'The Kings of This K-Pop Generation': How BTS Became a Global Obsession

Illustration for article titled The Kings of This K-Pop Generation: How BTS Became a Global Obsession
Image: BOOK COVER: BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears © 2020 by Tamar Herman, VIZ Media / AUTHOR PHOTO: Hans Alcindor (Other)

While some K-pop fans continue to be celebrated for using their impressive mobilization skills to crash the Dallas Police Department’s narc-y app, flood white supremacist hashtags with fan cams, and devastate attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally, the actual artists who inspire such devoted, organized fandom rarely receive the consideration they deserve. K-pop is often viewed as some monolith, flattened by facts about follower counts rather than being explored with nuance and expertise. And so, the group at the forefront of K-pop for most Western music fans—the record-breaking boy band BTS, an irrefutable force in pop culture—is championed in the U.S. for the size of their fandom (called ARMY) but scarcely the merits of their art.

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K-pop journalist Tamar Herman’s first book, BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears, out today, offers some critical course correction. The text gives a full image of RM, Suga, Jin, Jimin, V, Jungkook and J-Hope—their seven-year career, their music, and most importantly, a clear breakdown of cultural references that may bypass most listeners unfamiliar with South Korean history. It’s also a borderline-academic read, a fascinating text on how a boy band from Seoul became a global obsession, and a necessary primer for anyone curious about their story. Full disclosure: Herman is a friend, as all boy band fanatics seem to find one another.

Jezebel spoke to Herman about taking on a book about the biggest K-pop boy band for an American audience, the politics inherent in BTS’s music, and just how the group was able to take over the world.

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This interview has been edited and condescended for clarity.


First things first: Are you going to teach a collegiate level course on BTS?

Did I not make the book fun enough? Did I not make it fan-ish enough? [Laughs.] But then I was thinking, there are those books. People who want to engage with BTS as a fan, they’re going to engage on social media. But if you’re looking to have a whole overview of their career, that’s what I can give you. There’s so many ways to engage with BTS’s content. I hope this is the first of many books about BTS. That’s what the world and BTS deserve. [This book is] where you go if you’re lost about BTS after Wikipedia.

The book begins with their history and leads into detailed breakdowns of the music, intertwined with cultural commentary. (Here’s an example: you described Dark & Wild, but you didn’t separate the album from the conversation surrounding misogyny in its lyrics.) How did you decide to sketch it out in that way? 

It would be really negligent to write about K-pop acts without talking about the culture and the history. My goal for the book wasn’t necessarily “let’s address this Dark & Wild misogyny from a cultural perspective,” it was, “this album was called out for misogyny by feminist groups in Korea. Let’s delve into it and see what BTS did and what [their company] Big Hit did in response to it.”

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At the end of the day, they’re a boy band with a predominantly female audience, so we have to delve into the people behind the songs and how they’re growing from one song to the next. So that’s my approach. You’re doing the best that you can in any given moment and doing the best that you can and owning up to it when you misstep is really important, and that’s what I wanted to show throughout the book. There’s been progression, there’s been growth, the album series go from when they’re teenagers to the present as adults. You’re accompanying them on their life’s path and the philosophical quandaries of youth and early adulthood.

Boy bands and girl groups—any music geared towards young people, really—is often talked about in a way that is divorced from any meaningful source material. Not necessarily the musicality, but what it even means, culturally. The BTS story is overwhelming but you distill it in a digestible way.

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I’m so happy to hear that because I thought it was too dense.

I’ve noticed that for some Americans, K-pop has a cold start problem—it’s not just that they don’t know where to begin with the music, but that they don’t know the verbiage, the constant content creation can be intimidating, the idiosyncrasies of the industry that differ slightly can be overwhelming, but here, you make sure to spell them out without leaning into condescending over-explication. How did you strike that tonal balance?

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I was thinking, because this is a kind of a biography, how do you make an existence, a real living breathing person—or in this case, a living, breathing group that is still active—palpable beyond typing “BTS” on social media or Google and becoming overwhelmed? There are places to start, but usually, you’re just thrown in. And for some people, that works perfectly. For people who aren’t used to fandoms or don’t have that much time to dedicate to fandom, breaking it down into three sections: first the history, then the music, then those mini-essays at the end [of the book] is palpable to me. I’ve read a lot of academic books about K-pop but they didn’t show the whole picture. There’s one Korean journalist, Kim Youngdae, who wrote a book about BTS’s music and as I was reading it I was thinking, “I love how he’s describing the music, but there’s not a whole lot of history.” For him and for Koreans who are reading it, you don’t need to be explained what the Gwangju Uprising was. You don’t need to be explained how different regions in Korea have different values and how that leads to this historic territorialism that BTS shows in their earlier songs where they’re really bringing their Korean-ness and their identity [to the forefront].

Americans by and large are not really into delving deep into other people’s culture. Dubbing is what we do. We don’t necessarily do subtitles. Most people who listen to Bad Bunny probably aren’t Googling what he’s performing about, you know? And he’s an activist. In general, when I’m writing about Korea, I’m always fascinated by how pop culture reflects the world around us. How do you condense that for everybody? How do you tell a story of culture that people aren’t familiar with, and politics that people aren’t familiar with? Before this current wave of K-pop, BTS, Parasite, most Americans’ context for Korea was the Korean War and Samsung. Maybe they know that LG is Korean. Maybe. Now people know K-BBQ and K-beauty, but it’s pretty recent. A lot of early BTS was very anti-Korea’s educational culture and how do you break that down for people who don’t know about it? It was my goal was for people to come away thinking about what BTS means on a larger scale.

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Do you consider BTS to be more political—well, maybe more, like, sociopolitical—than other K-pop groups?

Between 2008 and 2013, when BTS debuted, there was a bubble of YouTube growth where groups like Girls Generation, Super Junior, TVXQ, 2NE1, BIGBANG were all really popular and there were some sociopolitical criticisms in there, especially with BIGBANG and 2NE1. Korea, in the late-aughts and early-2010s, was in a really good place financially. Samsung was doing really well, second only to Apple. Korea was in this short-lived zenith of consumerism and capitalism. But RM’s first song that he ever uploaded to BTS’s official account was about going to vote. So around this time, the younger generation started feeling—and we saw that here, too—millennials started getting more and more vocal about how our lives are kind of shitty because of the older generation. The general feeling of millennial discontent started being heard through K-pop, but it was still pretty rare.

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It’s not necessarily that BTS is trying to be political, it’s that they’re trying to reflect their own lives. There are references in their songs that I interpret to be political references. The one that always comes to my mind is in “Am I Wrong.” Suga says something about “cats and dogs” and that was released the same year of a big political scandal in Korea where some politician described the average person in Korea as “cats and dogs, they’re not human.” It was a way to quote, verbatim, in a song that’s already political, this thing in a sly way. Before BTS, RM was releasing songs about voting and Suga was releasing songs about the Gwangju Massacre, so they weren’t apolitical. I think K-pop is viewed as apolitical because pop music is supposed to be universal. What BTS is doing is blending those influences—pop music’s universality and hip-hop’s autobiographical nature—and bringing them together in something that is very K-pop. I’m not going to say that is unique to BTS, but it is unique in the way that it has resonated. That’s partly because of the way ARMY has rallied around them.

I hesitate to ask why you think BTS was the K-pop boy group to fully break in America, because there are so many factors. Like, I found your writing about them making it a point to perform stateside to be so crucial... but I also found it interesting when you mentioned their show American Hustle Life, and how they learned from Coolio, Warren G—do you think there’s some coded acceptance of their performance of black music because they’ve received some education in it? 

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I think so. A few years ago I wrote a piece for Forbes that was seven factors behind BTS’s success and one of them was, and I mentioned this in the book, that in the U.S., we love one pop band at a time. There can only be one. When BTS started in 2013, we [were about to lose] One Direction, pretty much. Bieber had already grown up. The U.S. audience was looking for something to replace it. I don’t know what year Zayn left 1D

2015.

When you look, BTS’s first major performance that was considered a sign of their ascent was at [the annual K-pop conference] KCON, in 2016.

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One Direction went on indefinite hiatus in 2016, so that feels pretty prophetic.

It was a really impactful experience. You felt in the room that they were here. The pop stars of this generation. Very few K-pop artists get that kind of applause. Undeniably, they are the kings of this K-pop generation. And then we started looking around and it was like, “Oh, it’s not just K-pop fans that are listening to BTS, it’s general people.” Maybe it’s because there’s no other alternative in the U.S. that’s so accessible—and in the present, K-pop is really accessible. There’s a lot of subtitles, there’s a lot of translators but there isn’t pandering. Though BTS toured a lot in the U.S. in the beginning they did not pander toward an American audience. They built up their own audience through social media and brought their performances to the American music market in part because the Korean market was saturated at this time.

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By the time BTS dropped WINGS [in 2016,] you could start seeing how many people were talking about them on social media platforms who weren’t talking about K-pop beforehand. BTS came at a time when people in the U.S., after Psy [released his 2012 viral hit “Gangnam Style”], people were already aware of Korean content, people were already aware of K-pop. One Direction was gone, and in Korea, BIGBANG had just enlisted, and groups like EXO were popular and are still hugely popular in Asia, but they weren’t gaining the traction globally. BTS had been targeting American audiences probably because they thought that was where they could make some money. It was a perfect storm in the realm of popdom.

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I’ve definitely noticed 1D fans becoming BTS fans. One Direction came at a time when other boy bands were trying to happen, but they won out because of a variety of extramusical factors—they had all the things we love about boy bands, the talent, the charisma, the playful boyishness, but they also had something of a deviant streak. They had tattoos. They didn’t dance. They offered the soft masculinity that boy bands always do, but with a little bit of an edge. I see some of that expressed in BTS as well, but through their own original songwriting and hip-hop influences. I guess I’m interested in that edge.

In K-pop, it’s not necessarily a new thing. You have groups like BIGBANG and Block B who were really aggressive. Early K-pop groups had a lot of screaming in their songs. A lot of metal influences in their songs. A lot of bad boys, but it wasn’t more than an aesthetic concept for a lot of them. I think that’s what set aside BIGBANG and then BTS: you have this softer, less-toxic masculinity.

Their brand of approachable hip-hop is an answer to toxic masculinity in performative art. Because they were able to go from singing a song like one of their “Cyphers” to singing a song like “Tomorrow” or “Spring Day”—because they are able to take ownership of their multifaceted identity, I think that makes them both more approachable and more relatable without losing that edge that you said 1D had. In BTS there’s not necessarily a “bad boy,” but each member of BTS could be bad… maybe… not really. [Laughs]

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Ha!

There’s a whole lot of cultural reasoning for that. In America, we really love artistic authenticity. We love the garage band rising to the top. And K-pop is like, “Nah, they’re performers. That’s their job. Like an actor, that’s their job. They don’t need to write their songs the way an actor doesn’t need to write their script.” And that’s totally fine. But if you look at BTS, that’s not necessarily what they’re doing. The way that they’re doing it is a little bit more like the American approach to artistry, which to a lot of people makes it more attractive to a Western audience, but it’s really just a different approach to art. BTS is an alternative. A lot of the narrative of BTS being underdogs that is popular with fans, whether or not you agree it’s true, [is similar to the garage band narrative]. The fact the members struggled, the fact that their company had a lot of problems before the company blew up, the fact that they’re singing about stuff that matters, that makes them approachable to Western audiences.

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And social media.

BTS were talking to their fans all the time on social media. They were talking to fans before their debut. They were creating songs before their debut. Other K-pop groups do that now, too. In the book I talk about how other groups didn’t necessarily use Twitter as much as a group to create their formal identity. Members of K-pop acts prior to BTS usually had their own account on Twitter and Instagram. And after the [Billboard] Social 50 [Chart launched], you started to see a lot more groups making a group account. It was because companies recognized the tools—they recognized that social media marketing is a thing—and that you needed to take advantage of it.

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By creating this group identity around their individual identities, I think BTS is very much the boy band for this generation of millennials across the globe. Millennials feel they aren’t listened to, that they’re not heard, and BTS is really singing to that and really showcasing themselves. BTS puts out so much content and some of it is just them running around and playing games on [variety web series] Run BTS and [YouTube videos called] Bangtan Bombs where they show behind the scenes stuff. You’re not necessarily just watching BTS for entertainment if you’re an ARMY. You’re watching them because they inspire you. You’re watching them and you’re sharing them because you find yourself reflected in them, in their work. That’s what all good pop artists do. That’s what all good artists do.

Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.

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yodasneglectedbrother
Yoda’s Neglected Brother

I can’t believe she didn’t go with BTS: Blood, Tears & Sweat. It’s right there.