In this article, Jessica Carvalho explores the success and the power of one of the biggest music acts in history in the face of increased Asian discrimination, and how their impact is reshaping the industry as we know it.
Often, living beneath a rock serves as the perfect excuse for a pop culture reference flying under the radar; but I am certain that even then, the easy-going, disco-pop melody of “Dynamite” would find its way through the cracks, and make itself known.
BTS is quickly becoming a household name in every corner of the planet, the seven-piece boyband serving as a beacon of hope for integrity, honesty, and passion in the music industry. The group consists of leader RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook, all of which hail from different areas of South Korea. Their paths crossed sometime in 2010, fully merging in June 2013 – specifically the 13th, the day in which their debut songs “No More Dream”, and “We Are Bulletproof pt. 2” were released as a single album. Bulletproof was not only an ode to the meaning of BTS in Korean (방탄소년단, which translates to Bulletproof Boyscouts), but a way of living for the group, clad in sleeveless tops, heavy chains and an undying perseverance to make a name for themselves and BigHit Entertainment, their music label, which is currently known as BigHit Music. It was a hard-hitting first impression, they now realise, laughing and cringing as they reacted to one of their very first interviews after their debut. “We couldn’t get a lot of shows. If a show was full, we couldn’t get a full slot,” reported 25-year-old lead vocalist Jimin, reminiscing on the difficult beginnings of the team.
The difference between the Korean and Western entertainment industries are stark, but some require further attention; success is highly dictated by the status of the entertainment label an act is signed to, and to this day, many fail to gain traction after debut and go unknown for most of their career. At the time, BigHit Music was a speck amidst the hundreds of other companies, but over the past seven years, it was catapulted to the top by the success of BTS. Newly rebranded into HYBE Corporation with its multiple subsidiaries, it is now South Korea’s largest entertainment company.
Furthermore, BTS’ debut concept was a gamble. “No More Dream” was a hip-hop track that tackled the lack of passion and dreams amongst young people – a dig at South Korea’s emphasis on academic success, which has proved lethal when paired with immense pressure and the fear of failure. Social commentary in the K-Pop industry was rare at the time, and BTS stood out from the rest, mostly in a positive light. “Those days made today possible,” 27-year-old rapper j-hope commented after watching their debut interview video, hums of agreement following his words.
The rise of BTS, contrary to popular belief, has been years in the making. For most, it seems like the band rose to stardom overnight, but this June marks their eighth anniversary, and it is safe to say the journey has been marked with highs and lows. Their path has been one that has gradually been littered with accolades, the first being the Best New Artist award at South Korea’s Melon Music Awards in 2013, the much-anticipated first daesang (translating literally to “grand prize”; the biggest achievement a K-pop act can receive for digital and physical album sales) at the 2016 Melon Music Awards for the Best Album of the Year category, and finally, the historic GRAMMY and BRIT Awards nominations. The former came with little surprise, super-hit “Dynamite” being BTS’ first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping single – the first song by a South Korean act to do so. The epic winning streak didn’t stop there for the band, either; “Life Goes On”, the lead single of their ninth album “BE”, followed in its predecessor’s footsteps and became the first foreign language song to top the Hot 100 chart and simultaneously top the Billboard 200 chart.
In the midst of all this, breaking six different world records in a matter of days and winning a stupefying number of awards (and counting), “Dynamite” failed to win the Best Pop Duo/Group performance at this year’s GRAMMY Awards, a loss taken very gracefully by the group, but not so much from everybody else.
Partially shadowed in coverage by the online outcry from loyal fans over the snub, a trading card brand released a caricature of the boyband, depicting its seven members in a Whack-A-Mole game with bruised faces. Initially, the drawing was considered satirical and comedic, but the discriminatory and xenophobic undertones were hard to ignore. It came at a time where hate crime incidents against Asians were increasing not only in the US, but worldwide, and was met with immediate backlash from BTS’ fandom, ARMY, prompting the company to release an apology statement and discontinue the sticker.
It’s saddening and infuriating how the targeting of Asians has been so normalised, and how even being one of the greatest musical acts ever won’t exempt you from it or provide you with the respect you deserve. BTS themselves have come forward and condemned the wave of Asian hate crimes following the deadly mass shootings in Asian-owned spas in Atlanta in March, four of the victims being of Korean descent. “We cannot put into words the pain of becoming the subject of hatred and violence for such a reason,” the statement reads, posted on their personal Twitter account, “Our own experiences are inconsequential compared to the events […] but these experiences were enough to make us feel powerless and chip away at our self-esteem”.
It is thought that these racially-motivated crimes originate from people blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic, a dangerous belief that has varying extremes – all equal in their devastating effects. Despite all, BTS has a penchant for repurposing bad experiences into good. In the midst of their slow but certain climb to legend status, the group amassed a loyal fanbase – the BTS ARMY (the latter standing for Adorable Representative MC of Youth), is a force to be reckoned with, and one of the ways BTS is shifting the narrative in music.
The celebrity-fan relationship most of us are used to consists of a connection that keeps both parties at arm’s length of each other, but that isn’t the case in the K-pop industry. Artists are publicised as the best version of themselves, and details of their personal lives are rarely spared, all in attempts to forge a deeper connection between performers and fans – couple good music with likeable, relatable personalities and it isn’t hard to see BTS’ appeal to almost anyone, the fanbase spanning from young children to older K-pop enthusiasts. “We want ARMY to be happy through our music, and we will be there for you, with love,” lead dancer and vocalist V said in an interview with James Corden, the group not once forgetting to acknowledge their driving force every chance they get.
Such a loyal, diverse and powerful fanbase is somewhat of a novelty in the West and is one of the many ways some find to discredit the boyband, painting the BTS ARMY in a rather generalised toxic manner and depicting their dedication as obsession. BTS themselves aren’t fans of this misconception, visibly irked during an interview with radio host Skye of Skye on Air, wherein he called them “insane”. Leader RM later vocalised the group’s feelings towards the fanbase in an interview with iHeartRadio; “BTS and ARMY is the same word, right?” RM said. “It just sounds different, but I see the same word when we say BTS and ARMY.”
Rightfully, ARMY see, ARMY do. Amidst smashing records and just, you know, being the biggest boyband in the world, BTS finds time to give back and ARMYs follow suit. An unforgettable account of this is the group’s million-dollar donation to the Black Lives Matter movement last year, the hyper-organised fanbase matching their donation within one day. Furthermore, ARMYs have taken to social media and organised support groups to assist other fandom members, study groups, and even cooking communities assembled by fans, for fans. Like all fandoms, there are obvious shortcomings and less-than-good moments, but overall, the giving nature of the fandom is simply a reflection of BTS – frequent charity donors and UNICEF ambassadors, themselves.
The music industry will simply have to adapt, make space and comply; this seven-member boyband is rewriting the rulebook. With them, they bring a new flair and serious passion that can often be missed amongst the sharp choreography and avant-garde fashion, but one that will begin to chip away at the discrimination and xenophobia in the industry and around the world – “Everything that we do, our existence itself, is contributing to the hope for leaving xenophobia behind,” RM confided in a recent interview.
Behind them comes the force of nature that is the BTS ARMY, a catalyst of change. As said by vocalist Jin, “It’s all because of ARMYs”, and it is likely to remain that way as they reach new, unprecedented heights, feet still firmly on the ground. The world most definitely isn’t going to get tired of BTS anytime soon, if at all, and I – ARMY of six years – can guarantee that. Make way!
You can find more of Jessica’s work on her Instagram page @whatjesstypes.