio of the situation. When we see celebrities, they’re usually so manicured, scripted, polite, etc. This was REAL. I think this moment peeled the curtain back and showed by Kanye and Taylor’s vulnerability in a really human way. I love that about it. It’s pop culture canon, for sure.
Tatiana Cirisano: People will always be fascinated by celebrity drama, and the higher the stakes, the greater the fascination. The careers of two of the biggest artists on earth? High stakes indeed. I think there’s also a part of me that will always wonder if the Kanye-Beef could somehow be for show — if so, it’d be the greatest publicity stunt of all time (sorry, I had to).
I’ve got to say, though, that it’s Kanye and Taylor themselves who have continued to resurrect the conflict, whether through lyrics to some of their biggest hits (Taylor: “Look What You Made Me Do,” Kanye: “Famous”) or stunts, like Taylor reenacting the moment while presenting Kanye with a VMAs lifetime achievement award in 2015. As long as both artists are still making music, I don’t think this feud will ever end, especially since the public has long since made their fight our own. Some fans recently noticed that Taylor Swift’s Lover release date coincides with the anniversary of Kanye’s mother’s death, a crazy and surely unintended connection — but the theory made headlines nonetheless.
Stephen Daw: What’s fascinating is the fact that they are the ones who periodically remind us of the incident. Look at “Famous” from The Life of Pablo — the 2009 VMAs were not at the top of the public’s mind in 2016, but Kanye took the time to remind us of why the moment was so all-consuming when he said he “made that bitch famous.”
And sure enough, for the weeks and even months following the song’s release, the reignited Taylor/Kanye feud dominated discussions as lines were drawn and teams were formed, especially after Kim Kardashian leaked the footage of ‘Ye and Tay’s phone call about the song years later. That’s where Taylor’s new moniker as a “snake” appeared, which only further defined her Reputation era. Their continued involvement in and use of that moment keeps the story so interesting, and is also why I’m not sure that it will ever end so long as the two of them are still making music.
Bianca Gracie: It’s the classic “villain versus victim” drama, and they’ve made it oh-so-juicy with their endless (and endlessly petty) shade. Depending on whose side you’re on, you may look at Yeezy as the bad guy or the truth-teller — I mean, in retrospect Kanye was right about Beyoncé’s iconic “Single Ladies” video — and Taylor as the innocent pop darling or snake in the grass. But in either case, both of them have continued to feed off that singular incident throughout their careers since – right up to Taylor recently bringing up him and wife Kim Kardashian West in a post about her Big Machine saga. It’s become such an indelible moment in pop culture history that continues to build upon itself as they both add fuel to the ever-growing fire. And who doesn’t enjoy watching things burn?
Andrew Unterberger: I’ve long theorized that the reason that Taylor and Kanye keep returning to being at loggerheads with one another — as if that’s their default resting state — is because they’re as fundamentally different as two pop stars can be: Taylor the carefully plotting scientist, and Kanye the impulsive philosopher. In addition to that, they’re both as essential to popular music’s center this last decade-plus as anyone, which means they keep having reasons to share the same figurative and metaphorical spaces with one another. It’s a naturally uncomfortable, frictional, combustible relationship, which once sparked may never return to stasis. And 2009 provided that spark.
Denise Warner: As long as Taylor and Kanye are still famous (sorry) I don’t think it will end — especially now with their very vocal and opposing political ideologies. It’s too easy to pit them against each other. The media shares the blame — we keep asking, they keep answering. This could have been quashed after the initial round of apologies, and forgotten. But then there was “Innocent,” the 2015 VMAs, “Famous”… not to mention countless interviews where the subject is rehashed ad nauseam. It’s a festering wound that no one will stop picking.