Being a huge A.R.M.Y. (fanclub name of Korean pop group BTS), I have watched the seven-member hip hop boy group from a small company in Seoul become worldwide record-breakers and chart-toppers in a matter of seven years.
Like many other Korean groups, the idea of charting on the Billboard Hot 100, getting awards at the American Music Awards (AMAs) and Billboard Music Awards (BBMAs) as well as getting invited to present, perform and be nominated at the renowned Grammys was nothing but unimaginable dreams.
As a matter of fact, blowing up in the West was something many artistes did not even aim for. While many artistes, even BTS, had a good number of fans in the West, they were unable to chart or receive attention from the masses.
Initially, the excuse was that the artistes or KPOP were not famous enough. Only their fans and people of Korean descent knew about them. However, this ‘excuse’ soon became irrelevant.
The whole colour of the music scene started to change after BTS made their appearance. They were the first of Korean artistes to get invited to the Grammys, and perform and win at the AMAs as well as BBMAs. They also performed in New York City for the New Years’ Eve Party. While only English songs by American or British artistes used to do well in the Western charts (with the exception of some like “Despacito”), the charts started to see Korean songs.
However, despite the numbers, records and sold-out concerts, BTS’ achievements are not translated into recognition through award nominations. This was unlike the recognition that Western artistes like Justin Bieber and Jonas Brothers achieved.
Hence, new phenomena soon followed. The presence of BTS in the Western music scene shed more light on the racism, xenophobia and discrimination in the industry. I delved more into this in another article.
In 2020, however, we see some changes in the Western industry. Just like racism against Black American artistes is overcome with the artistes’ pure talent, records, sales and the attention they get from the general public, BTS’ success could not be overlooked despite the discrimination.
With the exponential growth of their fanbase in the US, not only did BTS sell out stadiums and arenas in the US, UK and Europe for multiple dates, they also topped iTunes charts, even with strong competition. It also became a known fact that with BTS, came high ratings and views. As a result, BTS is invited to many award shows as performers and nominees.
Their recent release of chart-topper “Dynamite” followed a whole week on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Becoming more of a household name, BTS is able to partake in normal Western celebrities’ schedules. They are also able to have their songs played on American radios. The radio plays were said to be due to the fact that “Dynamite” is an all-English single as their other hits like “Boy With Luv” did not get much airplay. This theory was proven right with the release of their album, BE. The title track, “Life Goes On” only got four spins while “Dynamite” received 905 spins on their first days.
The lack of radio play and support from the Western music industry, however, was not a determining factor for the success of their album. “Life Goes On” still debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, all 7 songs from the album BE made it on to the Hot 100 charts. BTS became the FIRST to debut a non-English at number 1 on the charts.
The recognition BTS are achieving is not a sign of the Western music industry changing from the racist and xenophobic discrimination.
Just as Black, Latin, Spanish Western artistes are only recognised when they reach the top through their own blood, sweat and tears, Korean artistes would not be able to simply ride the coattails of BTS and achieve the recognition easily.
As the recognition of KPOP, as a genre worth looking at, increases, more platforms open, and more groups and artists gain Western fans, the industry would not nominate them simply because they are KPOP. In fact, many successful-in-US artists like Monsta X and BlackPink rarely get any nominations from the 3 major music awards. Part of the reason comes from them not achieving top chart placements although they may be on it.
While I want to be more optimistic, the reality is that artistes, especially Persons of Colour (POC) and those who release music in other languages would not start at the same level as other White artistes. They would have to work extra hard to promote themselves and gain more fans, numbers and sales.
A huge example of this is with the Black artiste community. There are a huge number of extremely talented artistes. However, only a few make it to the top of the charts, get radio plays and get recognised at award shows. Even our household names like Whitney Housten, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Beyonce and Rihanna, all had to start from the bottom and pull through all the obstacles in place because of their race.
If even these extremely talented voices had to experience countless accounts of discrimination, those who are neither from the West nor do they sing/perform in English would have to experience even more. This is the permanent glass ceiling.
With that said, the culture, music and talent of the African-American population had to go through a whole revolution for Black artistes to get to where they are today. Starting in Harlem, during a period called the Harlem Renaissance, the African-Americans initiated the start of clubs and did well in all types of art including musicals and poetry.
As the actor, singer, writer, activist and more, Paul Robeson of Harlem believed arts and culture are the best paths forward (for Black Americans) to overcome racism and make advances in a white-dominated culture. The beginnings of music and art in Harlem has led to the acceptance of Black Americans in the Western music industry, which would have otherwise not appreciated their creations.
Could this be translated to what BTS is starting? Would the success of famous Asian artistes like BTS, Yuna, JJ Lin, The Sam Willows and PSY be able to carve a path for normalising Asian artistes in the Western music industry?
The next question is: Why does the West, the US in particular, portray such a racist front?
It is not because they are the only ones who do not welcome foreign artistes. The general public in countries like Malaysia also expresses their distaste for those who support Korean artistes since “they should support their local artistes first”.
However, the West attracts the most attention as many award shows claim to be ‘international’. The Western music industry is also the main influencer for every other ‘pop’ music scene in the world. Those who do well in the US are said to also do well overseas. This is seen on the iTunes charts in most, if not all countries. Successful Western artistes, like Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift, dominate the charts no matter which part of the world.
As we move forward, no matter how accepting and open the West is to artistes from other cultures and languages, the situation, I predict, would not be too different. There may be way more opportunities and less stigma when it comes to singing in a language other than English. But, as much as the Western music scene wants to claim that it is global or international, the truth is it is way more local. The charts, award shows and Recording Academy members and voters are very much local.
There is always going to be a preference for English songs and Western artistes. The globally-recognised charts and awards are more local and they feed into this preference. Thus, I believe that we would not be seeing a drastic change in the music scene.
However, it is also important to take note of the tiny steps that the West are making. The Grammys, in particular, progressed from inviting BTS as presenters in 2019 for the “Best R&B Album” award and performers in collaboration with Lil Nas X in 2020 to nominating them for their song “Dynamite” in the “Best Duo/Group Pop Performance” category (2021).
With that said, from these steps, it can be deduced that they are still not ready to open up to other languages. “Dynamite” and “Old Town Road” are both English songs. With high grossing album Map Of The Soul:7 not given any nominations, the discrimination against language is still pertinent.
Artists like BTS are creating a legend story of their own. Just like Michael Jackson and Boyz II Men, BTS is breaking past the limits that were set by the glass ceiling in the industry. Their success may be a one-off thing for the industry or we may see more Asian artistes enter the West. However, talent and hard work alone is not going to get an artiste to the top. It will take: being recognised by the locals, having a big and strong fanbase in the country and having successful promotions and collaborations to even be considered worth air time and invites.