‘The 1’: Something’s Been Forgotten in the Kanye-Taylor Feud

Ahead of Taylor Swift’s Australian tour, in this article republished from Pursuit, SHAPS History Lecturer Dr Sarah Walsh talks about the drama with another celebrity, Kanye West, that occurred almost 15 years ago, and some of the nuance that has been lost in the discussion over time.

Before I weigh in on exactly what happened on the evening of 13 September 2009 between Taylor Swift and Kanye West (and Beyoncé, but I’ll get to that), I want to be honest with you.

Based on the numbers alone, I am a much bigger Kanye fan. I’m old enough to tell you that, when it came out in 2004, I bought College Dropout on CD and played the crap out of it in my extremely crappy 1989 Toyota Corolla on the way to my even crappier, first post-university job.

WATCH: ‘The 1’, Taylor Swift. Video: YouTube

When it comes to Taylor Swift, I’m always happy to hear her most popular songs when they end up on my playlist, but that’s about where my fandom ends.

This information seems important to share before diving into exactly what happened on MTV VMA night fifteen years ago.

This incident garnered an incredible amount of media coverage in the days following, but where did the media focus our attention at the time and who was perceived as the wronged party – Taylor or Kanye?

And actually, as time has passed, I think the real survivor of this incident is someone you might not expect. Pun intended.

Part of what makes answering this question in 2024 challenging is that it is very difficult to find footage of the entire 2009 broadcast. YouTube, newly minted in 2005, was not yet the home to all content.

But, after some internet perseverance, I found it.

The show kicks off with a heartfelt speech by Madonna about the sudden passing of Michael Jackson.

In it, she talks about the difficulties of being a child star; something that ended up as a contributing factor in how the interaction between 19-year-old Taylor and 32-year-old Kanye would be portrayed in the media: she as a child and he as a grown man.

The speech is followed by a long dance montage featuring mostly white performers doing Jackson’s iconic moves (poorly). This context will be important soon.

After the tribute and a truly terrible opening monologue by then relevant, now alleged sexual predator Russell Brand, the first award is for Best Female Video.

This is Taylor’s category and she shares a nomination with Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, and P!nk. Tough competition.

Taylor’s video You Belong with Me is competing against the likes of Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) [Beyoncé] and [Lady Gaga’s] Poker Face. Yikes.

WATCH: Single Ladies, Beyoncé. Video: YouTube

When Taylor wins, she’s genuinely shocked.

She stands holding her Moon Man and thanks the crowd for the recognition despite performing ‘country music’. Kanye appears seemingly out of nowhere. Taylor hands him the mic confusedly, but without complaint.

He then goes on to say that Beyoncé had made, “one of the best videos of all time”, but doesn’t say that she should have won. As soon as he finishes, the crowd erupts into boos.

He hands the mic back and Taylor tries to say something, but MTV has cut her sound and she walks off stage. Cut away shots to Beyoncé during this debacle show her frozen, not knowing how to react.

And then comes the moment we’ve all forgotten.

Demonstrating that her work speaks for itself, Beyoncé wins the top award of the night, Video of the Year, to close the show. But, when she takes the stage for her acceptance speech, she gives up her time to Taylor.

The crowd goes crazy with applause. By way of explanation, Beyoncé says that she was 17 when she got her first Moon Man and it was an incredible moment for her. She wanted Taylor to have that same moment.

In the days immediately after the incident, Kanye shared a variety of reasons for his outburst and expressed genuine remorse for raining on Taylor’s parade. Among the various excuses West made, there was one genuinely fair point: racism.

Kanye said he had never heard of Taylor and was upset that she won for a run-of-the-mill ‘country music’ video, while the video Beyoncé made, which inspired an international dance sensation, went unrecognised.

Nonetheless, the media narrative was that a Mean Black Man had made a White Girl Child cry and there was plenty of outrage to go around about that (see: Dr Phil).

Whether out of a desire for damage control or sincerity, Kanye got in touch with Taylor to personally apologise a few days after the event. We know this because she talked about it publicly.

Taylor Swift, Sydney, 2012. Photographer: Eva Rinaldi, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

She also decided to perform Innocent at the 2010 VMAs, which many perceived as being about this incident. It was this decision that launched a feud with Kanye that would last for years. This feud would prove valuable to both performers, as it regularly kept them in the entertainment news cycle.

Clearly, Taylor needed the media to come to her rescue as much as Beyoncé needed Kanye in 2009.

So, what should we make of this in 2024? In the wake of #metoo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Taylor’s 1989, and Kanye’s descent into madness, the real takeaway is that men should be aware that publicly airing their grievances comes at a cost.

And they really ought to avoid ‘defending’ women (see: the Chris Rock/Will Smith/Jada Pinkett Smith Oscar’s moment).

Women don’t need men to defend our honor or protect us from the harsh realities of life.

That said, the person who lost out biggest of all in this fiasco was Beyoncé.

Taylor did deserve her moment. But, it wasn’t Beyoncé’s problem to fix and the sacrifice of black women is so normalised that no one even remembers this part of the story.

In a live broadcast, MTV showrunners could’ve kept Taylor’s mic on after Kanye stopped shouting. They could’ve adjusted their schedule and let her come out later in the show to speak if she wanted.

At the very least, Taylor could’ve thanked Beyoncé for doing this unsolicited good deed in her acceptance speech. She didn’t.

What did Taylor say when asked about Beyoncé’s decision? She was touched and repeatedly said how “classy” a move it was.

Sadly, in 2009, the notion that a black person could be classy or articulate still was newsworthy (see: Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign). However, the press was more interested in following the story of a poorly behaved black man and his white girl ‘victim’. Shocker.

In the end, there are two morals of this story.

One is that women do not need men to protect or defend them, but our voices are still not as respected as they should be. This is especially true of powerful, successful women in the public eye.

The equally important lesson is to remember that women of colour, especially black women, are not here to make the rest of us feel good. Taylor’s hurt feelings should not have been assuaged by the sacrifice of Beyoncé’s own voice and joy.

Fifteen years later, there’s still plenty of room for improvement in both respects.

Swiftposium is an academic conference for scholars discussing the impact of Taylor Swift. It runs at the University of Melbourne from 11–13 February 2024 with public events on Sunday 11 February and recordings of the keynote presentations available online after the conference.