BTS recently scored a feature in The Hollywood Reporter magazine, likely as a part of their Grammy push. That seems like rather standard stuff, but after seeing a ton of people getting mad online about it, I thought I would check it out.
Quickly enough, I start to understand the complaints, and overall I get the outcry from both sides.
Over a 13-hour trans-Pacific journey, here’s what I learned. There are seven of them, all in their 20s — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — and they’ve been singing and dancing together since 2012, when 47-year-old South Korean music mogul Bang Si-Hyuk, aka “Hitman” Bang, pieced the group together at his Big Hit Entertainment factory, one of the pillars of the K-pop industry. While BTS is technically a K-pop act singing K-pop songs — a mashup of pop, hip-hop and contemporary R&B filtered through a distinctly Korean (which is to say, squeaky clean) prism — they were born out of Bang’s desire to break free from the genre’s stifling limitations, which at times have bordered on human rights violations.
Right off the bat, we’re made aware that the journalist basically just Google’d BTS before doing the feature. There are advantages and disadvantages to familiarity with the subject, of course, but we’re about to find out one of the latter.
Since its origins in the 1990s, K-pop has been part Motown, part Hunger Games. Thousands of wannabe K-pop stars compete at regular American Idol-style cattle calls. Those lucky enough to make it to the next level spend years learning their craft inside secretive K-pop training camps, where they’re sometimes subjected to dangerous diets, strict social rules (no dating), grueling rehearsal schedules and mandated plastic surgery and skin-whitening procedures. Only the best of the best wind up in an actual K-pop band — while some don’t survive at all. In 2017, the industry drew intense scrutiny after a member of SHINee, another popular K-pop band, took his own life, writing in his suicide note that he felt “broken on the inside.”
This was honestly startling to read? I dunno why it has to segue from industry talk into a specific artist’s suicide that essentially blames K-pop for somebody having depression.
“The restaurant is called Dotgogi, which means either Sesame Meat or Aged Pork, depending on which online translator I consult.”
Then there was a part where he just didn’t seem to care to Google.
Sweet-faced Jungkook (Jeon Jung-kook, 22) as the band’s maknae — a K-pop term for the baby of the group.
Sir, that’s just Korean.
So yeah, I get why people are calling him a dumbass online and what not. Ranges from borderline insulting to flat-out inappropriate. It’s Orientalist bullshit from a Western outlet for the most part.
That said, this person did get quotes other knowledgeable and/or subservient journalists wouldn’t have, which says … well, something.
Like this became a bit of a thing among K-pop fans, but it’s understandable to me.
“We have to consider ourselves not just better [than other K-pop acts], but the best,” says RM, BTS’ 25-year-old charismatic leader. “When we’re out there on that stage, we’re there to conquer. We think we’re the ones.”
The bracketing indicates a modification to the quote, so the author is inferring that. However, even if he did mean it, I have no problem with it as it sounds like a typical quote from an athlete about self-belief. I think it’s great that they strive in that direction, honestly.
It also highlighted Big Hit Entertainment’s business model, which is not controversial to anybody realistic about what the company’s goal was due to being … well, a company.
Of course, Bang wasn’t only interested in cleaning up the business. He also wanted to create one K-pop supergroup to rule them all. “We focused on benchmarking the existing success formula rather than achieving strong differentiation,” he says in music-exec speak of his strategy.
It conjured up a generational battle pitting millennial sensibilities against the conservative expectations of Korean society. “BTS symbolizes the periphery,” he explains. “They did not shy away from the pains of this generation and were honest about talking about their own ones. And they came together at a time of increased longing for fairness and the rights of the marginalized. I think this wholesome combination has led to their global success.”
After a bit of common-sense reporting on how their lives are still managed tightly though, it then delves into trying to get them to address perhaps issues more controversial that other artists in America don’t shy away from as much.
If the boys ever bristle at their super-controlled lifestyles, they keep it to themselves. Indeed, whenever the conversation turns to anything controversial — or just slightly provocative — their answers have all the spontaneity of a Disney animatronic figure. For instance, when asked if they have any reservations about resuming their tour in America during such a politically fraught period, a switch seems to flip in RM’s brain. “BTS doesn’t talk about big issues like war or peace, or global poverty or starvation, or things like that,” he says, shooting down the question. “There are a lot of issues, both in the United States and in Korea. I think the message [is] loving yourself, as well as to look at the small things.”
For any other group, this is an understandable position, as they are after all essentially never allowed to broach those subjects. Hell, from personal experience, even knowing that you’re a huge fan and that you would use the answer to paint them in a positive light, some companies will not let them answer anything of this sort.
Of course, for BTS, their branding is different so it’s natural that people were disappointed in this. The whole section about Big Hit was about how they were branded to be the group that could speak out about this, essentially speaking truth to power, but at this stage in their fame it’s now apparently too risky to provide anything but empty platitudes. It’s disappointing because, quite frankly, it is not difficult to give an uncontroversial answer that pleases everybody. Not many of their fanbase overseas nor the journalists covering them are gonna be MAGA-hat wearing individuals, so a canned answer denouncing the wrongs going on in America would make sense. However, that a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador could not even risk or was prepared to answer that seemed to say more than an actual answer would’ve.
Then there was the Saudi Arabia concert, which has already been subject to controversy.
After the five-week break, which ended Sept. 16, the group plunged back into the K-pop grind. They are restarting the Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tour, which kicked off in May at the Rose Bowl (two sold-out dates and $16.5 million in ticket sales, another record) and resumes Oct. 10 at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The appearance comes at the request of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and has generated controversy (especially after Nicki Minaj canceled a date there in July). “I wouldn’t say it was easy,” RM says (extremely carefully) of the decision to play Saudi Arabia after MBS was implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “But we were officially invited. It’s been a while since we’ve performed in the Middle East — I guess the last time was 2015 in Dubai.” Adds Jimin: “To put it simply, if there’s a place where people want to see us, we’ll go there. That’s really how we feel.”
Right, of course. I’m not sure why this was ever controversial given all the promotions and acknowledgment from officials saying that the government invited them, but apparently denial that it was an invitation was a big thing, likely because fans didn’t want to believe Big Hit had agreed to be a part of a regime attempting to pave over human right atrocities through entertainment and what not, but these quotes appear to remove any doubt on that front.
Anyway, as you might imagine it’s been a bit of a mess online with people arguing back and forth. Though really the only thing that has become apparent to me is that this won’t change much. People who loved BTS are unlikely to change their minds in enough numbers over the issues mentioned to matter, and people who thought BTS were a well branded group but ultimately still a K-pop group will come away from it thinking the same as before. I’m sure antis will have a field day with it or whatever, but similarly, that’s temporary and not much in the status quo has been impacted. Perhaps if this leads to a flood of critical coverage in the press it could change things, but that seems unlikely to me as well.
So it’s the same as it ever was, though I do think it can serve lessons. Like journalists should do more preparation even if they are unfamiliar with their subjects so you don’t come off like essentially an Orientalist piece of shit, that journalists criticizing this article should reflect on why such a bumbling feature gleaned more insightful nuggets than any of theirs would’ve, and that people should probably chill with their narratives for what is still a group of closely-managed K-pop idols.