BTS are one of the most popular K-Pop acts in the worldAJEONG_JM

You’d be forgiven for missing the Billboard Music Awards last Sunday. It had the feeling of being a Grammys-Lite ceremony. The one thing that seemed to cause any buzz at all was the ‘Best Social Artist’ category, voted for by fans and being given to Korean seven-piece BTS, which was seen by many to be a huge shock. Fans of BTS (known as ARMYs) used it as evidence of their chosen group’s superiority, and a couple of American outlets asked what they thought to be a big question: what does this mean for K-Pop in the West? A question to which I would respond ‘not much at all.’

I don’t wish to take too much away from BTS – they work incredibly hard (as do basically all K-Pop groups under horrendous contracts) and are a talented group of men who have a large hand in the creation of the music they put out. However, there are a couple things to note with regards to their winning of this award. The first is that they have always had a disproportionately large international following in comparison to their Korean fanbase, the second being that Korea’s music show system means that fans have to be mobilised if they want to see their favourite groups thrive and be successful.

And so when it comes to fan-voted things, it should hardly be a surprise to see a K-Pop group emerge on top. Just last year Billboard ran a ‘fan army’ competition where people had to vote for their favourite group in knockout rounds which resulted in fans of the K-Pop group T-Ara emerging on top. While you might buy merchandise or go and see your favourite artist in concert, international K-Pop fans vote for things to use as bragging rights.

In the immediate aftermath of BTS winning the award, many news outlets tried to capitalise on it, with Rolling Stone writing an utterly risible article telling you ‘Five things you need to know about BTS.’ This journalistic masterpiece told us how socially conscious BTS are in comparison to the fat jolly man PSY who is seen to represent all of K-Pop, conveniently forgetting to mention that PSY dodged the draft and has been consistently outspoken about Korean reconciliation. It’s indicative that people are looking all too deeply for meaning in something that is fairly self-evident: ARMYs organised and voted like crazy.

“People are looking all too deeply for meaning in something that is fairly self-evident: ARMYs organised and voted like crazy.”

And now we come to the issue of why K-Pop holds so many fans: specifically, why so many international fans only like K-Pop, seeing it as inherently different from Western pop music. I should disclose that I am more than partial to a lot of K-Pop, BTS included, and yet it’s clear as day to me that K-Pop shows obvious and direct influence to Western pop music of all eras since the 80s, as well as genres like hip-hop and new jack swing. Of course, one can’t explain taste and what one likes and dislikes easily. Even so, liking K-Pop but not liking pop seems a strange and mysterious thing to me.

In the hypothetical situation that someone who likes K-Pop and only K-Pop liked a Western pop star, would they engage and talk about it in the same way? This is all built on hypotheticals, of course, but you don’t need to move terribly far into the K-Pop fandom to see a whole bunch of fetishisation of East Asian beauty standards going on. K-Pop is a deeply visual genre, and the artists are made to look pretty, but there’s a danger among international K-Pop fans that this can create an echo chamber for saying how BTS or Twice are that much more attractive than people of any other ethnicity.

In any case, congratulations to BTS, but ultimately all this does is confirm that they are as popular as everyone already thought they were. As much as awards ceremonies are arbitrary, it would mean so much more for them to win an award which isn’t affected by the sway of great swathes of already-mobilised fans, ready to vote at the slightest opportunity. They have done so in Korea, and I hope they continue to get recognition and that their working contract isn’t too harrowing. It’s safe to say that K-Pop has already arrived in the West. It’s just unfortunate that a large part of its success is subject to gross levels of fetishisation which are not placed upon their Western counterparts

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