By Erica Russell
BTS, one of the biggest music groups on the planet, and Bong Joon-Ho, the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated director of Parasite, are both having a moment. At the start of this new decade, attempting to ignore either’s impact on pop culture would prove an absurd exercise in either delusion, if not willful exclusion. In other words, BTS and Bong are creating, respectively, some of the most impactful art today, and with international implications to boot.
The two also seem tied by a cosmic thread, a fateful connection. (And we’re not just talking about singer Kim Taehyung’s much-publicized camaraderie with Parasite star Choi Woo-Shik.) In fact, this pair of Korean artistic powerhouses have some fascinating parallels that go far beyond their shared country of origin — so much so that Neon, Parasite’s American film distributor, whipped up some genius Bong Joon-Ho merch that mimics BTS’s own designs.
For one, both BTS and Bong are deft genre mixers; their respective projects are often difficult or impossible to categorize, regularly exploring sociopolitical themes. In sharp lyrics splashed across a vast discography, BTS address complex topics ranging from Korea’s youth-stifling education-industrial complex (“N.O.”) to capitalism and class structures (“Spine Breaker”), while Bong has tackled similar conversations in subversive feature works like 2013’s Snowpiercer (fun fact: the film is referenced in BTS’s “Spring Day”) and 2019’s Parasite. Plus, Bong’s films have always centered underdogs the audience can root for, and there was a time when BTS’s RM, V, Jin, Jimin, Suga, Jungkook, and J-Hope were considered underdogs too.
In doing so, both are disrupting entertainment media on a global scale. Whether intentionally or subsequently, BTS and Bong are challenging the outdated, largely white perceptions of Asian media in the West. They’re also normalizing Asian representation, period: Didn’t think you’d ever see an East Asian pop group on American late-night television? BTS’s historic Saturday Night Live performance and many Late Late Show appearances have changed that dismal outlook. Didn’t think a Korean-language film could be taken seriously on the Western awards season circuit? Bong’s Parasite made history at the SAG Awards by taking home the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, leaving mythic American auteurs like Tarantino and Scorsese in the dust.
Unfortunately, it seems that mainstream Western media and culture only has room for one Korean entertainment virtuoso at the table. While Bong’s needle-sharp 2019 class-warfare thriller Parasite has rightfully become a festival and critical darling, winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, earning six nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards (including Best Director and Best Picture), and making history at both the 2020 Golden Globes and SAGs, BTS has not quite yet reached the same level of critical laudation, at least not in the United States.
The stars of Parasite are victorious at the 2020 Screen Actors Guild Awards
Many U.S. critics have labeled Bong’s film as a “masterpiece.” But BTS’s music — even the group’s most well-received, expertly crafted albums — remains unfairly relegated to pop culture fluff by many seasoned critics. And that may just have something to do with how Western media views the group’s diverse, yet largely young and female fanbase.
“Boy bands aren't respected in general and that's because they're viewed as teenybopper bands that only little girls like,” says journalist Jae-Ha Kim, who writes about Korean entertainment for Variety. “It's such a sexist and outdated viewpoint. It's also a trope that writers repeat, because many won't go to a boy band concert to actually see who's there … [it’s not] considered serious art. Mainstream Western audience has never been kind to most boy bands, so I'm not surprised that they're dismissive of BTS. Music snobs who didn't like NSYNC or One Direction aren't going to warm up to a group that doesn't sing in English. The fact that they're Korean just adds fuel to the fire for racists who view Asian men as inferior." Furthermore, false assumptions about the group being a flash-in-the-pan, manufactured boy band permeate the Western narrative, with little regard to BTS’s objective artistic value or the many years of training that have elevated them to superstar status.
“There are several things going on,” Kim continues. “Bong Joon-Ho has been making films for two decades and his work has been acclaimed by critics internationally for a while now, but the general public has just been catching on with the success of Parasite. Given that he's a middle-aged man who looks more like an average Korean man than a celebrity, no one is going to accuse him of being famous simply because of his looks. With BTS, many people assume they're an overnight sensation. The average person doesn't realize they've been a group for the past seven years and worked diligently on their artistry before they ever became famous.”
BTS poses on the red carpet at the 2020 Grammys
While BTS have won awards from the MTV VMAs, AMAs, and Billboard Music Awards among others, the Grammys — a symbol of industry prestige in the West, and perhaps the musical equivalent of the Oscars — remains elusive. And far too many of the group’s awards have been in culturally marginalized or social media-centric categories; their immersive music and artistry continues to be largely pushed aside by American awards shows reserving marquee categories for Western artists.
While BTS certainly doesn’t need the validation of the Grammys, or any other U.S. award show for that matter, their exclusion from the more serious categories speaks to how their artistic contributions are viewed by mainstream critics and gatekeepers outside of Asia. Yet, the implications of the West’s response to Korean-made and Korean-starring media like BTS’s music (and Bong’s Parasite) are paramount to increased representation for Asians and Asian Americans. Simply put: Validation increases visibility.
“It's a big deal twofold,” Kim says. “Success in the U.S. is a coup for bands from any country. The U.S. is a very lucrative market. Just about every Korean group — or even Korean-American artists — I've interviewed has said they never thought they would have the opportunity to work in the U.S. in a meaningful way. These are young men and women in their late teens and early 20s, but they grew up with the same mindset that I did decades ago, because I never saw Asians represented in pop culture other than as an afterthought in the U.S. For me, their success is very consequential. It means that young Asian Americans and other minorities are seeing themselves represented.”
At the 77th Golden Globe Awards on January 5, Bong praised BTS for the phenomenal impact they’ve had on an international level. “Although I’m here at the Golden Globes, BTS has 3,000 times the amount of power and influence that I have. I think Korea inevitably produces a lot of great artists ‘cause we’re very emotionally dynamic people,” he shared via a translator during a red carpet interview.
As for what it will take for Western critics to take BTS’s work as seriously as their creative industry peers, one thing is for sure: The onus is not on the artist. Systemic mindsets and cultural viewpoints need to shift, but that’s neither BTS’s nor Bong’s (nor any other non-white, non-English-speaking artist’s) responsibility. It’s the critics who must put the work in.
“There are some major important music outlets that have given [BTS] favorable reviews, but there's really not a lot more that BTS can do to endear critics to them, because they have done everything right,” Kim notes. “The language barrier is something many critics aren't going to want to deal with, unfortunately — which is a shame, because their lyrics really are beautiful.”