But while they’ve shattered records, stereotypes are another matter. Last month, during a pop-culture show on Australian television station Nine Network, British comedian Jimmy Carr said, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried.” Months earlier, a Greek TV host and her guests made fun of the group’s physical appearance, asking if one band member was actually a man.
“They don’t fit the mold of a traditional Western pop act, attacking people’s notions of what can fly, what can be popular,” said pop culture writer Phil Yu from the popular Angry Asian Man blog. “Add on top of that, a healthy dose of xenophobia and Orientalism. That’s when you can go after their looks, the fact they are singing in Korean, and how they don’t match what looks ‘masculine.’”
The latest controversy surrounds the Video Music Awards, which announced on Tuesday a new category for “Best K-Pop.”
“This group of nominees perfectly reflect the rich pop music landscape,” said Bruce Gillmer, Head of Music and Music Talent, Viacom and Co-Brand Head, MTV International in a press release.
In addition to the new K-Pop category, BTS was nominated in three others — “Best Collaboration,” “Best Art Direction” and “Best Choreography.” But given the group’s overwhelming popularity, fans questioned why BTS and other K-pop groups needed to be separated from the main awards, such as “Best Pop” and “Artist of the Year.”
The sentiment spread across Twitter, leading their fans — known as the Army, an acronym for “Adorable Representative MC for Youth" — to create the trending hashtags #VMAsXenophobic and #VMAsRacist.
The K-Pop category keeps BTS “snug in that box, to stop them from having a seat at the table,” said Mona Mohamed, a 25-year-old fan from Decatur, Georgia. “Imagine if BTS were an all-white, English-singing [and] -speaking group. ... We have other groups, such as One Direction, as proof of what the ‘proper race’ can achieve and receive from the media and the industry.”
The relegation of musicians of color to separate categories is not a new problem in the U.S. music industry, said Youngdae Kim, who has taught classes on pop music at the University of Washington and Lewis & Clark College.
“When you think pop music, you automatically imagine a white star," said Kim.
This historically has been true for black and Latin artists, subjugated to the sidelines in separate but equal categories with labels like “urban.” This was the case for the 2017 hit “Despacito,” which dominated Latin award categories. On Twitter, BTS fans noted that no separate category was created for Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes or Australian group 5 Seconds of Summer, who were nominated for “Artist of the Year” and “Best Pop” respectively.
“I’m kind of glad the VMAs finally are recognizing the presence of K-pop and making an individual category as part of the awards,” said Kim, 40, who grew up listening to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince in South Korea. "It’s a safe solution for them, to celebrate the popularity of K-pop, but not include it as part of mainstream pop.”
This lack of acceptance is why some BTS fans seek solace online. Roma Barade, a 17-year-old New Jersey high school senior, said classmates, peers and strangers on social media have bullied and questioned her about being a fan of a boy band “that looks like girls.”
“We’re very closed off in America, and now especially, racially, we’re not in a good place,” said Barade, who is Indian American. “For Asians, it is so normalized to be racist toward them: that Asians all look the same, that the men all look like girls. It’s played like a joke.”
Instead, Barade looks to her BTS family for support. She’s a lead administrator for the New Jersey fan group, which started this past May and has more than 1,200 members.
“The last time there was a popular Korean artist, it was Psy and people made fun of his song ‘Gangnam Style.’ It was generally kind of a big joke,” said Barade about the 2012 single.
“BTS definitely stands out. They are very cinematic, they put stories into their music," Barade continued. "It’s not just stories about love and heartbreak; they talk about mental illness, how young people are treated in society and how their voices do matter. They try to empower the youth and try to speak up [about] how we should love ourselves and accept who you are and not just be confined by society.”
The group’s ability to speak to youth issues attracted Qriztine de los Santos, from the Philippines, who struggles with depression and says that BTS’s music helped her overcome urges to hurt herself.
“BTS may not know me, but they understand me,” said Santos, 27. “Their songs calm me. I don’t need to memorize the whole English version, as long as I know what message they convey.”
Amid mainstream resistance, musical acts like BTS and their fans continue to push to be included. Country rapper Lil Nas X, whose summer hit “Old Town Road” has dominated radio airwaves this year, has struggled to gain acceptance in his musical genre, country. In March, the song was pulled from the Billboard country chart, but left on the R&B/Hip Hop chart.
In their latest testament to crossing boundaries, Lil Nas X collaborated with BTS member RM to release this week a remix of the chart-topping song, titling it “Seoul Town Road.”
“Yes, it’s not something you’re used to. Yes, they’re very different. But just give them a chance before you judge them, and you’ll understand why they’re so famous, why they’ve accomplished so much and why they have such a devoted fanbase,” said Imelda Ibarra, a 29-year-old fan from Los Angeles and head of the US BTS Army fan group, with more than 500,000 followers on Twitter. “We are a very diverse fandom, and through BTS we all realized that we are not alone.”
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