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 is heavily based on who is expressing it, what music they are familiar with, and what culture they have grown up in. There is no one reason for the argument and no one source of it. However, from personal observation, it is fairly Western in origin, but there are cultural reasons for it. People in Korea don’t usually use the term “K-pop”; rather, they define this style of music as “idol music.” K-pop, as stated, is a rather ill-defined and ill-prescribed term that is used much more in the West than in Korea. This also implies a major issue of how music is discussed in general — because “pop music” implies Western pop, we’ve come to use the West as the origin for how to refer to music and add tags to describe music that is derived from the West. The same issue is seen with “music” and “world music” — “music” being anything Anglo-American, and “world music” (with the added tag of “world”) referring to anything outside of the Anglo-American cultures. Hence, K-pop implies that the source is the West, and the artists associated with it are imitators of Western pop. The argument to separate BTS from K-pop is in part due to the need to communicate that they are not “copies” of Western artists. Western BTS fans may have a stronger opinion about this due to the history of Western music and the treatment of POC music in the mainstream music industry. Throughout various eras of popular music, categories and “genres” have been created to separate certain artists from others, and while the basis of that separation lies in musical distinction, it is often also a result of race, ethnicity, and language. Categories such as R&B, “Urban,” and “Latin” have all been created to separate a particular group of people from the mainstream Western pop industry. This exposure and familiarity might influence Western BTS fans to be particularly vocal about eliminating a K-pop category, as they have seen such tactics used in the past to keep POC artists away from the mainstream.
However, part of this argument is also due to the fact that industries do change — what is regarded as K-pop today is very different from K-pop 10 years ago. According to some fans, BTS resembles more of what K-pop used to be rather than what it is now. Others would argue the opposite. Regardless, the K-pop industry has commercialized itself significantly in the past few years; hence, most large companies have streamlined their music to make it more profitable. This has, in a way, given many groups a similar sound. This isn’t exclusive to K-pop: similar trends can be seen in the American industry, the Japanese industry, and the Indian music industry. To some, BTS might not appear as K-pop today, but the debate might have been very different 10 years ago. And as mentioned, BTS remain outliers in the K-pop industry — it naturally becomes controversial when an outlier becomes the face of an entire industry.
The media certainly has a large role in this debate. There is a narrative about K-pop in the West that is quite negative — Western media has more frequently than not reported only the bad sides of K-pop, therefore communicating only this negativity to the general public. When media outlets refer to BTS as K-pop, they frequently also include paragraphs about the scandals of K-pop, despite those scandals having nothing to do with BTS. It is this unnecessary association and the generalization that BTS cannot be recognized alone as an artist and must be referred to as “K-pop” that add fuel to the discussion. However, the issue with this is that much of the same criticism the West associates with K-pop can be applied to Hollywood or the western music industry. Yet the association with K-pop furthers the method by which the West “others” forms of entertainment that are from different countries.