The conversation of BTS in relation to K-pop can be cumbersome, especially when the answer is generally always a “Yes, but,” if not a “Yes” outright. But K-pop fans and experts across the board have had greater conversations over the years regarding what “K-pop” even means, and using BTS as a focal point for it only adds a vital energy to the conversation.
Kang Haeryun wrote a piece for NPR this past July covering this exact issue and how it contributes not only to the otherization of Korean idols, but of any Korean musician looking to make a name for themselves — and a living. She writes of a band named Leenalchi, whose eclectic, experimental musical stylings leave them as a formidable figure in the struggling Korean indie scene. But their success comes in part due to their experience in the music industry, a quality most indie musicians don’t have, and shouldn’t be forced to have to succeed.
The piece delves into the ways in which Korean idol music, in part due to imposition by the South Korean government, has “monopolized” the term K-pop, leading to a far narrower path to prominence for non-idol acts. Yi Soojeong, an executive manager of an organization that holds music festivals in Korea, comments that Korean musicians “need new words to represent other music from Korea,” noting that other genres — like K-indie, K-hip-hop, etc. — simply tack the “K-” in front of existing, proliferated genre terms in similar fashion to K-pop. But this necessity for a “K-” is not only contested but lamented by professor Eujong Zhang:
“‘I sometimes think, why do we even need to put ‘K’-anything?’ says Zhang. ‘We’re already looking at ourselves through the lens of others. We don’t say A-pop (American pop). But the minute we say, ‘Our music is K-pop,’ it feels like we’ve restricted ourselves to a region and lowered our own stature.’”