Will the success of these global superstars help bring change to a fundamentally xenophobic industry?
After seven years in the music industry, Bangtan Sonyeondan (better known as BTS) have undoubtedly become one of the biggest boy bands in the world, national treasures in South Korea, and a real threat to the historic dominance of English language music in the world’s biggest music market: the United States.
BTS have the Twitter account with the most engagement. They’re the first group since The Beatles to have three Billboard No. 1 albums within the span of a year. In 2019, Time named BTS among the 100 most influential people in the world, and they have one of the best-selling albums of 2020 globally. They have won the most Daesangs in history (a grand prize presented by the Mnet Asian Music Awards, a major award show in Asia). Despite these accomplishments, their literal ARMY of fans, and their undeniable talent, the group has still struggled to gain recognition and respect in America. That might be changing.
After having already released a Korean and a Japanese album, collaborations with Korean singers Younha and IU and with American singers Lauv and MAX, a song by member V (Kim Taehyung) for Itaewon Class, a song on SoundCloud by member Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook), and a surprise solo mixtape by member SUGA (Min Yoongi) under the alias Agust D, all in 2020, the group released their single “Dynamite” in August.
The music video for the disco-pop infused “Dynamite” broke the YouTube record for biggest video premiere and the most views in 24 hours with 101.1 million views, while the song itself is the fastest to achieve number one on iTunes in 100 countries. It also had the biggest digital sales week for a song since 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift, and debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 — an achievement that makes them the first Korean artists to achieve this feat, and the first Asian musicians to do so since Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” in 1963.
It’s an incredible moment in BTS’s career; a breakthrough for them into a market which has historically been very averse to non-English music. The catch is that BTS sang “Dynamite” entirely in English, a first for the group who have been credited with helping to spread the Korean language and culture through their music, which is why they became the youngest ever recipients of the Hwarang Order of Cultural Merit from the President of South Korea in 2018.
Before “Dynamite,” the highest a BTS song had ever charted on Billboard was at number four with the lead single from Map of the Soul 7, “ON.” What made the difference this time is that American radio played “Dynamite.” The Hot 100 factors in not only physical and digital sales and streams, but also radio play. Up until “Dynamite,” American radio had largely refused to play the group’s music.
In an article entitled, “Radio, Why Won’t You Play BTS?” for NowThis News, writers Brian Patrick Byrne and Ahir Gopaldas found that BTS had only been played 83,000 times in the past year in the United States, in comparison to Harry Styles who received three times those spins, Taylor Swift who got 18 times that number, and Post Malone who got 27 times that number.
When complaints are made, DJs and radio stations claim American audiences don’t like non-English music, which is simply not true. Map of the Soul 7 was the best-selling album of 2020 in the United States until it was recently beaten by Taylor Swift’s Folklore. Furthermore, BTS had easily sold out venues like the Staples Center, Rose Bowl, and Citi Field.
When it was announced that BTS would be releasing an English single, fans were interested to see what radio stations would do. If they didn’t play a successful English-language song it would be clear the reason was simply that a Korean group sang it. On the other hand, if they did play the track, it would be clear that the reason prior hits like “Boy with Luv” and “DNA” were ignored was that they were in Korean. As it turns out, radio did the latter.
American award shows also have a bad rap when it comes to BTS, or K-pop and POC in general, but we’ll get to that. When it comes to award shows they tend to only be nominated for categories like “Top Social Artist” — minor categories not related to their music — so shows can pretend to be diverse and inclusive without having to actually award the group for their talent.
BTS is used to being snubbed but some cases are a little more difficult for award shows to justify. At the 2020 VMAs, BTS was not nominated for “Best Quarantine Performance,” despite setting a Guinness world record for the largest audience for a paid virtual concert with 756,000 viewers for their Bang Bang Con: The Live Concert.
At the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, the group was not nominated for “Top Touring Artist,” despite ranking number three in Billboard’s own year-end chart for Top 40 Tours. The BBMA nominations instead included the number one, two, four, five, and six tours of the year. Maybe someone just needs to teach Billboard how to count.
You could argue that BTS’s music isn’t good enough to be nominated but you’d be wrong, according to critics. 2019’s Map of the Soul: Persona had an average score of 74/100 on Metacritic, while 2020 Grammy nominees Lil Nas X and Ed Sheeran received scores of 57/100.
You could also argue that these awards are meant for American artists, but you’d be wrong again. At the 2020 VMAs, nominees in major categories included The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, The 1975, Harry Styles, and Dua Lipa, who are all Canadian or European. Yet none of them were put in a World or British or Euro category because they all sing in English. When the Beatles got three number one albums in a year they won three Grammys, when BTS did the same they couldn’t even get a nomination.
This leads to another issue when it comes to not only BTS but also K-pop and POC artists at American award shows: racialized categories. In 2019, BTS’s “Boy with Luv” and Blackpink’s “Kill this Love” music videos both broke the record for the most viewed video in 24 hours on YouTube, but they were simply put in the K-pop category at the VMAs, and excluded from Video of the Year. Another nominee in the 2019 Best K-pop category was Monsta X’s “WHO DO U LOVE,” a song sung entirely in English, meaning the nomination was based on ethnicity. Though artists like BTS and Blackpink aren’t exclusively nominated in the racialized K-pop category (both were nominated for best group at the 2019 VMAs), what the “K-pop” category does is help segregate Korean artists and exclude them from major categories.
It says that what they do is different, and implies that this “kind of music” is lesser than. To even lump all K-pop artists together in one category has racist undertones — there is no sound specific to K-pop. It’s actually known for its incredible diversity and experimentation, but the category implies that it all sounds the same because it’s sung in Korean.
T.O.P. of the K-pop group BIGBANG made a pointed jab in an interview with The Washington Post when he said, “You don’t divide pop music by who’s doing it. We don’t say, for instance, ‘white pop’ when white people make music.”
What these award shows are doing with K-pop, however, is far from new. They’ve been doing it to Black people for decades. Black artists — when nominated at all — have historically been nominated in categories like R&B and hip hop. These genres were unquestionably created by Black people, and have real characteristics. The existence of these categories is not the issue. The issue is that award shows have relegated Black artists to these categories in place of major ones, regardless of the actual genre of the music they make.
For some perspective, Beyoncé is the most Grammy-nominated woman of all time but most of her wins are in racialized categories. Though nominated three times for album of the year she has lost to Adele, Beck, and Taylor Swift.
So winning in categories like “Best K-pop” or “Best R&B” has become a sort of second-place trophy. In 2020 Tyler, the Creator won a Grammy for Best Rap Album but criticized the Grammys for placing “guys that look like me” in rap and urban categories, calling the categorization of his music as rap “a backhanded compliment.”
A 1999 piece in the New York Times about world music written by ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne feels very relevant to how K-pop, R&B, hip hop, and rap are treated:
“In my experience, the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. It’s a way of relegating this ‘thing’ into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us. Maybe that’s why I hate the term. It groups everything and anything that isn’t ‘us’ into ‘them.’ This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It’s a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year.”
How BTS is treated is not the exception, it’s representative of an industry built on racism and xenophobia. They have been subjected to both microaggressions and outright racism both to their faces in interviews and in how the media talks about them. Complimenting leader and rapper RM (Kim Namjoon)’s English, asking them if they’re surprised about their success in America, being infantilized, interviewers not learning their names or doing research, focusing on the white people who work with them, comparing them to white people, etc.
These incidents dwell on BTS’s otherness, diminish and discredit their talent. It implies that someone from a non-English speaking country is less intelligent and deserving, and that to be successful a white person needs to be involved.
This language can also flirt with the racist trope that all Asians look alike — during their second appearance on Ellen, the host made BTS introduce themselves again because they had changed their hair. In a segment on Australia’s Channel 9, comedian Jimmy Carr said, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried, so I guess it could have been worse, but not much worse.” In that same segment, the hosts called their names (half of which are their real ethnic names) “gangster,” suggested that they should get rid of four members, and joked that the group spoke about hair products during their speech at the UN.
BTS have only recently begun to speak out on the racism and xenophobia they have experienced in America. Weverse Magazine (created by the entertainment company that manages BTS) recently highlighted an incident earlier this year on The Howard Stern Show where, days after BTS visited the station, staff member Sal Governale said, “There’s no way those guys don’t have coronavirus.” In a recent interview with Reuters RM said, “Since we’re like aliens to the music industry for America so (sic) we don’t know if there’s a place for us or not.” It’s also incredibly heartwarming to see the group support the fight for Black Lives Matter, making a million dollar donation to the cause (which was matched by fans), and making a statement, cementing their status as socially conscious global artists.
“Dynamite” seems to be changing the tides for BTS in the American music industry: they’re getting radio play, proper media coverage, and being asked about their music rather than their favourite colour in interviews. The success of “Dynamite” is bittersweet for fans. It’s deserved of course, but it’s unfortunate that the group had to sing in English to finally get what they deserve in America, and it exposes the industry’s xenophobia.
To someone unfamiliar with BTS it might seem like they’ve finally caved after years of being asked to make music in English or like they’re selling out to please the western music industry. However, lyricism has been important to members of BTS since their debut in 2013, particularly with rappers RM, SUGA, and J-Hope (Jung Hoseok), who have songwriting credits for most of the 145+ songs in their discography. BTS is also known in K-pop for their lyrical content, which is generally deeper and more clever than the general public in America knows.
From criticizing the rigid school system in Korea, societal expectations placed on young people and generational disparities, to discussing mental health, grief, growing up, self-love, and references to analytical psychology, German literature, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the legend of the Pied Piper, the novels of Haruki Murakami, The Little Prince, Greek mythology, and the Japanese cartoon superhero Anpanman, BTS sing about it all.
“Dynamite” has a simple generic message of positivity which is the exception in their discography — as is the fact that none of the members have songwriting credits for it — so it’s a shame that the general public will continue to believe the group just makes generic happy pop music. At a press conference for “Dynamite,” RM said, “It doesn’t have an overarching macro-level message. Sometimes, simpler messages really get across.”
Language is an important part of identity and art, something English speakers often forget because our language and culture is everywhere. So despite RM’s fluency in English, part of his artistry, and the artistry of the other members, lies in the Korean language with which they create wordplay and poetry that just wouldn’t translate into English, and that is part of the beauty of it. And yet “Dynamite” was completely in English.
After hearing the demo, which was written by David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, the group thought it was perfect as it was, and thought singing in English would be a nice challenge. While doing promotions for the single, BTS have made it clear that they will continue recording music primarily in Korean, that singing “Dynamite” in English was an exception. Thus with the anticipated release of yet another BTS album before the end of 2020, it will be very interesting to see how it is handled in the United States after “Dynamite’s” triumph.
Though it’s important to criticize the industry, we also need to change our perspective that you need to “make it” in America in order to be a successful and important artist — that perspective is deeply western-centric. BTS doesn’t need a Grammy, they have already proven their talent in countless ways throughout their career and been recognized for it by fans, the UN, the South Korean government, and Asian award shows. However, they have repeatedly expressed their desire to perform a solo stage at the Grammys (the group performed “Old Town Road” alongside Lil Nas X in 2020) and to be nominated for and win a Grammy, so their fans are trying to make it happen for them.
Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture win at the 2020 Oscars for Parasite, and the Recording Academy’s effort to diversify their membership (who vote for the Grammys) by inviting BTS and the CEO of their label to join, are signs of positive change. Not just for recognition and respect for BTS in the west or even for Korean artists, but for all non-English, non-western art. The industry can’t keep the doors closed to non-English music much longer; the world is becoming much too globalized, and fans can easily spot its cop outs and performative diversity. The industry might think that BTS have started playing by their rules, but it’ll be in a tough spot when they drop a Korean album in the next few months, which, like anything BTS touches will inevitably be successful. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled to see what the industry does with BTS in the future.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam