It was a night that began with Hennessy and ended in tears. In anticipation of the VMAs on August 26 and the release of Taylor Swift’s new album Lover, we’re getting some more insight into that 2009 VMAs moment. Yes, it’s been a decade since Kanye West grabbed the mic from Swift during her Best Female Video speech and declared “Yo Taylor…I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé …” well, you know the rest.
For the 10th anniversary, Billboard published an oral history of the 2009 VMAs—and tea was spilled regarding the backstage drama. Several involved with the show shared that concerns started early, when West toted a bottle of Hennessy down the red carpet. Former MTV News senior correspondent James Montgomery recalled Pete Wentz telling him, “Man, Kanye is so drunk. Kanye came up to me inside Radio City and gave me his bottle of Hennessy, and he made me take a swig. The dude is so wasted.”
Then West’s seat was moved up several rows “at the eleventh hour,” per former MTV News correspondent/producer Jim Cantiello. Evidently, producers didn’t think they had enough men at the front of the theater. The stage was inadvertently set for a pop culture moment.
So as Swift begins to accept her award for the “You Belong With Me” music video, West enters the frame to lobby for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” What happened next? Montgomery remembered P!nk approaching West during a commercial break. “I wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation,” he explained, “but she was pointing in his face and nodding her head back and forth, and giving him her two cents about how fucked up this was and then stormed off.”
Behind the scenes, Viacom president Van Toffler remembers Swift and her mom were both in tears. “I didn’t anticipate I’d have a crying artist and mom to deal with—literally right before she has to go out on Sixth Avenue and stand on a car and sing her song,” Toffler recalled, referencing Swift’s scheduled performance a few commercial breaks later.
Just as Toffler was putting out one fire, he told Billboard he walked backstage “and sure enough there is Beyoncé and her dad, and she is crying. She was like, ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen, I feel so bad for her.’ And that’s when it started to click in my head, and maybe hers, about potentially having the whole arc play out in that one night.”
In the end, Swift performed live in the Times Square subway station. Beyoncé brought Swift onstage while accepting the Video of the Year award. Toffler admitted he let Beyoncé know she’d be winning, suggesting:
“And wouldn’t it be nice to have Taylor come up and have her moment then? I had to indicate to her that she needed to stay, and perhaps this is a way to have this come full circle and let [Taylor] have her moment. I would normally not say anything, but I had two crying artists.”