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'Jaws Dropped': The Behind-the-Scenes Reaction to the Miley/Nicki VMAs Moment

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Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty

For a show known for delivering controversial moments, Sunday night’s MTV VMAs didn’t disappoint when Nicki Minaj threw some serious shade at host Miley Cyrus live on air.

While Internet chatter quickly questioned if it was a spontaneous moment (or just drama engineered to drum up post-show coverage), inside the MTV production rooms during the show’s taping, opinion was unanimous: Minaj’s comments were not planned. Sources from the network tell PEOPLE that the pair’s feud is a “very real thing.”

But now, a source close to the “Anaconda” says it was all just a joke.

“Nicki was joking, as you could see her laughing toward the end,” the source tells PEOPLE.

Watching the live feed, MTV staffers’ “jaws dropped” at the moment. “It wasn’t staged in any way and caught everyone by surprise,” another MTV source tells PEOPLE. “After it happened, people made sure they didn’t run into each other backstage because they weren’t sure if there would be another confrontation.”

Let’s go to the tape: Cyrus looked genuinely shocked at the moment

https://twitter.com/NoChillPosts/status/638173913541951488

and when cameras panned back to Minaj, the rapper appeared to mouth “Don’t play with me, bitch.”
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But immediately after the exchange, Minaj was laughing about the incident, at least on social media.

Then, Monday morning, she tweeted a link to an Atlantic article that explained Cyrus’ quotes to the Times as “tone-policing.”

“[Cyrus’ comments were] a textbook example of what’s come to be known as “tone policing,” a common term in feminist and anti-racist circles – shifting the focus from what was said to how it was said, using the pretext of concern that someone’s style might undermine substance to, well, undermine that substance.”

In a Thursday interview, Cyrus made a series of comments to the Times about Minaj’s Twitter outburst after it was revealed the rapper’s video for “Anaconda” had been passed over for a Video of the Year nomination.

“If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement,” Cyrus said, addressing Minaj. “But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it.”

“And it’s not anger like, ‘Guys, I’m frustrated about some things that are a bigger issue,” she continued, “You made it about you. Not to sound like a bitch, but that’s like, ‘Eh, I didn’t get my VMA.’ ”

Cyrus added, “What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj, is not too kind. It’s not very polite. I think there’s a way you speak to people with openness and love.”

Cyrus has so far not commented on the VMAs incident on social media.

Reporting by REGAN ALEXANDER, PATRICK GOMEZ and JEFF NELSON