Why is the argument “BTS isn’t K-pop” being raised and who is raising it? To what degree is this argument “Western” in origin? What is the role of the media in this discussion?
The argument that BTS isn’t K-pop is Western in origin. K-pop groups have been highly successful for TWENTY YEARS in China and Japan, and during most of that time the term K-pop was used. The only fans who seem to have suddenly decided they had the right to change a Korean name for a Korean product were the Western fans. (Then later some Korean fans were willing to follow along, but some Koreans have always sought Western approval, even to the extent of being too easily influenced by Western views).
Western fans, especially Americans, seem to be hurt by the criticism of K-pop (some deserved, some not). (Meanwhile there are entire marches and demonstrations against hallyu in Japan, and yet the Japanese fans continue to be some of the most loyal fans of K-pop and K-dramas.) They should have realized that the critics who dismissed K-pop:
- probably haven’t listened to it or made an effort to understand it;
- might have been annoyed that they didn’t even see this cultural phenomenon coming;
- make a living out of being critical, and hence their legitimacy comes from holding strong opinions that are not always favorable to artists; and
- aren’t even the target audience.
Things got worse when the VMAs made a “K-pop” category. Balkanizing K-pop outside the “top” categories in order to protect wins for Western artists made many fans (rightfully) angry. Unfortunately, what some fans interpreted from this was not that categories like K-pop and Latin are about the American music industry insulating itself from outsiders but rather that the term K-pop and calling the music K-pop was somehow bad, especially when it was a group as popular as BTS. Can’t they be both K-pop and the most popular group in the world?
The reality is that, whether you call it K-pop or BTS-pop, the people who don’t like the music or don’t like the idea of a popular boy group from Korea are still going to dismiss them or criticize them. You can’t change a term to eliminate an attitude. In English we continue to try to eliminate words with a negative connotation, but right now in America we’re being reminded again that telling people not to use certain racial slurs never eliminated systemic racism. And those were slurs — but K-pop is not a slur. Similarly, you can call it BTS-pop if you want to, but people who don’t want to give it a chance or legitimately do not like this type of music are still not going to like it.
One of the things that makes Korean celebrity different from Western celebrity is the humility and approachability of the idols. Taking one group of idols and dubbing them BTS-pop instead of K-pop resonates with the egocentric celebrity flexing of the West more than the model of celebrity in Korea.