The BTS story that no Koreans would have believed a generation ago

Posted on : 2021-01-02 09:30 KST Modified on : 2021-01-02 09:30 KST
Global success of a K-pop group indicates massive changes in the world’s cultural landscape
A promotional image for BTS’ album “BE.” (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)
A promotional image for BTS’ album “BE.” (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)

The sun is setting on 2020, a year that has seemed more surrealistic than any sci-fi you might encounter in a movie or book. But while the science fiction that the virus has plunged our world into has been astonishing, so too has been the success of BTS, and as I observed the group for this piece, I learned some things about this world and about us. This is no science fiction — it is real life, the true face of our world and the world that lies ahead of us.

Last year, I published the book “On the BTS Road,” based on my own field research and observations over the past three years. During the time I spent writing it, BTS went from East Asian stars to a global music act, and as I met with their fans at performance venues around the world, I sought to understand the significance of this unprecedented journey. There are all sorts of indications of just how global BTS has come: lines of young people camping out in tents outside of concert halls, record-breaking album sales, astonishing Billboard and YouTube achievements, and mind-blowing economic ripples that reach into the billions of dollars.

But it seems like most South Korean adults still don’t really understand why it happened for this group in particular, or what made this kind of response possible. In a sense, that itself is a starting point for BTS’ staggering success — for the message they send is one that the older generation has difficulty understanding, but resonates with the difficulties faced by younger people around the world.

Support among young people, shock from older generation

Back in June 2013, BTS debuted as a hip hop act affiliated with Big Hit Entertainment, then a small-fry agency in a K-pop industry dominated by the three giants: SM, YG, and JYP. But while the acts associated with the big three were busy eradicating their roots and converting themselves into polished performers speaking standard Seoul Korean, the members of BTS were honing their skills under conditions of maximum autonomy and creativity.

While they studied the standard Seoul dialect, BTS never forgot their home dialects and accents, or the uncertainties and struggles of being a young person. Their situation of having to compete on an uneven playing field with other pop groups that debuted with red carpet rollouts under major agencies was also imbued into their music in a way that young people could relate to, being in a similar situation themselves.

Members of the young South Korean generation to which BTS belongs grew up hearing their parents talking about how many sacrifices they had made for them and how the children would have to work hard to live up to their expectations. But as adults, they ended up living under worse conditions than their parents in terms of professional opportunities, stability, and the wealth divide. As the academic achievement and real estate “warfare” today shows, middle-class South Koreans face growing fears that a crisis could send them tumbling down the social mobility ladder — the sort of society that the West experienced before we did.

Anxiety about the future, a loss of self-esteem amid untrammeled competition, environmental crises, and the pandemic all point to an uncertain future for the planet. Despite their regional differences, young people around the world today share these same survival conditions. The early releases that helped establish BTS’ loyal fan base included lyrics about overcoming the difficulties and anxieties of the “dirt spoon” life, where you have to fight your hardest in an unfair battle. The solution the band offered was not of the “self-help” variety that demands that you grind yourself down within neoliberal competition; it was a call to accept ourselves as we are, to cling to our confidence and work together toward the future rather than bowing down.

This is a message that has been shared in song lyrics, over Twitter and V Live, in person, and through other channels. Their UN speech about self-love and accepting one’s own identity has been interpreted as both a gesture of support for progressive sexual politics and a confirmation of the group’s worldwide fame, and it has had a major influence in terms of broadening the BTS fan base to different age groups and genders.

Young people may be the primary recipients of BTS’ message, but that audience has expanded as the group’s music has increased its visibility through its success in the US. At the large performance venues, we see a broad range of age groups, including even those in their 60s. BTS’ fan base is still mostly women, but more and more men are joining. Some fans have talked about how the BTS music of the past lets them re-experience their youth, taking comfort in their humble daily lives while learning many things about the organizations and groups of modern society as they have grown as a team.

Many members of South Korea’s older generations have expressed astonishment at the BTS phenomenon, saying they never would have imagined the day when seven young men from a small East Asian country — singing most of their songs in Korean — would achieve such global success. These people spent their youth during the days of the 1980s democratization movement; the childhood crushes whose names were spelled out on their notebook pads were typically Sophie Marceau, Phoebe Cates, and Brooke Shields. Members of this generation memorized English song lyrics and sang along as they yearned for a freedom and foreign flavor that would transport them beyond South Korea’s harsh reality; others stealthily indulged in Japanese pop culture, which was not permitted in South Korea at the time.

With the relative freedom that came through the democratization movement, this cultural hungering erupted all at once in the 1990s, which was the period that saw the emergence of K-pop with Seo Tai-ji. From that point on, the faces of the stars that South Korea’s young people went wild over were suddenly those of Korean entertainers.

BTS members give a speech at the UN Headquarters in New York on Aug. 24, 2018. (Kim Jung-hyo, staff photographer)
BTS members give a speech at the UN Headquarters in New York on Aug. 24, 2018. (Kim Jung-hyo, staff photographer)
Korean men chip away at the image of the idealized white male

The Korean Wave in East Asia since the 2000s has turned South Korean singers and actors into objects of the most passionate fan bases in the region. As of 2020, South Korea’s dominance over Japan in the entertainment industry is visible more in the reactions in Japan than in the eyes of South Koreans. Where the Korean Wave that arose in Japan in the early 2000s was rooted in a middle-aged female fan base, the Japanese people consuming Korean pop music and TV series now do so because they are qualitatively superior to Japan’s own pop music and TV series. It’s now viewed as common sense for aspiring pop stars in China and Japan to boost their skills and achieve global popularity within the South Korean system. BTS’ global success has been like a coronation of K-pop and Korean pop culture industry competitiveness.

The fact that the BTS members are Korean and that most of their songs are in the Korean language carries cultural significance that goes far beyond the billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic benefits their success is calculated to have brought. The cultural impact verified in my observation of platforms where BTS and K-pop fans communicate, such as YouTube, V Live and Twitter, may not be tangible yet, but it signifies a change that was unimaginable in the 1980s and 1990s, as I explained above.

Perhaps most important is the fact that BTS members are East Asian men and the object of desire for passionate fans around the world, a fact that implies that a seismic shift has occurred in the racial imaginations of the East and West. Foreign fans of Hallyu (the Korean Wave) and of K-Pop in particular who idealize Korea to an extreme degree are known as “Koreaboos.” This identity should not be seen as representing a fixed group of fans. Rather, it’s more of a stage through which some hardcore fans pass, a rite of passage, so to speak, through which these fans learn the behavior appropriate for a proper fan.

Hallyu fans in the Koreaboo phase become enchanted with Korean stars and come to regard Koreans as being their ideal romantic type, idolizing and fetishizing everything about Korea. Because women make up the vast majority of visible K-pop fans, this phenomenon has put Korean men on the pedestal of sex symbols for the first time in the nation’s history.

But setting aside the Koreaboo phenomenon, the faces of the seven members of BTS have major consequences not only for Koreans in particular but for East Asians in general. They represent the long-awaited emergence of an alternative to the dominance and attractiveness of white masculinity that was fashioned throughout the 20th century by the Hollywood entertainment industry.

The context of BTS’ success is the great development of the cultural diversity and sensitivity of young people who are effortlessly familiar with digital culture, itself the product of advancing globalization. The US has already become a country where stories that are completely about Asians — such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” set in Singapore — can be big hits at the box office. Amid the transformation of viewers' cultural diversity and racial sensitivity and the globalization of the popular culture market, the world watched closely to see who would play the role of Asian characters in superhero films and a Disney live action version of an animated feature.

But in the white male-centered entertainment culture of the US and Europe, video editing and actor promotion are still centered on white people. Korean-American actor Stephen Yeun admitted that a Hollywood film in which he was the main character was shot to play up the good looks of another white actor, reflecting the subtle but clear racialization of the production of sex appeal.

The sex appeal of the members of BTS, splendidly achieved through the aesthetic techniques of the Hallyu culture industry and K-pop system, has put them in the global spotlight just as much as the popularity of their music. BTS’ success at composing their own songs and connecting with global fans through their philosophy and social messages means that the white media elites of the West who had been so certain of their philosophical and aesthetic superiority can no longer write off K-pop idols as being men in makeup or passive singers putting on robotically rehearsed performances.

BTS offers a different version of masculinity

Importantly, we can also infer that global attitudes are finally changing to enable East Asians, with BTS as their ideal representation, to be regarded as highly attractive. The masculinity that BTS routinely displays not only in their performances but also on social media is a “soft masculinity” that allows them to candidly express their feelings and beautify themselves while developing friendships that permit physical and emotional closeness.

BTS’s masculinity not only contradicts the racial hierarchy formed by the dominant gaze of middle-class white male heterosexuals, but also the traditional tough masculinity of the West. The soft masculinity displayed by BTS is being accepted as a highly attractive and liberating masculinity by young people around the world, regardless of their own sexual orientation.

This also means that young Asian-Americans, including second-generation Korean-Americans, who have been marginalized by the dominant hierarchy of white middle-class masculinity are regaining their self-esteem. Aside from being greatly empowering for East Asians as a whole, that represents an important impetus for future change.

Boosting interest in Korean language and culture

That brings us to the question of what positive impact BTS is having on South Korea. Needless to say, the group is advancing the global status of the Korean language. There has been a massive increase in people seeking to learn Korean, and surging demand from students has prompted universities in multiple countries to create Korean Studies departments. The growing number of foreigners who are fluent in Korean in South Korean media is the tangible evidence of this change.

This change is not the achievement of BTS alone, but is rather evidence of the long-term international impact of Korean popular culture and, more recently, the popularity of K-pop. BTS’ numerous videos are distributed with subtitles in local languages, of course. But as fans grow more serious in their appreciation for BTS, it’s only natural for them to want to understand their favorite stars in their own language.

Furthermore, Korea’s economic growth makes it more likely that learning Korean is not just a pastime but can open doors in future jobs. As a result, becoming a fan of Korean popular culture means investing interest and energy in ways that go beyond merely listening to music or watching TV shows.

Thus, the significance of BTS’ career in the vanguard of K-pop can neither be converted to trillions of won of economic benefits nor reduced to the Billboard rankings or Grammy awards the group has received in the US. This also reveals the extent of self-deprecation and prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, felt by Koreans who ask how much longer BTS, K-pop, and the Korean Wave itself, can continue.

While our dreams of the post-pandemic world may not be realized right away next year, the soft power of Korea and of Koreans will continue to grow on the new trail that BTS is blazing.

By Hong Seok-kyeong, professor of communications at Seoul National University and author of “On the BTS Road”

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