Award shows are known for their buzz-worthy watercooler moments, but they rarely have the far-ranging, geopolitical implications of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. In case you somehow missed it, here’s a quick refresher: Kanye West showed up to the VMAs ceremony drinking Hennessy on the red carpet. When Taylor Swift, then only 19, was awarded Best Female Video for “You Belong With Me,” West rushed on stage to famously declare that he was really happy for Swift, and he was going to let her finish, but that Beyoncé had one of the best music videos of all time. West was then booed off the stage.
It is true that Beyoncé, who was nominated for “Single Ladies,” did have one of the best videos of all time — she won Video of the Year later in the evening. It’s also true that West’s outburst was pretty darn rude. Regardless of who he thought should win, the backlash against him was swift, pun intended. Pink called West “the biggest piece of s**t on Earth,” and even President Obama called him a “jacka**.”
The incident completely altered the trajectory of the artist’s career; West went into hiding for a few months, and when he came back, he was never the same.
The backlash launched Kanye West to a new creative peak
The backlash against Kanye West at the time was so severe that it basically forced him into hiding for a year. West told Ellen DeGeneres that he spent months in Japan and in Rome following the incident to get away from the paparazzi. In a long feature with Complex, West detailed going to Hawaii for six months to record the album that would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is often regarded as one of, if not the, best albums he ever created. Pitchfork, for example, ranked it the second-best album to come out in the 2010s.
In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, West said he didn’t have one regret about the incident, adding, “If anyone’s reading this waiting for some type of full-on, flat apology for anything, they should just stop reading right now.”
Instead of actually apologizing, West’s plan was to make an album so good that it would be impossible for the world to write him off. “Dark Fantasy was my long, backhanded apology,” he said. “You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.'”
Kanye West and Taylor Swift's feud ended… and then started again
The immediate aftermath of the incident was marked by backlash against Kanye West, but also by support for Taylor Swift. A few days later, Swift appeared on The View and said that while she was open to meeting with West, he hadn’t reached out to her yet. “I’m not going to say I wasn’t rattled by it,” she told the panel.
It seems that West never truly apologized— as in saying the words “I’m sorry” to Swift — but by 2015, they seemed to be on good terms. Swift introduced West for his Vanguard Award at the 2015 VMAs, not only praising his career but also poking fun at the incident, and days later shared a photo of flowers West sent her on Instagram. Hatchet officially buried!
At least until a few months later, when the feud reignited so severely that it made all previous disagreements look like petty schoolyard fighting. In 2016, West released his album The Life Of Pablo, which featured the now-infamous lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that b***h famous.” Days later, when Swift accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year for 1989, she warned that people might try to “take credit for your accomplishments, or your fame,” which was widely interpreted to be a dig at West.
While that could have been the end of it, West had to have the last word.
Kim Kardashian got involved in the whole ordeal
Though it may have seemed like Taylor Swift’s statement at the 2016 Grammys would’ve put the issue to bed, Kim Kardashian swooped in to defend her husband and fan the feud flames even more. That July, Kardashian gave a long interview with GQ, where she claimed Kanye West called Swift before The Life Of Pablo was released and Swift had approved the lyric, saying, “She totally knew that that was coming out. She wanted to all of a sudden act like she didn’t.”
Swift’s team claimed West never played the song for her, making it impossible for her to approve it, and that she hadn’t consented to being called “that b***h.” Days later, Kardashian released a video on her Snapchat, seemingly showing West calling Swift and getting her approval for the lyric that he made her famous. When that video was made public, Swift repeated that she never approved of being called “that b***h.” Public opinion was not on Swift’s side this time, though, and it was her turn to go into hiding to record her album, Reputation.
Swift was finally vindicated in 2020 when an extended version of Kardashian’s video was made public, showing Swift specifically saying she was happy West wasn’t calling her a “b***h.” Swift referred to the call as “illegally recorded, that somebody edited and manipulated in order to frame me and put me, my family, and fans through hell for 4 years.” Kardashian responded, but by 2020, West moved on to other arenas.
Did the VMAs push Kanye West into politics?
The VMA incident didn’t just cause a rift between Kanye West and Taylor Swift; it caused a rift between West and then-President Barack Obama. After the incident, Obama was caught on a hot mic calling West a “jacka**,” which West was none too pleased about. West referenced this in his 2010 song “Power” with the lyrics, “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation / Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.”
While Obama certainly had bigger issues to worry about as president, his comment seemed personal for West, who went from being something of a supporter in 2008 — West performed at an inauguration ball for the new president — to aligning himself with one of Obama’s staunchest critics: Donald Trump. West said that if he had voted in 2016, he would have voted for Trump, and said in 2018, “I reached out to Obama for years and I couldn’t get anything done and Trump gave me a meeting.”
And although West had announced his intention to run for president at the 2015 VMAs (after being introduced by Swift, funnily enough), CNN noted that his 2020 run for president seemed designed to take votes away from Joe Biden and help Trump get reelected. Of course, we may never truly understand why West does the things he does, but given his friendship with Trump, it’s not a particularly far-fetched idea.
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