Grainy footage from an old recording show the stage as only a single bright white blob among a sea of thousands of people moving in unison, with bright lights flashing across the audience, as fans are swaying uncontrollably to the rhythm of the song. Their screams have radiated out of stadiums and arenas around the world, so loud that people blocks away can hear not only the music, but the cries of band members names being yelled from fans with their whole chests instead of singing. From the view of an outsider, these concerts may sound like something out of Beatlemania. However, this is really just the new generation of fans engaging in the new wave of pop music sweeping the entire world: K-pop.
And this new sensation, with one group leading the pack, is already starting to overtake the U.S, against every American tradition and commonplace actively trying to stop it.
In August 2018, the seven member K-pop boy band BTS sold out their first ever U.S. stadium performance at Citi Field in just about 10 minutes. This event brought 42,000 attendees, primarily young women, into the stadium for 2 and a half hours of BTS’ signature pop music and choreography amid the sounds of non-stop screaming and general hysteria from their fans. These BTS devotees, dubbed ARMY, are known for their massive and calculated bursts of action to support their idols in both social media and success in the music charts. These results including the band’s 22 million Twitter followers, and them racking up 85 awards internationally by the end of 2018, including cultural merit awards given by the President of South Korea for their work spreading Korean culture abroad via music. BTS’ popularity in America is only growing into becoming an even bigger sensation than previously considered possible for a group who doesn’t sing in English. Their international success as a K-pop band is unprecedented.
However, this kind of water-crossing frenzy isn’t at all new.
In August 1965, The Beatles sold out one of the first ever stadium performances. Playing at Shea Stadium (now torn down, and replaced with Citi Field) for 55,000 fans (primarily teenage girls), the band’s 45 minute setlist could hardly be heard over the sounds of fans hysterical crying and screaming for their idols. This surge of Beatles fans, now known as Beatlemania, caused the group to skyrocket on the charts and in the public eye. Over the next year, The Beatles were nominated for four Grammy awards and received many others internationally, including MBEs from the Queen of England. The Beatles forever changed the way in which pop music has been made, and have inspired millions of people across the world. Their impact as a band is unrivaled.
Although referring to BTS as The Beatles’ ‘contemporary’ seems like a bit of a stretch, there is legitimacy behind it. This year, BTS reached three #1 albums in a single year, a feat last done by The Beatles for their Anthology series. However, some may argue that this doesn’t make BTS as remarkable, as they would need to also be outselling modern American artists at the same rate The Beatles did to the American artists of the time.
And they are. BTS has absolutely dominated in terms of YouTube and music videos, recently taking the record for most views in 24 hours for their most recent single, “Boy With Luv,” gaining 74.6 million views in such a short amount of time. BTS is also the first Korean act to win awards such as the Billboard Music Awards ‘Top Social Artist’ and ‘Top Duo/Group,’ beating acts like Justin Beiber and Ariana Grande for the former, and Imagine Dragons and Maroon 5 for the latter. BTS’ is also starting to inspire even the most popular American artists. This year, Taylor Swift sold her newest album Lover in four different versions, with each containing different photos. This is exactly how BTS sells their own releases. Additionally, both Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran have recently included a way for fans attending their concerts to participate in their show more by giving them colored plastic to put over their phones flashlight to create lights to wave during the show. While both artists were praised by fans for this idea, that concept is already so popular in the K-pop industry that groups, including BTS, sell lightsticks that fans can sync up to the venue for an even more vibrant experience.
Despite all of this, BTS has yet to have moved on from being seen as a simple commodity or passing fad from a majority of American media, as well as American music award shows. This issue is especially difficult for them to surpass because of the language barrier, as well as the subtle xenophobia that has been a part of almost every interview BTS has done for an American news source. One of the most recent cases of this was The Hollywood Reporters’ October edition featuring BTS, where many fans were upset with the interviewers lack of knowledge or interest of the group, as well as his condescending tone towards the members. Treating a group of men in their mid-twenties who all work to write, produce, and perform their own music as if they can’t answer questions deeper than ‘what’s your favorite color’ shows just how little American mass media actually care about BTS’ incredible success or legitimate talent. One of the few questions they’re ever asked that actually relates to music, however, is ‘which American artist do you want to collaborate with next?”
For the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, BTS did not receive nominations for ‘Best Music Video’ despite breaking the record for most YouTube views in 24 hours. Instead, they were nominated for ‘Best Collab’ with American artist Halsey. In order for them to have success or be considered real artists, they have to have a connection with an American act.
Maybe we can look at The Beatles for an answer to why this is happening. When The Beatles first entered the American eye, critics discredited them because of their looks, their appeal to young women, and the sugary pop music they made. BTS is experiencing much of the same thing. They’re not taken seriously because of their popularity stemming mostly from female fans, and the music they produce comes off as formulaic and overdone to American ears that can’t understand the lyrics (or be bothered to look them up). This as a whole is a disservice to the group, as their style has constantly been changing and developing since their debut in 2013.
Only time will tell what impact BTS will make on the American music industry in terms of fully breaking that barrier between ‘others’ and ‘recognized artist.’ It seems like they are currently taking a stronger approach to being legitimate players, as this winter they are listed to perform at the 2019 JingleBall in Los Angeles, instead of being at the Mnet Asian Music Awards (or MAMA’s, the largest music award show for K-pop) which takes place two days earlier. For right now though, we in the U.S. should pay a bit closer attention to BTS and K-pop. Things you can look out for are the January 26 Grammy nomination announcements, the media’s reactions if BTS receives a nomination and, hopefully, the win of their first Grammy next February.
BY JONATHAN YANNES