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.