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)
“Blank Space” (2014)
“Look What You Made Me Do” (2017)
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)
“Spring Day” (2017)
“Fake Love” (2018)
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.