Has there ever been an artistic group that did not want to say that they were more than the labels others have applied to them? Don’t all of us want to escape being confined by outside expectations? There are a handful of times in the last seven years that members of BTS have mentioned being more than K-pop. None of them have denied they are part of the K-pop industry, that they emerged from it, that they conform to many of its conventions. These statements that BTS-pop advocates hold up as evidence are simply artists saying they don’t want to be boxed in or predictable. That’s beautiful, and we hear this same position expressed by other artists — dancers, singers, actors, and visual artists all around the world. Although some fans have taken this as a rejection of K-pop, I see it as an appeal to be considered on their own — as artists first.
The ways that BTS fans insist that BTS is not K-pop only creates more fissures and severs lines of communication in a world in which this has become too common. The best collaborators for ARMY are fans of other K-pop idol groups, and working together will accomplish infinitely more than splitting hairs about whether or not BTS should be called K-pop. Labels come from outside, and no matter what ARMY says, outsiders will continue to label BTS as K-pop, because to them K-pop means pop music from Korea. ARMY could, therefore, apply their considerable energy to reforming the image of K-pop and to fighting against non-Korean gatekeepers who continue to fight to keep K-pop on the sidelines of the global music industry. These are both fights that they would be more likely to succeed in than convincing the world that BTS should be called BTS-pop (Gaga-pop? Bey-pop? Drake-pop? Swift-pop? Where do you stop?). In fact, recent media coverage of the BLM support by ARMY and other K-pop fans has already offered many chances to point out that K-pop is more complex and more positive than previous media coverage showed. That and similar actions, like donations for flood relief in India, have made non-fans stop and reconsider their assumptions about K-pop and K-pop fans. That is how you change the label “K-pop” — not by rejecting something you have no power to reject because you’re not the journalist, academic, or cultural commentator who will continue to call BTS K-pop.