Swooning over BTS, K-pop
As someone who enjoys the whole K-pop scene, let me be the first to admit that I used to hate it.
It was a dislike born of a lack of understanding and years of institutionally-ingrained racist dogma that I would only come to recognize later. I looked at these K-pop folks and didn’t get it.
What I saw: a marketable bunch of puppets dancing to a hodgepodge of colors and sounds, ultimately more cringy than eccentric.
In my head, “real” artists lived on a knife’s edge. They had grease in their hair and cigarettes on their breath. They probably didn’t shower, too — because why shower when there were places to be, art to do, people to see? They gathered all the dregs from their lives and turned these into poetry.
But these K-pop folks were too beautiful. Too structured. They wore colored contacts and smiled too long. What did they know about music—real music?
My turnaround came by way of a YouTube video titled “Blood Sweat & Tears.” It was by the group BTS. I watched it once, and then again, and then one more time.
Halfway through my fifth replay, I hit pause, stared at my screen as if to make sure what I was watching really did exist, then paced around the house, muttering, what the f—k.
If you still haven’t heard of BTS, then I can safely say you haven’t been online much. From front-lining Coca-Cola endorsements to being the first Asian act since 2006 to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart with their latest album “Love Yourself: Tear,” the South Korean septet has made a huge dent in the global consciousness.
Their forays into literature, philosophy and urgent youth issues have helped the group create a unique brand. People who watch their music videos come away boggled with an onslaught of amazing music and visuals, and an unending, compelling story to unravel. It’s the BTS experience, and it helped me look at K-pop with brand new eyes.
I realized these guys were doing everything other artists were “supposed” to be doing—from writing, to producing, to performing like their lives depended on it.
But for years something had prevented me from seeing that in K-pop. Was it the eye makeup? The gaudy sets? Or had I been using a long-obsolete yardstick to measure artistry in a society that has gone vastly multicultural and global?
If we are to measure artistry solely by the capacity to produce, BTS wouldn’t be the first; there are other groups who do it on a much larger scale, like younger 13-member group Seventeen, which creates its own choreography on top of everything else.
But BTS—ah, it doesn’t matter to me that they started out as a bunch of strangers strategically put together to form an idol group, much like other K-pop acts. Or that their work is just as much a product of deliberate artifice, from concepts to outfits to live staging.
K-pop has its dark corridors, too. There are many things about it worthy of critique — how it treats its women, how it’s used as a PR tool to both attract and distract, how it is a commercial machine that, in many cases, has hardly anything to do with music itself.
But, despite heavy influences from the West, K-pop is a whole different Frankenstein. It’s okay if you can’t get past the complicated footwork at first, or the sudden isolated English lyric. It’s okay if you feel a little unwelcome and overwhelmed in the beginning; just keep peeking in, keep pressing your ear to the door, and eventually you’ll get it. You’ll get them.
Two years after my encounter with BTS, I was sitting in a coffee shop at lunch break. I was working now; it had been a long day, and an even longer week. My thoughts sloshed around like soup.
BooSeokSoon, a sub-unit of K-pop group Seventeen, came on shuffle with its latest song, “Just Do It.” It was a shock of vitamin into the bloodstream. I didn’t realize I was smiling. I got ready to go back to work.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the real people behind the public face of K-pop. These kids have a lot of heart. They go through years of training at a young age — these so-called slave contracts — all for the slim chance of a life-altering payoff.
Why? Because the company doesn’t care, because the system lends itself to exploitation: You can look at it that way, and I won’t blame you.
There is real struggle behind the glitz. But the system is there, and these kids continue to hustle through it, all for the love of performance and music.
While other kids their age go on dates, play computer games, see their families, do regular things that regular kids do, these trainees lock themselves up in practice rooms until dawn, all in the name of perfecting their craft.
If that isn’t the real deal, then I don’t know what to tell you.
I look at how the industry was 10 years ago, and note that it’s become so different today. Just this year we were introduced to Holland, the first openly gay K-pop idol.
Groups like BTS continue to push the limits of convention by writing about real-world issues while beating top Western artists on the international stage.
Other groups like IKON, Shinee, Pristin, etc. are gaining more autonomy in the production of their own music.
And with social media, barriers only continue to blur. Here, I think, lies the industry’s greatest success—that it never quite sits still, that it is always looking for ways to evolve.
I hope newcomers who stop by can open their eyes and see what I and so many others do: something bold, something fresh, something always curious and eager to reinvent itself. That’s K-pop.
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Andrea Lopez, 21, works as a digital content creator under Gushcloud PH.
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