Music and Identity Politics: How BTS Breaks the Mold

Music and Identity Politics: How BTS Breaks the Mold

Kim Salac
Media Staff

Since their debut in 2013, the worldwide sensation and phenomenal K-pop boy group BTS has made a steady, but certainly not easy, climb to success. Just accounting for their accomplishments in recent years, including their foundational Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tour in 2018 that included two sold-out shows at the iconic Wembley Stadium; consecutively topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts; and receiving an all-kill record at the 2021 American Music Awards (AMA) by winning 3 awards (including the esteemed Artist of the Year, being the first Asian act to ever do so), they are undoubtedly worldwide stars. Even more notably, they are currently two-time Grammy nominees for their songs “Dynamite” in 2021 and “Butter” in 2022.

Yes, I am breathlessly in love with them.

BTS has grown from the days when they were just seven young boys in Korea who created their company, Big Hit Music, with just a dream. Over the years, they’ve built a loyal and passionate legion of fans known as ARMY (also known by their government name: Adorable Representative MC for Youth) that approximates over 40 million people worldwide of all ages and backgrounds. Their organic growth and popularity has been subject to much (biased) scrutiny in the industry following the last two years of awards. Their status has fortunately (or unfortunately, depending how you look at it) sparked a debate on what constitutes “good” music, and how identity politics has a real effect on one’s success in a Western-dominated industry.

Many outlets like to claim that the “manufactured” nature of the Korean idol industry gives the group an advantage. Others label the exoticism of foreign, Asian pop music as a fad that will eventually pass, after which “real” music will rise to the top again (racism, Western-centricism, and the colonial legacy strike again! To the surprise of no one. And Jimmy Kimmel, Billboard, and wannabe music critics, I’m looking at you). Despite these ideologies being evident in an industry that influences and spreads Western music worldwide, BTS has made enormous strides in re-centering that influence. What makes them so special? As an anthropology major and an avid ARMY myself, I’m here to dive into the cultural framework that set apart BTS from the rest of the industry—and to show how their achievements are truly incredible, given the barriers created by generations of Western racial and linguistic discrimination.

Their music helps you discover yourself…

It’s hard to dive into this analysis without mentioning my own journey to becoming an ARMY. To be honest, BTS wasn’t my first K-pop rodeo. I grew up doing Taekwondo throughout my middle and high school years, and was exposed to Korean music and culture through my instructors. By the time I graduated and went to college, I was a casual K-pop listener, only tuning in to the occasional hit singles here and there. In fact, both my younger sisters became ARMY before me, excitedly showing me releases like “DNA” and “Boy With Luv” whenever I would come home during breaks.

It wasn’t until we were stuck inside during the pandemic summer of 2020, when I curiously watched an old speech made by the group in 2018 at the United Nations Conference, titled “What is Your Name? Speak Yourself,” that I became struck by RM’s (BTS’s leader) words. The speech led me to a whole spiral about who I truly was - questions about my career choices, passions, identity, gender, and most importantly, how I could immediately get my hands on as much BTS merch as possible (Suga’s poster on my wall stares at me knowingly). My immersion with the group even changed the trajectory of my academic focus; I chose Korean for my foreign language requirement to help me better understand their music, and to expand my knowledge of Korean culture. It’s been a slow but steady crawl, but I’m getting there.

…and think critically about the world around you.

It’s not that BTS music and their messages “saved” me—it’s just that their songs are unfailingly honest. Their strength isn’t salvation, but sincerity. Whether it be about complex emotions, mental health struggles, or the most beautiful moments in life (HYYH enthusiasts will get this one), their music is crafted to target the human being we all are underneath the pretense and forced identities. Capitalism feeds us unattainable dreams and profits off of our false hopes. We buy into love, fame, and riches; we buy into the idea that money will fulfill us, or that a person will save us. It’s in every song we listen to. 

This is the legacy of coloniality: that the life and desires and emotions of Western people are the life and desires and emotions of all people. The assumption is fed to us in every piece of media we consume. I would argue, even as a South Asian American, that these goals are unrealistic for, to put it frankly, white people as well - it’s a culture built on smoke and mirrors that feeds its people into the cogwheel of consumerism and makes empty promises that one day, life will be perfect. There’s no alternative way to live, nor any alternative way to dream.

BTS’s music breaks these molds entirely. In one of my favorite songs, Suga’s “So Far Away'' featuring Soran, Suga sings: “They said everything would be fine if I did what I was told to do. They said everything would be fine if I went to college…I live only because I can’t die…Dream will eventually be in full bloom at the end of hardships,”; these lyrics are an astute social commentary on the narrative of success that’s been ingrained in young people without truly teaching us to dream or think for ourselves. In another one of my favorites, RM sings a simple “I live so I love” in his song “Trivia: Love,” which testifies the inevitability of love and how human it makes us. He uses witty wordplay to convey this too: in Korean, saram / 사람 is person or human, and sarang / 사랑 is love, showing how close the two are). These are just two of countless examples of their intricate lyricism (seriously. I could go on for days. I have entire curated playlists).

By exploring themes such as failed dreams, the pressure of following a set path, and love that is honest rather than manufactured, their music allows us to recognize that not only are we not to blame for buying into this idea of the world, but that we are capable of moving past it - that we can build identities and lives of our own. They provide the hope of survivorship in a modern capitalistic world.

They persevere in the face of politics…

BTS has also been candid about their Korean identity and how it shapes their music. In an increasingly racialized world where identity is simultaneously politicized and commercialized (i.e. Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, etc.), the primary language of their music being Korean instead of English has led to much bafflement in the Western music industry as to how a foreign band could gain so much popularity. Open your eyes, America. I hate to tell you that a) a Korean-pop band’s music will likely be in…get this…Korean, and b) English must not be that great of a language since so many of you apparently never learned the word diversity.

Their identity enriches their music, but also makes them vulnerable to prejudice. RM stated in an interview with Reuters in 2020: “Since we’re aliens to the music industry for America, we don’t know if there’s a place for us or not. The Grammys aren’t like the Hot 100… it's not numbers so we don’t know what is going on.” The lack of transparency in the Recording Academy and other American award selection processes seem to be covertly intentional: no one can accuse them of being political if people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes.

…and language discrimination.

What people forget is that language discrimination is a form of politics. From a linguistic perspective, the line between language and music is a lot more blurred than we realize (I’m an anthropology major, let me nerd out for a second. Take notes, kids. I promise this is relevant). There’s an age-old debate between the concepts of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism: prescriptivism states that there is a “right” way to go about language, such as following certain grammar rules or processes for meaning-making, while descriptivism states that rules in language can be used as tools—but you can also break them, and there’s no value judgment attached to specific rules. Descriptivism acknowledges language and the identities formed around it as dynamic and not bound by rules and what is “proper” or not.

Essentially, prescriptivism is the way that America (and the West historically) has carried out generations of language discrimination against anyone who doesn’t speak English. It has to be “proper” English too—AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, is discriminated against in strikingly similar ways to other foreign languages. As a result, the conventions of the English language constrain its culture and its music, and provide a very narrow perspective of what “good” music can look like. The music industry’s inability to recognize BTS’s music as good simply because it’s in Korean points to a larger-scale issue of Western cultural dominance over non-white languages and identities. It’s simple: If you don’t speak English, it’s impossible to be superior or popular. (Face it, gentlemen. English doesn’t put the main in mainstream. Get over it.).

But most of all, they have Jimin. (And Namjoon. And Seokjin. And Yoongi, Hoseok, Taehyung, and Jungkook).

BTS are not just a case study—they’re a global phenomenon that speaks to a much larger structural issue at hand. The people that say they want to keep politics out of music are the same ones that nominated pop superstars ABBA, who have been around since 1972, for their first Grammy in 2021. It turns out even being Swedish won’t help you.

BTS has challenged the model of mainstream music—and in many ways, has won. They continue to sell out stadiums, top charts, and break their own records. Their music touches hearts, and so do the members (It’s true. I found the motivation to write this piece after I saw a gif of Jimin smiling. I instantly vowed to tear down discrimination in the music industry with my own two hands). The industry may have an ego, but the world listening in to their music does not. The numbers speak for themselves—BTS, and our love for them, will be around for a long, long time.