K-Pop Superstars BTS Gave a Pointedly Unapologetic Performance at the AMAs
The landmark performance from Sunday night’s American Music Awards was, to the pure elation of many young people and the likely befuddlement of anyone older, entirely in Korean.
BTS, the Korean septet almost singlehandedly reanimating the Korean pop wave in America, performed “DNA,” the busy lead single off their latest LP Love Yourself: Her. With complex choreography that incorporated rapid fire footwork and an on-the-nose double helix formation, the group of 20-to-24-year-olds bowled over the many adoring fans shown on TV who mouthed along to the song’s lyrics and attempted to mimic the intricate choreography. But BTS’ performance, regardless of its zeal and current sound, was a clear outlier in a night packed with household names like Selena Gomez and Pink. Despite the phenomenon that was “Gangnam Style,” which eclipsed nearly every other pop culture moment in 2012, K-pop and Korean media are still on the fringes of the American mainstream—and even that assumes most Americans remember that Psy was Korean and not Chinese or Japanese.
Some have pointed to the success of this year’s Spanish-language smash hits like “Mi Gente” and “Despacito” as signs of a loosening of the stranglehold that English has on our charts. But while “Mi Gente” and “Despacito” had a long line of predecessors in big singles like “Gasolina,” “Danza Kuduro,” “La Tortura,” “Bailando,” and even “The Macarena,” BTS are working with next to nothing aside from “Gangnam Style,” a song whose biting wit and social commentary escaped most American listeners. Without a number of forebears before it—K-pop’s formal efforts to break into the American market have almost exclusively been in English—the Korean language is still just beginning to probe American pop culture.
“I’m not a believer in releasing full English songs to the U.S. market, like many K-pop artists have,” BTS’ label CEO Bang Si-Hyuk told Billboard earlier this year. “We must focus on what we do best as K-pop artists and producers and maybe add some special features to which international or U.S. music fans can feel attached. That is the best way for me to put K-pop into the mainstream U.S. music market and, in that regard, BTS will participate and perform in a way that is not much different from what they have been doing in the last three years.” Under the “special features” umbrella is a remix of the BTS song “MIC Drop” featuring both Desiigner and Steve Aoki, set to drop later this week, but the group and its management has maintained that it wants to break into America on its own terms.
Still, RM, the group’s leader and one of the three rappers, mentioned potential English-language versions of the group’s music after the topic was pushed for what must have been the fiftieth time since the boys deplaned in the States. Questions about English-language music have plagued BTS for the entirety of the American press circuit surrounding the AMAs performance. But BTS have, through a steady stream of fan-geared content, conceptual pop music, and stellar art direction, amassed a massive and fervent global fanbase, all in a language that isn’t native to most of their Western fans. Their four weeks on the Hot 100 represented a groundbreaking moment for Korean-language music.
The question then becomes not one of keeping up momentum, but of expanding past their large and established fandom and into the larger consciousness of America. Still, a group that never set out to formally break into the American market and stuck by what they did back home should continue to stay true to that. Impact and novelty aside, the “DNA” performance wasn’t all that different from what they do on weekly music shows in Korea like MCountdown or Inkigayo— the camerawork was just more subpar. Adapting to the monolinguistic norms of the charts seems to be an easy way to make a formal foray into American music, but BTS appear intent on sticking to their current formula, from the pared-down nature of their performance—no unnecessary props, no gimmicks, just them performing like they would on a stage in Seoul—to the language. Where BTS will go, the fans will follow—it’s up for everyone to leap the language hurdle and join in.