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BTS’ ‘Dynamite’ — Western pop or paradigm shift?

‘Dynamite’ may just be a quintessential BTS song.

Art by Shrawani Bhattarai

BTS’ latest single ‘Dynamite’— a glittering funk fiasco released August 21— marks the septet’s second record-breaking release this year since March’s album ‘Map of the Soul: 7.’ The group currently dubbed the biggest boyband in the world became the first Korean act to top the Billboard Hot100 songs chart on September 1, outselling the next 49 songs in America combined with the chart’s biggest first-week debut in 3 years. But ‘Dynamite’ is also BTS’ only all-English release, sparking controversy, not for the first time, over whether the group has been ‘Westernised’ by their global fame. 

I believe that, far from conforming to the standards of Western pop, ‘Dynamite’ consolidates BTS’ status as a global cultural phenomenon. 

‘Dynamite’ is a serotonin boost in music video form. Think 70s flare pants and pastel diners, 90s streetwear and choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Though ‘Dynamite’ has no singular visual style, era, or musical genre it pays tribute to, the message is clear; as darkness looms, we must resist by “light(ing) it up like dynamite.”

For the group, whose main message, if at all condensable, is one of authenticity and resistance; ‘Dynamite’ may just be a quintessential BTS song. (At least, since they began dishing out brighter, poppy-er title tracks with 2017’s ‘DNA’). That’s with one exception; it contains no Korean. 

But for BTS, so-called ‘Western validation’— competitiveness in the American pop market as a measure of success— has never been the objective. Originating from a small, previously bankrupt company outside K-pop’s ‘Big 3’ (YG, SM, and JYP), the rise of BTS has triggered a shift in the K-pop industry. More than ‘music in Korean,’ K-pop was born with 1992 act Seo Taiji and the Boys, the first to combine hip-hop and youth-focused political messaging with Korean popular music.

Yet throughout the 2000s, K-pop metamorphosed into an assembly-line of staggeringly high-quality performance, glossy aesthetics, and in-house musical production style, as entertainment companies trained and produced ‘idols’.

Debuting in 2013, BTS, though undeniably a product of this industry, diverged by writing most of their own song lyrics encoded with socially conscious and political messages, like 2017-18’s ‘Love Yourself’ series, actively using social media, and talking openly about their struggles instead of maintaining a polished image. The comparison to K-pop’s fathers is hardly imagined; the group covered and even performed with Seo Taiji in 2018. 

Credit to this organic ascension, BTS have refused to create English music to appease a Western market in recent years; “We don’t want to change our identity or our genuineness to get the number one,” said leader RM in a 2019 interview when the topic was raised.

Whilst ‘Dynamite’ surprised followers of BTS, English lyrics simply “fit the melody a little bit better,” member V explained at the recent press conference. “Dynamite is a song that can lift anyone’s spirits,” added Jimin.

I’d add that, rather than compromising BTS identity or cultural impact, Dynamite symbolises their semiotic disruption of the Western pop industry.

In Dynamite’s first scene, main vocalist Jungkook dance-improvs in denim-on-denim around a bedroom plastered with the Beatles and David Bowie posters, like the star of an 80s American drama. Shooting the camera a cocky side-eye, he sings, “King Kong, kick the drum, rolling on like a Rolling Stone.” 

Dynamite exudes Western retro-revival. One Forbes article says it’s “crafted specifically to be a chart-topper”. Yet it’s also, undeniably, K-pop. From perfectly synchronised choreography, to designer-brand outfits and infectious melodic hooks, to looks that transcend the aesthetic binaries of masculinity and femininity still dominant in Western pop, Dynamite is no exception to K-pop standards. 

But the single’s successes also represent the emergence of a new cultural identity unique to BTS, who sold out Wembley stadium last year (one of only 10 artists to ever do so— the only in 90 minutes), and matched a feat achieved by only the Beatles and the Monkees when album ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’ became their third in a year to top the Billboard 200.  

Throughout their seven-year career BTS have consistently decontextualized and fused cultural content. Rather than devaluing cultures, this task equalises them. Adapting texts and styles from Western canon while consciously rewriting the metanarratives embedded within them is a prominent part of BTS’ artistry. 

‘Dynamite’’s disco sound, for instance, actually originates from the 70s American disco subculture formed of Black, Latino and LGBTQIA+ people. It’s not the first BTS song to reference elsewhere; 2016’s ‘Blood Sweat & Tears’ video mixes biblical imagery with Hesse’s 1970 novel Demian. 2019’s hip-hop hype track ‘Dionysus’ pays tribute to the Greek god of wine and festivity while referencing Korean folk song ‘Ongheya.’

In fact, reworking elements of Korean culture is something BTS have done since debut, from older songs like ‘Paldogangsan’ and ‘Baepsae’, to 2020’s ‘Daechwita’, or 2018’s ‘IDOL’. In ‘IDOL’, BTS wear gat and modernised hanbok (traditional Korean dress-wear), and weave in elements of traditional Korean culture, like ‘ulsoo’ (얼쑤) , an expression encoding joy originating from traditional pansori performance. As academic Sujeong Kim states: “It is not because the Korean-style attraction helps spur the popularity of BTS, but because BTS’ popularity helps spur the Korean-style attraction.”

BTS was awarded a fifth-class cultural merit by South Korea’s president in 2018 for spreading Korean culture to the world— the only K-pop act to receive such. 

Like Dynamite’s English lyrics, this re-contextualisation of Korean and Western traditions displaces the power hierarchies and divisions that have long defined East-West cultural interactions. 

“Rather than be recognized as the rise of a genre or the rise of K-pop as a genre, I would like more talented Korean artists to be better known around the world,” said Member SUGA in a 2019 Grammy interview, alluding to generalisations and stigmas surrounding the K-pop world.

What’s more, BTS proves not only the commercial success of this task, but how ‘soft power’ can re-focalise Eurocentric lenses of globalisation and capitalism through legions of devoted fans. 

A 2018 report found that 1 in 13 tourists come to South Korea because of BTS— roughly 800, 000 people. BTS accounts for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP, putting them in the same league as Samsung and Hyundai. 

Riedel also writes, “K-Pop shows that not everything related to globalization is about homogenization or Americanization, as social media adjusts the tastes of global fans.”

Many argue BTS’ success should be treated separately from K-pop due to their divergence from industry norms. But answering such a question becomes difficult when those norms are shifting in real-time, as producers seek to mirror BTS’ global popularity and the industry recognises the consolidation of a new ‘idol’ image. New groups including ITZY and Stray Kids are pushing songs about self-love and personal struggles and there is more artist involvement in songwriting.

However, it’s safe to say the septet, with their new world records, remain untouchable for now in their pastel-hued bubble of flashing disco lights.

‘Dynamite’, despite being an all-English song, is just the next step in BTS’ journey. As they rewrite Western pop-cultural history, other K-pop acts will likely follow in their footsteps.

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