Should BTS Ditch The K-Pop Label?

3 October 2018, 14:47 | Updated: 8 October 2018, 17:12

BTS - 2018 Billboard Music Awards
BTS - 2018 Billboard Music Awards. Picture: Getty

By Olivia Jones

Does removing the K-Pop label distance BTS from their Korean identity?

K-Pop is big business. In 2017, South Korea’s music industry was ranked 6th in the world by the IFPI with a retail value of half a billion US dollars. That’s up from 8th in 2016 and 10th in 2013. K-Pop has promoted itself so well that international markets have started to consciously attend to it and connect with it on a deeper level, as evidenced by the popularity of BTS.

Social media networks have allowed them to connect with audiences worldwide, with ideas translated across language barriers. However, to some people, the label of ‘K-Pop artist’ reduces their legitimacy because of the regularity with which it is repeated makes them seem like a ‘craze’. BTS are Korean and proudly so, but ‘K-Pop’ appears to have become a buzz word and at times it’s used unnecessarily. So much so that some BTS fans have stopped introducing artists from Korea as ‘K-Pop’ altogether. The concern is that distancing them from the phrase K-Pop is distancing them from their own identity.

For many, BTS are unlike any boyband we’ve seen before. Their songs have sharp edges and discuss some incredibly poignant topics. For example, their latest song IDOL featuring Nicki Minaj includes important sentiments about self-love, ‘You can call me whatever you want, you can criticise me if you want, but I know who I am and I love who I am’. Then there’s ‘Anpanman’ which says you might not have the qualities of a super hero, like super strength or a super fast car, but if you want to be a hero, you have to go for it. ‘I’m Fine’ talks about struggling through emotional hardship and coming out the other side. ‘Epiphany' discusses the realisation that in order to love other people you first have to love yourself, which is the title and theme of the last three albums. Clearly, this is not a ‘girl, I wish I could have kissed you in da club last week’ boyband.

However, you’d be forgiven for not realising that because of the language barrier. And, unfortunately, the 'K' in K-pop is a visual and auditory clue to some people that there’s going to be a barrier or disconnect listening to this type of music. It means Korean artists have a bit of a battle on their hands. Korean hasn’t got the familiarity to western markets in the same way that Spanish does, for example. Whilst being one of the few in my school to opt for German *insert traumatic flashback to Sauerkraut on the exchange program* most people I know studied Spanish. It’s got a very similar alphabet to English and it’s even considered sexy sounding. I think that explains why ‘Despacito’ was such a hit in the UK. Justin Bieber singing in Spanish was the cultural crossover everyone could handle, even if people still struggled to sing along to it at home.

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But it’s not just a language barrier. There's also a perception problem too. Before BTS there was Psy with ‘Gangnam Style’ - the song which 3-year-olds up and down the country demanded to play on repeat whilst they ate their sticky birthday cakes and snot ran down their faces. Psy is the most notable Korean artist to make headway in the UK and yet playing that song at a party is more likely to illicit a groan than a squeal of excitement and deep throated ‘TUUUUUUNE’.

What turned people off, I think, was a perceived lack of depth to the song. The only lyrics in English were ‘Ehhhhh sexy lady’ which is more like a catcall than a philosophical proposition (the song was actually a critique of capitalism and class, told through satirical depictions of a 'Gangnam guy' - Gangnam being a wealthy suburb of Seoul). It’s not fair that Psy should have the burden of giving K-Pop a gimmick label in the UK (even if the song did come with a novelty dance routine) but, unfortunately for most, it was their first taste of K-Pop.

This is why some BTS fans have stopped introducing artists from Korea as ‘K-Pop’, in the hope that people new to BTS will judge them on their music alone, not because they are a K-Pop band. And maybe they’ve got a point.

Instead, if all Korean artists were introduced to people on the merit of their music’s quality in thought and sound, like English speaking songs are, perhaps people wouldn’t be so adamant that the current obsession with BTS is a phase. They would recognise a pattern of artistic integrity and self expression. Furthermore, K-Pop isn’t a genre like Hip-Hop or Rock, so it doesn’t give the listener any real information about style. K-Pop is simply the name of the industry in Korea, which reinforces how superfluous it is at times.

However, when speaking to BTS leader RM, I asked him how important it was to keep singing in Korean even as they gained success in the West. He replied that it was really important, that they’re proud to be Korean and that it would not be true to their identity if they didn’t sing in Korean. So, would BTS distancing itself from the phrase K-Pop be a rejection of their identity also? Time and time again BTS talk about loving themselves and speaking their own story so my gut instinct is that they would never turn their backs on identifying as K-Pop altogether. Instead, I believe they are making way to redefine what K-Pop means and they are not the only ones.

Dua Lipa has a hotly anticipated collaboration with Korean girlband BlackPink due out on the 19th October. I for one am VERY excited to hear it not only because it’s Dua Lipa, who can do no wrong in my ears, but because it’s another way of demystifying Korean pop music. This is going to be another great showcase in the UK for the merit of BlackPink as artists. Also, don’t think for a second this collaboration is catapulting a relatively unknown artist into the limelight. BlackPink have 12 million subscribers on Youtube, Dua Lipa has 8 million. These are fairly matched titans in the world of music.

So, next time you want to introduce me to music from a Korean artist, tell me their name first and let me hear their music.