Last month, something happened that I never would have expected. The K-pop boy band BTS performed at the American Music Awards. Although K-pop artists have occasionally tried to break into the U.S. market, this is perhaps the first time I have seen a Korean artist blow up in the U.S., with the exception of Psy. And while Psy’s American success can mostly be chalked up to a song and music video just asking to go viral, I would attribute BTS’s success to their ever-growing and ever-adoring American fanbase.
In fact, this isn’t the first time BTS’s American fans have brought them across the world to perform in the U.S. Earlier this year, BTS was nominated for and won the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, one of two Billboard awards voted for by fans. Breaking Justin Bieber’s six-year streak for winning this award, American BTS fans helped their favorite band to win in 2017.
Now, I hear BTS songs on the local radio. My friends who aren’t interested in K-pop have heard of them. In response to this sudden increase in BTS’s popularity, my friend, who has been a big BTS fan for a few years, asked me if I thought this was the opening of the floodgates. Would other K-pop artists now have a chance to come onto the American music scene?
I answered her honestly: I could certainly be wrong, but I find it unlikely. BTS won their Billboard award because of their huge international fan base, but K-pop is a bit of an acquired taste, and most of the Western population hasn’t developed a taste for it. Last year, CL, a K-pop singer, made her U.S. debut with little fanfare. As far as I know, her fans supported her, but she gained few new fans. This is all a matter of opinion, but I think CL’s English language single “Lifted” would sound much more familiar and comfortable to American listeners than the songs that BTS has performed here, both because of the English lyrics and the American sound. Despite this, her U.S. debut was not a success. As a result, it seems that American audiences (meaning the large majority) aren’t particularly interested in K-pop, or Asian musicians in general. I can’t help but think BTS’s U.S. success is entirely dependent on the obsession-level commitment of their existing fanbase to support them, rather than an increase in the actual number of fans. BTS is known in South Korea for having an international fanbase much larger and more dedicated than its domestic fanbase, something unique for a K-pop group. Another factor may be that the U.S. music industry is already flooded. There are so many American musicians vying to hit it big, there isn’t much room for acts from other countries.
On top of that, watching American interviews of BTS revealed that many don’t seem to be taking BTS seriously. Many BTS fans have complained online that interviewers asked the same boring, vapid questions over and over and didn’t take the group seriously. Some interviewers were even borderline disrespectful, asking why the group wouldn’t release any English-language music. Only one of the members of the band speaks more than a little English, and I got the impression that this was one of the reasons why the interviewers didn’t take the group seriously. The language barrier and communication problems made it difficult for the interviewers to connect with the band members. Furthermore, the group’s hair, clothes, makeup, and mannerisms are quite unusual for U.S. audiences, to the point of even seeming a bit alien at times. Some of the interviewers’s treatment of the group was as if they were talking to children. I am not sure the American media is ready to take seriously foreign celebrities who don’t speak fluent English.
I hope I am wrong about the U.S. music scene’s readiness for K-pop and other international acts. Both the U.S. pop music industry and the K-pop music industry are producing a lot of similar, unoriginal songs. But I think that K-pop’s ability to mix American and European musical influences with a (modern) East Asian twist is a strength, and allows for more variety in K-pop than I have seen in American pop recently. I think U.S. pop music could benefit from more variety, and so I hope that in the future more Korean artists, as well as other artists from around the world, will be able to break into the American music scene and get their music on local radio stations and national TV programs the way that BTS has.
Finally, I think that music is a great way to open the doors to cultural diversity and respect. Music is one very accessible element of culture, and interest in the music of another culture may often lead to interest in the culture as a whole. I started listening to K-pop in middle school; that was the trigger to my interest in Korean culture, and especially the Korean language. If it weren’t for K-pop, I may never have ended up studying abroad in South Korea, which was pretty much the best year of my life so far. Now that I am writing this, I actually owe a lot to Korean pop music. While this view is perhaps overly optimistic, I think if the U.S. music scene allows for more international acts to flourish here, more people will develop an appreciation and respect for other cultures.
I will leave you with a video of BTS’s performance at the AMA’s. It’s a very catchy song, and the combination of the group’s carefully-coiffed style and skillful, synchronized dance moves make it a fun watch: