The MTV VMAs re-institutionalised a K-Pop version of the Jim Crow laws: the “Best K-Pop” category.
In the 1890s, the legislatures of the American South passed the Jim Crow laws that segregated black Americans from sharing the same facilities and properties of school, parks, theatres, libraries, restaurants, swimming pools, drinking fountains, hotels, restrooms, churches, buses, trains, and work places with white Americans.
They further deprived blacks of social opportunities and of becoming first-class citizens and promoted white supremacy. A black American medical doctor who went into the Navy in World War II recalls that Navy officers in the 1940s presumed “colored sailors to be suited to be cooks, waiters and house boys”.
Such institutionalised segregation of the black population was justified under legal doctrine – “separate but equal” – of the American constitutional law.
In 2019 (almost 130 years later), the MTV Video Music Awards introduced a new category called “Best K-Pop”, segregating K-Pop singers from other global artists.
Not surprisingly, BTS, the most popular boy group in the world, was excluded from the nominee list of the main awards, including “Best Pop” and “Artist of the Year.”
No worries though, thanks to “Best K-Pop”, K-Pop singers had a higher possibility of winning an award at the VMAs – separate, but equal! According to Bruce Gillmer, Head of Music and Music Talent, Viacom and Co-Brand Head, MTV International, the nominees “perfectly reflect the rich pop music landscape”.
I hope by now you have found the parallels between the Jim Crow laws in the 1890s and the VMAs decision of creating the “Best K-Pop” category in 2019.
One may say “Best K-Pop” was made to promote cultural diversity and proffer advantage to “marginalised” communities like K-Pop artists and their fandoms. But hon, K-Pop is not an ethnic pop. It is not only made by Koreans and it is not only appreciated by Koreans; the term “K-Pop” already connotes global appreciation of the genre, and the K-Pop industry is accepting more and more non-Korean, non-Asian performers.
This type of apartheid is an outcome of: (1) perceiving the other as a social threat; (2) an attempt to prove inferiority of the other; and thereby (3) excluding the other.
So why did MTV limit the playing field of the K-Pop artists who already have the most globally diverse fandom? What is it afraid of? If MTV recognised the popularity and potential of K-Pop, why did it not nominate K-Pop artists in other categories? Or let me ask this way—why did MTV not create a “Best Canadian Pop” category for Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and other Canadian singers?
Creating the “Best K-Pop” category is an act of provincialising the global popularity of K-pop. Given the fast-growing listenership of K-Pop production in the United States, “Best K-Pop” is a regressive policy that refuses to acknowledge the mainstream presence of K-Pop in the American music market.
BTS, the winner of “Best K-Pop,” was the only K-Pop group that was nominated for other categories, such as “Best Collaboration,” “Best Art Direction” and “Best Choreography.” Is this why you made “Best K-Pop,” MTV? To make “Best K-Pop” as a site of preliminary round before entering your parthenon?
The biggest problem with the Best K-Pop category is that MTV institutionalised racism in the VMAs. Once racism is institutionalised, invisible social hierarchies will structurally rule individuals and it is not easy for individuals to abolish them. The slow process of such disempowerment will eventually make the individuals go invisible and voiceless.
ARMY, however, refused to stay silent. The VMAs announcement of “Best K-Pop” was immediately followed by ARMY stating their position by trending the hashtag, #VMAsRacist and #VMAsXenophobic.
Moreover, the biggest fascination comes from what ARMY did on the award-show day! On August 26, when MTV held the VMAs ceremony, ARMY held their own show called #BTSMVAs. They celebrated the day by photoshopping BTS members and their friends on the virtual BTSMVAs #PurpleCarpet.
You may think this is just a virtual pun that is not “real” and thus is less significant. But how many of you have actually went to the show? Or did you just turn on the show on the television, or on your cellphone, and did something else until your favorite artist showed up?
After all, the celebrity power is directly linked to the power of celebrities as media texts. In the era of social media, the power of media text comes from the devoted viewership.
It is reported that the hashtag #BTSMVAs and #BTSMVawards trended over 700K tweets, on par with the VMAs official hashtags.
Sorry MTV, but you are the one who gave up this huge amount of viewership.
Some say ARMY “boycotted” the show. I refuse to call it a boycott, because boycotting is an act of not acting—not buying, not using, and not maintaining commercial and social relations with a subject. But ARMY did something. They made their own award show, exhibited their artistic creativity, promoted the spirit of racial equality, and let the world hear their voice in a most creative and peaceful way.
And let me make it clear, ARMY’s movement is not just for BTS’ popularity. #BTSMVAs is in line with their previous campaigns #LoveYourself and #EndViolence. In the end, their goal is to expel all types of discrimination and promote love and peace. If MTV institutionalises racism, ARMY will institutionalise anti-racism.
Great job ARMY, and I look forward to next year’s #BTSMVAs and #PurpleCarpet.
Stephanie Choi (@steph_choi) is a K-Pop ethnographer who studies how K-Pop culture has become a global business through transactions of intimacy. She is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her bias in BTS is Jungkook.