What BTS’ Rise Tells us About American Music

Ethnomusicology is essentially the ethnography of music. It is the study of the culture, people, society, politics, language – and all factors in between – that influence sound. It is a field that approaches music through immersion rather than simply listening. While I have studied western classical music, both theory and history, it was ethnomusicology that allowed me to truly appreciate the importance of music in our society today.

BTS’ success has challenged many pop music lovers who have been limited to Western music – America needs a reason for an international band to experience success in its charts. In other words, when most of America slowly became exposed to the Korean group, the main question about them was: Why? Why is a Korean group this popular in America? Any Asian group with the same abilities as any Western group from One Direction to The Beatles would never make it in the United States. International artists have to somehow be different than what America already has, or else – even if their music is superior and they have millions of fans – Americans won’t care and will instantly dismiss that artist as a social media fad.

This is largely due to the very important yet unfortunate truth that despite the incredible volume non-English and non-Western music, music distribution is entirely controlled by the West, specifically by America. This is where BTS’ success seems nothing short of a miracle to ethnomusicologists. The most popular music streaming and distribution services such as iTunes and Spotify are all American companies, created and managed in the US. These are the services that bring in money and as a result, control the music industry. Western record labels have developed collaborations with these platforms overtime, and Western artists have a direct path to important charts (such as the Billboard charts) due to already established business. Therefore, if America has control of what they are putting in to these platforms, they are controlling what is coming out.

This also has a direct effect on who wins “prestigious” music awards such as Grammys – also entirely controlled by the West. While we speak highly of these awards, it is important to remember how specific these are to Western music. It is no different than the Academy Awards, where all foreign artists are lumped into one category that poorly represents the actual movies that are being consumed in vast amounts around the globe.

Another way to state this is that just because Western artists have the most streams, money, and overall stats and figures across the globe does not mean that their music is actually good. Big name artists in America have established popularity that is largely due the effect of wealthy countries, like the US, having the most influence on the music market at the moment. The truth is, if Taylor Swift were Korean instead of American and were to produce the exact same music in Korea, she would never be as successful as her actual American self. And if she somehow did make it in America, the same questions would be raised: What is so special about her, why is a Korean artist so popular in America when we already have artists like her? Being just as good as American artists is not enough to break into the Western market, one truly has to be beyond what expected in Western music to be seen and heard in the US. This not to say that Western music isn’t good, but there are clear, systematic reasons for why Western music brings in the most awards, publicity, and money.

It took a group that excels in dancing, rapping, singing, songwriting, and producing; a group that makes movie-like music videos with extravagant effects; a group that has built an entire fictional universe around an elaborate, emotional storyline that speaks to the themes of friendship, loss, mental health, and love; to finally catch America’s attention. And even then, many people have yet to look past the fact that their lyrics are not in English, and that they are in fact a boy band (according to America’s definition of “boy band”). However, most of Asia does not treat male celebrities in the same way western countries do, and Korea is no exception. BTS has been known by a diverse group of fans of all ages and genders prior to their success in America, and even in America, this largely tends to be the case.

BTS is indeed beyond what is expected of artists. Their talents are indisputable, but their approach to music is fascinating. While Western music is obsessed with genres and categorizing songs, BTS steps out of that mold and decides to simply enjoy the diversity of music. This is quite common in much of Asian pop music, and personally, it fulfills a sense of enjoyment that is sometimes lost in Western music’s stubbornness to define every bit of sound. Ultimately, Western music does this so that artists are known by their genre and have a chance at charting and winning awards in that particular genre. With a BTS album, this isn’t a concern – you get all types of sound, all types of instrumentation – and it leaves the listener with much to wonder and anticipate with each newly released track. Their lyricism is another art of its own, which blends English and Korean in clever ways that push listeners to research and study culture and language.

The unexpected rise of this Korean group has caused quite the stir in America. And while many have attributed this success to BTS’ social media reign, the septet’s popularity in America is in many ways due to the fact that music coming out of the American music industry today is indeed lacking in music quality. Many mainstream Western artists have recently released albums that are mediocre in production and concept, yet have garnered millions of sales and streams due to their fans. However, casual listeners – or even fans who are simply looking for new sounds – have found that BTS’ music is unexpectedly appealing. Most listeners find something that is for them in a BTS album, and on top of that, the slick production of their work is superior to that of most current Western artists. BTS have indeed made a significant dent in American music, as more and more listeners are realizing that the group brings high-quality music, new sounds, and stellar performances, all of which is comparatively inferior in most Western music today. It is important to call out an industry when it is simply not presenting good material, and American pop music today is largely based on recycled, trendy sounds with unimpressive production.

Despite this, the American music industry continues to make billions of dollars and therefore continues to indifferently plague us listeners with basic, over-used sounds and mediocre vocal performances. This is where I would like to address the point that many westerners consider “K-pop” as artificial. An industry such as the American music industry – that is almost entirely rooted in capitalism – is just as manufactured (if not more) than K-pop. K-pop stars at least have refined and perfected their talents. Many singers in American music are simply promoted due to marketing and business potential, despite their lack of musical abilities.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize that BTS’ accomplishments should not be obscured by the stereotyped term of K-pop, as they have truly set themselves apart from other K-pop artists. However, K-pop should be referred to as an industry, because it largely operates in ways that are completely unique to itself. So, as a genre, I will tend to call BTS as “Korean Pop” however, they do belong to (but are by no means limited to) the K-pop industry. And as Korean Pop artists, it is no question that BTS have paved the way for the K-pop industry, dismantling the strong, negative connotations with “K-pop” and presenting great music to a largely unfamiliar Western audience.

With that said, every single K-pop artist I have explored has been unbelievably talented – there is no doubt that these individuals have deep understanding and appreciation of music and dance, and not one artist from the many groups I have observed appeared to be lacking. What makes BTS special is how they have refined their talents to complement each other. As one of my professors once said, “every flower is beautiful, but it is how you arrange that flower in a boutique that makes its presence special.”

I will continue to expand on this point and other aspects of BTS’ (their dancing and choreography and how it reflects Asian music, their performance quality, their rapping abilities) through an ethnomusicological lens. Thank you for reading.