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Kanye West and Taylor Swift's VMA Fiasco Would Never Happen in 2019

Ten years after West's fateful temper tantrum, there's a whole new power structure for Black megastars.

by Taylor Hosking
16 September 2019, 7:12am

Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Ten years ago today, Kanye West shocked MTV Video Music Award viewers everywhere by infamously interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for Best Female Video.

"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!”

That video, of course, was Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," the iconic black-and-white dance video which has, indeed, become legendary. But the way West embarrassed Swift, then a 19-year-old rising star, made most people—including then-President Barack Obama—conclude that West was a huge jackass.

Today, it would be hard to imagine West pulling a similar maneuver. That's not because his penchant for obnoxious, wrongheaded stunts has calmed down, but because his outburst is a relic of an earlier time when award shows held more power, and Black artists like Beyoncé and West were still fighting for full recognition in the mainstream. Now that they and other Black musicians in their orbit have reached mind-boggling success, they're looking beyond these trophies to record their legacies.

Back in 2009, Beyoncé was kicking into gear as an established solo artist, with a string of hits punctuating her continued rise to the top. "Single Ladies" was the biggest smash of her third solo album I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008), which also included anthems like "Halo" and "Diva." But she had yet to create the hits that framed her as a truly unparalleled talent, striving solely to outdo herself, like she did on "Love on Top" (2011). And she had yet to take up the mantle of a global feminist leader as straightforwardly as she would do with tracks like "Run the World (Girls)" (2011) or "Flawless" (2014). With "Single Ladies," she was just beginning to make videos that looked like they were supposed to be timeless, and there was uncertainty about whether institutions like the VMAs, which typically favored white pop stars like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga, would appreciate her bolder material. (In 2008, the VMAs dubbed Britney Spears' rather forgettable "Piece of Me" Video of the Year and Best Female Video, over the likes of Mariah Carey's "Touch My Body" and Rihanna's "Take a Bow.") West's defense of Beyoncé's work via that outburst, while tasteless and uncalled for, showed the anxiety that existed at that time around whether Black entertainers would get their due recognition at award shows.

But in the years that followed, both Beyoncé and West have reached new heights and pushed for more independently charted ways to cement their legacies. Beyoncé ignited the era of surprise visual albums with Lemonade in 2016, which she was able to drop on her and Jay-Z's own streaming platform, Tidal. Her music videos have moved beyond standalone entertainment to short films that can introduce a broader cultural conversation (like when the Black Lives Matter iconography of her 2016 "Formation" video set up her pro-Black Superbowl performance ahead of Lemonade's release). And she's reinvented live concert movies, self-directing the Netflix documentary Homecoming about her landmark 2018 Coachella performance.

Meanwhile, Kanye West has similarly continued to carve his name in history as a producer, a fashion mogul, and performer who frames himself as a God (for better or worse). The thought of Kanye West getting riled up on Beyoncé's behalf over a VMA award today simply wouldn't add up at this current stage of their careers.

But perhaps more interestingly, as Black celebrities have become famous enough to call their own shots, they've also started to question the value of awards shows at all. Drake infamously ruffled feathers at this year's Grammy awards by telling aspiring artists during his acceptance speech for Best Rap Song, "You don't need this [award] right here. I promise you." He explained, "This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York [...] or a brother from Houston […] You've already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word.”

Jay-Z echoed a similar sentiment on his 2018 Beyoncé collaboration "Apeshit," rapping, "Tell The Grammys fuck that 0 for 8 shit / Have you ever seen a crowd going Apeshit?" (He was referring to getting snubbed eight times during the 2018 Grammys for his album 4:44. And the couple didn't attend the awards show the following year.)

More broadly, big Afrocentric cultural phenomenons like last year's blockbuster Black Panther have also encouraged Black artists to ignore historically biased award systems. As Kendrick Lamar rapped on "All the Stars" from Black Panther's soundtrack, "I don't even want your congratulations […] Oh, you important? You the moral to the story? You endorsing? […] I don't even like you."

The kind of racial tension that erupted back in 2009 has started to resolve itself, or re-manifest, in new ways as Black artists create their own methods of achieving historic success and use their own platforms to question institutions that have overlooked them. If Taylor Swift's underdog win against Beyoncé occurred today instead of back in 2009, West's reaction would likely be the one he should have had in the first place: It's not that deep.

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