I still remember the day I lost my K-pop virginity. I was a sophomore in high school when my friends introduced me to a K-pop boy band called INFINITE. I had doubts at first because K-pop was very foreign to me. My friend pulled out her phone and played their music videos, telling me to watch the boys’ dance moves. I saw seven very attractive boys executing each movement flawlessly in sync with the music, which made the entirety of the performance very eye-catching. Little did I know what I saw on that tiny phone screen would change my life forever.
The word K-pop is short for “Korean pop” music, a distinct genre that blends audio (usually a catchy song), visual (choreography) and style into a cohesive performance. Vox reported that Hallyu has been around for more than two decades, but K-pop has only gained a global audience in the last five to 10 years. In the West, the leader of this global phenomenon is BTS.
BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys or Bulletproof Boy Scouts, first got recognized in the Western music industry in 2016 when they released their second full-length album “Wings”. It became the best-selling K-pop album on the Billboard 200, standing tall at No. 26, which Billboard announced “to date, less than a dozen K-pop acts have sent albums to the Billboard 200.”
At first, I was happy with their international success and how they grew transnationally. BTS became legendary in the way their fame in America broke boundaries that no other Korean artists were able to accomplish. But with their international success, I began to notice a pattern of how they were portrayed by the Western media. Many news outlets often describe BTS as the “world’s No. 1 K-pop group.” Articles written by prominent publications about the rising Korean pop culture in the West glorify and attribute this phenomenon solely to BTS. Slowly, the façade behind the Western perception of Hallyu is dominated by the image of BTS. This action inevitably normalizes the connection between the word “K-pop” and BTS, condensing the representation of Hallyu into a single equation: BTS = Hallyu.
As a result, BTS is essentially being marketed as the entire K-pop genre and Hallyu culture. When asked, most people who don’t listen to K-pop music automatically associate the word “K-pop” with BTS. Due to this evolution, the identity of Hallyu is being heavily misrepresented and distorted in Western culture.
I am not blaming BTS for anything. I understand the convenience for journalists, especially those who are not acquainted with this topic, to use BTS an example to describe K-pop in the simplest way. When I first discovered BTS in early 2015, they had just released a new single called “I Need You” – a powerful yet melancholy masterpiece. Coming from Big Hit Entertainment, a small South Korean entertainment company, BTS’s international success and achievements were surprisingly unexpected. Therefore, their rapid rise in the mainstream media was journalists’ one association to portray K-pop culture.
Hip-hop and R&B are the largest share of any other music genres, representing 24.5 percent of all music consumption in the U.S. in 2017 according to Nielsen Music. And BTS is converting their music to where the largest sector of the music industry is established. With this shift, I noticed a drastic difference between their music before and after they entered to the Western music industry.
My perception of BTS’s music has always encompassed an emotional sentiment. Songs like “I Need You”, “Blood Sweat and Tears” and “Spring Day” has an innate ability to dig deep into the listener’s soul and feelings. However, this powerful element within their older music is not present anymore in their newer music. More recent singles like “Mic Drop” and “DNA” are composed of strong beats and rhythms but lack the passion that was in their music before, the element that defined them as a K-pop boy band and that brought me to fall in love with them.
They said once you have been labeled a “Koreaboo,” there’s no going back. I thought I was stuck with this title forever, until I wasn’t. To the boys that blessed me and simultaneously relinquished me from this label, your old music will always be nostalgic to me and have a special place in my youth. To me, BTS will always be the band who brought genuine blood, sweat, and tears to my early music discoveries, and I am thankful for this experience.