A Truly Global Phenomenon: The Cultural Importance of BTS’s Achievements Including That Astonishing Trilingual Feat
Another week, another brand new batch of BTS news as the Korean group show no signs of slowing down when it comes to record breaking achievements. As well as finally getting their music video for their chart topping, world dominating pop bop “Dynamite” to a billion views on YouTube (which they managed in seven months, making it the fastest MV from a Korean group to reach a billion), their “Film Out” MV becoming the number one music video in the world at the moment, becoming the first group in over ten years to be beaten by themselves on the Billboard Digital Sales Chart (“Film Out” took the crown from “Dynamite”) and the announcement of BANG BANG CON 2021– a free YouTube live stream event of three of their previous concerts -BTS also managed to obtain an achievement that is a huge step for cultural diversity in the western music industry. They became the first act in history to have three songs in three different languages– English (“Dynamite”), Korean (“Life Goes On” and “Boy with Luv”) and Japanese (“Film Out”)- chart on the Billboard Global Excl U.S Chart. That isn’t too bad for less than a week.
This success is not only a huge accomplishment in itself (being able to sing in not one but three separate languages is impressive enough as it is after all) but this also feels like a refreshing surge of appreciation for music in languages other than English. BTS has an absolutely behemoth fan base who are highly involved in their rise to the top but there is something to be said for those who may not have known who they were but still gave their music a chance despite not understanding the language. These people are sure to have contributed to the success of their Japanese and Korean songs. With that many sales, you cannot merely blame the fangirls. We did our part, but we aren’t miracle workers. Language can be a harsh barrier for some, one that can be too daunting for them to cross and understandably so. Many people who I have discussed BTS with who are not listeners of their work have told me that they find it hard to enjoy songs that they cannot understand. That is what makes this result in such a huge U.S. music establishment all the more incredible. BTS are once again breaking the boundaries of the western music industry by having not one, but two non-English songs make it into the chart.
Even if they don’t understand the language, people are surely giving music with non-English lyrics a chance which- when you think about it- is pretty damn insane in the grander scheme of cultural diversity in the western music industry. The only non-English songs to noticeably do well in mainstream charts were often gimmick like tunes that weren’t really taken too seriously. “Gangnam Style” is a strong example of this, as well as that weird, early 2000’s Spanglish song “Asereje”- “The Ketchup Song”- by Las Ketchup (what was the obsession with ketchup there??). BTS’s success is all the more ground-breaking when you consider this. Yes, “Life Goes On” and “Boy with Luv” have smatterings of English here and there but “Film Out” is entirely in Japanese. Both are strong and powerful pop ballads. In fact, their English song “Dynamite” is the most eccentric of the three songs- with lyrics like “ice tea and a game of ping pong” and “King Kong, kick the drum” (seriously, what the heck does that even mean?). The more you delve into the implications of this achievement, the more impressive and commendable it becomes. These seven young Korean men have managed to revitalise the western music industry and are steadily making it more and more accessible for musicians around the world to get their foot in the door. Each new broken record; each new achievement; each monumental moment in musical history is not only a testament to their skill as artists but proof of their cultural importance in terms of diverse representation not only in western music, but in the western world.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I cannot contain my pride for BTS. I do say that as a fan but I also say that as a regular person who wants a more inclusive future for the music world. When I was a teenager- and still now at times- I had a hobby of trying to collect songs from soundtracks in all of the language variations I could find. Yes, I was certainly one of the cool kids. I think my record was managing to find around thirty to thirty five different versions of the song “When Will My Life Begin?” from the Disney film Tangled. Disney was usually the easiest as there would be tons of dubs due to Disney movies being such a worldwide phenomenon. This was around ten years ago and I was definitely considered a little bit of a weird because of it. Of course, there will still be those who find it hard to embrace other cultures or who just can’t enjoy music with words that they cannot understand- which is absolutely understandable as I said- but knowing that there has been such progress towards breaking down the barriers of language in music in the last ten years alone is a really great thing to witness and be a part of.
Unfortunately, there will always be those who cannot see past a person’s race and BTS still have a long way to go in regards to this. They have been brave enough to speak out on their own experiences with racism but with their rising stardom comes more attention, for better and for worse. A recent skit from a Chilean comedy show has come under fire for its attempts to mock BTS with uncomfortable and blatantly racist “comedy.” The skit features several members of the show making fun of the band, but the only way in which they do so is by mocking their Korean heritage such as their Korean names- by making oh so clever Kim Jong-Un jokes (Real original there. Hate to break it to you but Team America beat you too it almost two decades ago) -, their appearances and the Hangul language. I said this in my article on the Garbage Pail Kids BTS cards and I will keep saying it: it is okay to laugh at yourself and make jokes. When you are in the public eye, you have to prepare yourself for that more than most people. However, mocking someone with crude humour which is focused only on race and heritage is pure racist xenophobia. There is certainly a fine line with this kind of issue but the line is well and truly crossed with this skit. I will post the Tweet thread from the Chilean BTS fan account that brought up the issue of this tone deaf skit. Even if the creators did not have racist intentions at heart, how blind can you possibly be do this despite the current social climate wherein the Asian community are being attacked more and more frequently every day? It boggles the mind. It could be pure stupidity, it could be malicious or it could simply be yet another clout chaser trying to desperately cling to BTS’s popularity to get attention. Whether it’s good or bad attention doesn’t seem to matter. Whichever it is, all I know for sure is this: we will never be able to continue to broaden diversity in the entertainment industry- or across the world – if this is the kind of attitude that people continue to have.
BTS continue to push through the ignorance of systemic racism and achieve greater and greater heights literally every week (how else would I be able to keep writing on them??). This trilingual spectacle is most definitely another strong step in the right direction for inclusion and diversity in the western entertainment industry, but we have to keep fighting against cruel and unnecessary hate in the process.