I am normally pretty laid back when it comes to music. I’ve been known to go from ABBA to Johnny Cash to Mozart to Slipknot, sometimes within a five-minute time span. I have always prided myself on this ability to appreciate all forms of music, but there is just something about one particular genre that has come out only very recently – or, perhaps more correctly, maybe it is the fandom of the genre that has turned me against it. It is that fandom that perhaps grates my nerves more than the music itself.
Korean pop, or “K-pop” as it has become known, is not a new phenomenon, although those who consider themselves fans today think they originated the genre. It actually goes back to the 1940s and 50s, following the end of World War II and the actions in the Korean War, when U. S. and European musical stylings first came to the peninsula. There was an original rush of interlopers who took on the stylings of 40s big band music to entertain U. S. troops.
As rock and roll began to take over, these same South Koreans (by this time the Korean peninsula was divided) simply migrated over to the rock sounds, singing Beatles songs and even coming up with their own “rock” bands such as Add4 and The Key Boys. Balladeers and folk ruled from the late 60s through the 90s, leading to the changeover to today’s “K-pop” sound that has become prevalent.
Perhaps because of the 90s “boy band” acts, K-pop has been pretty much dominated by male artists and bands. Psy was one of the first to strike with this new, danceable “K-pop” sound with “Gangnam Style,” but it really seemed to take off when the “boy bands” took up the mantle. Many of those failed in capturing the attention of Europe and the U. S….that is, until BTS came along.
BTS is a SEVEN-MAN group that follows the playbook of the 90s U. S. “boy bands” like NSYNC or New Kids on the Block. They harmonize, dance and put on a show with pop pablum that is rather unremarkable in its blandness. But, if you listen to their “A.R.M.Y” (yes, stripping that title from the hard rock band KISS), they are the greatest thing to hit music since the introduction of amplification.
Now, a little disclaimer…
Today’s pop music is not supposed to cater to the taste of people over the age of 18, maybe 25 years of age tops. Pop music has always been the arena of the young and it can simultaneously be mindless drivel and serious socio-political commentary. You just have to find those tracks that do it for you, is what I am saying. Still, there is not much that happens in the pop music arena that I say “WOW!” about.
BTS is one of those things that definitely doesn’t even register on the “WOW” scale. The band has been able to make a breakthrough in the U. S. and Europe over the past few years, however. They won a Billboard Music Award in 2017 as Top Social Media Artist (a fan-based award) and became the first Korean act to score a #1 hit on the Top 200 album chart in 2018 with Love Yourself: Tear.
The band has not slowed down since then. “Dynamite” became a #1 song on the Hot 100 (and finished 2020 as the #38 song for the year) and BTS has earned acclaim by performing during this year’s Grammys program, where they were nominated for an award in Best Pop Duo or Group Performance. It was this incident that perhaps set me against the band – and their fans – permanently.
That Grammy category was arguably one of the toughest lineups for a newcomer to break through in the 2021 awards. BTS went up against J Balvin, Dua Lipa and Bad Bunny, Justin Bieber and Quavo, Taylor Swift and Bon Iver, and the eventual winners Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. For pop music, that is a hell of a list to even be considered with…but many in the “A.R.M.Y” felt that the award had been “stolen” from the group.
Allegations of racism, anti-Korean sentiments, and other -isms flowed from the “A.R.M.Y,” despite the fact that there were only two dozen or so Grammys won by the competitors they were up against. In other words, come with quality work. “K-pop,” and especially the 21st century version of it, has not come up to speed with the quality of efforts from many other artists.
There are other things that you can ding BTS for. First off, I could not tell you who is who in the band. None of them have stepped out, such as Justin Timberlake from NSYNC or Harry Styles from One Direction, to demonstrate that they have talents as a solo artist. You can do a lot with studio stunts and sweeteners, and that is what BTS has depended on – none of their membership has shown any solo talent.
Second, when you have seven people in the group, there is an issue that something is being hidden somewhere. Maybe someone isn’t as good a singer; that can be hidden. Not a good dancer? They can be on the side singing while the rest of the group grooves. The band is just too large to take seriously.
Finally, the history of “boy bands” is not a lengthy one. The aforementioned NSYNC lasted for all of seven years. England’s “boy band” export, One Direction, made it to eight. BTS is now into their eighth year, about the time that these “boy bands” can’t survive any longer on the “pop music” dime, one of the members decides that they do not need the others, or basic internal strife takes over and detonates the group.
It is the “A.R.M.Y” and their perception of privilege that gets me more than anything else, however. All pop bands have their “fan units.” Taylor Swift has her “Swifties,” Beyonce has the “BeyHive,” even Ed Sheeran has his “Sheerios.” Even the most ardent fans of those and many other acts, however, have not demonstrated the sense of entitlement that the BTS fans have shown, and often shown in ugly ways.
There is no grand scheme against BTS in the western world, A.R.M.Y. As I stated before, do better quality work and you will be recognized for it. Trying to bring the nationality of the members of the band into the argument is a disingenuous argument when you are competing against the world. There is also not a ruthless group of record label honchos and music experts sitting in a stunning executive suite somewhere trying to keep BTS down.
For BTS to take the next step, they need to chill out their fandom. “Fan” is the shortened version of “fanatic,” and the A.R.M.Y. takes their support too far with some of their accusations. Folks may look better on BTS if their fans were not such children, for lack of a better explanation. But alas…we are talking about pop music, not the bastion of adults with critical thinking skills.