BTS: Toward an anthropology of K-pop
Recently, news emerged of a UP Diliman course offering about K-dramas, and people’s reactions ranged from amusement to amazement. As expected, there were those who dismissed such a course as a waste of time, but even the most cynical pundit will have to admit that Korean dramas—and more broadly, the so-called “Korean wave” (Hallyu)—have had a profound impact on our popular culture. Just like other social scientists, I have paid close attention to the rise of Korean influence in the country, especially when I realized from my own students in Diliman how massive this wave has become. Which is why, although the few trips I made to South Korea had been for academic and hiking trips (I’ve climbed the country’s two highest mountains—Jiri-san and Halla-san), I took the opportunity to immerse myself in Seoul’s districts, interview colleagues, and learn about contemporary issues. During the lockdown, I was only reminded all too well of those trips and of Hallyu itself, especially with the popularity of K-dramas like “Crash Landing on You” and the dynamite success of bands like BTS.
Speaking of arguably the most important band in the world today, we might as well ask, in the spirit of the new semester: What would an anthropology of K-pop look like? Justifiably, this investigation is not uncharted territory, with academics, fans, and “aca-fans” taking the lead (many a thesis has been devoted to this subject). A well-trodden starting point is situating the “Korean wave” within the broader currents of globalization and consumer capitalism that have taken a cosmopolitan—not Western—character in recent decades. This “cultural hybridization” has had geopolitical and economic implications, not least for Korea as a “brand.”
Journeying further, we can then explore the conditions of possibility—technological and otherwise—for this phenomenon. As the virality of “Gangnam Style” in 2012 showed, the participatory technologies and “mediascapes” of “Web 2.0” were central to its global distribution, foreshadowing the contemporary, pandemic-filtered responses to “drops” from BTS and Blackpink. While these technologies can lead to “cybervigilantism” and “othering”—leaving aside the issues raised in the Netflix film “The Social Dilemma”—it can also bring about a sense of global citizenship and new possibilities for “fan activism” (e.g., BTS’ support, matched by their “Army”, for Black Lives Matter).
Venturing into intersections of age, class, gender, ethnicity, and popular culture can also yield interesting insights. To give just one example, while some scholars have argued that girl groups have reinforced sexism and gender inequalities, others have articulated their contributions to a “cosmopolitan femininity.” Similarly, the ‘‘soft masculinity” and “androgynous style” of RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook have been litigated in terms of whether their performances (on the stage) and “performances” (in the Butlerian sense) challenge “hegemonic masculinity.”
Juxtaposing theory and practice, anthropology’s contribution to all of the above has been to bring its “experience-near” approaches and actually participate, while observing, the enactments of K-pop and its “transcultural fandoms” all over the world. Hallyu itself may be global, but it takes distinctly local forms (remarkable papers like those from a 2014 Ateneo conference on hallyu are available online). The ethnographic attention to culture change, idols, bodily practices, and emic (insider) perspectives can animate our understanding of what it means to be a “fan”—and what it means to “consume” K-pop in our everyday lives.
Surely, the music and lyrics remain germane for scholarship. Some for instance, have noticed the fluid use of gender pronouns, and of languages, in BTS songs, as well as their resonant (if emergent) themes—from mental health to women’s rights, as well as their willingness to challenge political indifference and toxicity from older generations. Doubtless many can relate when they croon, in “Silver Spoon”: “This is justice? / You must be kiddin’ me.”
These lines in “Am I Wrong” could very well be our anthem: “If it’s okay to see the news / If that comment is fine / If that hate does not bother you / You’re… not normal.”
Beyond such literal messages, the metaphor of the lonely whale in “Whalien 52” strikes a chord in our time of global (dis)connectedness and uncertainty. What other possibilities—from entertainment to emancipation—lie in “the tomorrow we’ve been waiting for”?
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