Jimin’s Billboard No. 1 hit pushes K-pop’s boundaries while highlighting them

Posted on : 2023-04-19 17:38 KST Modified on : 2023-04-19 17:38 KST
Jimin’s label is counting on fans to do the heavy lifting even as it reaps rewards in the form of higher stock prices
(courtesy of Big Hit Music)
(courtesy of Big Hit Music)

“Like Crazy,” the main single from BTS member Jimin’s first solo album “FACE,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s main Hot 100 singles chart. That was a first for a solo artist in the K-pop genre. As usual for a BTS feat, shares of entertainment agency Hybe shot up 7% the next day.

TV news coverage recalled how “Gangnam Style” had peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart 11 years ago and recounted Jimin’s numerous “firsts” for a Korean.

K-pop male idols in makeup and skinny jeans

The success of “Like Crazy” provides a new model for K-pop that rises above the language barrier.

The imagery in the track’s music video features a wide range of genders and sexualities with the slick production of a Netflix drama. While it doesn’t push the envelope too far, the video flashes between a same-sex couple coming onto each other at a club and a guy and gal getting some serious tongue action.

Jimin’s presence, of course, puts the finishing touch on the “genderless” vibe.

With avant-garde styling and florid makeup reminiscent of David Bowie, Jimin offers a new vision of K-pop masculinity while bringing the ethos of “Like Crazy” to its poetic climax through creative moves grounded in modern dance.

Male K-pop idols in makeup and skinny jeans manage to subvert the racist Western assumption that Asian men aren’t very manly. K-pop is perceived as progressive media that embraces gender diversity, and the pleasing subversion it offers has become a kind of geeky appeal.

But perhaps befitting its origin in a “Confucian” country, K-pop prioritizes safety from controversy, emphasizes unity over diversity, and aggressively attempts to merge with the establishment. As a result, its idols are frozen like mannequins in the same makeup and skinny jeans.

(courtesy of Big Hit Music)
(courtesy of Big Hit Music)

While it doesn’t take things far enough, “Like Crazy” does live up to K-pop’s status as one symbol of diversity in Western society. Jimin’s venture is made credible by his connection to the group’s legacy of calling out hate crimes against Asians and speaking before the UN General Assembly about self-affirmation regardless of race or sexual identity.

The reason K-pop is so full of hooks (or in other words, repeated phrases) is because it’s trying to cross the language barrier. Lyrics give way to recurring phrases that nearly function as exclamations, and the choreography tends to be punctuated in a manner suggestive of challenge videos.

The lyrics of “Like Crazy” don’t include the phrase “like crazy.” There’s no catchy hook or intuitive title linked to the chorus.

Instead, Jimin leaps over the language barriers through empathy. “Face” is an autobiographical album that unspools the confusion and emptiness he felt during the pandemic, while “Like Crazy,” inspired by the Hollywood movie of the same name, depicts the sobering reality faced by couples from different nationalities.

In the movie, “like crazy\" is used as a synonym for an overwhelming emotion that transcends love. The song captures that explosive emotion with literary lyrics and a classic pop beat. Jimin embraces the loneliness and confusion with the dramatic tenderness of his vocal stylings.

The resulting song pushes the boundaries of K-pop by making the English version sound like a cover. But the more “Like Crazy” pushes those boundaries, the more fans begin to question the capabilities — or limitations — of Jimin’s label Hybe.

(screen capture from Weverse video)
(screen capture from Weverse video)

“Like Crazy” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with 254,000 weekly sales (including downloads and CDs), which was a record for the US this year.

This was the first time a K-pop artist has reached No. 1 since Billboard changed the maximum download tally per person from four per week to one per week in January 2022 in an attempt to stop the chart from being manipulated by repeated purchases.

But “Like Crazy” scored close to zero in terms of radio airplay, another area of chart scoring that’s linked to the scope of label promotions.

Projected to stay in top 10 but drops to No. 45 in second week

Most Billboard prediction sites said “Like Crazy” would remain in the top 10 in its second week, but it ended up slipping to No. 45. That’s an unusual discrepancy between the predicted and actual rankings.

According to data from Hits Daily Double, a trade publication in the US music industry, Jimin moved more than 120,000 units in the second week, but Luminate, which provides data for Billboard charts, only counted around 15,000 copies, down 88%.

Since that figure alone wouldn’t have pushed “Like Crazy” out of the top 10, we can assume that radio airplay was the deciding factor in the second week.

Fans who wonder whether Billboard properly applied the one-purchase-per-week rule have gone on a hashtag blitz, hoping to push the topic into the currently trending list as they demand an official explanation from Billboard. In an effort to get more radio airplay, fans have also compiled and shared links to radio stations’ request boards and encouraged each other to make requests.

(screen capture from Weverse video)
(screen capture from Weverse video)

This isn’t a showdown between Billboard and the fandom, as it might appear at first. A closer look shows that Jimin’s label is counting on fans to do the heavy lifting even as it reaps rewards in the form of higher stock prices.

Billboard charts are a major indicator in the global market. Chart sensitivity already pushes K-pop singers to drop their albums at 1 pm on Fridays (midnight EST), when Billboard begins its tabulation. But fans feel the label is letting fans shoulder much of the cost and effort for getting albums onto the charts.

“I think a large part of the album promotion and monitoring is already handled by the fandom. The label’s duty is to adequately promote the artist’s work, and its investment in promotion should scale up as K-pop continues to grow. But it feels like they’re dropping the ball here,” observed one Twitter account run by Jimin’s fan club.

Jimin’s fans were the ones who notified the label about incorrect album and song information that they’d found on music streaming platforms.

Labels need to build their own capacity and rely less on the fandom

When BTS was still a small-scale, scrappy operation in the 2010s, fans felt obliged to serve as unpaid promotional ambassadors for the label. But now that the label is an industry behemoth with a market cap above 8 trillion won (US$6 billion), it doesn’t make sense to rely on the same methods.

The globalization of K-pop leads to a demand for higher-quality content, pioneering attempts to embrace diversity, and systematic strategies for promotion.

Self-satisfaction with K-pop’s great strides in the global market may well keep the industry from moving forward. It’s time to ponder K-pop’s role and impact given the interest and expectations pouring in from around the world.

By Choi Isak, K-pop columnist

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

Related stories

Most viewed articles