BTS and the Othering of Non-English music

Image Description: All seven members of BTS posing in suits.

She stood beside me, awaiting my judgement. I could feel her eyes, trying to detect some microexpression of approval. On her phone I watched seven men, clad in billowy robes in varying shades of pink, sashaying across the screen. Their movements, sharp and fluid with an unfathomable synchronicity, made it impossible to look away. They took turns taking center stage to sing or rap their verses, shifting seamlessly alongside the elaborate set changes. The burst of energy, colours and an undeniably catchy chorus had me hooked  from the beginning. 

Yes. Like all cool kids, I was introduced to BTS by my mom.

An endless lockdown had plunged us into an expansive mundanity, resulting in aggressive bingeing of literally anything. Adding this development to the pre-existing Zuckerberg-ian labyrinth of obsessively tailored ‘recommendations’ ended up with my mom, and eventually me, stumbling across a live performance of BTS’s 2019 hit, ‘Boy with Luv’. The consequences of this mean that at this point, to say that I have a troubling obsession with  BTS would be a gross understatement.

You might already have a vague idea about who BTS are, either through social media, or having a starry-eyed fan for a friend. Debuting in 2013 as an idol hip-hop group, BTS, or Bangtan Sonyeondan, were initially seen as underdogs managed by a relatively small company. But since then, the septet has had a meteoric rise to success, first within their home country of South Korea, and then internationally the following year, with the release of ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’. In 2020, their single, Dynamite received a Grammy nomination, making them the first K-pop group to receive such recognition. 

While the K-pop industry does have issues that should not be overlooked, I believe that we should also award it the nuance that is granted to, and seems to be reserved exclusively for, the Western music industry.  

I have to admit that I was initially skeptical, verging on dismissive, of BTS, without having given the group a real chance. And I know that I’m not the only one who has felt this way regarding the apparent whirlwind success of K-pop groups. Many of us, particularly in Western societies, hold preconceptions of what K-pop is, for whom it’s made, and why it’s just not for us. 

It’s easy to underestimate BTS at face value: for instance, take the rap line’s (the group’s rappers) unique choice of stage names– Suga, J-Hope and perhaps the cherry on top, Rap Monster. However, these names are testament to the group’s evolution. Previously characterized by unpolished attempts to conform to caricatured images of hip-hop and hypermasculinity, they’ve since grown to increasingly embrace complexity through  their poetic lyrics and expressions of gender and sexuality. 

This complexity is often overlooked by the Western media. It’s a pet peeve of mine that BTS are frequently characterised by Western commentators as the Korean One Direction. I believe this displays a fundamental lack of understanding towards the group, as well as a lazy attempt to reduce them to a boyband. Moreover, I believe it reveals an underlying anxiety about cultural difference that the West frequently attempts to resolve by distorting cultural realities to fit their own pre-existing stereotypes and categories. Not only is the boyband genre incapable of containing BTS’s diverse discography (influenced by hip hop, R&B, Pop and EDM), but I find that many use it as a pejorative to indicate lack of artistic integrity. For a long time, I did accept these labels without deeper investigation into what this name implies about K-Pop groups trying to break into the Western music industry.

It goes without saying that the K-pop industry does contain problematic elements within its structure and institutional culture. These include the brutal training that many idols are made to endure from a young age, blatant colorism and sexism. Furthermore, the exploitation that these idols are subjected to under long-term “slave contracts” binding them to their management are shocking, and have undoubtedly contributed to the epidemic of stars taking their own lives. 

 These morbid practices have gained particular notoriety in the West which often makes it easy to paint every idol group that comes out of the industry with this broad brush. Indeed, it appeals to the stereotypes of the East that the West has constructed for decades through media representation of Asian culture as authoritarian, claustrophobic and controlling. While the K-pop industry does have issues that should not be overlooked, I believe that we should also award it the nuance that is granted to, and seems to be reserved exclusively for, the Western music industry.  

Many of us, particularly in Western societies, hold preconceptions of what K-pop is, for whom it’s made, and why it’s just not for us.

Institutionally, the dismissal of culturally different artistic styles is something that the Western music industry does time and time again. Whether it’s the creation of ‘urban’ as a genre to segregate sub-genres of blackness, or the pervasiveness of cultural appropriation by white artists and musicians, we have seen this happen before. It is a pernicious hangover of the ‘separate but equal’ ethos.

 An example of this was the 2019 Video Music Awards announcing a new category for “Best K-Pop group” – an award that BTS won that year. At the time, fans questioned why BTS was being sequestered within these limits instead of being rightfully considered for the main awards, including “Best Pop” and “Artist of the Year”. In the face of the enormous cultural impact that BTS has had worldwide, it seems increasingly ridiculous to try and justify their exclusion through the racial coding of these categories. 

This perception of K-Pop as monolithic and as separate speaks to the pernicious racial lens with which the West perceives Asians as being and ‘looking the same’. In a 2018 appearance on Ellen, BTS are asked to introduce themselves yet again because they “used to have different hair” thereby rendering them unrecognisable – Of course. It remains a mystery that Ellen is able to distinguish between the members of 5 Seconds of Summer or recognise Nicki Minaj instantly, despite the deceptive garb of hair dye. 

Part of me also feels that I was drawn to BTS because of what they represented. I was introduced to BTS in the summer of 2020 – a summer of distinct pain for people of colour everywhere as the world erupted in continued struggles for anti-racism. I remember feeling particularly disconnected from all music at the time which I saw as operating within, and imposed on by the Western music industry. In a state of jaded confusion, frustration and cynicism, I began to view language and specifically the use of English – a universal lingua franca– as a symbolic reminder of the forced separation from my ethnicity. While I had always known of the linguistic power disparity, I was suddenly plunged into a state of hyper awareness, a tunnel vision that focused on its historic and contemporary weight as a colonial tool. It was through this lens that I saw and listened to BTS. To me, despite often deliberately appealing to a Western audience through their music, they represented the possibility of shattering racial and linguistic barriers as they broke through the global industry proudly and unabashedly singing in their native language, Korean.

This is also why many had mixed feelings about the group’s recent Grammy nomination for their 2020 summer single, and first song sung completely in English, Dynamite. 

It is one of the many vestiges of colonialism that those in ‘the West’ are accustomed to listening and viewing all forms of entertainment largely in their native language without needing to truly engage with other cultures to appreciate art. In a number of their American and British interviews, BTS are repeatedly questioned on when they will release a full length English album. This interrogation speaks to the entitlement of the Western music industry and a portion of their consumers. Needless to say that BTS shouldn’t have to produce their work in English, just as say, Ariana Grande definitely shouldn’t have to suddenly produce a full length Korean album just to be recognised for her global impact and talent. 

 Ironically, it seems like the Western music industry perceives an increasingly globalised market not in terms of real diversity, but as non-white, non-anglicised artists adopting English as their means of expression to appeal to white audiences. We have seen this with the success of an anglicised Despacito and most recently with the Grammys decision to nominate BTS for Dynamite after ignoring their globally successful Korean hits. 

In a state of jaded confusion, frustration and cynicism, I began to view language and specifically the use of English – a universal lingua franca– as a symbolic reminder of the forced separation from my ethnicity.

These institutional obstacles are compounded by the blatant racism that BTS faces – a symptom of the larger, deeply rooted condition of anti-Asian sentiment. Just two days after BTS’s historic MTV unplugged performance, a German radio personality compared the group to the coronavirus, suggesting that they should be eradicated by a vaccine. These comments, just one among many racial insults thrown at BTS throughout their career, epitomise the ever present and rising wave of racism against Asian people which has emboldened an atmosphere of violent attacks and racially rooted hate crimes since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 On the 30th of March, BTS shared a letter on Twitter in both Korean and English in response to this:

 “We cannot put into words the pain of becoming the subject of hatred and violence for such a reason. Our own experiences are inconsequential compared to the events that have occurred over the past few weeks. But these experiences are enough to make us feel powerless and chip away our self-esteem.”

 While these comments are explicitly racist and make no pretense of their intention, other comments are shrouded in language, of casual ‘observation’ when in reality they employ the historic feminisation of Asian men as a tool of ‘Othering’. I remember being painfully disheartened, but not surprised, when a friend interrupted my fangirl rant to point out, ‘I can never tell if they’re men or women’.

 BTS has repeatedly challenged Western hegemonic masculinity and boundaries of male interactions. They regularly don items listed on women’s fashion lines and experiment with makeup looks to enhance their album ‘concepts’. In an industry where pop icons like Harry Styles still make front page news and headlines for adopting feminine and androgynous elements into their clothing, it’s refreshing to see this celebrated and normalised in K-pop – not as a subversion of gendered clothing or deliberate counterculture signposting, but simply because it looks good. 

 But, as always, the situation is complicated. Any K-Pop fan immediately realises that it is also a minefield of contradictions, particularly when it comes to gender norms and presentation. While the ‘flower boy’ aesthetic, challenging stereotypical masculine presentation, has been popularised by idols, many argue that this complements hegemonic masculinity rather than subverting it as idols capitalise on forms of queer culture without providing support to the LGBTQ+ community. For idols, being openly queer is often not an option especially when even heterosexual artists are not allowed to date publicly. This often results in cases of queer baiting through homoerotic ‘fanservice’ in K-Pop performances.

 However, I find that BTS provides substance to this aesthetic by regularly showing themselves to be allies, and potentially members, of the LGBTQ+ community. Suga, in particular, has been firm on this point, suggesting that who he finds attractive is “not limited to the opposite sex”. In a recent interview, Suga condemned toxic masculinity, stating “There is this culture where masculinity is defined by certain emotions, characteristics…Many pretend to be okay, saying that they’re not ‘weak,’ as if that would make you a weak person. I don’t think that’s right.” and going on to question, “What does being masculine mean?”. 

 Perhaps, RM summed up the ethos of the group perfectly in his 2018 speech at the UN, partnering with UNICEF to advocate against youth violence: “No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity: speak yourself.”

 There’s no real way that I can end this rage infused stream of consciousness of a fangirl except by clarifying that I don’t expect everyone to like BTS’s music. This is also not to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms that could be made about BTS, from their questionable hyper-capitalist tendencies to their potentially toxic fanbase ‘Army’. However, I do hope that in the future, the band, their music and the wider K-pop industry are approached in a manner free of racial stereotyping, belittlement and judgement, a step that the Western music industry and many have yet to take.

Image Credit: Jann Shi via Flickr