Why There Was Outrage Over The Hollywood Reporter’s Article on BTS

This past Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter published an article and interview on BTS, the popular K-pop band taking the world by storm. Initially, many fans were skeptical of the article, especially after the magazine released an unsavory review of their EP earlier this year filled with harsh phrasing such as them coming from a “sausage mill” or “assembly line” and how their “music isn’t supposed to be revelatory” and “best to have misremembered by next year”. Understandably, many fans were cautious about the interview but decided to put their trust in the band and hope for a better article. However, instead, they were once again met with a mixture of disappointment and anger over the almost hidden narrative author Seth Abramovitch was trying to push. Rather than learning more about BTS themselves, he seemed more concerned about the K-pop industry and how BTS falls in it. Overall, the article drew scrutiny for its clear lack of research, bringing up unnecessary controversies, and problematic wording that showed disrespect.

Abramovitch doesn’t start the article off well when he admits he hasn’t done any basic research about the band and has only been exposed to them from their American SNL performance and a couple of music videos. It isn’t until he’s on the plane to South Korea to interview them that he learns there are seven members, that they’ve been together since 2012, and that their main message is to break free from both their genre and society’s limitations. The fact that the author clearly admitted to not doing ten minutes worth of research the first concern of many fans and also established the article as non-credible from the start. Further, throughout the article there are several wrong facts such as the word maknae, or youngest, being an exclusively K-pop term when it’s commonly used when describing family dynamics and quoting statements from a U.S. manager who no longer works with the group. The most alarming part of all this is that Abramovitch doesn’t seem to show any concern with his lack of research and instead appears to take pride in his lack of knowledge about K-pop and BTS. He describes how on his flight he was “the only 47-year-old man on the plane with a pile of BTS books on his lap” and he calls BTS “a once-in-a-generation pop culture phenomenon”. The author appears to distinctly separate himself from the idea of BTS’ success, blaming it on a generation gap and them being a foreign act.

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*Trigger warning: mention of suicide 

When it comes to the actual interview and discussion of BTS, Abramovitch raised more criticism by bringing up topics bound to be controversial in hopes to create an alternative narrative that fits his image of the K-pop industry. For example, although he was unable to research basic facts about the band, he was able to bring up drama involving one of the members being falsely romantically linked to a friend. In this way, he instills the idea of K-pop being a heavily monitored industry. While it is not incorrect that there are some strict rules, it does not define the genre overall or even BTS for the matter. Perhaps the greatest criticism the article received was when Abramovitch mentions the suicide of Jonghyun, a member of K-pop band SHINee, trivializing mental health to push the narrative of K-pop being a manufactured industry. He never mentions Jonghyun by name, only referring to him as someone who felt “broken on the inside” according to his suicide note. Additionally, he contextualizes this information with the idea that the music industry has “training camps” that are all about the best coming out on top “while some don’t survive at all”. If Abramovitch felt that this was an important discussion to have, he could have written a separate article on it or cited actual cases of abuse rather than pointing to one rare instance that does not accurately convey the message he wants to send for shock value. 

Finally, the choice wording throughout the article rubbed many fans the wrong way. He calls BTS’ entertainment company Big Hit a “factory”, the music auditions “cattle calls”, and BTS being allowed to have a “longer leash” than other groups. Abramovitch using these terms only increases the stereotypes of Asians all being the same, obsessed with the idea of perfection, and having robotic instead of human qualities. He even highlights this stereotype when, after asking how BTS feels about performing in America during a time of political tension, he points out “their answers have all the spontaneity of a Disney animatronic figure”.  The leader of the group RM’s answer was “There are a lot of issues, both in the United States and in Korea. I think the message [is] loving yourself, as well as to look at the small things”. How can any diplomatic response be seen as robotic when asked a question intended to start controversy? Why was a question about American politics being asked to a Korean band? These were just some of the upset responses from fans. Further, it appears that Abramovitch wanted to portray BTS as feeling superior to other groups when he quotes RM as saying BTS is there to “conquer” and that they consider themselves “not just better [than other K-pop acts], but the best”. To many fans, this quote was surprising as the band has never indicated that they felt this way. BTS often tends to avoid talking about other K-pop acts, as seen in this interview clip from the 2018 Billboard Music Awards in which RM says “josimhae” or “be careful” to the other members when answering the question about what other K-pop bands they think might make it big in America. In this context, many believe there was a mistranslation or manipulation of the quote to encourage the author’s narrative. 

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Despite the poor writing, the answers from both CEO Bang Si-Hyuk and BTS themselves were insightful. Although Abramovitch attempts to paint a picture of the harsh music industry, this idea is dismissed with comments from Bang like the company’s philosophy of providing the “best terms and best treatment” and the boys maintaining they feel respected and that they are given a lot of freedom from the company. To dismiss the notion that they are forced to keep performing, member Jimin states rather they “have so much fun together singing and dancing that we want it to continue”. Member Jin also adds that they interact with fans on social media “because we really like it”. Further, when asked tough questions they approach answers diplomatically in well-thought-out responses. On mandatory military service, Bang says the group will “try to show the fans the best of BTS until, and after, the members have fulfilled their service duties”. On their feelings about playing in Saudi Arabia, Jimin says their outlook is “if there’s a place where people want to see us, we’ll go there”. 

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​But what is most interesting and perhaps the biggest takeaway is the xenophobic attitude displayed throughout the piece. Ambrovitch likens the idea of diplomatic responses and mistreatment of performers to be a solely Korean issue when the same things can be seen in Western music industries. He also repeatedly states observations and facts that are closely followed by remarks that suggest their accomplishments or demeanors are strange. For example, he tells the reader that they are the first group since the Beatles “to score three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart in less than a year” but follows up with it being “astounding considering their songs are mostly in Korean”. Similarly, he notes how the boys seem to appreciate the souvenirs from Los Angeles he brought “or at least are good at faking it”. Overall, whether intentional or not, these types of comments and outlooks are important to discuss to foster a better understanding of other cultures and people. If this article starts that conversation, then maybe there was a greater and better purpose at hand.