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. 

7 thoughts on “BTS and Old Town Road: Asserting Asian Identity in America

  1. This is a fantastic analysis! Thank you for putting these complex, overlapping aspects into words so clearly, and for placing this moment as part of the wider conversation around music, nationality, ethnicity and culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m speechless, I really didn’t know this performance could mean this huge step in BTS’ career and of course for POC artists as well. Thank you so much for writing this incredible article, for real it means a lot💜
    Marta
    Barcelona, Spain

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I’m sharing this article with everyone. I’d wrestled with the question of whether or not to watch the Grammys in support of BTS but at the end of the day, I’m beyond proud that they showed the Western audience who they are – musicians who sincerely love music and performing on stage.

    Liked by 1 person

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