BTS are conscious of what makes them special, which convey a very curated sense of widespread or global palatability while also celebrating and reinforcing their Korean specificity.
‘World Domination,’ that overused millennial phrase has fallen short of capturing what BTS has come to embody today. Continually rendering superlatives redundant, this South Korean band of seven talented men — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — prompts many who encounter it to wonder what makes them this massive phenomenon that is always in the news for making and breaking records.
BTS celebrates their eighth birthday today. However, between this and the last birthday, there seems to have been a whirlwind of an upgrade in the list of accolades to BTS’ credit. From garnering a Grammy nomination for ‘Dynamite,’ to collecting four #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in nine months(fastest for a group since 1970), BTS’ 2020-21 has been eventful.
From collaborations with three of South Korea’s premier brands, Samsung, Hyundai, and Naver’s Line Friends, BTS has now come to occupy both ends of the global brands spectrum, from the echelons of household names like McDonalds, to that of luxury fashion, Louis Vuitton. One can find BTS on the Malayalam news channel Asianet the same day as they appear on the cover of the Rolling Stones magazine. From being cultural icons recognised by the South Korean’s government, Time Magazine, the YouTube Class of 2020 (alongside the Obamas) to collaborating with UNICEF, BTS has left tangible limits of the word ‘scale’ meaningless.
BTS is everywhere, occupying all spaces with equal ease, appropriateness, and elegance — the local as well as the global, the everyday as well as the epochal, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. One may be propelled to ask, and not unsurprisingly so, if now is a watershed moment in BTS’ decorated career or one in the trajectory of the global music industry? Is BTS routinely breaking the ceiling for their own success or are they also contesting/challenging larger historical barriers that are cultural, political, and linguistic?
It may be hard to argue that its one or the other, because with every achievement of theirs, particularly in 2020-21, there seems to come a paradigm shift, a nouvelle époque. So this is an opportune moment to pause, bask in the glory of the empowering image of BTS’ influence represents, and to weigh the moment through three interrogatory lenses:
- Has BTS been doing or saying anything that is decidedly new now?
- How can we make sense of what motivates or drives BTS to do what they are doing (differently?)?
- Have they transcended the threshold that makes them particularly Korean? Or have they made genres, categories, and borders irrelevant altogether?
One cursory glance at a broad range of journalism on the band emerging out of the ‘West’ will reveal that often BTS unsettles observers, critics, and media analysts. Streaming apps reduce active, voluntary fan listening to bot behaviour, and journalists term voluntary sales and streams by fans as ‘chart manipulation’ conflating it with label-driven mobilisation. People find it hard to come to terms with their popularity and their omnipresence, as they do with the kind of musical paradigm they represent simply because the ‘West’ does not ‘do music’ that way.
‘Dynamite’ and ‘Butter ‘may have been the group’s first two English-language singles, but they represent quite evocatively the way BTS has always envisioned their music to be performative assemblages rather than just an ensemble of notes, lyrics, and beats. The stunning styling, the contagious energy, and the intricate yet stylish choreography of both ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Butter’ make them uniquely BTSesque.
‘Dynamite,’ released in August 2020, was produced as an antidote to the pandemic gloom resonating with the band’s existing rhetoric of comfort, consolation, and emotional companionship. That is why it blended so well with their Korean language album BE, released later in November 2020. BE featured BTS’ third #1 hit on Billboard Hot 100, Life Goes On, after ‘Dynamite’ and the remix of Jason Derulo’s ‘Savage Love,’ becoming the first Korean song to do so. The #1 position of ‘Life Goes On‘ on Hot 100 proved that ARMYs could overcome limited plays that BTS’ Korean tracks received on American radio.
Moreover, choosing to cover Coldplay’s classic ‘Fix You’ on MTV Unplugged was not unsurprising as it echoed a reassuring narrative about self-worth that has been staple with BTS’ albums like the Love Yourself series. It registered their tribute to Coldplay by signalling parallel lyrical concerns, while also exhibiting their ability to inhabit English-language musical universes with ease and quality.
BTS have said that BTS is the genre, and they were not lying. The pandemic gave us these consoling songs, but it also made space for translating their existing repertoire of performance direction into creative stage designs, live cinematography, and aesthetic universes that they showcased through all their online concerts and live performances for awards and TV in 2020-21.
ARMYs have an inside joke that BTS have historically turned award shows like MAMA and MMA, at least since 2017-18, into their own mini concerts, given the grand stage designs they used. Take this performance of ‘Idol’ at MMA 2018, for example. BTS started their American TV journey in 2020 with this performance of their single ‘Black Swan’ on The Tonight Show with James Corden (now inducted into the BTS family as Papa Mochi) set against the backdrop of an augmented reality stage featuring an enchanting, blue forest. The following month, they took over the Grand Central Station in New York to perform their title song from Map of the Soul:7 called ‘On’ for The Jimmy Fallon Show.
Since then, they have coupled explosive performances of ‘Dynamite’ (and now ‘Butter’) with stages like the airport, the tarmac, aeroplanes, stadiums, and church ruins covered in aesthetic foliage, and wholly constructed downtown street sets instead of emulating the iconic Beatles stage in 2019. The language is only but a small component of ‘Dynamite,’ while it wholeheartedly displays what BTS has always done, and been extraordinary at, that is performance with a grand aesthetic. An iconic stage choice that articulates another very specific element of BTS, would be the one in their performance of Idol and Mikrokosmos for the BTS week on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
They opened a week of performances with ‘Idol,’ their hit title track, that also features traditional Korean instruments, from the 2018 album Love Yourself: Answer. Dressed in gorgeous hanboks (the traditional Korean attire), they performed in front of the grand and beautiful Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea on a divine starry night in September 2020. The fiery choreography and lyrics of ‘Idol‘ conveyed layered, symbolic meanings that reiterated both their Koreanness as well as their fundamental critique of boundaries, genres, and categories (like ‘idol’, ‘artist’ etc) that caged them into limited possibilities. Just the way that they partnered with McDonalds: to expand their visibility, while also simultaneously distributing a particularly Korean taste through the sauces to a worldwide audience.
BTS are conscious of what makes them special, which convey a very curated sense of widespread or global palatability while also celebrating and reinforcing their Korean specificity. Therefore, while ‘Dynamite’ or ‘Butter’ may be in English, it would nowhere be the same without BTS.
K-pop had always posed a tricky problem to the question of genres. It never signified any specific sonic quality, as much as it did aesthetically, performatively, and linguistically. BTS, therefore, fit awkwardly with the generic divides, while also battling what musical performance meant in the American market. Especially as BTS traversed from their hip-hop roots to Neo-Jazz (‘Singularity‘), R&B (‘Boy with Luv‘), Acoustic (‘Blue & Grey‘), Latin pop (‘Airplane Pt. 2‘), EDM (‘So What‘), and disco (‘Dynamite‘), they performed each with equal poise, and their own signature flavour of complex choreographies and profound narrative universes. What became clear is that genres, for many award shows, Grammys in particular, were linguistically bound, and are not necessarily based on acoustic quality. Something is disco only if its acoustic quality is in English, otherwise if it is in Korean, it would simply be K-Pop.
Grammys now have even introduced the Best Global Music Performance (Global Music Field) category for the 2022 awards, portraying further the Anglo-centric tendencies of the institution. The redundance of these institutions has long been debated, but in noting how Korean music personalities across the board reacted jubilantly to BTS’ #1s on HOT 100, particularly of their first and of the Korean song ‘Life Goes On,’ and the Grammy nomination for ‘Dynamite‘ in a ‘main’ category, it is hard to dismiss altogether the value, as perceived in the non-West, of these ‘institutional’ forms of recognition.
BTS operates in large fields of geopolitics that do determine, to an extent, the political matter of their cultural artistry. While they retain the essence that is uniquely BTSesque, in rhetoric, in performative quality and aesthetic, they also seek ways to inform the world of what they are missing out on as the world continues to be fraught in a postcolonial hangover of the English-language. And then between the two English-language singles, they also deliver a profound and generically diverse album in Korean, as they always have, like BE.
‘Dynamite’ invited a world of listeners on American radio to the larger musical universe of BTS. It acted as a bridge, as a tunnel, as a thread connecting to so much of their exquisite artistry that remains off the radar of ‘institutional’ recognition. Of course, fans and some of the other award shows do their bit to recognise the quality of songs like’ Spring Day‘ and albums like the Love Yourself series or the Map of the Soul series, reminding constantly that they will not be forgotten as they continue to reign in album charts even today, years after their release. There is still a lot to overcome for BTS’ efforts to count as a crossover, because that would require entire paradigms of global culture to be dislocated and reconstituted. BTS’ managing company, Big Hit, now called HYBE acquiring Ithaca Holdings, may be one signal of their increasing domineering presence in the global market of music, but real struggles lie with cultural and linguistic barriers that are yet to totally allow everything that BTS has to offer be consumed without a biased gaze.