BTS at the Grammys

I remember the day I realised that BTS had made it big. I was at the Blue Wall, spending my dining dollars recklessly on Indian food when I heard it. It was not one of the Blue Wall staples, like ever-present debbie-downer song "1-800-273-8255" by Logic, or that inferior remix of "Despacito" with Justin Bieber. My concentration on creating the perfect ratio of naan-to-spinach paneer was interrupted by what seemed to be a glitch in the matrix. I heard Kim Taehyung’s familiar breathy voice and for a moment thought I still had my headphones in. Sitting alone, I tried to suppress a climbing smile. I couldn't have imagined this moment. Six years ago, I first became a fan of K-pop. I couldn't have imagined this moment when in 2014, I met a fellow K-pop fan in a little shop on Bearskin neck and we exchanged numbers. I couldn't have even imagined it in 2015, when I saved all of my money from my summer job to attend The Red Bullet Tour

"Fake Love" played overhead, as if it were any other song by the likes of Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars or Taylor Swift. On February 10th, BTS became the first K-pop group to ever be invited to the Grammys. This milestone, coupled with the 200 million dollar box office success of Crazy Rich Asians or Sandra Oh’s Golden Globe win, which were both significant Asian and Asian American communities who have been historically erased and excluded in the American media. As a white girl with blonde hair, growing up I always had plenty of pop stars that looked just like me. Well, with my bowl-haircut and gapped teeth I wasn’t exactly Britney Spears, but you get the idea. I never had to feel like I couldn’t pursue a career in music because of my race. 

The oppression and exclusion of Asian Americans has long been under-discussed. A major symptom of this oppression can be seen in our media’s perpetuation of Orientalist stereotypes. For example, the Dragon Lady frequently portrayed by Anna May Wong from 1905 to 1932 often re-manifests itself in modern-day roles like Lucy Liu as O-Ren Ishii in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Racism can also be found in our media in examples of yellowface, ranging from Mickey Rooney role as Mr. Yunioshi in the classic Breakfast at Tiffanys, to Scarlett Johansson’s role as Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, which employed CGI to make Johansson look more Japanese. There is a grand sense of irony created by the marriage of technological advancement and sustained white supremacy. Sandra Oh used her platform as host of the Golden Globe Awards to acknowledge the racial inequality in modern-day cinema. She said, Crazy Rich Asians is nominated tonight for best picture, musical or comedy. It is the first studio film with an Asian-American lead since Ghost in the Shell and Aloha." 

Asian Representation in the music industry has been scarce. Salima Koroma’s 2016 documentary called Bad Rap reveals how difficult it is for Asian American musicians to gain recognition. I highly recommend it! The documentary follows the beloved Awkwafina and the Korean-American and rapper Dumbfounded, as they contend with their own marketability in the American music scene. There are many K-pop idols from America like Henry Lau, Amber Lu, Jay Park and Eric Nam, who had to leave their country to pursue their dreams because they knew how difficult it would be for them to be accepted. Ignoring the fact that these artists had to sign what in American standards that are considered slave-contracts, where they get paid very little for their work, these artists had to literally leave their country and move away from everyone they knew and loved to pursue their dreams. 

Past attempts to break into American music by K-pop idols have been ultimately unsuccessful. Of course PSY got pretty close with "Gangnam Style," but K-pop has always been reduced to a genre of novelty. It's has always been seen as niche, and safe within the confines of the internet (not to be taken too seriously). So despite all of the efforts of countless idols (2NE1, Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, and Big Bang to name a few) it wasn’t even until BTS performed at the American Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards that K-pop really made its presence known among American audiences. Now I see stands of K-pop albums at Newbury Comics, where "Doctor Who" once stood and BLACKPINK has even been invited to attend Coachella. I see people walking around campus with BT21 keychains and think nothing of it. I don’t stop them to talk and exchange our numbers because K-pop has become so common! I’ve gone to three K-pop concerts this year, because now it's significantly easier for Korean artists to sell out from North American tours. So BTS’ success has not only helped themselves, but the genre as a whole. 

Amidst a sea of usual suspects at the Grammys, BTS was easily distinguishable with their nervous smiles, colorful hair, and Korean suits by Jay Baek couture and Kim Seo Ryong. The group’s leader, Kim Namjoon, labored through countless interviews in English. (Something he has become accustomed to since his speech at the United Nations’ General Assembly in honor of UNICEF’s new “Generation Unlimited Partnership” initiative.) I believe that BTS’ ability to break into the American music industry is due to their universal message of self-acceptance. South Korea is the suicide capital of the developed world, but depression and other mental illnesses are harshly stigmatized. There are no borders on mental health struggles, and their #LoveYourself campaign transcends the boundaries of language and culture.  

BTS has been able to cultivate a global fan base from social media. A.R.M.Y., BTS’ devoted fandom, find their way into Twitter worldwide trends almost on a daily basis.  Despite their rise in success, there has been some backlash against BTS with people on Twitter saying, “Who are these Asians and why did they win?” after their 2017 Billboard Social Artist Award win. This sentiment alone displays how few Asian faces American audience's are accustomed to seeing. BTS’ historic appearance at the Grammys is important because representation is important. Their Grammys appearance works to combat the legacy of exclusion and racism towards Asian artists in our modern-day music industry. 


Images: 1, 2, 3, 4