When I logged on to Twitter Sunday night, I was amused to see that the following phrases were trending: “CONGRATS BABIES,” “JINKOOK,” and “I love them so much!” I knew immediately that one of my favorite K-pop artists, BTS, had won an American music award. I decided to head over to Wikipedia for Curiosity’s sake, and found that BTS has won a whopping 407 awards over the span of their eight-year career, including: 9 American music awards (including artist of the year 2021!), 10 Billboard music awards, 8 iheartRadio music awards, 9 MTV Video Music Awards, 23 Guinness world records (and a partridge in a pear tree..). I always knew BTS was cleaning up at the award shows, but dang!
As a fan, it definitely feels good to see BTS having fun and being recognized on such a big stage. But if you happened to catch any of my comments on The Kpopcast about BTS‘s recent major releases, butter, permission to dance, and the winner of The Kpopcast’s award “song that should definitely be left behind in 2020,” Dynamite, you would know that these moments taste a little funky to me. These songs are not only bland, uptight Mom-approved, meaningless, soulless, canned pop; they are also a 180-degree regression from the music of earlier albums.
Take Baepsae/ Silver spoon, for example, released in 2015. Just check out a few of the subversive, hard-hitting lyrics written for this hip-hop banger:
BTS – 뱁새 (Baepsae/Silver Spoon, 2015)
알바 가면 열정페이
학교 가면 선생님
언론에선 맨날 몇 포 세대
룰 바꿔 change change
황새들은 원해 원해 maintain
그렇게는 안 되지 BANG BANG
이건 정상이 아냐
이건 정상이 아냐
Part-timers & interns get paid in ‘exposure’
At school, there are the teachers;
Bosses use violence
The media talks about us as the “give up” generation
Change the rules. Change change
The upper class wants to maintain
That’s not OK. Bang bang
This isn’t normal.
This isn’t normal.
Then, don’t forget to watch some live performances and the official dance practice. You’re welcome! Now, where did those songs go? Where did that BTS go? Fast forward to the present and take a look at the lyrics of the song that is gaining BTS entry into American Award shows and radio today.
BTS – Butter (2021)
Side step, right, left to my beat
High like the moon, rock with me, baby
Know that I got that heat
Let me show you ‘cause talk is cheap
Side step, right, left to my beat
Get it, let it roll
Do I even have to explain here or can I save myself some typing? And No, I’m not saying that I categorically dislike upbeat, superficial pop songs. Boy with Luv is a forever #hitreplay, and one of my favorite K-pop songs of all time is SNSD – Gee! What I would like to propose is that it’s no coincidence BTS gave up hip-hop and lyrics about society’s problems at the same time they started winning major accolades in the US (and partnering with McDonald’s). That the change in style, substance, and Recognition has very little to do with “connecting with fans” and everything to do with Business. And further, that “Breaking into the US” cannot be done by “musical talent” nor by force of will (in the case of ARMY’s massive online influence and buying power) alone; it can only be done by assimilating into the dominance of white American culture.
Watch the first few seconds of dynamite, for example (I won’t subject you to the entire video). Think about how Jungkook on the first day of shooting was instructed to compare himself to king Kong (anti-Black themed American film) and the Rolling Stones (white rock band most popular in the US/UK in the 1970s) while wiping milk off of his lip (the American dairy industry is heavily subsidized and pays top dollar to promote milk consumption in the states). We were all just teleported into someone’s “white American teen” fantasy. I definitely didn’t ask to for this when I got my ticket to Bangtan.
Dynamite – (2020)
Shoes on, get up in the morn
Cup of milk, let’s rock and roll
King Kong, kick the drum, rolling on like a rolling stone
Sing song when I’m walking home
Jump up to the top, LeBron
Ding dong, call me on my phone
Ice tea and a game of ping pong
Starting with dynamite, Bang Shi-Hyuk and Big Hit entertainment accelerated their production of singles designed solely for entering the most exclusive gate-keeping institutions of American music, such as the Grammys and large radio stations. First, they wrote the song entirely in English, and had it released through an American music label, Columbia records. As Rosan, @xceleste___ on Twitter shared on the kpopcast dynamite episode, “this is the first time I’ve seen Big Hit and Columbia records push a song this hard in the US… Columbia records sent around three of those tour buses to all of the Radio station DJ houses to ask them to play dynamite.”
Our resident DJ insider Peter Lo added this insight: “there are these meetings of POWER including radio station music directors, music label executives, where they decide that ‘this is an A-list song, and this is a B-list song’ — which then translates to, DJs being required to play the song a certain number of times per hour.” And how are the nominees for the American music awards decided? Radio play and sales. So yes, fan voting and streams can’t hurt, but there’s a reason those tactics don’t guarantee a nomination or a win. “this is all business, of course,” added Peter.
Before we go any further, let me address the elephant in the room — Are BTS a bunch of sellouts?
I’m not actually a fan of that word; you almost can’t say it without spitting it from the moral high ground (a place no one has the right to spit from). Yes, BTS has sold out; watching their career has been extremely useful in seeing how selling out actually happens in real time. But BTS has sold out in the same way that each and every one of us is forced to sell out and degrade ourselves in our daily lives under capitalism. Every time I put on a fake smile at work, style my hair to “look professional” (aka smooth), or gulp down that 2nd cup of coffee to stay productive when my body would rather rest, I am selling a part of myself to my corporate owner in the larger capitalist project; I am participating in my own exploitation.
If I want to stay employed and keep a roof over my head as a Black woman in America, I need to erase what is Black about me and suppress any complaints I have about the workplace. In order to be crowned the first Asian “Artist of the year,” BTS needs to turn off what is non-white about them, becoming inoffensive to White executives. That means drop the social commentary, and perform an imaginary sanitized White aesthetic.
And even if I’m not surprised by the behavior, it’s still disappointing to watch Big Hit dive so far into the depths of obsession with the white man’s approval, integrating BTS into the American imperialist project to an almost comical degree. “hotter sweeter cooler butter”? “Cup of milk, let’s rock ‘n’ roll”? (someone, not me needs to write about BTS & the US dairy lobby). Give me a break!
Until the day capitalism and white supremacist cultural hegemony are abolished, BTS and the rest of us all need to sell out to survive.
– Stephanie Parker @sparker2