Jessie Sheldon

Once Upon the Internet

One of the greatest pop culture feuds of our generation began on an unassuming September night, 10 or so years ago: the 2009 VMAs. The infamous Kanye-Taylor Swift debacle that started it all. Nobody thought it would lead us here, nobody thought we’d have to listen to “Look What You Made Me Do.” How did we get here? Emma Calabrese takes us back to the beginning. Readers will be transported to a time when the awe of viral videos was fresh and new, then thrust even further into the past, to a time when hot gossip was primarily transmitted in verse. The Shakespearean take on the iconic incident is, simply put, a work of history.

Pop Issue, 2009

In an age when YouTube, Hulu and Facebook give us access to a seemingly endless array of videos, it is strange to imagine that they have only been available for a few years. From legendary homemade YouTube videos (“Chah-lie bit me!”), to the dependable availability of television shows on Hulu, the internet has revolutionized our approach to spreading and consuming fiction and controversy.

MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) on September 13 made me more aware than ever of the power of the internet to popularize specific cultural phenomena. It also brought me several days of amusement as I observed the online response to Kanye West’s VMA faux pas as he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to declare that Beyoncé Knowles had one of the “best music videos of all time.”

My Facebook News Feed was clogged with the statuses of morally outraged girls exclaiming, “Kanye, you’re dead to me!” I listened to President Obama’s response to the controversy as he deemed West “a jackass,” a hilarious gem that would never have reached my ears without the all-seeing, all-telling power of the internet.

Only ten years ago we didn’t have the capacity to collectively observe and popularize an event within hours of its occurrence; I can’t help but wonder how gossip and controversy spread centuries ago, before a Google search on “Kanye West VMAs 2009” could tell us everything we wanted to know. Would Anglo-Saxon minstrels have immortalized Swift’s despair orally, à la Beowulf? Years later, might William Shakespeare have written a banter-heavy comedy featuring a Swift-West-Knowles love triangle? Or would John Milton have written an epic poem condemning West’s arrogance? Let’s rewind to the 1600s and replace the Internet with some blank verse …

One chill September day, the VMAs
Were to be held, anticipated far
And wide by all. Whose video would be
The best? Impossible to say, and yet …
Young Taylor Swift, that sweet dear southern flow’r
Hoped that the honor would belong to her.
She knew not how to find that which she sought
But had the help of one good guide who was
Well-versed in all the matters of the screen,
Both big and small. He posed in years of old
As child and doctor rolled up into one,
Then smarmy sidekick, legendarily,
And after that he was another doc—
But Horrible, not Howser, this time round.
This Neil Patrick was to be her guide
Through hills of fandom and forests of fame
Until her quest was done, her award won.
She met a grand array of notables,
Surprised to find “young,” “innocent” Mile
So old, so un-Hannah Montana now,
And Lady GaGa, in a leotard,
Ambiguously sexed. All was wild:
P!nk hung half-nude from ceiling ropes o’erhead,
And then ill-mannered star Lil Mama charged
The stage of good Jay-Z and dear Miss Keys.
But Taylor thought of renownéd M.J.
And thus resolved to fight ‘longside the rest
For recognition and for fame, to prove
Her worth, her skill—to be a true pop star,
No longer just a country singer now.
But poor dear Taylor didn’t know to think
That here, there were those who would steal her prize.
And so, not foreseeing what came, alas
In innocence was glad to hear her name
As Neil Patrick granted trophy bright,
This silver astronaut indicative
Of Taylor’s rise to MTV stardom. 
The lovely Taylor did begin to weep 
Great tears of joy which in a moment would 
Betray—for joy turned suddenly to woe 
As villainous Lord Kanye swept toward her 
And snatched the mic and speech she’d rightf’lly won. 
“Fair maiden, I am glad on your behalf,” 
Lord Kanye spoke, “And I shall let you speak 
Your piece, but I declare for all to hear 
That there exists another music vid 
Better than thine, by Lady Beyoncé— 
It is among the best that e’er was made.” 
So sweet and lovely Taylor Swift did cry 
Until benevolent Beyoncé said, 
“O Taylor, please finish the speech ye earned,” 
And thus Lord Kanye, scorned and embarrassed 
Was driven from the kingdom to the cheers 
Of pre-teen fangirls all across the land.

Archival Issue | March 2019