by Shelby Russell
Taylor Swift, Kanye West, and Beyoncé Knowles. All three names should do more than ring a bell. Not only are they all famed musicians, they are all influential pop culture icons of this generation. Taylor Swift is universally recognized as the country’s sweetheart and one of the greatest young songwriters of our generation. Kanye West is known for being an outspoken and uncensored rapper and always a bit of a troublemaker. And Beyoncé is known as the “Queen Bee,” the timeless artist who is a household name in both music and film. Each of these artists has an image that is portrayed to the media, but what is the moment in pop culture history that defines each of these artists? Why is it that everyone always classifies Beyoncé as one of the classiest women in show business, Taylor Swift as the sweet, victimized teenager, and Kanye West as an asshole? To answer this question, one must analyze one of the most popular pop culture occurrences in the last decade that involves all three of these superstars.
In 2009 at the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles were both nominated for Best Female Video. Taylor was nominated for “You Belong with Me,” a video about a nerdy, high school girl competing for a boy’s attention against a popular cheerleader (the usual plot of any Taylor Swift song). Beyoncé was nominated for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” a video that went on to win Video of the Year. For this particular category, Taylor’s video won. Swift got up to make her acceptance speech, announcing that she was, of course, “shocked that she would win a VMA, being a country artist”. When Kanye appeared on stage, Swift was quoted saying, “I was really excited because Kanye West was on the stage. And then I wasn’t so excited anymore after that” (Fox News). Kanye took the microphone from Taylor, and uttered what is now known famously in the pop culture world as “Kanyegate”: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” (MTV). The audience, a bit confused about how to respond, erupts into booing about West’s rude interruption. The cameras cut to Beyoncé, who looks confused and worried mouthing, “Oh, Kanye!” MTV immediately cut to commercial and Swift was hurried off stage without finishing her speech. Immediately following the incident, many other celebrities ran to twitter to express their outrage and anger at West, including Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Perez Hilton, and Donald Trump. Although Taylor took a blow because of this incident, the story does have a happy ending. Later in the evening, Taylor got to relive her moment that West had ruined when Beyoncé won for Video of the Year. Beyoncé allowed Taylor to finish the rest of her speech instead of giving one herself, to which Taylor responded, “She’s always been a great person before anything else. Before the talented artist, the superstar, she’s always been a great person and I just, I thought that I couldn’t love Beyoncé more and then tonight happened” (Rolling Stone). Although the story of Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift has been told on every entertainment news medium there is, what hasn’t been discussed is why Kanye made the statement he did. In order to understand this pop culture utterance, we must reveal the components behind this rhetorical situation: The author’s orientation, the audience, and the genre.
Kanye West’s background is full of controversies. His brush with Taylor Swift at the VMAs was not the first example of West’s outspokenness or speaking out of turn. In November of 2004, Kanye West spoke out about his outrage at not winning the award for Best Artist at the American Music Awards. He told reporters, “I felt like I was definitely robbed, and I refuse to give any politically correct bullshit ass comment. I was the Best New Artist this year” (MTV). In 2006 at MTV’s European Video Awards, Kanye interrupted Justice and Simian’s acceptance speech saying his video deserved to win because it “cost a million dollars and Pamela Anderson was in it” (MTV). In 2009, when Britney Spears was asked to open the VMAs instead of West, he released the comment: “I can’t believe she would perform. She hasn’t had a hit record in years” (MTV).
Another topic that Kanye frequently speaks out about is race. On multiple occasions, Kanye has been known to publically call out people for supposedly being prejudiced against blacks. In 2005 during the Live 8 benefit concert, West states that AIDS is a “man-made disease” that was “placed in Africa just like crack was placed in the black community to break up the Black Panthers” (Time). After Hurricane Katrina, Kanye made a statement during a benefit concert claiming that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (CBS). In 2007, when he wasn’t asked to open the VMAs, West claimed that MTV wouldn’t “give a black man a chance. They don’t want a . . . black man in that position” (MTV).
It is clear that West is not afraid to speak out against what he feels is unjust; especially when it comes to art and race. Particularly when it comes to music, he not only stands up for himself, but for the integrity of others’ music as well. Although it was rude to interrupt Swift, Kanye did so out of what he thought was respectful to Beyoncé’s music. In response to Kanye defending her video, Beyoncé commented on the incident, saying that “I knew his intentions, and I knew he was standing up for art; and he told me before, when they said the nominees, he’s like, ‘You have this award.’ When they didn’t call my name he was, like, completely shocked” (MTV). Even though it has never been explicitly stated, it can be considered that racial tension drove his outburst. It is not surprising that West might take offense to Beyoncé’s video losing to Taylor Swift: a Caucasian woman with a mainly white, teen, female audience. Kanye had previously made a statement that he would never return to MTV because of race, and this loss for Beyoncé only fueled his fire. Although Kanye’s action was incredibly rude and deserved criticism, Kanye’s outburst followed a very distinct pattern and it is easy to see where this confrontation stemmed from.
This occurrence caused such a response from the pop culture world because it took place at a large-scale event. The 2009 VMAs had an audience of 27 million people. This is not just an annual event that many people tune in for each year – it’s live. Everyone in attendance saw Kanye’s interruption, as well as every viewer at home. There was no way for MTV to edit Kanye’s outburst.
Another factor about this audience is how popular these three celebrities are. Today, Kanye, Taylor, and Beyoncé combined have over 82 million likes on Facebook. Taylor Swift, especially, has an incredibly involved and dedicated fan base, who was outraged at West’s interruption. Taylor’s role as a pop culture icon is a role model for young girls. She writes songs about believing in love, that are practically irresistible to any romantic. Her young and sincere nature automatically makes people see Swift as innocent. Because of Taylor’s image, West was immediately targeted as the bad guy. Kanye West’s stereotype in pop culture is the outspoken, rude, and blunt rapper. Although Kanye West has many fans, the audience of the VMAs was automatically turned against him because Taylor, America’s sweetheart, was the victim of his actions.
The audience continued to generate responses to this attack weeks after the VMAs concluded. Both celebrities and fans tweeted and blogged about the incident. In the days that followed the incident, there were 293,024 tweets posted about Kanye, who had been a trending topic since an hour after the event. Even President Barack Obama called Kanye an “asshole” (CNBC). Although most of the responses to Kanye were negative, the patrons of the internet managed to shed some humorous light on the situation. Many internet memes using the image of Kanye in the act of interrupting, captioned “I’mma let you finish . . .”, spread like wild fire through the web. This rhetorical audience was affected because of how much coverage this incident received. The audience’s response is what makes this occurrence so significant to pop culture.
As for the genre of this rhetorical situation, many would call this a kind of protest. However, Kanye’s controversial outburst was not the first of its kind. There are several instances of other artists sabotaging acceptance speeches. For example, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys was another legend of pop culture to interrupt an acceptance speech at the 1994 VMAs. In 1998 at the Grammy Awards, Ol’ Dirty Bastard interrupted Shawn Colvin’s acceptance speech expressing his outrage that The Wu-Tang Clan lost to Puff Daddy for Best Hip-Hop Album. At the 2000 VMAs, bassist of Rage Against the Machine, Tim Commerford, climbed the scaffolding while Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit accepted the award for Best Rock Video. When it comes to award shows, emotions are high. When artists feel passionately about their art, work for months for success, and are still not recognized for their achievements, many get very upset. However these artists choose to speak in protest, acceptance speech interruptions are a genre of their own. They cause a lot of uproar among the audience and are usually controversial topics. This acts of scandal and controversy is what makes audiences remember these incidences for decades.
After the 2009 VMAs ended, Kanye’s interruption was declared the “moment of the night.” Many say that it was this incident that made Taylor Swift so famous. If she didn’t already have the world on her side, the grace and poise that she exhibited that night made everyone fall in love with her. Beyoncé’s generous offering of her acceptance speech made the audience see her kindness and class. Kanye proved that he will always be outspoken, untamed, and inappropriate. This pop culture utterance solidified the images of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Kanye West to the public. After an in depth analysis of the author’s orientation, audience, and genre, the underlying factors of rhetorical situation helped define all three celebrities involved as pop culture icons of this generation.