Written in collaboration by Anastasia Giggins, Wallea Eaglehawk, and K-Ci Williams.
BTS, now in their seventh year as a group, continue on their upward trajectory that has taken them from Seoul, South Korea, to heights never seen before. For example, take their new world record for most albums sold in a pre-sale; their upcoming Map of the Soul: 7 sold 3.24 million units in the first seven days, making this album one of the highest selling of the century, and it has not yet been released. At the time of publishing, only two songs have been released as a taster for what is still to come.
Yet, despite being touted as being the biggest band in the world, it is their journey, their message, and their talent that remains to be widely under-recognised in the global West. In the lead up to their industry defying comeback, the group has continued to set new markers for success as they move from being musicians and performers to international artists who not only make art, but curate, and make other art forms which are not traditionally accessible, freely available to a whole new generation. This new venture, aptly called Connect, BTS, has been met with surprise, joy, and widespread cynicism from fans and reporters alike. This cynicism is perhaps indicative of a broader, uglier problem within the West; it’s symptomatic of a long-held, unresolved xenophobia. Xenophobia that now manifests as a distaste for BTS, worn like a badge of honour by intellectual imperialists with a large enough platform to grant them a verified opinion.
But that’s not all. BTS are revolutionaries, showing the highly complex nature of an Idol that must act as both object and subject; this is what truly makes people uncomfortable. We can no longer hide our continued objectification of Idols and relegate it to the realms of teenage hysteria; no one is buying it any longer, especially not their ARMY.
“I mean, me, myself, I’m a contemporary art follower, let’s say, and I don’t know if I should be taking this seriously,” says the host of Showcase on TRT World.
She is interviewing the Director of Berlin’s iconic Gropius Bau, Stephanie Rosenthal, about Rituals of Care, one of the exhibitions coordinated and funded by BTS as part of Connect, BTS. “So… why don’t you convince me?”
“You’re thinking you shouldn’t be taking it seriously because it is sponsored by a pop act?” Stephanie asks in return.
Despite their success, BTS are still striving to break stereotypes. BTS are caught in an odd place, between boy-band cynicism – further affected by K-Pop tropes and perceptions – and those uncomfortable with Korean Pop acts who produce content that is deeply influenced by art and literature that carries with it a meaningful message.
On the one hand, this can be due to how the West perpetuates the Asian stereotype, a stereotype of being the butt of the joke, or typically regarded as cold or clever but largely unaffected by emotion. Indeed, up until recently, Asian men were never cast as the romantic lead in shows or movies. Only this year have we seen large success for a Korean film, with Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, for which there is overwhelming love and adoration, in the zeitgeist. A foreign language film, a Korean film to be exact, that has received high praise from within the industry; there have been directorial nominations, whispers of being the underdog winner for ‘Best Movie’, and now there have been wins, with the cast winning a SAG Award for Best Ensemble. Yet, if you look within the same industry that is singing the praises of Parasite, you will also see rampant exclusion and clear examples of ‘othering’.
The West still favours its “So White” fantasy (see: Oscars So White), so why should it be any different with music?
The opinion shared by the host of the German talk show is one that echoed throughout the world upon the Connect, BTS reveal; a question levelled at BTS throughout their wildly successful career: why should we take what a pop group is doing seriously?
As if, somehow, pop isn’t music, or if pop is music, then there is no intersection between music and art. But, that is not the case, and they know it. Rather, the real question is no question at all, it’s a statement: I subscribed to the dominant discourse that K-pop is trivial, one-dimensional and that idols are vapid, now I am feeling at odds with myself at the prospect that they are active in the creation of themselves as musicians, their music as art, and wish to empower their fan base to experience art forms usually exclusive to the wealthy elite. Knowledge is power, and BTS just gave their ARMY an all-expenses-paid experience that holds the healing and transformational powers that can change lives; and even more so, the world.
On the other hand, BTS are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. BTS show the true face of an idol, one which is multidimensional and inherently complex; they show the idol as both object and subject, which is highly confronting for those who continue to objectify BTS and other idols alike.
The West is uncomfortable because BTS are not what people expect, they’re not your usual boyband, and they don’t fit within the “micromanaged, brainstormed, marketed” tropes of “K-Pop”. What happens to BTS, then, is that rather than being taken seriously, their actions are minimised to being a “publicity stunt”. Here the rhetoric becomes one of disbelief; can you really believe a Korean Group is funding art? Why? There must be a reason beyond what they tell us! Here it becomes evident that the examples above present a false perception of what K-Pop is. K-Pop is not brainless. Just like the layered work in Parasite, BTS is engaging with music at many levels, which demonstrates the revolutionary nature of a Korean Idol; one which cannot be objectified by the West for means of perpetuating a xenophobic rhetoric any longer.
If we take this post a little further we begin to wonder, what do people really want from BTS? What would make them legitimate enough? What could they do to show people that they were being honest and “authentic”? When BTS talk about their feelings, or express their interest in activities beyond their immediate careers, they’re either dismissed as pretentious, insincere, naive or calculative, or reduced to a “mass-produced cog in the K-Pop machine”.
Popular critic Jeff Benjamin called for a change in the use of the term Idol, saying, “many artists in Korea are referred to as an ‘Idol’, but I think that word doesn’t emphasise there’s art, creative merit or artists’ leadership taken into their work”. This was met with clear skepticism and criticism. Benjamin speaks of removing the stigma from the word – it has binary connotations of the same manufactured and insincere ideas the owner of the post above considers. But that is not an issue with K-Pop or BTS, that is a Western misuse of the word. Artists work arduously to attain the level of success associated with the Idol title. Why should we stop using it? Especially when the call has come from someone who hasn’t experienced life as an idol and, through their very critique of the word, show their own judgement.
The West has an issue with othering foreigners, and the term ‘Idol’ has been misrepresented in the media to further perpetuate xenophobia: how ridiculous that an Asian country seemingly produces musicians. If only the West had thought of it first, or rather, if only the West were as good at approaching pop-music like the real business it is. Though, to be fair, it doesn’t bode well when the only example of an idol discourse in the US pre-BTS was a now-failed singing contest produced by the same man trying to replicate the success of K-Pop.
To suggest that BTS are pretentious, naive, calculative or insincere comes across as ignorant and condescending; a red flag to an ARMY of devoted followers who support BTS for their unassuming talent. Ideas of half-baked allusions to pretentiousness or elitism are so far removed from their message; they have never been patronising, nor have they limited interpretations of their music and artistry.
Additionally, arguments of “wokeness” are fallible. BTS, from the start of their careers, have always created music that is meaningful; topics like Jung’s persona are not a presentation of being “woke”; they’re a representation of their changing lives, values, passions, and perspective. Further, they are showing the idol as self-aware, an idol who reflects and shares these reflections with the masses instead of keeping the often harrowing task of persona deconstruction behind closed doors. Speaking on these topics, sharing them openly and willingly with the world has been revolutionary and bold; in fact, it’s their biography in progress.
That being the case, among their incredibly diverse discography, not everything is a reference to Jung nor something achingly deep and beautiful. Moreover, it’s not an either or situation; you can have fun while also presenting something deeper beyond its surface level (Yolo Yolo Yo tangjinjaem tangjinjaem tangjinjaem, anyone?).
There is nothing wrong with a fun song, there’s also nothing wrong with music that speaks beyond that, too. It is BTS who can balance light and shade, fun and serious, intellectual and mindless; it is the West who cannot keep up, as Asians need to fit one perfect ‘otherness’ in order to be easily consumed en masse without a second thought.
When it comes to BTS, with all their complexity, talent and desire for a better world, one doesn’t know how quite to eat them whole. The trick is that they are not just for consumption, not any more, the contemporary idol is seeking a co-collaboration with an audience that understands them; they have revolutionised how people interact with music, and now art, too. The notion that a Korean idol exists purely for the sexual objectification or entertainment of the masses is slowly slipping away. The Idol as a subject sheds a harsh light on the West’s exploitative treatment of Asia and the rest of the East, which brings out the critic in us all.
We, in the West, delve so deep into our own intelligent minds that we come up with all the hard-ball statements that encapsulate our anger at Korea, Asia, and those deemed as other.
Most perfectly demonstrated here: “Idols all have to pretend to be deep artists and shit”.
Let us not forget that idols, in this case BTS, are just a mere reflection of their context, which right now is the global West which they seek to gain traction in. So if the outrage is because idols are pretending to be deep artists (and shit), then perhaps this outrage is better focussed within. That is to say, the OP, and the many critics of Connect, BTS, and BTS in general, are finding it hard to stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves: Persona, who the hell am I?
Because, if anything, BTS ask us to know ourselves, to love ourselves, and speak ourselves. Despite relegating these tropes to the realms of teenage fandom, they are no easy tasks. In fact, these three missions are what our life purpose as individuals and as a human collective is all about. Perhaps what scares people most of all is the face of a self-actualised idol group, otherwise known as BTS, who are empowering an entire generation of young people (and the majority of their fan base which happen to be one of the most diverse fandoms in the world), to know, love and speak themselves. For when that day comes, there will be no more space for the intellectual imperialists who must turn their self-hate outwards and project it onto those deemed other. For when that day comes, they will love themselves, too.
Anastasia Giggins is a writer, professional fan-girl, and Editor-in-Chief for Hello Asia!
Wallea Eaglehawk is a sociologist, arts producer, writer and powerlifter. She is currently writing a book about BTS, Idol Limerence: the art of loving BTS as phenomena, which conceptualises the fan experience of falling in love with the inherently complex Korean Idol.
K-Ci Williams is a screenwriter and freelance writer from New Zealand. He was a finalist for the Nickelodeon Writing Program based in Los Angeles and now writes in the digital space for Metro Magazine. He is currently writing a novel about self-identity and the inspirational power of Korean Idol music.