‘Why do you listen to K-pop when you don’t speak Korean?’ is the recurrent question people ask with a frown. It’s one that fails to recognise a double standard in music consumption, a presumption that Western pop music is ‘universal’, listened to even by non-English speakers, while South Korean pop is appealing only to Koreans and ‘Koreaboos’ (a term, often derogatory, used to describe non-Koreans obsessed with Korean culture).
BTS, a seven-member South Korean boy band that has captured the hearts and wallets of young females around the world, is breaking down this double standard.
“BTS kills the stereotype that Asian artists can only succeed within their [own] countries,” said Rowini, a veteran K-pop fan.
The band’s rise as a global obsession started last year when they won Billboard Music Awards’ Top Social Artist. Their success is reflective of K-pop’s growing presence in mainstream media, and they’ve already achieved numerous firsts, including first K-pop album to top the Billboard 200 charts. Popular TV talk show host Ellen Degeneres compared their U.S. arrival to ‘Beatlemania’ as thousands of fans, known as ARMY, gathered to glimpse and scream.
“K-pop changed my perspective of Asian music. The music can be as entertaining and attractive as Western music,” said BTS fan Cathy.
Indeed, when BTS performed at the American Music Awards (AMAs), being the first Korean act to do so, viewers were captivated. The powerful dance choreography coupled with fan chants of the members’ birth names outshone the half-hearted dance performances of Western boy bands like Backstreet Boys and One Direction (the latter has declared on several occasions that they can’t dance).
And yet, mainstream media coverage in the United States has tended to frame BTS as more of an exotic novelty than serious musical talent, much to the frustration of fans.
“I believe that music is music and it has the power to connect us all no matter what language,” said Maggie, a fan and Chinese-Australian K-pop dancer. Although the stigma around liking K-pop does make her feel self-conscious at times, she has found overall that K-pop has taught her to embrace her culture. “It’s cool to be Asian.”
K-pop has also inspired Maggie’s growth as a dancer.
In particular, learning and perfecting BTS’ choreography—considered challenging even by K-pop industry standards—has helped Maggie improve her techniques and given her greater insight into “the importance of [strong] foundations and formations when working as a team to achieve the synergy that BTS has”.
For Sri Lankan-Australian fan Rowini, a passion for K-pop and BTS has encouraged her to learn Korean and educate herself about South Korean culture and politics.
“Liking K-pop [gave] me a new [cultural] identity,” said Rowini. “A lot of people tell me that I am Korean on the inside because of how much I know about the culture…and how I seem to have adopted their mannerisms.”
The internet is littered with think pieces theorising why BTS’ crossover into the US has succeeded when other K-pop acts have failed. The consensus is that since their 2013 debut, the boys and their creator Bang Si-hyuk have strived for a selling point beyond cookie-cutter perfection: authenticity.
Interwoven into catchy tunes and synchronised dances—typical features of K-pop groups—are brutally honest lyrics about personal hardship and sacrifice, the pains and joys of growing up, and the struggle to love oneself. This follows influential South Korean music group Seo Taiji & Boys’ legacy of socially conscious K-pop and while it may sound contrived to non-fans, it works like hell.
Vulnerability repackaged as inner strength pervades much of BTS’ music, uniting fans and performers through shared struggle and shared personal growth.
For instance, the song ‘N.O’ criticises an education system that ignores its students’ mental well-being in favour of producing top academic results. ‘Spring Day’ explores the fragile balance between the ache of moving on from youth and the optimism of new beginnings. ‘Whalien 52’ makes reference to the 52-hertz whale—dubbed “the loneliest whale in the world”—whose unanswered cries (being the only whale known to emit calls at this frequency) serve as a metaphor for all voices that go unheard. Meanwhile, ‘The Last’, a track on Suga’s solo mixtape, contains confessional lyrics about the rapper’s social anxiety and depression, a brave admission considering the taboo on mental illness in South Korea.
However, BTS’ success also speaks to something broader: a shift in the zeitgeist. Foreshadowed by viral hits like ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Despacito’, and now by BTS itself, English is no longer a requirement to climb high on US music charts, with a string of K-pop groups following BTS’ precedent
Much of it has to do with technology: “Streaming has democratized the consumption of music…As a consequence, the barriers that existed previously—particularly the language—have been lowered,” Jesus Lopez, a chairman at Universal Music, told Billboard.
It’s no longer a small elite of white performers, critics and celebrities who can set Western music tastes. Fans’ own voices can be heard like never before, and they can find and champion music from well outside the Anglosphere. When it comes to BTS, the efforts of ARMY—streaming and voting for their favourite band’s songs—have set the news agenda: entertainment media outlets globally can no longer afford not to notice.