[News analysis] BTS makes breakthrough in US music history with Grammy nomination

Posted on : 2020-11-26 18:05 KST Modified on : 2020-11-26 18:05 KST
The global K-pop shatters conception of pop stars being white
BTS during the red carpet ceremony for the 2020 Grammys. (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)
BTS during the red carpet ceremony for the 2020 Grammys. (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)

The K-pop group BTS wrote a new page in the music history books with its nomination at the Grammy Awards, the most prestigious pop music award show in the US. Observers are noting the major significance in terms of changing trends not only in K-pop but also within the US mainstream music scene.

The Recording Academy, which presents the Grammys, announced on Nov. 24 that the BTS song “Dynamite” had been nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance in the upcoming 63rd Grammy Awards. While Koreans have been nominated for and won Grammys for classical and traditional music, this marks the first time a Korean act has been nominated in one of the main pop music categories.

The award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance represents a pop genre subcategory, with honors going to an act judged to have realized outstanding artistic achievements in pop vocals or performance in the form of a duo, group or collaboration. BTS is competing against illustrious acts such as “Un Dia” (J. Balvin, Dua Lipa, Bad Bunny, and Tainy), “Intentions” (Justin Bieber and Quavo), “Rain on Me” (Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande), and “Exile” (Taylor Swift and Bon Iver).

BTS has already been racking up awards for three and four years running, respectively, at the American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards, which are considered to rank alongside the Grammys as the three major American pop music prizes. But while those two awards are based on popular voting and chart performance, the Grammys are considered exceptional because nominees and winners are selected by industry professionals such as singers, producers and recording engineers. In that sense, even a nomination is seen to represent recognition by industry professionals.

BTS thanks their fans on their Twitter account on Nov. 25 after being nominated for a Grammy. (Twitter screenshot)
BTS thanks their fans on their Twitter account on Nov. 25 after being nominated for a Grammy. (Twitter screenshot)
Criticism of Grammys for being too conservative and white-focused

In the past, the Grammys have been criticized for being too conservative and slow to reflect social changes. The chief accusation is that they are too focused on older white male artists. The criticisms have only intensified over the past few years as numerous high-profile black artists have missed out on prizes, including Kanye West, Beyonce, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar. In response, the Recording Academy has attempted to change things through steps such as diversifying the ethnic, gender, and genre distribution of its new members. Last year, it surprised many by awarding four wins to black rapper Childish Gambino, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

The nomination of an act from South Korea rather than the US — in one of the key pop music categories, no less — may signify an even bigger change. Critic Kim Young-dae said, “In the case of the Grammys, the pop genre is even more exclusive, with a strong sense that pop stars are ‘white stars,’ so for BTS to break through that is an event with an impact that goes beyond K-pop history to rewrite US musical history.”

“There’s a significance here that goes beyond any awards, in the sense that [BTS] has been recognized not merely in terms of popularity but also within the US music industry,” Kim added.

BTS’ recent rise coupled with boost in S. Korea’s cultural image with “Parasite” winning Oscar

There had been movements in fits and starts prior to BTS’s Grammy nomination. In 2018, the group was invited to a Grammy Museum event for the first time to take part in an interview. In 2009, its members took the stage at the Grammy ceremony as presenters. The group was also invited to this year’s ceremony as celebratory performers. Kim Young-dae said, “With BTS already having gone through a process of winning the Grammys’ trust, the fact that their song ‘Dynamite’ reached number one on the Billboard singles chart this year seems to have been the decisive justification.”

“They may also have felt inspired and pressured after seeing the changes at the Oscars, where Bong Joon-ho’s film ‘Parasite’ swept the awards,” he suggested.

On Dec. 7, the Grammys are set to begin a month-long final vote to determine the winners. BTS and Big Hit Entertainment CEO Bang Si-hyuk will be taking part in the vote as Recording Academy members since 2019. The winners are to be announced at the 63rd Grammy Awards ceremony on Jan. 31 of next year.

What are BTS’ changes of actually winning? Kim Young-dae noted that the other songs in the category were “all examples of top-level stars coming together to generate synergy through collaborations.”

“In probability terms, I wouldn’t say the likelihood is high, but I do think [BTS] is eminently qualified to win,” he said.

Fellow critic Kim Yoon-ha said, “Given the Grammy’s tendencies, the Taylor Swift/Bon Iver collaboration looks to be the favorite.”

“While it would be wonderful if BTS did win, they’re going through the stages even if they don’t, and they’ll get an even bigger opportunity next time,” Kim predicted.

On Nov. 25, the BTS shared its reaction to the nomination through its management agency.

“We’re thrilled beyond words at how our efforts have come to fruition,” they said.

“It’s amazing and overwhelming. We’d like to thank our Army [fans] for giving us the opportunity to be nominated,” they added.

“Now that we’ve been nominated, we’re hoping we win.”

By Suh Jung-min, music correspondent

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

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