By Josh Calixto
By now, BTS's perpetual success in the U.S. has become a familiar routine: They break a longstanding chart record or two; they win a major award; they make TV appearances on shows that seemed untouchable just a few months ago; they sell out their world stadium tour; they draw comparisons to the Beatles; and they answer red carpet questions about celebrity crushes and their favorite American foods.
It feels strange to think that such accomplishments could so quickly become the norm when you consider how truly unprecedented these moves are. Last year, when a crop of films like Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Searching, and Bao turned Asian representation into a major topic of conversation in Western media, BTS was rarely (if ever) featured as the centerpiece of the discussion. And yet, it’s difficult to think of many instances in which an Asian recording artist — much less a group of seven Asian men — has ever been presented on American television as an unironic, bona fide force in pop music.
BTS members from left to right: Suga, V, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Jimin, and J-hope
But BTS is a force, and even now, just a year after becoming the first Asian artists to ever top the Billboard 200 albums chart, their influence can already be felt. In 2019, more than 20 Korean pop acts are set to tour the United States, and many of them are performing on massive stages: The four-piece girl group BLACKPINK, like BTS, have drawn tons of buzz with late night TV appearances, YouTube streaming records, and most recently, a performance at Coachella. NCT 127, of the Korean record label SM Entertainment, can be spotted on shows like Good Morning America and The Late Late Show with James Corden. It’s an exciting time to be a K-pop artist (or fan), and it’s clear that what’s happening is a major breakthrough.
"You see the kind of demand that BTS creates, and it influences people to being open to booking more artists like BTS," Jason Lipshutz, senior director of music at Billboard, tells MTV News. "I think these are all signs that there is more acceptance to incorporating K-pop into major music platforms."
While this is very much a year of firsts for K-pop, it’s not the first time that artists and sounds from other countries have made their way into the American mainstream. In the 1990s, artists like Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez set off a "Latin explosion" whose trajectory can be helpful for sussing out the origins and impacts of the "Asian explosion" we’re seeing today. Selena wasn’t the first Latinx artist to break into the mainstream; before her, Ritchie Valens, Carlos Santana, and even Gloria Estefan were bringing new faces to the scene in the same way that PSY, Girls' Generation, 2NE1, and other Korean acts helped blaze the dirt trail that BTS has paved into a functioning road.
Even with the presence those Latinx artists had carved out, Latin sounds were still too new to be accepted by mainstream audiences as anything other than crossover hits like Gloria Estefan’s "Conga," whose English lyrics and drum-machine rhythms offered a more American-friendly take on Cuban conga songs. The radio waves were averse to the polka-esque, accordion-based sounds that Selena’s Tejano music brought to the scene, and for the majority of Selena’s career, her success was limited to the Latinx listeners who were already familiar with the genre. Even after Selena’s tragic murder in 1995, when her album Dreaming of You made her the first Latinx artist to top the Billboard 200 albums chart, the only two tracks to register with wider audiences were "Dreaming of You" and "I Could Fall in Love," two English-language singles that fit more snugly into the pop and R&B textures that defined contemporary radio.
Singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez photographed inside a nightclub in 1993
Still, Selena's music and that of artists like Gloria Estefan, Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, and Enrique Iglesias ensured that Latin sounds found a home in the American pop music landscape. The reverberations continue to this day, as pop stars like Camila Cabello, Pitbull, Cardi B, and Bad Bunny seamlessly implement Latin elements in their music, while artists like Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía and reggaeton hitmaker J Balvin — who make music primarily if not entirely in Spanish — are finding success in the States thanks to their predecessors who helped normalize their music for American audiences.
What separates today’s Asian explosion from the Latin explosion of the '90s is that today, K-pop doesn’t have to drastically reshape its sound to fit the norms that radio and television standards once made a necessity. As pop culture critic Jon Caramanica observed in his New York Times feature on the new generation of pop stars, "pop" is no longer a genre or sound unto itself; it’s a flexible format whose main distinguishing feature is its nebulous, overarching hip-hop influence. "Since they’re all drawing from the same well," Caramanica writes, "the fact that they might come from different scenes feels like a small quibble at most."
The theory plays out: If there’s one thing that ties together BTS, Cardi B, BLACKPINK, Bad Bunny, and NCT, it’s the fact that they’re all influenced by hip-hop elements that make their music more digestible to a wider audience, language notwithstanding. Some of BTS’s direct influences include Korean hip-hop acts like Epik High, Dynamic Duo, and Seo Taiji and Boys, but they’ve also worn Western influences on their sleeve — listing off Jay-Z, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Gang Starr, and Dr. Dre as influences in the lyrics of their own music. Bang Shi Hyuk, the CEO of BTS's label Big Hit Entertainment, has also noted the importance of hip-hop and soul in the group's sound, stating in a 2017 press conference that "even when doing many genres like house, urban, and PBR&B; there’s no change to the fact that it is Black music. The boundaries of music genres are being broken globally. We are also embracing this and making it BTS style."
Besides its globally appealing influences, K-pop also has another thing going for it: the mountain-moving power of social media. For the most part, and especially when it comes to BTS, this is something that has been well-documented and easy to discern. When the group first appeared on an awards show, it was for their victory as the fan-voted "Top Social Artist" at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards — an accolade they’ve now taken for the third year in a row.
"To me, in terms of looking at ARMY and the intensity that they bring to their fandom, I think that we all could kind of see this coming — that it was going to spill over," Lipshutz says.
It’s a clear observation in retrospect, but that spilling-over effect has never been a guarantee. To the average onlooker two years ago, it may have seemed impossible for BTS's rise to occur this quickly, to this extent.
But in the two years since that first "Top Social Artist" victory, progress has remained steady: At this year’s BBMAs, BTS received recognition for their art — and not just their audience — by claiming the award for Top Duo/Group. Meanwhile, other Korean groups continue to view social media as a way of climbing into the Western pop market, and the strategy seems to be working when you note that, currently, seven of the top 10 artists on Billboard’s Social 50 chart are Korean.
BTS accept the award for Top Duo/Group at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards
According to Lipshutz, streaming and social media platforms have democratized the proliferation of music and made it possible to circumvent even the most established of systemic obstacles, chief among them being the U.S. radio's general aversion to music with foreign lyrics and sounds. Even in the case of Latin music, Lipshutz says today’s YouTube and social media-driven environment has made it easier for Latinx and Asian artists to succeed without having to drastically change their sound as they had to in the ‘90s.
"The difference between that period and our current period [is] a new level of authenticity, where they're singing in Spanish, the music is not as English pop-ified, and it's really striking. You wonder if a song primarily in Spanish, like 'Mi Gente,' like 'Despacito,' would have really taken off in the late '90s."
BTS's leader Kim Namjoon, known as RM, latched onto this idea in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly by invoking the Latin Grammys, which were founded in 2000 and born of an era where even crossover Latin pop was still considered a separate entity from the majority of mainstream pop: "Latin pop has its own Grammys in America, and it’s quite different. I don’t want to compare, but I think it's even harder as an Asian group. A Hot 100 and a Grammy nomination, these are our goals. But they’re just goals — we don’t want to change our identity or our genuineness to get the number one."
For the most part, BTS have downplayed the idea of themselves as be-all-end-all saviors of pop music, but it's clear that the members realize their status as an influential group with a legacy to build, and they’ve already made moves to support and uplift other Asian artists on their way to the top. Last year, they met with the Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, and promoted the Japanese-British indie pop artist Rina Sawayama. RM provides ongoing music recommendations on their official Twitter account that mostly feature Asian artists and Western artists of color.
What's happening now is something that Latinx audiences could only have dreamed of in the '90s. BTS has become successful not because they’ve reshaped their sound to appeal to the average American listener; instead, the average American listener is being encouraged to reshape their preconceived notions about music in order to keep up with the new realities of pop.
"We saw all these little signs that this was going to be a special moment in pop music, and now it’s here," Lipshutz says. "Now we've experienced it."
As the Latin explosion has already shown us, BTS's influence will continue to extend to other artists now that the seal has been broken. This is how music changes, this is how art becomes more diverse. Watching Asian pop artists on Saturday Night Live or the Coachella stage has simply become A Thing That Happens. If its normalcy still feels strange, it’s only because we're still reeling.