Is BTS World Music?

“World music” is a slippery term. It is broad enough to encompass any and all music that exists or has ever existed in the world, yet it lacks the precision to accurately apply to any specific music tradition; it is open to many interpretations. A raga from India is neither more nor less deserving of the designation “world music” than a Mozart piano sonata.” – Michael Bakan

 

In early July, marketing research company Nielsen released their mid-year music report which summarized sales, streams, and current music trends in the United States. A rather number-heavy, capitalistic approach to music, but a critical one for industry experts looking to identify the “next big thing.” However, such data is no longer accessed only by industry experts – fans of non-Western artists are finding it more crucial than ever to directly monitor numerical data in order to help outside artists transition into the Western system. It was only a matter of time before the Nielsen document spread to fans of Korean pop group BTS, and these fans quickly noticed some issues.

In a Twitter thread by journalist Brian Patrick Byrne, Byrne explains that BTS are listed as top sellers in the Pop music category of Nielsen’s document, but fans saw that the report does not include BTS in the Top Pop album charts. As per Byrne’s tweets, he reached out to Nielsen and asked for clarification on this matter.  Nielsen responded:

“While BTS may be Pop music in other parts of the world, in the US, it is World Music first and Pop music second. Unlike Harry Styles and Justin Bieber, the majority of BTS’ music is in Korean, not English. Language is another factor – music in Spanish is classified as Latin from a genre perspective and eve if it is Latin pop, it is still classified as Latin, not Pop.”

According to Nielsen, BTS’s position in the U.S. is primarily World Music and secondarily Pop, and language is considered a valid reason for this distinction. However, is this really a fair use of the term “world music?” What is “world music,” and is BTS even “world music” at all?

The term “world music” was coined by ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown at Wesleyan University in the early 1960s. While Brown hoped that the term would bring awareness to music of different cultures, he believed that “world music” was more of a philosophical concept than a definitive term — it represented the idea of global connectivity where music and diversity from all over the world existed together in harmony. In Brown’s vision for world music, “all music might be said to belong to all people.” This explanation might seem rather vague, but “world music” was not intended to have a strict definition. Nor was it ever intended to be used as a genre.

The term evolved in the 1980s when the record label industry saw a marketing problem. Artists such as Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel were gaining popularity for using African and Latin sounds in their works. Paul Simon’s Graceland, an American-South African music collaboration during the apartheid, became a significant piece of music in the West. Record labels found themselves in a rather complicated situation as they wished to create a specific market for this type of music – Western music that included elements borrowed from non-Western cultures – but didn’t have a catch-all phrase for it.

In 1987, a group of music industry personnel from around the globe met in Britain to establish a standardized term for music that sounded non-Western. They settled on the term “world music.” In contrast to Brown’s idea of “world music,” the term now had a stricter definition that applied to a sound rather than a philosophical, social concept. World Music was now a genre – a poorly defined, broad genre, but a genre nonetheless.

But along with being a genre, World Music was essentially a Western construction – a marketing term created for Western listeners. It was something the West needed for their own cross-cultural collaborations and for their own sales systems. It was never developed with non-Western artists in mind.

So, is BTS World Music? Conceptually, and based on “world music’s” original definition – yes. Everyone is World Music. Any artist creating music is a part of a connected world of music. But today, this definition holds little, if any, relevance. It is impossible for such an idealistic concept of World Music to exist in the current music scene. The reality of our current system is that Western artists and non-Western artists are not equal – they do not exist in the same space, nor are they given the same level of resources. There is a fundamental divide between the Western and non-Western artists, and the root of this divide is the very reason for why “world music” was created – the need for genres.

Understanding genres depends on understanding the idea of “music” – and “music,” by nature, is a Western concept. Yes, that statement may seem rather problematic; music exists in all parts of this world and varies from one culture to the next, but the term itself holds Western assumptions. Many cultures in this world do not have a word for “music,” and the process of creating organized sound is a normal activity that is not defined in any way – it is simply an act of human behavior. Therefore, for cultures that do not have a term for music, the West defines it themselves, assigning Western musical theory and ideology to something that does not fit the western system. Ethnomusicologist Michael Bakan describes this predicament:

“…even though every human culture in the world has produced forms of organized sound that we in the West consider music, many of these cultures do not categorize their own “music” as music at all. It seems that our concept of music, however broad and open-minded we try to make it, cannot transcend its Western cultural moorings…”

If the term “music” is rooted in western ideology, so is the term “genre.” “Genre” is not exclusive to music, but it holds particular importance in the Western music industry because it shapes how the Western system operates. iTunes rankings, Billboard charts, Grammy categories – all the technical aspects of the Western music system are built on genres. This is not just an organizational tool that allows the West to keep track of certain music, it also creates clear goals and opportunities for artists. Award shows, radio stations, playlists, streaming servers – all these mediums create genre-specific categories that encourage artists to focus their musical style to one area. And when artists comply and stick to a specific genre, they increase their visibility among followers of that community, strengthen their presence on specific charts and award categories, and create networks with others associated in the same field.

But outside of the West, genres begin to lose their importance. In IFPI’s 2019 music listening report, IFPI attempted to list the most popular genres for a handful of countries around the world. When looking at the various country-specific profiles, it becomes clear that the farther away a country is from the Western music system, the more irrelevant and ill-defined genres become. For example, India’s profile is a mess of random labels being used as “genres.” These “genres” are so vague that IFPI has to add examples of artists to help specify what they meant. This list has a million issues, including an ambiguous split between “new” and “old” Bollywood, a overly-simplistic language-based approach for regional dialects, and a failure to address any crossover between these overlapping groups.

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IFPI 2019 Global Music Listening Report 

Most Indian listeners will tell you that the IFPI document does not align with how they think of music. But when IFPI attempts to analyze Indian music, it places a non-Western system within a Western one – this Western system, which relies heavily on genres, allows IFPI to construct genres in areas where they simply do not exist. This creates a misleading, one-dimensional presentation of non-Western music and strips the music of its diversity.

BTS, like most non-Western artists, do not adhere to one genre because genre-specific music is a Western development. This isn’t necessarily a conscious decision – it’s simply a reality of how music across the world is created when it does not come from the Western system. For most non-Western music industries, genres don’t serve as the crucial building blocks that they are in the West. They exist because non-Western countries have partially accepted the Western system (in terms of streaming and digital distribution) and because of personal interests of artists, but non-Western music systems don’t depend extensively on genres. Therefore, non-Western artists aren’t compelled to stick to a single genre when creating music.

When a non-Western artist does not follow genre-specific categories and enters a genre-obsessed Western system, they often do not fit. But they have to be placed somewhere —  RIAA certifications, Grammy considerations, and other technical aspects of the industry require artists to identify with a particular genre. This puts non-Western artists at a disadvantage as their musical style is incompatible with such a genre-heavy system to begin with. If the artists do not have a clear answer on what their own genre is, the Western industry forces them into one.

Ideally, Nielsen would have liked a “K-pop” category for BTS, much like their “Latin pop” category for certain Latin artists. However, without enough relevant “K-pop” artists in the U.S. music scene, Nielsen’s options for BTS are limited to Pop or World Music — two broad and ill-defined genres perfect for artists who do not have a distinct sound. Nielsen sees that BTS’s Korean language does not align with the English-only Pop acts, and BTS’s overall structure is unlike that of Western Pop artists – therefore, BTS are outliers in Nielsen’s Pop system and the overall U.S. Pop system. But is there anything that allows Nielsen to label BTS as World Music? As stated in one of the original press releases on “World Music:”

“Trying to reach a definition of World Music provoked much lengthy discussion and finally it was agreed that it means practically any music that isn’t at present catered for by its own category.”

Therefore, if BTS do not fit in any category, they can be placed in World Music – a lost items pile of artists who don’t quite align with the Western genre system.

After this lengthy discussion on World Music, why does it even matter what BTS is categorized as? Why is it such a problem to be labeled as World Music?

Although created to categorize music in the Western market, genres have also been used by the West to separate mainstream media from non-Western and POC media. This is observed throughout the history of popular music — music by Black artists was categorized into specific genres such as “Urban” and “R&B” on the basis that they represented music that was different in sound. However, while the reason for those genres was attributed to sound, such sound was a direct influence of the race, culture, and experiences of those Black artists. Therefore, within that designation of “difference” in sound was inherent bias and racism that separated Black artists from the mainstream.

Today, the World Music category essentially holds the same purpose as R&B and Urban. It separates artists from mainstream music by placing them in category with much less dominance. It is no secret that World Music is struggling to draw attention in the music industry — in 2018, the World Music genre only accounted for 1.5% of total music album consumption in the U.S., while the Pop genre accounted for 20.1%.

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Share of total music album consumption in the US in 2018, by genre – Statista

 

There’s incredible power, money, and popularity that comes with being Pop. Investors, critics, award shows, and labels are keen to promote content with Pop artists due to their dominance in the music market. In contrast, being World Music doesn’t guarantee much stability or success, and for most industry experts, it is simply not worth their time.

After seeing these numbers, any artist would be concerned if they were labeled as World Music. But strangely enough, in terms of the Grammy awards, the World Music category is quite attractive.

While the Recording Academy runs on a rather stereotypical definition of “world music,” stating that eligibility for the “Best World Music” category requires albums to contain “traditional” sounds, this concept develops from the idea of authenticity. As record companies initially tried to market World Music to audiences, they ended up creating a distinction between music that resembled Pop and music that resembled Rock. World Music was the Rock genre – the traditional sounds, raw talent, experimental nature – it all fit an idealistic image of the Rock Star, the musician who possessed organic, natural music skills. This, along with Rock music’s own history of borrowing from non-Western cultures, made Westerners feel that World Music was Rock-like. As ethnomusicologist Simon Frith states, “world music, in short, might have come from elsewhere but it was sold in a familiar package – not as global pop but as roots rock, as music like that made by British and American bands who had remained true to rock and roll’s original spirit.” Over the years, this constructed a notion of authenticity for Western listeners – anything World Music was automatically assumed to be of higher musical quality than anything Pop.

However, this Rock comparison adds yet another layer of complexity to World Music – according to Frith,  “the implication is that World musicians can now give us those direct, innocent rock and roll pleasures that Western musicians are too jaded, too corrupt to provide.”  Essentially, Western artists have the freedom of experimenting with commercialized, overused sounds and styles because non-Western musicians would provide any pure, “authentic” sounds if needed. Furthermore, Frith explains that the expectation of traditional, “authentic” sounds from world musicians highlights that World Music is built on “Third World musicians being treated as raw materials to be processed into commodities for the West and First World musicians… putting ‘new life into their own music by working with artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N’Dour, and Celia Cruz.’”

The Grammys’ definition of World Music is based on this very idea. World Music artists must remain the uncorrupted, traditional selves that they are. They exist as commodities that are used when Western music needs to be revitalized with something “pure” and “exotic.”

It is highly unlikely that BTS will ever be accepted in the Grammy World Music category. The Recording Academy’s requirement of “traditional” sounds imposes a limitation on non-Western music – it implies that while Western music has the privilege of evolving, modernizing, and transitioning in sound, non-Western music must remain rooted in the past. Western music can embody a provocative new image and still be praised, while non-Western music must not be corrupted by Western ideology and modern development. BTS do not align with this idea of World Music– their music is not up for commodification by the West, and they do not exist as “raw material” that they West can exploit. They have a strong industry presence, stronger than most Western artists themselves, and their music is an evolved sound of South Korea, one that does not fit the Grammys’ “traditional” assumption of Korean music.

Ultimately, this shows that the Western industry has outdated, stereotypical categories for non-Western music that vary in meaning depending on the situation and context of their use. BTS is Pop when they don’t align with the flawed notion of “authenticity” the West believes in. BTS is World Music when their culture and language are too different to include in the white, English-speaking mainstream market. But this also reveals that BTS have exposed the shortcomings of an archaic system – for arguably the first time in the history of Western popular music, a “world music” artist has escaped the limitations of the genre and transcended into the mainstream. Not only do BTS challenge the discriminatory purpose of “world music,” but by refusing to adopt a single genre altogether, they disrupt the whole genre-based structure the western industry runs on.

It’s not that BTS have no say in what genre they are – by narrowing the focus and diversity of their music, they can remove the elements that paint them as World Music and transition completely to Pop. But doing so would be succumbing to a Western system that is designed to make non-Western artists sacrifice their own music to become mainstream — something that BTS refuses to do.

As a result, BTS will continue to be tossed around from genre to genre in the West, but their ability to survive in many different categories is a testament to their musical diversity and strength. These ambiguous genres have neither diminished BTS’s musical scope nor stereotyped their identity. If anything, these labels have allowed audiences to notice the sheer unconventional nature of BTS’s music. BTS do not need genres that associate them with a sound or tag them with an ethnicity — in fact, they might not need genres at all. BTS seem to realize this themselves. By ignoring all the predetermined Western music categories that restrict, discriminate, and stereotype music, BTS clearly and concisely state their own genre: “the genre is BTS.”

 

 

Sources:

Bakan, Michael B. World Music: Traditions and Transformations (Second Edition). McGraw-Hill. 2012. Link.

Brow, Robert E. “World Music — Past, Present, and Future.” College Music Symposium — Exploring Diverse Perspectives. 1992. Link.

Byrne, Brian Patrick. Nielsen 2020 Mid-Year Report Twitter Thread. July 9, 2020. Link.

Byrne, Brian Patrick. Nielsen Response. July 16, 2020. Link. 

Frith, Simon. “The Discourse of World Music.” Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music. 2000. Link.

Froots. Press Release 02 — World Music. n.d. Link. 

Fross, Matthew J. “World Music.” Grove Music Online. 2014. Link. 

IFPI. “Music Listening.” 2019. Link.

Nielsen Music, MCR Data. “Mid Year Report — U.S.” 2020. Link.

Ochoa, John. “BTS Talk New Album, ‘Map of the Soul: 7’: “The Genre is BTS.” Recording Academy Grammy Awards. 2020. Link. 

Statista. “Share of total music album consumption in the U.S. in 2018, by genre.” 2019. Link. 

 

 

 

BTS and Old Town Road: Asserting Asian Identity in America

Today marks the return of the self-proclaimed “biggest night in music,” otherwise known as the Grammy awards. While the Grammy awards usually excite the music community, this year’s production exists at an inopportune time when the Recording Academy faces serious allegations of corruption and sexual assault. Although the Academy denies these claims, the damage has been donenumerous acts have cancelled their appearance at the Grammys, and viewers are left with the question of whether they can watch the award show in good conscience.

Caught in the middle of this bureaucratic corruption clutter are a number of artists and employees participating in this year’s award show. Nominees, performers, hosts, production teamsthousands of individuals who have devoted their time and effort to making the Grammys possible. But out of all the artists present, BTS has drawn special attention. In a rather unexpected manner, photos and videos from BTS’s anticipated performance were released, drawing much contention from the BTS ARMY. The Korean group is seen to be performing with Lil Nas X, star of the monumental hit, “Old Town Road.” But the placement of BTS, the largest music act in the world, as background performers on a Lil Nas X track has led to a deep heated discussion about the treatment of non-Western acts on Western stages.

Upon seeing these performance teasers, the ARMY was faced with a pressing questionshould they watch the awards or not? Added to the multitude of scandals and conflicts of interest that have tainted the Recording Academy, along with the Academy’s history of racial prejudice and misogyny, the treatment of prominent Asian artists as secondary seemed to ask why anyone would watch the awards in the first place.

But the Grammy awards are no normal award showno, despite how they market themselves, they are not any more prestigious than other Western award shows. The difference between the Grammys and other Western award shows (such as the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, and even the nearly-extinct Video Music Awards) is that while these shows celebrate music and popularity, the Grammys celebrate power. A power dynamic is present in every factor of the Grammy awards, starting from how the awards are chosen (the implication that “critics” somehow have greater understanding of musical talent than the general public) to who can attend the show (specially invited guests, also largely excluding the general public). In the past, this power dynamic was used to segregate music from people of color, predominantly black artists, by creating separate categories and “genres” for music that existed beyond the Academy’s comfort zone. Despite the visible shift in diversity within music categories today, the Recording Academy’s bias against certain races and ethnicities still contributes to the outcome of the award recipients. Most notably was Adele’s win for Album of the Year against Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an uncomfortable situation that, intentionally or not, pinned races against each other and resulted in a depiction of power and talent of one race over another. This power is not limited to domestic issuesthe one category that celebrates “world music,” a term that the Recording Academy itself seems unsure how to define, has incredibly limited representation. Unsurprisingly, at this point, the country that has won the most “Best World Music” Grammys happens to be the United States. A display of power in and of itself, as America is not only hosting and judging the “biggest night in music,” but in competition with non-Western music, Western music remains the best.

The Grammy awards are nothing but an assertion of Western superiority in music. For years, the “prestige” associated with the award show has been used to justify this. So, within this sphere of ethnocentrism, where do you place an international act?

BTS’s presence on “Old Town Road” reflects a much deeper issue in the Western industry. When observing past trends, there is a clear association of non-Western, non-English music with either “meme” songs or one-hit wonders. Whether it was the inescapable Latin hit “Despacito,” or the viral- craze of South Korea’s “Gangnam Style,” the act of placing “foreign” music through a vector to make it palatable to Western audiences has existed for decades. But BTS do not have a natural vector.

It is easy to superficially listen to BTS’s music and assign it as being an imitation of Western sound. But BTS is striking in the sense that the do not cater to the Western audiencethe content of their music and their own approach to songwriting remains rooted in Korea. With the case of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” such an assertion of identity was not as strong as one might initially expect. While Justin Bieber undeniably served as a vector through which Western audiences felt comfortable enough to consume the track, the song itself was a complex balance of whiteness and blackness in the context of Puerto Rican identity. Despite the song’s strong reggaeton influence, a genre that finds its origins in the black community, the creators of “Despactito” attempted to make it “classy,” which according to Rivera-Rideau and Torres-Leschnik at Wellesley College, “not only attempts to distance “Despacito” from reggaeton’s hypersexual reputation, but also from the working class and predominantly black communities that created it.” The track itself is inherently able to appeal to the West as it reinforces Western attitudes towards reggaeton and historically black music. But Luis Fonsi does not only negotiate black and white identity in Despacito, he also capitalizes on the “Latin lover” stereotypes associated with Latin men and “perpetuates assumptions about the sexiness of the Spanish language, such as when he told NBC Latino, ‘Oh baby, when I’m romantic I’m en español— full, all the way.’” The vector of Bieber only did half the job, as the song “Despacito” itself was constructed in a way that managed to appeal to U.S. audiences. As Rivera-Rideau and Torres-Leschnik state, “like other crossover stars before him, Fonsi becomes legible to the U.S. mainstream through the embodiment of stereotypes of the tropicalized Latina/o other (especially the Latin lover) that have circulated in the U.S. mainstream for decades.”

“Gangnam Style” depicts a similar situation. Although originally created for the South Korean market without anticipation of global success, “Gangnam Style” managed to cross into the Western market due to the perceived stereotypes associated with Asians. In this case, comedy became the vector through which a foreign song was consumedPsy, a much respected and already well-known artist in Korea during his time, represented the comedic identity America is comfortable with. According to Crystal Anderson, “he’s this chubby, happy guy. We can embrace that in a way we can’t embrace . . . other Asian male bodies that challenge the construction of Asian masculinities.” Psy and “Gangnam Style” did not intimidate Americadespite the song’s rather satirical commentary on the wealthy who live in Gangnam, it presented America with an opportunity to turn a foreign artist’s work into a joke and a “meme,” allowing Western audiences to distance it from its social relevance. The song’s presentation fit America’s accepted image of Asians perfectly, hence resulting in a cross-over without too much resistance.

When considering both these examples, it is hard to place BTS within the context of either “Despacito” or “Gangnam Style.” BTS’s music is not “white” enough to dilute the black identity reflected through their roots in hip-hop and rap, nor do they exoticize their own Korean identity to satisfy America’s notion of Asians. Additionally, their physical appearances do not clearly associate with the “nerd, clown, gangster, or martial artist” categories deemed appropriate for Asians in America. So, what does a Western award show centered on projecting Western superiority do with BTS?

First, the need to even include BTS at all is notablewhile it may be fairly simple to ignore the South Korean act all together, their inclusion in the award show indicates the sheer desperation of the Grammys, and the unavoidable power of BTS. If the show is marketing itself as the “biggest night in music,” that tag cannot be justified without the biggest music act in the world. BTS itself provides a challenge to the Recording Academythey cannot be ignored, and not including them invites viewers to question the Grammys importance and understanding of music. Next is BTS’s identity; they are Korean artists that do not align with America’s accepted image of Asians. On their own, they exist as an anomaly, one that doesn’t have a natural vector through which Western audiences can accept them.

Tonight, at the Grammy Awards, that vector is prescribed to them“Old Town Road.” As a song that generated vicious debate on race and genre in the music industry, “Old Town Road” had an enormous impact on music. It is not only a tongue-and-cheek “meme” song of its own, but it is also undeniably American.

“Old Town Road” re-kindled the discussion of what races and genres are allowed to participate in country music, a genre dominated by white artists. It raised questions as to why hip-hop sounds were so problematic in a country song, and why a black artist could not be a country star. It challenged the world of country music to recognize its own roots, which trace back to black musicians. “Old Town Road,” therefore, reflects both black and white identity in one song; it tackles issues of black representation in a predominantly white genre and confronts a predominantly white industry to recognize the contribution of black artists.

Placing BTS within the context of white and black identity is a consequence of America’s inability to understand Asian identity on its own. For years, Asian Americans have struggled with being described as “too white” or “too black.” Often, Asian Americans use music as a way to navigate that space, adopting hip-hop to distance themselves from their “whiteness” and “model minority” status. At the same time, identifying too much with the black community presents the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation–which is certainly avoidable when black culture is properly understood and respected.

For BTS, this placement of Asian identity within the expression of black and white identity is not as jarring as it would be on its own. It is more easily consumable here than it would be out of context, where it can only be regarded as “too white” or “too black.” Although many artists are participating in this collaboration, for those other that BTS, it is a moment of shared American experience. An exhibition of an important American track that warrants a celebration of identity. For BTS, it becomes a misaligned effort. As their Korean identity is so strong, their music much deeper and more popular than what is expected of foreign artists, it becomes difficult for those who know BTS to accept a performance in which they are placed as extras in a Western song.

ARMYs response to BTS’s Grammy performance announcement was completely justified. Such a repulsive reaction is due this misalignment of identity. It is felt, and it is heard. Yet it is how the Recording Academy, and the American audience (according to the Academy’s interpretation of the American audience), can make sense of BTS. It is not just BTS’s relevance that makes this performance feel especially insulting, but it is their lack of catering to the American audience that puts them at odds with such an American track.

However, upon seeing the performance, what I initially thought would be an attempt to place BTS within a vector of American identity turned into an opportunity for BTS to  assert their own identity within that American space. This performance was a risk: As powerful Asian artists, accepting the role of an “extra” in a classic American song could bring their own authenticity into question. That misalignment of identity could have been disastrous for BTS and could have also allowed the West to associate them with “meme” culture and viral hits. However, in a song that is unquestionably American, BTS still managed to assert their Korean identity. The Asian was not diluted and marketed in a palatable way as one would have anticipatedrather, RM’s Korean wordplay, the Seoul skyline showcasing Namsan Tower, the subtle choreography, and the clever title change of “Seoul Town Road” all reflected that very Asian identity that is often masked in these settings. While the Asian identity was still placed between the black and white, the power dynamics among the artists were clear— and BTS exuded the most authenticity and power than any other artist on stage.

There was no right or wrong answer with what to do during the Grammy Awardswatching the show would numerically appear as support for the Recording Academy, but not watching would passively dismiss the hard work of the artists, many of which have dreamed of this moment for years. There was a question of conscience on both ends. And that question may have come across to BTS as well—but did they really have a choice? Do international artists ever have a choice? BTS may not have had any other option other than to be placed within the vector that the Western industry assigned to them. But even within that vector, they managed to assert themselves as authentic artists who are conscious of their identity on a global platform. The only choice BTS may have had was to accept or turn down the offer—the latter of which would have never have prompted a discussion on Asian identity within the American space at all.

The only clear take-away from BTS’s involvement at the Grammys, however, is that the awards are not as prestigious as they pose to be. Not only does the voting committee lack diversity and integrity in the voting process, but the entire idea of the Grammys is at odds with BTS and their global impact. For once, a non-Western act that has much greater power than many Western acts at the award show had placed itself into the Western narrative. A Korean act was representing Asian identity on a platform meant to glorify Western artists. BTS did not have any precedent to follow, nor do the Grammys have any idea how to contain BTS’s relevance, but the ethnocentric bubble that the Grammys so deeply cherished has indeed been popped.

 

Sources:

Rivera-Rideau, P., Torres-Leschnik, J.  (2019) “The Colors and Flavors of My Puerto Rico: Mapping “Despacito’s” Crossovers.” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 31(1), 87-108. Google Scholar. 

Cheah J., Kim G.JS. (2014) “Laughing at Psy.” In: Theological Reflections on “Gangnam Style”: A Racial, Sexual, and Cultural Critique. Asian Christianity in the Diaspora. Palgrave Pivot, New York. Google Scholar. 

Matsue, Jennifer M. (2013) “Stars to the State and Beyond: Globalization, Identity, and Asian Popular Music.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 72(1), 5–20. Google Scholar. 

Tokyo and Seoul – RM’s Tale of Two Cities

Listening to BTS is never easy. What seems like an innocent song may instead be layered with complex lyricism, challenging instrumentation, and conceptual theories that can cause any listener to ponder for hours on end without determining what the song is actually about. But BTS don’t simply adopt meaningful concepts to superficially present them through their music – their dedication towards writing dense, substantive music comes from their own personal experiences, emotions, and passions.  All members in BTS have embraced music as a medium of personal expression and have used their talent in creative ways to communicate their views on life. There’s always an air of vulnerability in solo-tracks or independent projects released by BTS members – they do not shy away at sharing their deepest emotions, although their method of doing so is usually subtle rather than direct.

Four days ago, it was Kim Namjoon’s birthday. In October 2018, Namjoon, who has adopted the stage name of RM, released a mixtape (or in his words, a “playlist”) titled Mono. When I first heard Mono, I thought it was interesting how the titles of the first two tracks were those of cities; track 1 was titled “Tokyo” while track 2 was titled “Seoul.” I initially thought this album might be a commentary on BTS’ global popularity and worldwide travels, yet it didn’t take long before I realized none of the other tracks seemed to refer to cities or locations at all. There was clear intention in the titles of these songs – RM seemed to be narrating a story by placing the two city names right at the top of his “playlist,” but I wasn’t quite sure what that story was. I thought it would be nice to re-visit this momentous project on his birthday, but what began as a casual listening session turned into a theory-induced spiral into East Asian music and culture.

Tokyo and Seoul are more than just two bustling cities – they are cultural and social ways of life where East Asia seems to intersect with the Western world. This intersection has historically placed a burden on both Japanese and Korean people; while both Japanese and Korean governments have previously desired to adopt Western ways to “modernize” and remain dominant players in global politics, the people of these nations maintained a deep desire to express their unique cultures. As a result, Tokyo and Seoul are two cities that contain a harmonious conflict of cultures, one that is both welcoming but also assertive of individual identity.

The first track of RM’s playlist, “Tokyo,” begins with the gentle sound of a car driving by, followed by a distinct clang. I believe this “clang” is the sound of a chappa, a type of Japanese cymbal often used in Japanese drumming, or Taiko, ensembles. The chappa not only adds a signature, percussive sound of Japanese music but it often indicates a significant place in the music, either striking on necessary beats or signifying a beginning or end to the piece. Right from the start, RM establishes a contrast between the modern (the car) and the traditional (the chappa).

chappa
Chappa

The chappa, therefore, might be a transition – a transition from the cluttered, industrial world to a peaceful, sonic space that is often desired in traditional Japanese music. And that sonic space is maintained as the following piano melody happens to be an f-minor pentatonic scale.

Now, I would like to add that the reason this post has taken me four days to write is because I’ve spent an unhealthy number of hours examining music theory textbooks trying to identify which Japanese mode this scale fits into…and in the true spirit of any BTS song, there may be multiple answers. Pentatonic scales are common throughout East Asian music – some scholars believe that these scales originate from certain Ragas of Hindustani (North Indian) Classical music and were carried into China through Buddhism. Over time, it’s possible that these scales made their way from China into Japan and Korea. Therefore, although their origins may be in South Asia, pentatonic scales have become emblematic of East Asia. But not all East Asian pentatonic scales are the same – although there is overlap, Japanese pentatonic scales have their own names and can be fundamentally different than Korean ones. Hence, it’s possible that RM’s f-minor pentatonic scale is part of a Japanese mode that I may have missed. It’s also possible that the scale is part of a Korean mode. Or, it’s simply a pentatonic scale built off an f-minor scale in the context of Western music. In any case, the use of the pentatonic scale here undoubtedly places the listener right in East Asia.

But this, of course, is not nearly complex enough for an artist like RM – in the midst of the melancholy piano solo we hear the subtle interjections of honking cars. Again, RM sets up the dichotomy of the modern and traditional, a world of both cacophony and harmony.

At the end of the piano section, right before the humming begins, we’re fittingly met with a bit of dissonance at the second iteration of “I don’t know.” In less technical words, this is where the final chord in the piano section appears uncertain about where it’s ending. As listeners, we expect the sound to drop to an F, yet it ends on an B flat instead creating a lack of assurance, a bit of discomfort, and essentially a musical interpretation of “I don’t know.” As the song continues, the same scale is picked up towards the end on a stringed instrument that I believe is a Japanese zither known as the Koto. Here, the same melody is repeated, yet the Koto ends the melody on an F, eliminating the dissonance and properly resolving the phrase. This brings closure, satisfaction, and a sense of acceptance to the piece.

Koto
Koto

I found the switch from the piano to the Koto interesting, but I believe that this may also be a factor in the dichotomy that RM is building. The piano, a Western instrument, is left without proper conclusion of the phrase while the Koto, a traditional Japanese instrument, finishes what the piano originally started. This is followed by the sound of a human whistling, where the same phrase also ends on the F as it does with the Koto. Therefore, there’s a progression from the Western piano to the traditional Koto to the natural human voice – a progression that begins with uncertainty and ends with a sense of direction.

Through the modern and the traditional in “Tokyo,” RM creates a conflict, a push-and-pull of sides and thoughts that reflect his own emotions. While RM could be using this as a way to refer to the two sides of his own identity, it seems to be more of his commentary on where he feels he belongs. The traditional may represent that desire to return to a place of comfort and belonging while the modern represents the uncertainty and quickness of his life – the traditional being Namjoon, a boy living in Seoul, and the modern being RM, a leader of the most popular boy band in the world. Traditional and modern here can also be thought of as past and present, the past being reflective and familiar while the present being a bit more rushed and unexpected.

According to Genius, “Tokyo” written in Hangul translates to the “state of longing.” The repeat of “I don’t know,” the lack of resolution in the music, the continuation until the Japanese Koto resolves the phrase, and finally RM’s own recognition of the uncertainty through his whistling reflect the desire to be part of something, to not feel alone and misplaced.

Ultimately, I believe that in “Tokyo” RM is longing for his home, Seoul. A place where he knows, or at least thinks, he belongs. A place where he can find comfort in all the uncertainty he is surrounded by. The second verse of “Tokyo” in particular seems to suggest this:

Life is a word that sometimes you cannot say
And ash is a think that someday we all should be
When tomorrow comes how different it’s gonna be?
Why do love and hate sound the same to me?

I can’t sleep
Home sick but
I just wanna
Stay right next to you

I thought about the the line, “why do love and hate sound the same to me?” for quite some time. Frankly, it struck me as odd at first – they most definitely didn’t sound the same to me. So what was RM referring to here? As Genius states, this may be a reference to how “Seoul” sounds just like “soul”; while the first is a city, the second is an inanimate entity of the body, a philosophical concept that encompasses many subjective aspects of being.

Souls may not be alive, but they are released once the body is dead. This could be what RM is illustrating in “life is a word that sometimes you cannot say,” referring to the lifelessness of souls and “ash is a thing that someday we all should be,” referring to the release of the soul once a body is cremated. Hence, love and hate may represent soul and Seoul, two important elements of RM’s identity, but being away from one (Seoul) hurts the other (his soul).

As his soul accepts this, RM provides us with the sound of human whistling, now away from any distinct instrumentation, setting the image of someone strolling all by themselves. But if you listen carefully, you can continue to hear the slight sound of cars driving by – RM is on a journey alone, moving on towards Seoul, a place where he thinks he will no longer be lonely. And as the delicate whistles from RM’s walk end, Mono suddenly transitions into a completely different sonic space.

Seoul,” in contrast to Tokyo is a significant shift; it drops the peaceful aura established in “Tokyo” and adopts a slightly busier, fast-paced sound. The production of “Seoul” is undeniably Western, supported by the fact that it was produced by British duo, HONNE. But this Western production is not meaningless – it sets up a contrast with the more experimental, traditional nature of “Tokyo” and instead creates a more constant but familiar sound. As a listener, we are less confused about where “Seoul” will go than we may have been while listening to “Tokyo.”

But the Western style does not hide that fact that “Seoul” does indeed contain elements of the traditional East Asian sound similar to those in “Tokyo.” The very first two notes in “Seoul” are G to C, or a perfect fourth, a commonly used interval in pentatonic music – in fact, this happens to be the exact same interval that “Tokyo” opens with (E flat to B flat, also a perfect fourth). However, in Seoul, this is a red herring of sorts – it prepares the listeners for a pentatonic scale such as the one in “Tokyo,” but this perfect fourth promptly dissolves into a scale that is not distinctly pentatonic in nature. In other words, the traditional is briefly maintained but then forgotten. The feeling of belonging is found and then quickly compromised.

So what does all this actually mean? I’ve read multiple interpretations of RM’s lyrics in both songs, and by taking the music into consideration, I believe “Seoul” is a continuation of RM’s story. While RM fights an internal conflict in “Tokyo” unaware of what to do and where to go, he ultimately reaches the conclusion that he belongs in Seoul, his home. But in Seoul itself he’s yet again met with conflicts of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the things he loves and hates. The place he longed to be in is far from perfect. And once again, he isn’t sure where to go and where he belongs. “I hate you Seoul,” “I love you Seoul,” are repeated throughout the chorus, referring to the love/hate concept from “Tokyo,” and this contradiction is mirrored later in the bridge with the phrases “I’m leaving you” and “I’m living you,” two conflicting attitudes towards the city. Altogether, on this journey from Tokyo to Seoul, RM still doesn’t feel as though he belongs anywhere. He remains alone.

While I’ve outlined much of this in literal terms, I also believe that RM is using these cities as symbols. Tokyo could refer to anything that has made us feel lost, abandoned, and lonely and Seoul could refer to anything that may bring comfort to eliminate that feeling of loneliness. But as RM illustrates, even when that comfort is obtained, we are still unsatisfied. Unsatisfied because we may be too picky, we may grow too complacent with what we have, or we may realize that what brings us comfort is, in fact, imperfect.

Mono isn’t instructive – it never preaches to the listener, never forces them to adopt a certain approach to life. Rather, it shares an experience. A very personal, emotional, and desperate experience of how it feels to be lost. Despite having no clear or joyful ending, I’ve found that Mono feels like a warm hug, a comforting, honest account from one human to another. Mono is my Seoul. But unlike Seoul, it doesn’t seem to hold any imperfections.

 

Why BTS Isn’t K-pop

I must admit, I know very little about K-pop. In fact, my first introduction to the industry, aside from “Gangnam Style” (which failed to teach me anything about Korean music), was BTS. Naturally, after finding BTS I explored other artists in the K-pop realm to see how BTS fared: Were they really that special and different as everyone made them out to be? It wasn’t long before I realized that yes, they were indeed unique. But I never quite understood why—what was it that actually made BTS feel and sound different than other “K-pop” groups?

First of all, K-pop isn’t necessarily a musical genre; although Western music platforms treat it as such, it can more accurately be described as an industry comprising of music from a variety of styles. The reason K-pop has been limited to a genre in the West is because the West considers “foreign” popular music to be nothing more than imitations of Western popular music. And these “imitations” differ only through the superficial characteristics of language and ethnicity rather than sound. This style of categorization has become the standard across the globe and has allowed Western music to maintain its position as the “original” form of popular music. Other countries have also succumbed to these labels—people from Korea themselves often consider K-pop or “idol music” to be its own genre, despite what its musical contents tell us.

But even for many who understand that K-pop is its own industry rather than musical genre, K-pop music does have a clear sound to it. Other than the language, something about K-pop songs make them easily identifiable when placed in a pool of other types of music. Why? And doesn’t that make K-pop its own genre?

Every genre of music is tailored to support the system it comes from. Western pop music, for example, used to be highly performance-based with long instrumental interludes and flamboyant choreography. This was necessary because Western popular music used to be transmitted primarily through live shows—music festivals and concerts were career-changing events necessary for any artist wishing to share their music with others. Today, the system for Western pop has changed dramatically, and so has its music; digital streaming has taken the emphasis away from performance quality and put it into sound. Sonic experimentation and vocal performances, combined with shorter tracks (to maximize streaming numbers) are the main characteristics of today’s Western pop.

K-pop is no different. As a system, K-pop values both digital streaming and live performances; digital streaming is necessary to satisfy the way Korean music is ranked and distributed, but live performances are just as necessary due to numerous televised music shows, award shows, and the overall cultural value of dance. Hence, K-pop has a sound that emphasizes elaborate, clean production for the digital space and lively, danceable music for the performative space. It isn’t that distinct from how Western pop satisfies its own industry, but while Western pop is able to express its diversity due to its control on global music, K-pop gets stereotyped into being its own genre.

So, what about BTS? There is no denying that they are from the K-pop industry—the way they go about creating music, distributing it, performing it is all rooted in the K-pop framework. Their music is also undeniably influenced by this system; for example, their title tracks must have some element of performance that is compatible with choreography to satisfy the sonic and performative needs of K-pop. But the main difference between BTS and K-pop, and the main reason they shouldn’t be categorized as K-pop, lies in the essence and purpose of their musical content. I apologize for the upcoming detour about traditional Korean music, but it should provide a better perspective about where BTS and K-pop seem to part ways.

I recently took a course on East Asian Music where we discussed the traditional and popular music worlds of China, Japan, and Korea. While this course did not by any means turn me into an expert on East Asian Music, I learned that there was a clear theme present in all three cultures: history. Whether it was traditional music or popular music, the history of each nation had immense impact on that nation’s music. In China, that history was tied to religion and Confucian principles that drove the creation of music. In Japan, it was the ongoing battle between Western influence and traditional Japanese identity. In Korea, it was imperialism—constant oppression, grief, and sorrow.

In Korea, this grief has a name—han. Traditional forms of Korean music and storytelling such as P’ansori are filled with han. The stories told in P’ansori, although seemingly simple, reflect important principles of Korean society during that time (differences in class status, gender roles, etc.). P’ansori songs are sung with such grief and emotion that Western listeners often describe it as “wailing,” yet the vocal technique needed to satisfy the distress in P’ansori is remarkably advanced. P’ansori, therefore, was a means of coping with the constant oppression that the Korean people experienced. It became a medium of expressing all the sorrow and pain present within the underprivileged classes. Although controversial and frowned upon at times by the higher classes (and those accepted by the government), P’ansori gave Koreans a means of surviving the atrocities they faced every day and allowed them to connect to their own tradition.

There’s a reason K-pop is so distant from traditional Korean music. Other than the Western influence (which has undoubtedly impacted K-pop), the industry itself is built on creating content that avoids the present. It takes the listener and viewer out of the current society and places them in a colorful, bubbly, fantasy full of perfection—perfection in how the “idols” look, in how the choreography is executed, in how the music videos are structured—everything is tailored to distance the audience from problems. In other words, it makes you forget about all the imperfection in the world and instead gives you the ideal. Lyrically, similar tactics are used; songs are usually about superficial topics, things that the listener won’t be bothered to think much about. Altogether, a proper K-pop track will delocalize you from your present.

Compared to traditional Korean music, the purpose of K-pop is to do the exact opposite. While P’ansori and other forms of traditional music are meant to help people cope with societal distress and chaos, K-pop is supposed to make people forget about it. It pushes audiences far away from today’s difficulties, allowing them to forget about current issues and events. Like P’ansori, K-pop is in fact a coping mechanism, but with the opposite approach. Rather than helping you deal with the present as P’ansori does, K-pop simply distances you from it. Now, it is important to note that K-pop comes from J-pop (the Japanese industry) but the underlying intention of both, and the reason such an industry became so compatible within Korea, was to momentarily forget about any tumultuous history and societal issues and simply indulge in perfection.

For those familiar with BTS’ music, this might seem like an issue. Calling BTS’ music K-pop inherently implies that their songs are meant to distance you from society and place you in a world of superficial perfection. However, BTS’ songs do the exact opposite—rather than taking you away from societal issues and current events, they empower you to cope with your surroundings. By tackling subjects such as generational divide, mental health, self-love, BTS are doing everything but separating you from your problems. They’re speaking directly about the present. Even within the elaborate storylines and universes in their music videos, which may seem like attempts at distancing you from reality and placing you in a fictional universe, BTS express underlying themes in these stories that communicate realities of our current society. The stories and symbols are more than fun Easter eggs and they signify messages and deeper concepts about life.

In this regard, BTS’ music seems to reflect elements of traditional Korean music more so than elements from the K-pop industry. If traditional Korean music was meant to help people express their grief during a troublesome time in history, BTS’ music is essentially doing the same thing but in today’s society. It holds the exact opposite purpose of K-pop.

Coming from a small company, BTS had to tailor themselves to the overarching system they grew up in. There was no other way for a group like BTS to take form unless it followed the pre-established industry rules. But other than this framework, the rest of what BTS does is completely opposite from what the K-pop industry expects them to do. Therefore, BTS is caught in an awkward position in global music; if we think of the K-pop industry as a spectrum, BTS is the outlier at one end of this spectrum, just about to fall off but somehow permanently attached. If we fill the spectrum with different genres of music, then whatever genre you may categorize BTS in seems to overflow into other global industries as well—one of those industries being the Western music industry. If we call BTS K-pop, we must also call them Western pop.

Distancing BTS from K-pop is in no way insulting the K-pop industry or removing BTS from their culture. It is simply stating a fact which is that BTS’ music does not fulfill the ultimate essence and purpose of what is expected from K-pop. There are most likely other K-pop artists who fall at the poles of this spectrum, but at this moment, there seems to be no one as peripheral as BTS. The K-pop industry forces those at the extremes to move inward to fit better within the system. Somehow, BTS has managed to maintain its integrity and remain an outlier.

This system-driven discrepancy is not caused by BTS, but it sheds light on a larger issue that BTS’ music is in many ways exposing. The K-pop industry continues to treat its own music as its own genre, catering to a culture where all “K-pop fans” are driven to support all groups. But when the music of these groups becomes starkly different, this genre approach no longer works. It creates inherent conflict and incompatibility throughout the system. In this case, the anomaly of a group caught in this phenomenon is BTS. If K-pop truly wishes to grow and express its musical diversity as Western music does, then it must abandon the genre approach, accept that it is an industry, and display its acts as distinct entities.

But it’s not just K-pop that needs to reassess its identity—the biggest blame for the current global music categorization chaos goes to the Western music industry. For years, the West has refused to acknowledge popular music from non-English speaking countries. The Grammys, for example, has one World Music category that is only open to music with “traditional” sounds. Essentially, this category is another way for Western music to stereotype world music as nothing but “tribal” and “exotic.” The problem is, this category is where BTS belongs—their music is the perfect blend of tradition expressed through modernity and the perfect presentation of how Asian pop has incorporated Western styles (such as rap) within its own cultural framework. But within the current Western system, world music and popular music do not overlap. Hence, incredible non-English pop artists are deprived of any notable Western recognition. This is nothing but dangerous for the Western industry; we are already witnessing a decline of Western power in the global music space, particularly on YouTube, and as global pop music continues to attract new audiences, the West will essentially be left behind due to their archaic definition of “world music.” Non-English music is only growing, and unless the West decides to re-assess its criteria and tactics (such as stereotyping all Korean pop music into a “K-pop” category), it will continue to experience a gradual decline in worldwide music consumption and engagement.

While it is important to criticize these systems for BTS’ current liminal status, it should be noted just how incredible of a feat BTS have accomplished here. Making music that escapes your own industry and does not quite fit within any current system rarely ever happens. BTS are exposing multiple gaps and inaccuracies with how the world’s biggest music industries operate and differentiate music. 

I can’t help but return to the Bartok reference I tweeted about in April. Bartok, a 20th century Hungarian composer (who also composed a group of solo piano pieces titled “Mikrokosmos” – coincidence or not, we’ll never know) was never properly regarded as a classical music maestro during his time. To be a proper classical composer, you had to be German. Bartok’s Hungarian roots and his use of Hungarian folk music in his compositions confused people. Was he classical? Was he folk? Could he be this good if he wasn’t German? Where did he belong? BTS might be today’s Bartok, transcending various music systems and genres, failing to fit perfectly in any one place. Their ethnicity and language do not match what is generally accepted for pop superstars, and labeling them as part of one industry or another does not do justice to their actual music. I don’t have a clear answer to where they do belong (frankly, I don’t think there is an appropriate label for them yet), but I do believe that like Bartok, BTS will continue to be celebrated for their music, regardless of what trivial category they are ultimately associated with.

 

 

**As stated, I am no expert on Korean music. The text I used to study Korean traditional music is titled Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity by Haekyung Um. Please check this out if you’d like to read more about P’ansori. 

Strawberries & Grapes: BTS’ Message of Maturity, Love, and Self-Acceptance

Strawberries, grapes, Ingmar Bergman, Carl Jung…and BTS.

While this may initially seem like a strange combination of people and fruit, it turns out these entities have quite a lot in common. BTS recently released concept pictures for their upcoming album, Map Of the Soul: Persona. The trailer, riddled with references to Jungian philosophy, can be viewed here.

Recently, the group released concept pictures (included below) that have since caused quite the stir in the online community (courtesy of BigHit entertainment): 

 

The point of concept pictures is to allude to themes that will be explored in the album. Dissecting the pictures can only provide speculations of what the album may be about, but doing so allows fans to dive deeper into the message that the group is trying to convey. Just like music, these pictures serve as artistic mediums that carry significant meaning – it is likely that all of these pictures were created with some intention, some meaning that the band strongly associates with.

As an ethnomusicology student, I find that exploring these different mediums is essential – music is no longer limited to just the sonic space, rather it is represented through many types of visual mediums. In order to properly understand an artist’s message, all of these mediums must be analyzed.

At first glance, these images are strange compared to the rest of BTS’ concept pictures, and it is impossible to ignore the two types of fruit – grapes and strawberries – that the members are holding. These fruits are not simply placed off to the side or used for aesthetics, but they are the center of attention of each image. BTS wants you to see the fruits and notice the obvious distinction: only two members, J-Hope and Jin, have strawberries while the rest have grapes.

So if the pictures have significant meaning, what is this meaning? What is BTS trying to convey?

PARACELSUS

Upon initial research, it seems as though the strawberries and grapes are inspired by this quote by a Swiss scientist and astrologer, Paracelsus:

“He who knows nothing, loves nothing. He who can do nothing understands nothing. He who understands nothing is worthless. But he who understands also loves, notices, sees…The more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love…Anyone who imagines that all fruits ripen at the same time as the strawberries knows nothing about grapes.”

Paracelsus is making a clear distinction here about how strawberries and grapes ripen. And naturally, these fruits grow in very different ways from each other. While strawberries may ripen in a few weeks (or around a month), grapes can take up hundreds of days to even years to ripen fully. Paracelsus is making this analogy to describing the process of loving – finding love, whether that is to love yourself or someone else, takes a different amount of time for each individual. Not everyone can mature as fast as the “strawberries” as some may take longer like the “grapes.” The amount of knowledge you need for loving is never-ending, so we are constantly expanding our knowledge as we continue our journeys towards love.

It is possible that the BTS members are portraying this idea of maturity through their choices of fruit. Those who hold the strawberry, J-Hope and Jin, might be conveying that they have matured quickly due to the pressures of being in the public eye. They may also be saying that they are more comfortable with themselves now than they were before, as they have “ripened” enough to be able to love themselves. The other members, however, hold grapes – through this, they imply that they have not fully matured or are still not comfortable where they are as individuals. Therefore, they need more time to reach their desired stage in life. This quote is no random Paracelsus quote, but it is the opening quote in the book The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm, which is sold on the BigHit shop website along with Map of the Soul by Dr. Murray Stein. BTS have clearly read this book, and it is likely to somehow relate to the themes in the upcoming album.

 

WILD STRAWBERRIES

But another interesting correlation between “Carl Jung” and “strawberries” is connected to legendary Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman directed many films inspired by Carl Jung’s theories including the 1957 film titled Wild Strawberries. Wild Strawberries is dense and reflective, dealing with concepts of self-acceptance, identity, and society. In the film, an old man reflects on his life through dream sequences, comes to terms with his past, accepts his eventual death, and ultimately, is content with who he is.

Carl Jung saw dreams as important occurrences than can inform one about their unconscious. (I wrote about this I a previous blog which can be found here.) Dreaming is essentially allowing the unconscious to speak – by recalling your dreams and analyzing them, you are making the unconscious conscious and integrating it into yourself. Jung believed that allowing the unconscious to speak was essential, as ignoring it can have negative effects. If one’s disturbing and troublesome emotions are buried underneath, hidden away in the “Shadow,” then they are bound to consume one’s self and wreak havoc, causing one to act in ways that they would not consciously approve of. 

In Wild Strawberries, the main character is seen as egoistic and unapproachable by society. He is shunned in some ways due to these characteristics, and he himself feels lonely and excluded, afraid of what people make of him. Although his occupation is clearly one of high status, he does not feel truly loved by people. But throughout the film, his dreams provide insight into his “Shadow” and he begins to integrate his unconscious mind with his conscious mind, therefore achieving self-acceptance.

The reason this film was titled Wild Strawberries is because the main character fondly recalls a childhood memory of himself in a strawberry farm he used to spend time at. This one memory holds significant value for him, resurrecting emotions of love, passion, and youth. It allows the main character to revisit a time when he was genuinely happy, and this reflection aids him on his path towards self-acceptance.

From my observations, Jin and J-Hope fit the themes outlined in Wild Strawberry. They are both individuals who have expressed fear of disapproval from society and admit that they have developed and matured over time. But it’s not just their personal journey that relates to the main character in Wild Strawberries, I believe it is also their respective roles in BTS. J-Hope and Jin have always been portrayed as the cheerful, positive members who provide energy to the other members in the group. Just like the wild strawberry farm served as a medium of comfort and happiness for the old man in the film, J-Hope and Jin are sources of happiness for BTS. While there is no way to confirm this, I believe they provide support to the other members of the group and embody an overall sense of familiarity and compassion.

Another reason for this is the fact that for centuries, strawberries have been used in literature as symbols of love. Strawberries are the symbol of the Roman Goddess Venus (Goddess of love) and are attributed to love due to their heart shape. They are also members of the rose family, another symbol of love and affection, also included in BTS’ Version 3 Concept Pictures (courtesy of BigHit Entertainment):

pasted-image-29

Bergman developed the idea for Wild Strawberry due to his own experience with childhood memories. He envisioned the concept of opening a door to enter into one’s childhood, and shutting the door to return to another time in existence. As two of the older members, J-hope and Jin might also be reflecting more on their childhood experiences and coming to terms with the fact that they are growing older.  

What can be taken away from these pictures (with a greater sense of certainty) is that J-Hope and Jin identify in ways that are different from the rest of the members, and they are portraying that their roles in the group are somewhat separated from the rest – whether that is because they are the pillars for the group’s energy and happiness is up for interpretation.

PERSONA

Interestingly, Bergman also directed another film in 1966 titled “Persona,” the title of the upcoming BTS album. This film deals with an actress who suffers from psychological disturbances and eventually falls in love with the nurse she receives care from. As mentioned in Dr. Murray Stein’s podcast, actors are familiar with different personas – it is their job to put on masks of differing identities and present these identities convincingly to large audiences. Actors who are so deep into their character’s personas can suffer from severe psychological problems as they continue to present themselves as someone they are not. As a result, finding one’s true self in the spotlight is an enormous challenge.

In the film, both female characters have moments where their personas “line up,” or their identities fit together and become whole. Could each member of BTS represent their own persona, finding ways to align with each other and become one unit? Can they use each other as guidance in understanding their personas, as they all remain together in the public sphere? It is clear that BTS draw inspiration and energy from each other – as artists, BTS might be using Jungian concepts to convey those split-personalities, those masked-selves coming together and creating a unified entity known as BTS. While some of these questions may be answered by the new album, most will remain speculations. A good artist makes audiences question and interpret endlessly, and BTS surely seem to succeed in this.   

 

 

Jungian Art Therapy: How BTS Uses Music as Therapy to Help Fans Heal

BTS recently dropped the trailer for their new album, Map of the Soul: Persona. The intro track, “Persona“, is riddled with references to Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical theories, causing as stir in the psychology community. But this isn’t the first time BTS has been inspired by Jung.

BTS’ label company, BigHit Entertainment, follows the motto “music and artist for healing.” This phrase, included at the bottom of BigHit’s logo, is used in the beginning of every music video created under BigHit Entertainment. However, the company digressed from the motto with their earlier artists where they saw little success—it wasn’t until they signed BTS leader Kim Namjoon that they committed to their their original mission. Namjoon, who goes by his stage name RM, spoke frequently about social issues and frustrations through his music. He used music as a way of communicating the struggles of his generation to a larger audience—and many listeners who identified with those struggles and social limitations naturally gravitated towards BTS in times of difficulty. BigHit seemed to realize the power of this kind of art, found a way by which they could return to their original vision and foster an environment where artists were supported for their rebellious, outspoken nature.

It is likely that BigHit’s motto was inspired by psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. Jung had his own model of art therapy that helped individuals connect with their unconscious self to initiate the process of healing. He formulated this process in an approach called “Active Imagination” which is based on recalling an unconscious image, usually in the form of a dream. Jung spoke extensively about dreams—they are liminal concepts, part of the unconscious self but also accessible by the conscious mind. Dreams are the first step in establishing a connection with one’s inner being.

THE DREAM

Jung believed that by communicating with the dream, one can reach underlying emotions and come to revelations about their unconscious self. Often times, these emotions can be based in sorrow and pain. According to Jung, “there is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

This is one of the reasons why it is likely that BTS’ title track for Map of the Soul: Persona will be titled “Dream” and the song will contain elements alluding to this idea. “Dream” might be more mellow in sound to convey a sense of being in-between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the mind and allow their pain to emerge. It is also possible that the sound will be strikingly different from the intro track, “Persona,” as a persona is a type of mask put on in the public sphere to conform to the expected social norms. Therefore, I expect “Dream” to have a softer or a more minor sound to it than what “Persona” has.

Finally, he result of active imagination is usually some form of art. The emotions that have emerged from communication with the unconscious mind are translated into forms of expression (paintings, written works, music, dance, etc). Individuals act impulsively during this phase, where they let their emotions drive the art they are creating. This acts as therapy where people come into contact with and express emotions they may have previously repressed or feared.

THE SHADOW

In a discussion by Anna Guerra, a practitioner of Jungian Art Therapy, Guerra mentions that the most difficult part of active imagination for her patients is to come to terms with their “Shadow.” The Shadow, also part of Jung’s theory, is the collection of “unacceptable” elements within an individual—things that society does not approve of. Therefore, these are repressed within oneself, yet can unconsciously take form and “reek havoc” if not controlled. Guerra states that everyone has a Shadow, and coping with it requires that we integrate it into our self.

According to Jung, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” I believe this is essentially what BTS was referring to in their “Fake Love” video, where their lyrics mention them being turned into marionette dolls. The unconscious emotion, when ignored and uncontrolled, ends up taking ownership of the self—it drives the individual to do things they may regret or consciously disapprove of. In “Fake Love,” BTS are masked figures with repressed emotions that control them like dolls, and these buried emotions void them of full consciousness of their own being —alluding to RM’s “who are you/who am I?” from “Fake Love” which also reappears in the “Persona” video.

 

 

Another interesting take on art therapy by painter and Professor of Art Therapy, Howard McConeghey, is explained in his book titled Art and Soul which expands on Jung’s original concepts. In his analysis, one of the most crucial aspects of art therapy is “circular reiteration.” This is the process of going back to your art consistently every day to make it better—and the improvements reflect your inner psyche by showing your conscious growth and where you aim to be.

According to McConeghey, during this process, we “put psyche at the center…the responsibility of the ego becomes that of stepping aside, off center, to allow psyche to speak” (Art and Soul, p. 19). This image can be seen in the “Persona” music video where the giant form of RM is his ego, stepping to the side and listening to himself (his psyche) speak.

 

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With “Persona,” this is essentially what BTS is doing. By reintroducing their intro track from 2014 titled “Skool Luv Affair,” BTS is revisiting and era and improving upon it. The Skool Luv Affair era was heavy with hip-hop sounds, yet the physical interpretation of that music was one of stereotypical masculinity—everything from their style of clothing to their music videos reflected this sense of male anger and dominance. The Map of The Soul era, however, seems to lack this hyper-masculinity and utilizes hip-hop without its stereotypical characteristics. BTS are returning to their past and presenting it in a new, mature, and developed way after having reflected on how they wish to improve both as humans and as musicians. They are addressing their ego and integrating their unconscious and conscious minds to create a more holistic self.

 

MUSIC THERAPY

Digressing slightly from BTS, you might be wondering why I, an ethnomusicology enthusiast, am writing about Jungian theory. Upon doing some research, I found that Carl Jung was fascinated by the Hindu/Buddhist concept of the Mandala. “Mandala” is a Sanskrit word that translates to “circle,” and is an abstract idea of the universe. Phrases such as “the circle of life” also allude to this same philosophy—everything is the universe is connected in a spiritual way and is brought back in full-circle.

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Artistic interpretation of “Mandala” from http://tonocosmos.com.br/a-geometria-das-coisas

 

Music therapy is a form of art therapy that often relates to instances of hyper-focus, trance, or altered psychological states. There are many accounts of individuals going into a state of trance when listening or playing music. In fact, this is fairly common in cultures that follow Hindu or Buddhist beliefs, as religion plays a significant role in how these cultures structure their music systems. For example, Indian Classical Music has a specific rhythmic framework that does not follow the linear rhythmic pattern of Western music, and instead bases its rhythms on the Mandala. While the Western system runs on time signatures that move from left to right, Indian music follows a cyclical system– there are 8 beat cycles, 16 beat cycles, 32 beat cycles, etc. 

It is this cyclical nature that creates a sense of trance or hyper-focus. By revisiting the same beginning over and over again, with complex variations thrown in in between the cycles, musicians feel a strong sense of completion whenever a cycle returns to its starting point. Indian classical music is usually improvised when performed, and improvisations can last for hours, where musicians continue to cycle through a beat pattern and use their intuitive nature to create music. Their state of hyper-focus allows for such long recitals with few (if any) rehearsed pieces.

One of the most cited cases of trance in music is in Balinese music, where the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are both combined to create a unique religion that influences Balinese Gamelan music (percussive ensemble). This musical system not only follows the cyclical, Mandala nature of counting, but it also has incredibly difficult interlocking rhythms and heterophony that might sound like nothing but noise to most Western listeners. I’ve included a video of Balinese Gamelan music here to provide a sense of just how much is going on, and how much focus it requires to know when and what to play:

 

Similarly, Jung believed that the cyclical nature of the Mandala allows one to achieve wholeness— he saw the circle as a representation of creativity, one that has no end nor beginning and is therefore part of both the past and the future.

Back to BTS—now, BTS is most likely not thinking about the Mandala when writing music and creating concepts, but the ideas from the Mandala have impacted music throughout the world. The entire verse-chorus structure of pop music is an example of how something repetitive can result in a psychological “boost.” Waiting for the chorus is similar to waiting for the cycle to end, where one is able to feel complete again. You might have experienced this personally when you re-visit old songs your parents played, or music that you listened to as a child. That sense of nostalgia and comfort is a result of you experiencing those emotions again after a long time—but this time, with a new, mature self. Although the music is the same, you are no longer the same person, and therefore your response to that music is one of nostalgia. 

If you were a BTS fan since the 2014 Skool Luv Affair era, the “Persona” intro might have felt this way for you. BTS intentionally used sounds from their “Skool Luv Affair: Intro” track and placed them into “Persona,” creating that sense of nostalgia for people who used to listen to their music five years ago. Although they literally sampled their old track in “Persona,” the nostalgia is also part of the overall sound that has resurfaced as, according to many fans, “Persona” sounds like “old BTS.” For new fans, BigHit strategically altered the BTS Spotify playlist so that it included all of their older works that were similar in sound to “Persona.” This was to get new fans ready for the new intro track, and to ensure that they were prepared for what BTS was trying to do with revisiting their old intro, starting from the beginning, and coming “full circle.” 

But there is another element of Jung and the Mandala complex that BTS have used. Many fan theories have determined that in the fictional BTS universe, the oldest member, Jin, is stuck in a time loop. The story revolves around Jin’s friends, the other BTS members, making mistakes that result in unfortunate circumstances that eventually send them all separate ways. Jin, however, is able to travel back in time and attempts to correct these mistakes to help his friends. Because much of Jungian theory does reference the connection between the past and the future, I believe that Jin’s character is a symbol of BTS’ overall message of self-acceptance. Just like how RM took a track from his past and re-created it with his mature, increasingly aware self, Jin is a figure who realizes that he has to love himself and accept his past if he wants to move on.

Art therapy is a way to speak to those underlying emotions, and music has given us many ways by which we can alter our psychological state for the better. Many proponents of art therapy state that in a world of over-medicalization and extensive use of prescription drugs, art is a much needed form of healing. While medication can be used to cure or maintain psychological conditions, art therapy attempts to find the root of the cause or the wounded psychological state that needs to be addressed and integrated into the self. “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” — Carl Jung

Many BTS fans have stated that listening to the group’s music has indeed helped them cope with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. While there is no way to confirm this assumption, I strongly believe that BTS’ understanding of art therapy and their own experience with it has shaped how they write music. If music is a reflection of the unconscious mind, then BTS’ songs help us heal because they are created by artists who understand how failure and pain, when ignored, can destroy our capabilities—and although it might be an ongoing process, accepting those past mistakes allows for personal growth and self love that we are all working together to achieve. 

 

References:

Junge, M. B. (2010). The Modern History of Art Therapy in the US. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd.

McConeghey, H. (2003). Art and Soul (Classics in Archetypal Psychology). Washington DC: Spring Publications.

Stein, M. (1998). Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Chicago, IL: Carus Publishing Company.

Dancers are Musicians: How BTS Has Reminded Us About the Importance of Dance

I remember taking my first class on ethnomusicology, expecting it to be focused on traditional world music—just music. What I didn’t quite expect, however, was just how much I would be learning about dance. As I continued my studies in the field, it became clear that dance was essential to music—so essential, in fact, that dance and music were not separate entities, but just two halves of the same sphere of performance. One could not exist without the other.

I used to believe that popular music was an exception to this ideology, as very few pop artists actually focused on dancing during their performances. Often times, pop music performances include some choreography, but this dancing is in place just to support the music, to make the performance more visually pleasing. BTS, however, have re-introduced dance as a direct component of music—not just a supplement to music. BTS’ choreography often outlines a story and develops the content of their songs and music videos. Their dance is critical to the actual delivery of the song, and it directly relates to how their music is created. BTS’ title tracks are all “danceable” which emphasizes the importance of the song’s performative qualities in addition to its sound.

Many might argue that writing a song for the purpose of performance takes away from how the music sounds; however, in many parts of the world, dance is part of the song. Music without dance is seen as incomplete and one-dimensional, as the dance itself contributes to the overall feeling and essence of the track. And this does not take away from the sonic appeal of the track either, as one can simply listen to a BTS song for pleasure and find that it is just as appealing on its own. However, the dance adds a performative aspect that directly affects the meaning and emotional quality of the song. Therefore, seeing a performance of a BTS song can affect how one might hear it later on.

In the West, this is often frowned upon. Artists such as BTS are often considered to be great dancers and performers, but Western audiences continue to rank this ability as less-significant than vocal (singing) abilities. This is largely because today’s Western popular music is almost entirely based on sound alone, and much of this is due to technology. Our ways of consuming music are all sonic—you download a song from a digital media source or visit a streaming platform, plug in your headphones, and play the song you wish to hear. There’s no need to rely on other forms of performance when the entire system in place is based on simply listening.  As a result, Western performance has changed significantly. The emphasis is no longer on choreography, dancing, and performance ability, but generally on singing. While this is not applied to all Western artists, it is true for most, and it certainly shows that the expectations for Western performances are all based on vocal capabilities.

This, however, isn’t the case in Asia. Popular music throughout many Asian countries including Korea, Japan, and India–three of the largest music industries in Asia–relies heavily on dance. In these countries, dance is not just a supplement to the music, but it is a critical element of the music itself that contributes to the development of the actual music. Dancers, choreographers, and songwriters all work together to create a song, as the true feeling of the song cannot be communicated through only one medium.

Therefore, dancers are themselves musicians and should be treated as such. The skill required to interpret and translate sound into something physical is exceptionally difficult to master. It takes years to develop control over the human body, and many more years to understand what sounds correlate with what types of movement. As dancers, BTS display incredible understanding of music—their dancing sets them apart from most Western-pop acts as they embody music and understand that the choreography is not just an addition to the visual side of the performance, but it is part of the actual framework of the song. Without proper dancing, the song’s full potential will not be conveyed. 

The theme of music and dance being interdependent is found across the world; ultimately, it relates to improvisation. In India, one cannot learn any form of Indian Classical Dance without understanding the basis of Indian Classical Music. Indian performance is full of improvisation—therefore, if a dancer improvises, the musician needs to know how to respond accordingly. If the musicians improvise, the dancer needs to react. A constant back-and-forth, call-and-response is required between the two groups, and one cannot exist without the other. In Ireland, Irish music is a powerful social medium in which community members develop strong relationships with each other through the interactions of dancers and musicians. Musicians will play folk tunes and improvise for hours, and dancers gather to interact with the musicians in a festive, energetic environment. And in South Africa, drummers will form complex, interlocking rhythmic patterns that dancers are able to interpret through physical movements—that too, on the spot.

But a dancer’s job is not just to respond to music, it is also to contribute to music. Indian Classical Dancers wear bells around their feet so that the sounds of the bells match the beats of the drums. Irish tap-dancers also use footwork to add sound to the music they are dancing to. And a particular style of dance in South Africa, gumboot, requires rubber boots that produce sounds through stomping, and dancers make complex rhythmic sequences by stomping, clapping, and occasionally singing as they dance.

This significant aspect of dance is not entirely absent from Western culture. Traditional old-time music, Appalachian music, and Country music also follow these global patterns—dance is critical to these genres as they are also social forms of music, music that is meant to be played and enjoyed in collaboration with others. Hip-hop is another Western genre where dance is central to the performative aspect of the music. But shifting further towards the European system, we see that this is no longer the case. Ballet, Contemporary, Modern, Jazz are all styles of dance that depend on music, but they do not require direct interaction with musicians. They are (mostly) strictly choreographed forms of dance with little improvisation. They are taught as separate entities—even in Western college campuses, Dance and Music departments are separate from each other; in most other countries, their own forms of music and dance fall under the umbrella of “performing arts” and all exist in one space.  

BTS’ meaningful choreography and striking dance abilities are a reflection of this side of the performing arts. Dancers should be treated as integral parts of musical production, just as guitarists and keyboardists in bands are. However, in the West, instrumentalists are applauded for their musical talent and intellect while dancers are considered to be simple enhancements for visual performance that are ultimately unnecessary. Despite this, much of the rest of the world does treat dancers as instrumentalists, and the ability to dance is just as significant as playing a guitar or piano on stage. Therefore, dance should not be spoken of as a supplement to performance, rather it should be treated as a critical component of music, something that music and sound both depend greatly on.

 

 

Why The GRAMMY Awards are a Social and Cultural Problem

In a few hours, millions of music lovers will tune in to the broadcast of the 61st GRAMMY Awards. 

Those who follow the Grammy awards know that the show is dominated by Western artists. Specifically, these are artists who sell the most records in the West, receive the most streams on Western streaming platforms, and hit the most “number ones” on Western music charts. Occasionally, the Recording Academy might bestow an award to an artist who inspired social change or simply impressed with technique – but both of these exceptions to the typical formula are also determined by a committee of Western music experts.

This might come as surprise to those familiar with the Recording Academy, as the organization takes pride in assessing music regardless of sales and charting positions. However, recent trends show us otherwise, indicating that the Grammys, like most Western award shows, run on popularity. 

For the Recording Academy, the criteria for judging music is entirely based on Western music standards. The Western music industry is essentially a closed-off, internal manufacturing system: Western artists get signed to labels that have direct contracts with streaming services, their music makes it to the top of the Western charts that follow those specific streaming platforms, they appear on the radar of award show committees, and finally they receive nominations for “prestigious” awards. The Grammys are no different, and most “experts” on the committee for the Grammys are, indeed, Westerners. Therefore, their standards and familiarly with music is limited to Western music. This internal award show system, however, is not unique to the West – many countries have their own award shows that essential follow the same formula.

Despite the presence of multiple musical award shows, The Grammy Awards are labeled as being the most prestigious of all. Winning a Grammy Award has become a way of validating a musician’s talent, a sort of certification that informs the public that that musician should be taken seriously. In the past, it has dramatically changed artists’ careers, as the award show has given them attention and opportunities that they might not have received before.

But why? Why are the Grammy Awards so prestigious?

In attempt to answer this question, I found myself falling down a deep hole of social and cultural theory, and the answer is more complex than what I had initially expected.

This idea of “prestige” and how it is assigned relates to some of the basic observations made by early Anthropologists. Initially, the general assumption among Anthropology scholars was that certain societies and cultures are superior to others, and there is an evolutionary progression that societies travel through – societies start out with people focused simply on basic needs of survival, and they gradually progress towards an industrialized, technology-driven civilization. Tribal groups and nomadic communities are associated with the lowest rank of society while the highest rank belongs to Western civilization. This philosophy, known as the Social Evolutionary Theory developed by E.B Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, put Western society on a pedestal and suggested that all societies in the world are trying to reach Western lifestyle – only then has a society actually succeeded.

This concept has become ingrained in every aspect of our culture today. We refer to industrialized, Western nations as “developed” and less-industrialized countries as “developing or “underdeveloped.” Speaking English is a sign of being more educated and intelligent. Western technology is considered to be the most advanced, Western healthcare is labeled the best in the world, and Western legal systems are assumed to be the fairest – despite all the research that may say otherwise.

This theory was, in fact, developed by Western scholars, and ultimately, it became a way by which Western society validated its position at the top. It was a product of ethnocentrism, as Western scholars used it to ratify claims that their civilization was indeed more “correct” and superior to that of others. And as history shows, it justified the main interest of the West: Colonization. If Western society was the correct way of living, then the West had every right to colonize inferior societies to help them reach the top and achieve their goal of being “Western.”

The Grammy Awards are a direct reflection of this ideology. As a Western award show with predominantly Western artists and winners, this award show has become a way of validating the superiority of Western music. Early on, many of the world’s most famous musicians happened to be Westerners due to the financial and cultural dominance of Western society, and as they continued to win Grammy Awards, the awards became a way of making sense of the artist’s success. Today, few will question the talent of musicians who receive the award as it is assumed that having a Grammy is indeed a sign of artistic superiority. History has resulted in the notion that Western society is the universal civilization, the English language is the universal language, and Western music is the universal music. Anything different from these norms is unnatural, strange, abnormal – and ultimately – inferior to what the West is doing.

This mindset has made it difficult for international artists, especially Asian artists, to receive nominations at the Grammys. While Latin music has crossed over successfully into the Western sphere, Asian music continues to struggle – this is largely because Latin society and culture is more familiar and compatible with Western standards than Asian society and culture is. The farther away a society is from Western standards, the more abnormal it is; therefore, Asian pop music is often met with skepticism and considered to be nothing more than an inferior version of Western popular music. And as a result, Asian music continues to carry a connotation of being less innovative than Western music.

The other major issue with the Grammy awards is their so-called “Best World Music Album” category. This category was only formed in 2012 – before that, there were two different world music categories: “Best Contemporary World Music Album” and “Best Traditional World Music Album.” The Recording Academy seemed to think that two categories for international artists was one too many, and consequently decided to merge the two. The Grammys have streamlined their approach to world music by essentially ignoring the massive force of world pop music – now, world music has adopted the connotation of having traditional, “tribal,” or “ethnic” sounds that are distinct from what we hear in the West. Therefore, the Grammys present Western music as being broad, diverse, and complicated enough to have dozens of categories devoted to it, while world music remains primitive, unorganized, and not nearly as interesting or advanced – therefore, one category is plenty.

It is indisputable that Korean pop group BTS has achieved unprecedented success around the world in the past few years. Not just within the realm of Asian pop, but their performance in the music industry has challenged even prominent Western artists. However, as Korean artists with music predominantly in the Korean language, there is little room for them – if any at all – at the Grammys. Without a Contemporary World Music category, the only other place BTS could be nominated is along with general Western music artists in the other pop categories – something the West will be highly reluctant to do. This is one of the reasons why BTS has yet to be nominated for their music in other prominent Western award shows, as the music industry still struggles where to place the Korean pop group. However, BTS’ presence cannot be ignored anymore, and the Western industry can choose to either acknowledge them or simply cast them aside – either action, however, will be noticed by their millions of fans.   

Therefore, BTS’ success must be driven by fan power. The current system is unlikely to reward artists like BTS due to the fact that they are not part of the Western industry. And the only place where artists are on the same level, regardless of ethnicity and language, is social media. Despite the negative connotations that social media popularity carries, it is essential in bringing international artists to the forefront of the Western music system.

While many BTS fans do wish to see them win a Grammy award, I believe that unless the Grammy awards do implement serious changes and diversity initiatives, the “prestige” of the show should not be taken too seriously. There are hundreds of artists who deserve to receive a certification or award that validates their talent, yet most of them never will due to the bureaucracy of the Western music industry. The Grammy awards will always be held to a high standard as their reputation has been ingrained and passed down for years, yet as global music fans, we have every right to question this superiority and challenge the standards by which the Recording Academy judges music.

Why American Radio Stations Don’t Play BTS: A Musicultural Perspective

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It’s much more than just “it’s Korean.”

I remember the very first time I heard a Korean song played on an American radio station. Growing up in a conservative, American community, non-English music was unheard of – quite literally. People had no true comprehension of what music in a non-English language sounded like. Unfortunately, the general assumption in much of the Western pop world today is that pop music from non-Western countries is simply an imitation of Western pop, just in a different language.

This Korean song, however, was not as surprising to hear on the radio as it had already become somewhat of a viral trend. That song was “Gangnam Style” by Psy, a widely popular and omnipresent track at the time it was released. However, I only heard the song on the radio once or twice – it wasn’t long before Psy’s older works were brought to the American public, some of which included songs that contained controversial, anti-American lyrics and sentiment. Although “Gangnam Style” had nothing to do with this, the news entirely killed the radio play of the song in my community, and anyone who listened to the song was criticized of being anti-American.

This might seem like an extreme reaction, but the truth is that the situation in my community reflects much of America’s sentiment towards unknown, “foreign” music. Anything that challenges the typical western perception of music is heavily questioned due to the lack of familiarity and the discomfort of listening to something different. Most people aware of BTS’ music may attribute this to the obvious difference in language. But America’s discomfort with BTS’ music does not arise only from the presence of the Korean language, but from the sound of the music itself.

Take a moment now to write your own song – construct a phrase of your own melody, but refrain from thinking too much about what you are creating. Just develop a quick phrase that comes naturally.

Whatever sequence of notes you have just created is determined entirely by the music you have surrounded yourself with from childhood. This musical exposure is not entirely by choice – as a child, you are faced with sounds that your parents provide you, and even as you grow older, certain songs will always be imprinted in your mind due to how society uses them. For example, national anthems are fascinating indications of sounds within the context of any nation; someone who is accustomed to the US national anthem, which is based on the Western music system, might find the Japanese national anthem initially very different, as Japan utilizes their version of the pentatonic scale – a scale commonly used in traditional Asian music – which is not heard often in America.

If you have spent your entire life listening to Western music, chances are your musical composition does not utilize the Pentatonic scale at all. However, if you are of East Asian descent, you might have subconsciously incorporated it in some place. If you are Indian and have grown up listening to Indian music, your song might have more notes and might be of a more complex rhythm than what a European-based system can inspire (Indian music has 22 notes instead of Western music’s 12 notes, along with cyclic rhythmic patterns instead of the West’s linear 4/4, 6/8, etc. form of rhythm). These are just some examples that could make sense of why your piece sounds the way it does.  

The importance of this is that you might not be actively thinking about these elements of music as you created your song, but theses sounds have shaped your brain’s understanding of music, and anything different may actually “feel” different. Given time, this change can be powerful. Listening to new forms of music quite literally exercises your mind, as you are challenging your brain to consume unfamiliar sounds, languages, and cultures all at once. It is one of the reasons people can find “foreign” music so appealing, as listening to songs from a new culture may initially be offsetting, but can soon feel rewarding as your mind has develops new pathways to make sense of the information.

This same phenomenon is observed largely in popular music; when one type of song gets widely popular and is repeatedly played everywhere, it is not uncommon to hear similar types of songs released by different artists soon after. Most popular music trends are developed as a result of such a practice, and audiences promptly engage with songs that use similar elements because they are already conditioned to that sound. It takes much less mental energy to listen to something that you are already used to hearing.

So what about BTS? Why is their music not played on American radio?

Take an example of a Western artist who experiences enormous radio play – Taylor Swift. Not only is her music enormously popular, but it is also critically acclaimed in America, the country where her songs appeal the most. Swift’s music is just what American audiences want to hear, both lyrically and melodically. The lyrics of breakups and young romance appeal greatly to Western society, while similar social engagements might not be discussed in other countries around the world where romance is more intimate and requires more poetic expression rather than Swift’s use of colloquialisms. As for melody, Swift generally uses one-note, simple melodies in her songs that make them easy to follow. The following Taylor Swift songs are melodic notations of just some of her most famous tracks. Even for those who might not understand musical notation, this hopefully provides a visual depiction of what is taking place sonically:

“Out Of The Woods” (2014)

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“Blank Space” (2014)

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“Look What You Made Me Do” (2017)

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These same-note lines are incredibly catchy. There isn’t much mental energy needed to follow the melodies of these sections since they are mostly the same note in progression – that too with easy, repetitive rhythmic structure. These songs are inviting and comforting, with the main purpose of appealing to the general public and drawing in as many people as possible.

Western popular music follows these guidelines and trends to create songs that feel satisfying, and these are the songs that typically get played on most Western popular music stations.  This is also one of the reasons that people who do appreciate complex musicality and songs that require multiple listens before feeling natural often tend to stray away from such pop music to explore genres with more experimentation. To clarify, this isn’t a criticism of Swift – her popularity is a reflection of her talent and ability to write such widely appealing tracks – it is simply an analysis of what makes her songs so widely appealing in popular music.

As for BTS, their music is strikingly different from that of Taylor Swift – not just in genre or language, but in basic melodic construction. These three examples are of melodic phrases from popular BTS songs:

“Blood Sweat and Tears” (2016)

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“Spring Day” (2017)

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“Fake Love” (2018)

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There is much more melodic complexity and variability in these famous BTS tracks – the range, progression, and rhythm in all three songs are noticeably different from what is seen in most Wester pop music. Melodic complexity is, in fact, common in most Asian popular music, where melody is heavily emphasized and carefully written – and this cultural influence is clearly seen in BTS’ music. Additionally, the presence of rap in most BTS songs in between sections of melody contribute to the rapid switches in rhythm that tend to strike new listeners as difficult to follow.

For those who are accustomed to listening to only Western pop, these songs can initially be difficult to consume due to the presence of so many notes, quick rhythmic changes, and overall unexpected melodic direction. But listeners who may be familiar with different styles and genres of music may not find BTS’ songs as too far removed from what they are used to, and therefore might be attracted to their overall sound. Western pop radio stations, however, have not responded to BTS’ music in this way. It is inherently unnatural for most American popular music stations to play such “different” music, as popular music primarily attracts listeners for its familiarity and simplicity. Such cultural and sonic diversity is enough to make a track too distant from what popular music listeners are accustomed to, and few radio stations are willing to take the risk and push boundaries of Western pop radio.

It is important to state that radio stations are certainly not actively thinking about these musicultural influences – it is highly unlikely that radio station hosts are unpacking the melodic structure of a BTS song and deciding not to play it because of its complexity. However, when Western pop stations do play non-English music, it is almost always because the song is either obnoxiously catchy or a viral trend. Very few times has international music been taken seriously in American pop, so if a “foreign” song is not simple and viral enough, it most likely won’t be played on the radio or anywhere else in America. This has become a stereotype of international music – and anything that challenges that stereotype, such as BTS’ music, is met with discomfort and unfamiliarity. These subtle cultural differences shape how listeners consume and respond to new music, and Western popular music today is facing the challenge of how to incorporate this diversity more than ever before.

Although BTS might not receive wide radio play due their musicality, these examples do emphasize that BTS’ music is far from generic – BTS fans should find comfort in the fact that the group is bringing bold, new music to Western audiences and re-defining what popular music is supposed to sound like. While such creativity may limit the group’s initial radio play, it opens multiple doors for artistic expression that have attracted millions of fans – therefore, although public music platforms might be hesitant to play music that is lyrically, culturally, and sonically different, individuals who do discover the group find themselves interested in what new art BTS has to offer.