“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 now-deleted Twitter thread by journalist Brian Patrick Byrne, Byrne explained 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.
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%.
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.”
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