Screenshot of 'Boy With Luv' music video / Youtube
Whether you love them or not, it’s safe to say that nearly everyone has heard of BTS.
The septet of K-Pop idols — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — have been on an upwards trajectory ever since their 2013 debut, and now dominate the global music charts in a way few other music groups do. They’ve broken world records, and are the first group since the Beatles to debut three No. 1 albums in a single year.
But the integration of BTS’ music, and K-Pop in general, into the mainstream (read: Western) pop scene has not been entirely seamless.
Despite a slew of guest appearances on American talk shows and guest performances at award ceremonies that have helped to make BTS a household name, Western pop culture has yet to treat BTS and their artistry with the same respect that they do other music acts.
From xenophobic comments to being relegated to the newly-created K-Pop category at the MTV VMAs (when they have outperformed many of the marquee award nominees in record sales and video views), BTS have been presented as hot gossip more often than as inspiring artists, and even better human beings.
So, let’s talk about the ways BTS are changing the world for the better.
1. Redefining masculinity
Even though the outpouring of admiration and support for BTS more than drowns out the haters, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of toxicity directed at them. About them being Asian. About them looking ‘gay.’ Mostly a combination of both, and almost always from a man stifled by toxic masculinity.
I’ve talked about the fetishization of Asian women before, but the flipside to that is how Asian men have been historically emasculated. And while we don’t want Asian men to become fetishized either, it’s encouraging that BTS are subverting the buffed-up, stoic image of the ‘ideal’ man and highlighting all the different shades of the sexiness spectrum.
Sometimes they’ll be wearing giant, adorable mascot costumes modelled after their BT21 characters (think cartoon animals.) Onstage, they wore grungy, military-inspired outfits designed by Dior. Sleek greyscale tuxedos on the red carpet. Pink satin pajamas. Rainbow hair.
But it’s not just in how they dress: it’s how they casually wear makeup and take great lengths to look after their skin.
How they’re unabashedly, extremely kawaii (cute) sometimes: pouting and giggling and speaking in falsetto.
How they exhibit ‘skinship’ — platonic physical intimacy — with each other, a behaviour that the comparatively homophobic West has repressed, by giving each other piggy-backs and cuddles.
All while being confident, authentic, attractive men.
BTS reminds us that it’s not just okay to be childish, emotional and flamboyant — sometimes, it’s downright necessary.
2. The power of pop music
Despite now being the face of K-Pop, BTS initially struggled to build popularity in Korea.
They were quite different from the industrialised K-pop scene in that all their songs had emotional, sometimes uncomfortable, themes like suicide and mental health.
The Korean audience, reported manager Bang Shi Kyuk, wanted less conceptual work and “more cool dance and music for our pretty oppas (big brothers).”
BTS have since proven the power of their storytelling to the world.
With a highly-developed musical universe (equipped with characters and plotlines,) relatable lyrics and uplifting development arcs through their successive albums, they’ve amassed a fanbase, called ARMY, nearly six times the population of New Zealand — going by the 28 million subscribers BigHit Entertainment (their agency) has on YouTube.
Among the many stories that BTS receives about the positive impact their music has had on listeners, this might be my favourite:
During BTS’ 2017 Love Yourself tour, women were allowed to enter Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International Stadium for the first time to attend the concert.
BTS are prominent advocates for youth issues and mental health, which have been a recurring theme in their music.
They’ve visited children’s centres, the elderly and worked with Love Food Bank as delivery men to take food, water and support to struggling communities.
Most notably, in 2017 BTS partnered with Unicef to launch the Love Yourself campaign, aimed at ending violence against youth. They, along with their agency, donated KW$500 million to UNICEF’s #ENDviolence campaign which develops social services for children at risk.
100% of the profits from Love Yourself merchandise, and a further 3% of their Love Yourself album profits also went to sponsoring the campaign.
Their partnership with UNICEF brought the ensemble to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, where group leader RM addressed the delegates.
On behalf of the group he spoke about his hopes for future generations around the world.
“Tell me your story. I want to hear your voice, and I want to hear your conviction. No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity: speak yourself.”Support Villainesse