Are BTS Truly K-Pop?

In a recent interview, RM, the leader of BTS, spoke of something many had debated for years after their debut. Was BTS truly K-Pop or not?

In the year 2020, BTS became the first Korean group to be nominated for a Grammy, held a one-of-a-kind two-day-online concert, Map of The Soul ON: E, with 990,000+ viewers in 191 regions, and were named Time’s Entertainer of the Year. They achieved their first number one on the Billboard Top 100 with their single, Dynamite for two consecutive weeks and achieved yet another one with Life Goes On.

This year BTS were number one on the IFPI’s Global Artist Chart of 2020, Global Album Sales Chart 2020, and the Global Album All Format Chart 2020. Dynamite also received a Double Platinum RIAA Certification and broke the record for most weeks spent on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales Chart. It also became the first song to sell 200,000 downloads in the US in 2021.

The topic of whether or not BTS belonged to the K-Pop ‘industry' has been of much debate for many years. Fans and non-fans alike would voice out their opinions and thoughts on what they felt, on both online and offline spaces. Of course, it was a topic that required and had much attention. It was a question many wanted an answer to, despite it being answered all the time.

In his recent interview for Rolling Stone, fans got an answer they were seeking for. RM was asked on what his sentiments were surrounding the idea of BTS not being considered as a K-Pop group. He answered eloquently and thoughtfully like he always did.

Somebody could say that K-pop is for Koreans who sing a Korean song. That could be K-pop. But what about “Dynamite”? We sing the song in English. But we’re all Koreans, so somebody may say it’s a K-pop song. Or they may say it’s just a pop song, because it’s in English.

But we don’t actually really care about whether people see us as inside or outside K-pop. The important fact is that we’re all Koreans, and we’re singing a pop song.” — RM for Rolling Stone

RM also drew parallels between the Eastern and the Western Industry, using the infamous Silk Road as a metaphor for the way both cultures inspired and ‘traded’ with one another.

If you think about the Silk Road in the past, there’s this idea of Eastern people and Western people meeting on some kind of, like, big road and maybe doing selling and buying of stuff. I think this story repeats itself, and some kind of new, interesting phenomenon is happening. We feel very honored to be existing in the very eye of this big hurricane.

BTS for Rolling Stone

It is not the first time RM has questioned what the word K-Pop means. In an interview for the Times where BTS were nominated ‘Entertainer of the Year’, RM reiterated that he did not want BTS to be limited to a singular boundary called ‘K-Pop’.

He is also not the first member to question what K-Pop truly means out loud. In an interview for the Grammy Museum, Suga spoke of how he hesitated to approach K-Pop as an industry and not something that he considered was ‘integrated content’.

K-Pop includes not just the music but the clothes, the make up, the choreography. All of these elements, I think, sort of amalgamate together in a visual and auditory content package. That I think sets it up apart from any music or maybe other genres. So again as I said, rather than approaching K-Pop as it’s own genre, I think approaching it as this integration of different content would be a better approach.” — SUGA for Grammy Museum

Suga speaking of his hesitance to approach K-Pop as a singular industry resonates. With time, the line has blurred between a singular genre of music to envelop a whole industry of artists that happen to be Korean.

With K-Pop accumulating popularity in the West, it is with little hesitance we can accept, the need for pigeonholing every Korean artist together comes with the West failing to understand they are not a monolith. It also comes with not wanting to take the time and effort to understand their differences either. It is their way of rejecting non-white and non-English speaking artists. We saw it with Latin Artists and Black Artists being lumped together, despite holding noticeable differences — we are now witnessing something incredibly similar.

We can thus safely say that failing to understand the differences between Korean artists or at least acknowledging their differences is incredibly racially charged. There has always been harmful rhetoric surrounding the Korean industry — that all Korean musicians are the results of careful manufacturing and production. That none of them own autonomy over their own lives. We’ve seen this rhetoric sensationalized and used to dehumanize them as well.

Tablo, undoubtedly one of South Korea’s most famous rappers and member of hip hop group, Epik High (a group the members of BTS have spoken of highly and said to have inspired them to pursue their own music) spoke eloquently of the standards set against the Korean Industry and the West in his podcast, The Tablo Podcast.

“It’s super corporate not just in Korea but everywhere.” He said, “Judging from the many interviews I’ve done with foreign press, I really do not like or appreciate that they try to pigeonhole K-pop and the Korean music industry as this super factory-like corporate machine. Because where the hell do you think we got that from? That’s been around for a very, very long time and it happens everywhere else too.” He continued. “Also, I don’t like how they only focus on a few specific cases where that happens and make it seem like every single part of this scene here is like that,”

“I think we have possibly the most interesting independent scene anywhere in the world. The music scene here—from live concerts to clubs to just people performing on the streets, the different genres we have, the different messages, the different crews—everything is very, very vibrant and alive.” — Tablo, The Tablo Podcast

Tablo’s message resonated strongly because it spoke so much of how Korean artists very much did have autonomy over their own music, creative choices, and the lives they lead, just like most artists do.

The Western world’s fixation on how it was anything but and their hell-bent resolve to portray artists as puppets and not individuals was terrifying. This rhetoric, unfortunately, was not unpopular as one might hope it would be either.

RM, Suga, and Tablo are not the only artists voicing out their frustration, and rightfully so. The idea of being limited and pigeonholed to a single genre seemed ridiculous. Because what does it truly mean to be K-Pop?

How would we define it? Was a group simply K-Pop because they were Koreans who performed in pop? What happened when they switched to another genre? Did the label still apply now? Did it matter in the first place?

It is important we listen to these artists voice out what they feel about being labeled as K-Pop artists, too. It is not them detaching themselves from this label but it is them posing important questions to the world; what does it mean to be a part of K-Pop? Why are we so determined to narrow down a vast genre of artists to a singular label? Why can’t they be anything but? And what happens to those who challenge it?

It will surprise many to learn that the K-Pop industry is not an industry at all. It is a movement. It is a celebration of music and artistry, like all forms of art truly are. To pretend otherwise would be to ignore the efforts of talented individuals who are doing what they love the most.

To pretend it is a singular, uniform movement is to take away all their colors, all their celebrations, and the joys they bring with their music as well. The word K-Pop has defied its own meaning and is something much more vast now. The impossibility of limiting it to a singular bubble is grand.

Korean artists deserve to be seen. Artists of color deserve to be seen. They deserve to be understood as they are. Their music should not be defined by anyone but themselves. There should be no complications. It is not a complicated thing for an artist to perform and to create. In the end, they are artists doing what they were meant to do as well.