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?
While Korean domestic critical discourse has still maintained its disparaging view of K-pop culture as the epitome of consumer capitalism, on the other hand, there is a cultural and nationalistic view which remains content with the overseas acceptance of K-pop as part of Korean Wave. There’s a nationalist discourse that approaches pop culture as a new export commodity and an expansion of Korean cultural territory, along with the pride that its cultural products work in the world as well. This attitude has created a strange double standard where cultural disparagement and national pride coexist. The fact that Korean media doesn’t seem to have any problem with using K-pop to label BTS is understandable in this perspective. They hope that BTS’s status in Western mainstream will soon lead to the popularity of K-pop (K-culture) as a whole.
Meanwhile, overseas critical discourse on K-pop was mostly denigrated. In the West, the critical assessment on K-pop is low and full of prejudice. This negative notion of K-pop has been blocking BTS from being accepted by the Western general public. The BTS fandom that was faced with the Western pop music industry’s prejudice and had to deal with the dominant hegemony of mainstream culture has realized that in order to fight it, they had to produce their own counter-argument. One of them was the so-called ”BTS-pop” discourse.
When Western media refer to BTS, they classify it as K-pop rather than just the individual artist name. For example, The Hamilton Spectator, an Ontario-based local newspaper, reported the sale of tickets for the BTS tour in Canada in 2018, saying, “K-pop flexes its ticket selling muscle at FirstOntario Centre.” It is strange to name the genre the artist belongs to while reporting a sold-out venue for individual artists’ solo performances. Under the article, a self-identified fan of BTS commented, “Let’s wait and see if they write ‘hip-hop shows off its selling ability’ when a famous hip-hop singer performs next time.” In other words, it is a question of why BTS is so easily identified as K-pop just because they are unfamiliar to mainstream Western cultures while the Western, English-speaking artists are treated as individuals. It is in the same vein as not calling Drake a “Canadian hip-hop artist” or not calling Ed Sheeran a “British balladeer.” It is the media’s attitude that made BTS fandom strategically push the term “BTS-pop.”
The major reason U.S. radio doesn’t play BTS’s music and Western music awards don’t put BTS in appropriate awards categories might be that they do not sing in English. But the way Western media depicts BTS’s music and their fandom is deeply rooted in their negative preconception of K-pop. This was the reason the fandom used the tactic of pushing the BTS-pop narrative — it drove the media to focus more on BTS’s individual musicality than on the genre they are known to belong to.