Last May I found myself pacing the length of my living room while my younger sister, Sarah, sat on the sofa, music video queued on the TV, her patience wearing thin.After more than 15 minutes of arguing, it was becoming clear that my protests were in vain. In hindsight, I should have caught on sooner. Sarah and I had been arguing over this for six months. My stance remained the same: “K-Pop is so robotic and manufactured. How can you enjoy something so contrived?”
Sarah’s eyebrows raised at “robotic.” In that moment, I knew I had gone too far. “Alyssa…I need you to sit down, shut up and watch this music video.”
On May 12, at roughly 10 p.m., I lost the fight, sitting down with an audible huff beside her.
Sarah laughed and asked, “Are you ready for this?” I gave her the best side eye I could muster. The ancient march of Joseon dynasty kings filled the room, followed by a trap beat.
Agust D’s “Daechwita” was a bold study of duality. The ancient world colliding with the modern world. The East merging with the West. Agust D had created something uniquely his and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Sarah was thrilled. She explained that Agust D is the alias of Min Yoongi, better known as BTS’ Suga. We spent the next three hours, well past midnight, watching BTS’ music videos while I grilled Sarah on everything she knew about BTS and how they came to be.
Of the music videos we watched, “‘ON’ the Kinetic Manifesto Film: Come Primo” off the 2020 album “Map of the Soul:7,” stood out. BTS appeared to lead an army of dancers, all in stark black and white clothing. It wasn’t the choreography that initially caught my attention, brilliant as it was. It was the message in the lyrics. BTS tapped into Carl Jung’s theory of the psyche and process of individuation.
“ON” wasn’t the only song to take on complex subjects. Some of BTS’ lyrics offered social commentary on capitalism and the economic hardships experienced by youth.
On the 2015 EP “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt.2,” “Silver Spoon” (Baepsae) highlights the socioeconomic inequality in Korea and the expectations placed on Korean youth to tailor their ambitions to the measure of the resources available.
Themes of dreams, youth, overcoming challenges and self-discovery have all played a prominent role in their discography. The “Love Yourself” album series uses a form of traditional Eastern Asian storytelling, Kishōtenketsu, to connect the three albums and short film.
The concepts and subject matter BTS touch on aren’t something we see often in American pop music. American pop songs focus more on love and relationships than they do themes of resistance, social commentary or domestic policy. BTS was leading the charge and touching on topics few others in the pop market would.
BTS’ global impact is undeniable. According to the International Federation of the Photographic Industry (IFPI)’s annual Global Music Report , BTS has been the best-selling artist for the past two years. BTS had six No. 1 recordings on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2020 and 2021. These No.1 singles spanned a year and one month, nearly tying a year and two-week record held by The Beatles.
BTS’ “Permission to Dance on Stage” concert in LA at the end of 2021 attracted 2.14 million attendees over the course of the four-night residency, making it one of the most successful concerts ever mounted.
The more I started to understand BTS, the more I realized how wrong I had been about K-Pop as a genre. To say that these artists were manufactured effectively stripped them of their humanity. Agust D and BTS both showed me that there were unique, creative artists in K-Pop. It was only the beginning.
After that day, I spent months on a personal research mission, trying to figure out how BTS came to be. Instead of the authoritative portrait in the American press that I expected, I came across poorly researched articles, xenophobia and a fair amount of sexism. This apathetic approach to reporting would have serious repercussions.
In June during the 2022 FESTA dinner party, BTS said that they would be temporarily focusing on solo projects. The American press was quick to sensationalize the story as an impending breakup. HYBE, BTS’ management company, saw their shares drop nearly 25% overnight as a result. HYBE released a statement saying the group was not “taking a hiatus” as the American press had suggested but “would start solo projects while remaining active as a group.”
BTS members were not the only ones facing unfair stereotypes. Their fanbase, ARMY, often faced a similar set of dismissive stereotypes. ARMY is often described by the American press as bots with no real agency.
An article in Billboard accused BTS and their record company, Big Hit, of orchestrating ARMY’s streaming practices to boost BTS’ position on American music charts. How could BTS and ARMY be so poorly represented when they had achieved an unparalleled level of global recognition? The more I searched for answers, the more questions I had.
In August, I started my first year here at Goshen College, majoring in journalism. In the first week of the semester I saw an opportunity to begin to seek answers to the puzzle of how BTS and ARMY are portrayed in the press: Communication Research, Comm 240. I had all the tools I needed: access to surveys, the ability to organize a focus group and a very supportive professor, Anna Groff. I dove right in.
At the end of October, I conducted my first focus group with members of ARMY. Nine participants from Indiana and Michigan agreed to take part.
The participants ranged in age from 18 to 61, all from various backgrounds.
The participants told how they found BTS and why they became a part of ARMY. Each participant had a unique story and connection to BTS. Some shared stories of BTS’ music carrying them through a history of abuse. Others shared stories of the joy they found within ARMY and how the music had improved their mental health.
“My best friend introduced me to [BTS] at the beginning of the pandemic,” one participant said. “That was really what helped us get through the pandemic. Every single day we were sending each other videos just to lift our spirits.”
Another participant said, “I never talk to strangers. Because [of BTS] I was making friends in England and Russia!”
The common theme of the focus group was a sense of community. This theme continued outside of the focus group. I read stories about members of ARMY whose lives were changed because of BTS and their music.
BTS had inspired their fanbase in other ways too. ARMY members have frequently banded together to promote social change. In June of 2020, the Twitter handle @OneInAnARMY organized the fanbase and matched the $1 million donation made by BTS to Black Lives Matter in just 25 hours.
Through this research project I have learned a great deal, though still only scratching the surface of the issues around the depiction of BTS and ARMY in the American press. I hope to present this project at the Academic Symposium in the spring. I also hope to continue my research in 2024 with the Maple Scholars program.
My long-term goal is to achieve a better understanding of K-Pop in the United States and how K-Pop is influencing the American music industry. The Korean Wave, or Hallyu, has impacted nearly every American market, whether it’s K-Pop, K-Dramas or tech companies like Samsung. And yet, rather than conduct a comprehensive and systematic treatment or analysis of the Korean Wave, American journalists more often traffic in stereotypes.
“It’s not wrong to be different,” Suga said at the White House in April. “Equality begins when we open up and embrace our differences.”