BTS and hyper-reality of K-pop - Korea Times
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BTS and hyper-reality of K-pop

By David Tizzard

We all know that technology and social media have reshaped much of our lives. Now, people can construct and convey images and impressions of themselves online.

These digital selves accentuate certain aspects, hide others, and present an identity-constructing hyper-reality. Whether it is someone's Insta stories, TikToks, or Tweets, the online version of one's self is a beautified version of the often blotchy, jagged-lined reality. My photo in this paper is testament to such effects.

What sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested was that these online hyper-real copies become (or at least seem) more real than what actually takes place in the world. The death of the real and the elevation of the simulation: the rise of the representation.

One can see this as a continuation of Plato's cave, Chuang Tzu's butterfly parable, or Keanu Reeves deciding whether to take the red or the blue pill.

The point I would like to suggest here is that while BTS continues on its path of global domination, well-deserved and broadly supported, the K-pop label continually attached to the group is becoming less and less appropriate. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The argument on "what is K-pop?" is a contentious and long-standing one. John Lie argued back in 2012 that the "K" in K-pop denotes anything but "Korea." Elsewhere, academics and cultural theorists argue and shift positions as to what and how K-pop is actually to be defined.

I do not seek to offer a definitive version of K-pop here because I do not think there is or there can be one. While teaching hallyu to hundreds of Korean university students each year, there is never unanimous agreement among them what constitutes K-pop. And if one ventures into the actual live Korean music scenes here, something I have done for 15 years, you will also find a whole host of opinions and definitions. Whose voice is to take precedence?

Nevertheless, I would like to address BTS' current success. The group again topped the Billboard charts in the U.S. with its latest single "Life Goes On." It is the first track in the Hot 100's history sung predominantly in Korean. This follows from "Dynamite," the group's first number one track back in August.

The group is well-respected here in Korea, not least for helping to improve the country's image and social standing. Even those who are not into the group's music will readily attest to the septuplet's incredible achievements at giving birth to a new way of seeing the people once more readily associated in the West with cheap garments, war-time television dramas, or nuclear despots in the North.

This is a great boon to the nation. It is also being supported politically and legally by allowing the members an extension as to by when they should complete their mandatory military service.

The group's global cultural impact is undeniable. It is also worth stressing that it is achieving this while presenting a largely wholesome and positive message that can only bring joy and comfort to the tens of millions of listeners. There is no talk of WAP or anacondas here: just smiles, love hearts, and catchy hooks you could sing to your grandmother or niece alike.

Looking a little bit more behind their success, their last two big hits ("Dynamite" and "Life Goes On") have been written by Western songwriters. The former was written, recorded and produced by David Stewart and Jessica Agombar. Stewart did most of the track on a laptop in a bedroom in his parent's house in England.

The most recent number one credits Antonina Armato, Chris James, and Ruuth as songwriters and producers. Armato has written, worked with, and produced hits for Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Ellie Goulding, and Mariah Carey among others. Three members of BTS (J-Hope, RM, and Suga) also have songwriting credits on the song.

Often much of the reporting on BTS focuses solely on the numbers and not enough on the music. Yet listening to these recent tracks, they sound exactly like something you would hear on the Western radio or charts. "Dynamite" could quite easily have been sung by Bruno Mars; "Life Goes On" by Bieber. Essentially, simply by listening to them, either as a musician or a layperson, there is nothing in there that would make you think that this is a Korean song. This is not surprising when you consider how it was created.

Perhaps this also reflects the way in which we consume music these days. It is not so much listening, but rather streaming, watching, and supporting acts through social media.

It is testament to BTS' popularity and standing in the industry, particularly commercially, that the group can now record these songs written by Western writers and producers and achieve number one status. It is a demonstration that Korea, or at least BTS, can be cool in the wider world.

But, for me, it seems to demonstrate that for a Korean act to achieve this level of success in the American charts, they have had to make (or at least buy and perform) largely American music. That is not necessarily a bad thing ― after all, that is what much of pop music is.

But what does it mean for K-pop? Is it glocalization? Is it mixing styles? Is it Korea doing the West better than the West itself just as it has demonstrated in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic thus far?

Do we follow Walter Benjamin's idea and suggest that the presence of the original is a prerequisite to authenticity and that mechanical reproduction leaves things devoid of unique qualities? Or is it now that something only becomes unique and real when it is labeled and shared online? If a student does homework in a cafe but does not take a picture and upload it, did that student really study?

Leaving such conversations behind in favor of more down-to-earth stuff, here in Korea this week Melon (Korea's version of Spotify) released its most streamed and played top 100 songs of the last 10 years. This shows what Koreans of all ages have been listening to as they go about their normal lives.

Busker Busker's "Cherry Blossom Ending" was the most played song, followed by IU's "Through the Night" and Park Hyo Shin's "Wildflower." The solo artist IU had three songs in the top 10; BTS's "Spring Day" was the group's only track in the top 10. However, putting fandoms aside, if you also consider that Ailee's "I Will Go to You Like the First Snow" was number six and Naul's "Memory of the Wind" was number 10, you might notice something.

Korean people seem to like songs about the seasons, about nature. The songs are often soft: ballads and easy-listening numbers that reflect a sentiment of calm or tranquility in the incredibly competitive and fast-paced Korean society; a reminder of what life was, or at least could be, like. Korean music for Korean people.

BTS seems to have transcended that and simply become "pop" in the broader global sense. What the implications of that are, I am not sure. And perhaps it is neither for me to say nor really think about too much.

Still, more power to BTS. It is bringing a lot of joy to people and that can only be a good thing right now.

Dr. David Tizzard ( has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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