Last night, history was made. Today as I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, all of a sudden, I saw video clips by CNN International, Buzzfeed, NowThis, and other such websites that had seven familiar faces on them. And then, the articles, one after another trying to figure out who BTS is, how’d they even get here, what is ARMY, etc etc
BTS, or Bangtan Boys or, in the original Korean, 방탄소년단, were the first K-Pop group to be invited to the Billboard Music Awards ceremony. They won the Top Social Media Artist, a position that also had artists like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and Shawn Mendes. PSY was the last Korean artist to be invited, in 2013, for his smash hit “Gangnam Style”.
As someone who instinctively analyzes everything and is in a major that encourages such mentality, I naturally saw this as both an exciting event as a BTS fan and also as a social scientist in training. Allow me to unwrap the BBMA win and it’s implications in several fields:
1. To South Korea: No More Whitewashing
My friend sent me a picture of BTS with their award with the caption: “I didn’t realize they were this color because of all the whitewashing, geez!”
For comparison’s sake:
I noticed the skin difference actually during the BTS Chicago concert. Before the concert started, the venue played a loop of BTS’ music videos and when the music video for their first music video “No More Dream” came up, which I haven’t seen in a while, the first thing I realized was how dark Jimin’s skin was compared to nowadays. And the BBMAs shed light on a common practice in South Korea and fans noticed and rejoiced (excuse the language in the first one):
I personally have also noticed this outside of K-Pop. I’m Korean like them but I don’t have the white skin that they often have in pictures. It’s frustrating to see that someone with tanned skin isn’t visible in South Korean society as much. So when I saw BTS’ skin, I didn’t even react because I knew that it was how their skin color looked like all along.
By having people who aren’t Korean take pictures of BTS, whitewashing which is commonly done in Hallyu came to light. And as different perspectives interact with BTS, more practices will be unveiled. Will South Korea then change as fans realize this? I personally don’t think so. People have prized pale skin for so long, I even see it manifesting itself among my Korean friends and within conversations.
Still, it’s refreshing that now ARMY (BTS fans) and others who are following Hallyu now realize this.
2. To the World: The Power of Social Media
It is also significant that BTS won the Top Social Media Artist award. They share everything online: what they eat, what they do behind the scenes, rehearsals, etc. They’ve been active on social media even before they debuted and they continue to engage with fans and share pieces of their lives with them. It really feels like you get to know them, each member.
Usually other Kpop groups have an image to maintain, but BTS doesn’t really do that. They’re all quite young, the youngest being born in 1997 and the eldest born in 1992. They show their goofy energetic selves fearlessly and freely and fans gobble it up through the videos on Youtube, V-Live, or Twitter. And I think that this freedom to let the boys post whatever they want marks them as different and more relatable.
But then also, they were the first KPop act to be nominated for this award. PSY made a bit more sense, because his video went viral and almost everyone in the world knew that horse dance and parts of the music video. But not everyone knows BTS or their songs or has watched a music video by them. And yet,
BTS blew the competition out of the water by having 313 million tweets.
Twitter is international, folks, so if Billboard decides to use Twitter, it will be dealing with global phenomena. And yes, I’m saying that as in BTS is a global phenomenon. Everyone knew that BTS was a household name in South Korea, but them winning by with that much elbow space shows that ARMY are everywhere. And I don’t think it necessarily means that ARMY have nothing better to do than tweet. If it was say a difference of a couple million, sure. But don’t forget that Beliebers are pretty intense too and that BTS won by almost 300 million tweets.
So then what does it mean that platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr are international? More mixture, more overlaps, more interactions. It means that a seven South Korean boys who don’t even sing in English can win a renowned American award.
3. To KPop Fans: Validation
Often people who say that they like KPop are laughed at. They’re stigmatized, brushed off as weird for liking music that’s not even in English. And as a result, many KPop fans keep their interest quiet, only speaking up when they notice someone else blasting a song.
But having BTS win meant that KPop wasn’t weird anymore. It was like a validation of sorts, a way to show the world that KPop wasn’t just a fringe thing that the weird kids liked; it was something worth a BBMA and several articles.
It also showed the power of the fans. Again, when PSY came to the BBMA in 2013, KPop fans didn’t really resonate with it because PSY wasn’t part of the glitzy production often associated with KPop and acts more like SHINee or Girl’s Generation. But BTS was in full KPop territory and seeing something familiar, almost private and secret, finally on the big screen next to Nicki Minaj, Drake, the Chainsmokers, and other heavyweights, was like a clash of two worlds in the best way possible. Finally BTS could be in the same sentence as Halsey or Camila Cabello and not be compared as something less, but as something equal and admirable.
4. To Asian Americans: Representation
But then, of course, there will be the people who will be angry at seeing Asians on their TV screen.
Are non-Americans not allowed to be on American shows? Really now? What about Adele who’s British and not American? And yet, there go the angry tweets about BTS stealing the award away from some American artist. If anything, they should really direct their anger at Billboard for using Twitter because as I stated before, Twitter is international.
But this touches on another important vein: Asian-American representation.
As a Korean-American KPop fan, seeing BTS win the BBMA meant a lot as a fan and also as an Asian-American; it meant that I would see a favorite group win and also people who look like me on TV winning an award. It’s rare to see Asians on TV or in movies. I can’t think of many movies where there was an Asian character and then of those, when the Asian character wasn’t the butt of every joke or a minor character.
And yes, there is Hallyu where everyone is Asian, but that’s different than seeing Asians here in America on the screen. And although BTS is Korean rather than Korean-American, they still made a statement by being Koreans in an American music show. And now they’re starting conversations and further bringing Asian-American representation to light. And it’s a beautiful and serendipitous result of them being at the ceremony last night and a it’s a very welcome one.
(To read more, Buzzfeed wrote a good article about this here)
5. To BTS: South Korea’s Cultural Ambassadors
In South Korea, which is 13 hours ahead of the States, a news station stopped to announce that BTS won the BBMA.
BTS’ win was also a win for South Korea. It was proof that KPop works, just like how PSY winning an award in 2013 was and how Girls’ Generation winning a Youtube award in 2013 was also a step for South Korea and Asia as a whole.
Bangtan are young. They’re my age and the age of my friends but already they’re having the responsibility of being their country’s ambassador. With this win, they’re now extremely visible and whatever they do could be traced back to their home country. I don’t say this in that Bangtan should stop being themselves on their social media, but I say it in that they now represent more than just KPop. Then again, KPop was never just KPop, since it was tied to a country that isn’t as well known.
Often (diplomatic) ambassadors are trained and knowledgable. And now, this group of seven boys are ambassadors, whether they chose to be so or not. It’s exciting but also a bit responsibility. I think that they’ll be okay especially as their leader, Rap Monster/Kim Namjoon reads a lot and seems on top of international news, but I’m hoping that they stay on top of the news and carry this responsibility well. I believe that they can and I look forward to the effect of their work as ambassadors. I can already imagine them teaching little Korean phrases in interviews or sharing food with other people. And the sheer fact that a Korean group was on American TV now means that people will want to look into BTS and then maybe watch a video where they’re speaking in Korean and eating Korean and walking around the streets in Seoul and having Korean mannerisms.
It’s so much more than just BTS; even BTS are in context and everywhere they go, they will also carry Korea with them.
As a fan, I’m still getting over the win myself. As a social scientist in training, I’m excited at all the overlaps their win means. But also just as a rising senior in university, it’s incredibly inspiring to see seven boys reach their dream.
Here’s a bit of background on them:
(credit from jeongghoseok on tumblr)
I do agree that BTS deserved the award because of all the hard work they put in but I also think that the win represents the beauty of standing on the shoulders of giants before them and on the shoulders of circumstance. Through the Internet, social media, translators who worked to translate interviews and songs, Korean artists before them, they got to that stage last night and made history.
BTS, you did it. Thank you for your music, your energy, your perseverance, and the ways in which you are changing the world little by little. I look forward to your future endeavours and successes to come!