“Imma Let You Finish”: How A Single Moment At The VMAs Changed The Course Of Pop Music
A decade on, we're still dealing with the fallout from the moment Kanye West stormed the VMAs stage.
They say that when you die, you look back on your life in flashes of key moments. For most of us, these moments are ones we share with a small group of loved ones, or even in complete solitude.
But sometimes, those moments are shared with the world — like a certain unscripted incident that occurred during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and involved three of the biggest artists on the planet: Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé.
Of course, we’re talking about the endlessly memed, instantly recognisable moment when Kanye West stormed the stage while a 19-year-old Taylor Swift was accepting her award for Best Female Video for ‘You Belong With Me’. Shocked and humiliated, Swift stood there while Kanye grabbed her microphone and proclaimed that it was Beyoncé who ultimately deserved the award.
“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish,” he told a stunned Swift. “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!”
The crowd instantly erupted, and a camera caught Beyoncé mouthing ‘Oh, Kanye’ in disbelief.
At the time, it was hard to fathom just how impactful this moment would be on pop culture, and on the careers of the three players involved. Ten years later, we’re still grappling with the narratives that it created.
Public Enemy Number One
The lead up to the incident was tense: Kanye West infamously rocked up to the awards clutching a bottle of Hennessy, which he proceeded to neck on the red carpet; whatever lightbulb went off in his head that made him run up on that stage has haunted him since.
The immediate aftermath of the incident prompted what may be the first instance of internet ‘cancelling’. Kanye was splashed across news bulletins worldwide, and even major political figures got involved. The US President at the time, Barack Obama, publicly called him a “jackass”. Eventually, Kanye retreated into hiding. He was between album cycles, in a notoriously tumultuous relationship with Amber Rose, and was still dealing with the tragic loss of his mother, Donda West.
West’s relationship with his mother was exceptionally close; he has repeatedly said she’s been guiding him since her death. Donda’s passing came shortly after the release of West’s 2007 album Graduation, which would become his most successful yet — creating a strange dichotomy of career highs and personal lows. So perhaps it was no surprise that he turned up totally inebriated.
As reported by Billboard last week, people thought it was out of character. “I saw him with that bottle of Hennessy, which surprised me,” Whitney-Gayle Benta, the former vice president of talent relations at MTV News told Billboard. “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.”
It didn’t take long for the public to swarm on Kanye in defence of Taylor — honestly, fair enough — but it also influenced how Kanye’s career would evolve, and ultimately flourish. When he re-emerged from recording his 2010 album My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy in Hawaii, for which lead single ‘Runaway’ was debuted at the 2010 VMAs, he was prepared for flak. He embraced his fuck up — and while he never exactly begged for redemption, he did hold himself accountable.
My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy would go on to be widely considered one of the best hip-hop albums ever made, and one of the best albums of the 21st century — if not ever. It’s the only album of the decade to receive a ‘10’ from major tastemakers Pitchfork, it launched Nicki Minaj’s career with a now-iconic feature verse on ‘Monster’, and it saw Kanye openly recognise the darkness within.
The critical acclaim had multiple consequences for Kanye. Firstly, it proved his ability to bounce back from controversy; the 2009 VMAs wasn’t the last time Kanye West copped a cancelling, but it was the beginning of how Kanye utilises controversy to push his work.
In 2013, it was his ridiculous video for ‘Bound 2’ and him referring to himself as a ’God’. In 2016, it was about Taylor once again and the “I made that bitch famous” lyric in his song ‘Famous’. In 2018, it was basically everything he did on Twitter and in the media. And he consistently charts at #1.
In 2019 Kanye is a vastly different artist, and maybe person, to 2009 Kanye — but if that fateful moment taught him anything it’s the power of controversy, and how when mixed with his talent it could make him the most famous rapper in the world.
In 2009 Taylor Swift was just a shy teenage country singer, not the superstar pop juggernaut she is now. She still had her curls, a twinge of a Southern accent, a twinkle in her eye that she might just ‘make’ it. We’re not sure anyone could’ve predicted the level of which Swift would inevitably ‘make it’, but it’d be stupid to deny that at least part of what propelled her can be traced back to this moment.
What happened to Taylor was horrible, that much is obvious. She was a teenager, a relatively new artist, and innocently wide-eyed as she went up to accept her award. The grimy, cutthroat underbelly of the music industry and celebrity world, in general, was going to hit her eventually — but it never should have happened so publicly. The image of her looking like she’s about to break down on stage while Kanye tells her she doesn’t deserve the award is one that stays with you.
It’s important to consider racial politics here. Would the outrage have been equally as loud if it was Rihanna or Nicki Minaj up there? One has to think that no, it wouldn’t have been. Taylor Swift; a young, white, middle-class country singer perfectly fit the image of the sympathetic and innocent American Girl Next Door. And as awful as that moment was for Swift, it helped to set up a victim narrative that would define her career for nearly a decade.
This all, of course, came back to bite her in 2016. She was exposed as a liar — having first said that she didn’t know about the Kanye’s ‘Famous’ lyric, she was forced to backtrack once Kim Kardashian released a Snapchat video showing Taylor giving her approval. Taylor’s since quibbled that she didn’t know that the word “bitch” would be included, which was what she objected to.
(Of course, we now know that there was additional footage of this moment that changes the narrative somewhat, have a look here.)
Regardless of exactly what she knew, there was an element of dishonesty in her response; suddenly Taylor’s carefully crafted image crumbled.
Then comes the release of reputation, which was — in essence — an entire album dedicated to her fall from grace. She wore her flaws on her sleeve with tracks like ‘I Did Something Bad’ and ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, publicly accepting that she isn’t always the Good Girl that she played for so long. It was the highest-selling album of 2017.
Couple that with her recent political outspokenness — this week she won a Video of the Year VMA for ‘You Need To Calm Down’ which is very explicitly pro-LGBTIQ — and her 2019 career path is looking almost completely antithetical to her 2009 persona.
It would be wrong, and sexist, to suggest that Kanye is the cause of her about-face — but there’s no doubt the events of 2009 were still impacting on her decisions nearly 10 years later.
All Hail The Queen
Because the still from that fateful moment only shows Kanye West and Taylor Swift, it can be easy to forget there was a third person involved: Beyoncé. In 2009 Beyoncé was just another pop star. She could sing and she could dance, but she wasn’t yet…Beyoncé.
2009 Beyoncé would never have given us Lemonade or Homecoming — she was still playing the game. It can be argued that it wasn’t till after the 2009 VMAs she finally sat on the throne as the Queen.
First things first: ‘Single Ladies’ is one of the best videos of all time — it went viral before we even knew what that meant. If nothing else, it was certainly a better video than ‘You Belong With Me’. But that doesn’t mean Taylor deserved it any less, despite whatever Kanye thinks. ‘Single Ladies’ went on to win ‘Video Of The Year’ that same year. Beyoncé’s reaction, rooted in kindness, let her rise above the drama while still somehow remaining at the centre of it.
As Beyoncé took to the VMA stage to accept her Video of the Year award she reminisces on how she felt as a teenager winning her first VMA with Destiny’s Child, saying she’d “like Taylor to come out and have her moment.”
As Beyoncé stood back and watched Swift accept the award that she should’ve done hours ago, the narrative switched from “was Beyoncé’s video even better than Taylor’s?” to “Beyoncé is so selfless for what she did for Taylor.”
It didn’t matter that Beyoncé didn’t win the first award, because she won the night. This highly visible example of Beyoncé helping another woman up would become a huge part of her brand in subsequent years. In 2014 she took to the VMA stage to accept her Video Vanguard Award, but not before a trailblazing set where she performed a huge medley in front of the word ‘FEMINIST’.
In 2016 she released Lemonade, a masterful ode to Black womanhood and Southern culture. In a year when Taylor Swift was being condemned for not being political enough and Kanye West was being condemned for his controversial lyrics, Beyoncé rose above by being expressly and unapologetically political. It takes more than just guts to stand at a traditional American institution like the Superbowl with a dance troupe mirroring the Black Panthers, and Beyoncé did it.
Beyoncé found herself in the middle of a drama that she did not know was going to happen, and quickly opted to involve herself in a way that was not only classy but would make her seem so much kinder than the man who was attempting to take Taylor down.
These superstars might never have been considered in the same sentence were it not for this pivotal moment in 2009. But since Kanye stormed onto that stage the three careers — and those of Kanye and Taylor in particular — have intertwined. Despite going in completely different directions. Taylor is living her pastel-filled pop fantasy, Beyoncé is out breaking box office records while shining a light on African artists, and Kanye is…being Kanye.
And to think it all started when Kanye West uttered those immortal words; “Imma let you finish.”
Jackson Langford is a freelance music and culture writer from Newcastle. He tweets at @jacksonlangford.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow