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MTV Video Music Awards: Was it Kanye being Kanye, or was his outburst something more?

September 13, 2009 | 10:56 pm
In Monday's Calendar, the Times' pop critic Ann Powers discusses the MTV Video Music Awards. An excerpt and link to the full piece is below:


At least the shocker this year was related to music.

The MTV Video Music Awards are always willfully chaotic, keeping alive the myth of pop as the provenance of rebels by placing a bunch of moderately edgy celebrities within a festive environment and fueling the mood with sexy performances, off-color jokes and "incidents" that are often staged, but good for a thousand Twitter tweets. One of these mostly bogus controversies usually goes a bit deeper, hinting at real issues of identity, status, personal power and self-expression -- the sticky stuff from which pop music is, in fact, made.

When Kanye West jumped up during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for best female video Sunday night, put his hand over her microphone and declared that Beyoncé's losing "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" clip was "one of the best videos of all time," he did a stupid thing. He seemed like a bully inexplicably targeting an honors student, and he further damaged his rather unstable reputation without managing to make his point clear.

A couple hours later, Beyoncé received the Moonman trophy that MTV's execs had designated for her -- every superstar gets one, apparently, in this predetermined coronation of pop's latest prom court of ingenues and enduring hotties. Ever the lady, she ceded her thank-you time to Swift, who emerged seemingly quite prepared for the moment and gave a totally inconsequential speech. (She was really grateful to her video director and her fans.) It was a nice gesture of female solidarity in the face of West's boorish and, yes, macho move.

But let's consider what might have motivated West's outburst. Swift was the bestselling artist of 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan. She's transcended her base in country music to become a top 40 juggernaut and, arguably, the current face of young female America. Beyoncé is a slightly older superstar who's also topped plenty of sales lists; like Swift, she makes chart-toppers strongly rooted in a specific genre that appeal to a wider audience. Her home base is R&B, and, through her marriage to Jay-Z and her brilliant singing style, she's strongly connected to hip-hop.

Perhaps West, who later apologized, felt that Swift's little love story mirroring the current plot of the new prime-time hit "Glee" genuinely wasn't as deserving as Beyoncé's Bob Fosse-inspired volcanic eruption of a dance routine, which has inspired thousands of tributes by fans, including Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama. Maybe he was miffed that this young black pop queen's heels were being nipped at by a blond Ivory Girl whose fans tend to look quite a bit like her.

Is that reading too much into the situation?

Read more Was it Kanye being Kanye, or was his outburst something more?

Photo: Beyonce and Taylor Swift. Credit: Getty Images