The prominent idol group BTS is something we cannot be unfamiliar with. They are a different type from a number of previous Korean idols and have become a global sensation.
So many people around the world were fascinated by BTS dances and read into the messages of social reform in their lyrics. BTS was understood as the ultimate peak of K-pop and we saw the possibility of the Korean Wave being able to stand proudly in the mainstream of global culture.
BTS is recognized as the spearhead of Korea’s public diplomacy, and their “Permission to Dance” performed at the United Nations made us feel the universal values of mankind. Now this BTS phenomenon has stretched far beyond Korea to the entire international community. How influential BTS has been is easily recognized through domestic and foreign media, but the fact that there is an academic conference going on regarding this phenomenon is not very well known.
Moreover, this conference has been internationally held multiple times already. The first BTS Global Interdisciplinary Conference was held at Kingston University in London in January 2020, while the second was held online by California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles at the height of the pandemic.
The third conference just wrapped up this summer at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, held on July 14 and 15. While the first two BTS conferences were very academic, the most recent one covered many interesting and diverse academic sessions, for example, sessions on fandom and politics, new media and technology, business, marketing and so on.
The biggest difference in the third conference is that it tried to make significant social and political changes. In order to figure out what interesting stories were discussed in the conference, this week’s interview invites three experts.
First, we have professor Sung-eun Cho from the English for International Conferences and Communication department of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who was a member of the organizing committee of the third BTS Global Interdisciplinary Conference. From abroad, associate professional of political science Deepa Prakash from DePauw University in Indiana and assistant professor Noel Sajid Murad from the department of marketing and advertising in De La Salle University located in the Philippines capital Manila joined the discussion.
Hwang: Recently the BTS conference was held in Seoul, where you contributed as a member of the organizing committee. Would you share with us some of the background and maybe evaluate the performance of the conference?
Cho: BTS Global Interdisciplinary Conference wished to show that the BTS fandom is not just about rooting for their favorite band. We wanted to send a message that the Army fandom is doing exciting work, that their emphatic and enthusiastic actions are being appreciated by people all over the world.
Moreover, the non-Army academics who are interested in this social phenomenon realized that not only is BTS a cultural phenomenon worth of receiving critical analysis, but the participatory working of their fandom Army is another social phenomenon worth investigating. The conference highlighted the BTS Army fandom as representatives of “the new humanity,” who come together to take action in promoting diversity, education and fighting to see a change in the world.
Hwang: BTS is being really hot, so much that we are now having these particular conferences. How can we understand these aspects?
Cho: Korean culture, or the so-called “Hallyu,” has become the focus of unprecedented attention during the last few years.
The global accomplishment of a Korean boy band recording several Billboard No. 1 hits and conquering the American music scene has naturally received a lot of scrutiny. This phenomenon is calling for a new framework for investigating the transnational production, distribution and consumption of K-pop and Korean popular culture.
BTS’s impact is not just limited to their musical success. As mentioned above, the participatory action of the fandom is also the focus of a lot of academic attention. Numerous M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations, books and journal articles are highlighting BTS’ musicality and social significance.
Hwang: In terms of Korea’s public diplomacy, how should we evaluate BTS?
Cho: BTS leader RM’s speech at the 76th UN General Assembly showed how a country can strategically employ their cultural capital as an attractive tool for South Korean public diplomacy.
BTS’ “Love Myself” campaign has successfully raised more than $3.6 million globally for UNICEF’s work to end violence against children and young people. Unlike traditional diplomacy that is carried out by diplomats, BTS can exert their influence to a younger, wider and a more diverse audience.
As the executive office of the president stated, BTS has delivered messages of comfort and hope to the entire world, and their attendance at the UN General Assembly this time is expected to serve as a meaningful opportunity to expand communication with future generations around the world and draw their sympathy on major international issues. Engagement on important issues can be conveniently created by the extensive network of BTS’ worldwide fandom. The fans’ enthusiasm and especially their empathy is concentrated on social issues, and they raise awareness of social concerns or support the ideals expressed by the group.
Hwang: Actually there have been many other idol groups before them, but what could be the particular reason that brought BTS such worldwide success?
Cho: Different people cite different reasons for BTS’ success. Some of them talk about how BTS effectively used social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter or new media -- platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook -- to communicate with their fans.
In my opinion, the keyword to BTS’ success is “authenticity.” There has been a conventional perception that K-pop idols are inauthentically manufactured.
The members of the group (BTS) are very actively involved in creating their own music. They actively participate in the musical production of their songs and often write their own lyrics which talk about themes universal to their generation.
I believe the reasons for BTS’s success and popularity is the lyrics of their music. They talk about their own lives, their thoughts, their worries, struggles and their failures. Who doesn’t have worries or struggles? So, their lyrics touch something in the listeners. The lyrics have a lot of layers and can be interpreted in various ways according to the receivers’ state of mind.
Hwang: Fans say the lyrics of BTS songs are very touching. How do you interpret their language between the lines and what are the cultural meanings and codes of the times?
Cho: The language of BTS songs deal with very relatable messages. I believe the authenticity of their message is the impetus in making the fans passionately appreciate and enjoy their songs.
Just as Big Hit Entertainment’s CEO, Bang Si-hyuk, said in an interview in Time magazine, “They don’t shy away from speaking about the pain felt by today’s generation. They respect diversity and justice, the rights of youths and marginalized people. I think all of these factors worked in their favor.”
For example, the song “Epilogue: Young Forever,” which was listed in their very popular “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever” album, talks about the despair felt by young people when their dreams are frustrated. The song tries to send an encouraging message and tells them they can find a way out of their pain.
Hwang: BTS consists of all Korean members and was initiated by a Korean company. We cannot deny that there is a language barrier. Despite the given facts, how do you explain the millions of fans around the world?
Prakash: I think that the combination of the universality of the music and BTS’ message, their extremely charismatic and appealing personalities of the members and Big Hit/Hybe’s excellent marketing has to do with this.
Also, Army as a force is important in making BTS’ music and message intelligible and transmittable -- they do a lot of the work of translation and spreading the BTS message in different countries and contexts, and that work would be difficult for Hybe to manage on its own, even with all its resources.
Beyond that, I think the appeal of non-Western artists cannot be underestimated -- it is refreshing and special for fans around the world to follow artists who are not created by the Western system. But beyond that, it is something indefinable and unplannable. You can’t engineer the success of a group like BTS -- otherwise other companies and groups would be able to do it.
However, you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice as the saying goes, and something about it is sheer magic.
Hwang: According to your presentation, you have evaluated that BTS has increased Korea’s brand power. Could you talk about this more specifically?
Prakash: We know some of the well-known metrics: tourism, BTS’ association with well-known Korean brands, etc.
I think what is significant is that BTS (and other music groups and cultural products) is one of the main ways that young people in particular come to develop an interest in Korea. It is amazing to see young people all over the world learning Korean (whether formally or informally) with BTS as their original motivation to do so. And this results in official collaborations such as BTS’ promotion of Hangeul or being ambassadors of Seoul.
At an official level, their campaigns and presentations at the UN (both before and with the Sustainable Development Goals efforts by the previous Moon Jae-in administration) have taken this brand into the area of diplomacy.
Hwang: Do you think BTS shows and contains Korean “color” – or qualities – a lot, or does it go beyond it?
Prakash: Yes, undoubtedly so.
Whether it is in symbolism and lyrics (there are some very Korean references and metaphors in their music), in activities and promotions (making kimchi or makgoeli in their show, wearing hanbok), in visual images (such as the video and performances for “Idol”) or in their choice of venues for international performances (Gyeongbokgung, Incheon Airport, etc.) -- they seem to be very conscious of their role as ambassadors for Korea.
We can see the latest manifestation of this with their role as ambassadors for Busan’s World Expo bid. I think their “Korean-ness” is very appealing to most real fans and an integral part of their identity.
Hwang: BTS is about to discontinue its activities as a group for a while. How would this affect the spread of the Korean Wave and Korea’s soft power?
Prakash: Well, as any Army will tell you, it is Chapter 2, not discontinuation! But jokes aside, I think the Korean Wave goes beyond BTS (as they will also agree) -- K beauty, K dramas, K-pop are forces of their own. Some fans may be disappointed and there may be a loss of some specific tourism revenue, but I don’t think it will be devastating at all.
BTS has cemented their own legacy and neither them, nor the larger Hallyu wave will be affected by their decision. What can affect this spread are other mistakes or an attempt to overly control artists.
Hwang: At this conference, you have delivered a presentation on the political mobilization strategies of the Philippine BTS fandom. Could you briefly elaborate what it is about?
Murad: In the Philippines, we recently concluded the 2022 national elections and I believe the Filipino BTS fandoms played quite a significant role during the period.
An unprecedented number of pop culture fandom-strategized political mobilizations were felt and witnessed in different social media platforms. There were two particular fandom groups and they were mostly active on Facebook and Twitter -- social media platforms teeming with fake news and misinformation.
There also were K-pop group fandoms who were delivering political supports. Not long after, online “troll” activities had established the blatant dichotomy between these two opposite representative supporting groups, including K-pop fandoms, and were compelled to counter these tactics.
Hwang: What could be the reason that young Filipinos are so enthusiastic about BTS?
Murad: Before they had their major breakthroughs in the music scene and established a worldwide presence with millions of fans rooting for their continued success, BTS was always considered the underdogs.
The Filipino millennials and Generation Z deeply relate to that aspect because there are so many challenges that might seem to deter us from living our best lives. We feel that we are going up against a lot and that the system is rigged so much so that there are hardly any winners in life.
But just like the songs of BTS that carry with them the message of hope, love, healing and growth, we always stick to the possibility of a better world where we can be exactly who we want to be and where we all care for the welfare of one another.
Moreover, the Philippines is a “song and dance” country, very much like South Korea, so the music that BTS creates truly inspires us Filipinos to work hard on our goals and our collective vision for a better tomorrow.
It also helps that every song and album from BTS comes packed with great visuals, music and dance moves, and more importantly, a great message for empowerment.
Hwang: You have studied the political influence and the role of BTS in the Philippines, how great is it?
Murad: In case of the Army for one specific candidate, their Facebook page was able to amass 94,980 followers as of July 10, 2022. We chose to study this Facebook page due to its high number of followers and social media engagements, which signals the strength of its influence on political engagement and participation of Filipino Armys who are also supporters of this candidate.
The page was officially launched during the 2022 national campaign period to mobilize this candidate’s presidential campaign bid and is operated by the supporting volunteers. The cover picture and welcoming statement of the Facebook page was containing the lyrics of “Not Today,” a popular song from BTS, which serves as a battle cry for Army supporters: “All the underdogs in the world, a day may come when we lose, but it is not today. Today we fight.”
Hwang: You have mentioned that the Army gathered as BTS fans are showing reformist political moves. What are their reasons to participate in politics?
Murad: One candidate’s Army supporters’ Facebook page reads - “United by BTS’ music … group of Filipino ARMYs advocating for good governance, inclusivity, and accountability.” The reason why the Filipino Army rallied for was country’s economic and sociopolitical welfare. Our deep desire for change to uproot the corruption that prevents Filipinos from fully enjoying their rights as citizens of this country seemed to be gathered under Army’s rallies.
Hwang: Beyond BTS, what kind of continuous efforts do we need to make for the Korean Wave to be sustained and developed?
Prakash: I think people admire Korea not just for its pop culture but also because of its excellent infrastructure, technological advancements, efficiency and civility.
Secondly, even though it can be uncomfortable, shows like “Squid Game,” movies like “Parasite” and bands like BTS or artists like Psy and many, many others also succeed because they are honest and shine a light on both the good and bad in Korea. That honesty and independence is a strength and should be encouraged.
Indeed, at its best, the Korean state has managed to promote and encourage culture without being heavy-handed, which is hard and to be admired. This should not change over time.
Murad: The Filipino Army (fan group) is showing no signs of decreasing their support for BTS in spite of the temporary break.
Our boys advocated for taking care of our mental health with their “Be” album during the COVID-19 pandemic, so as fans who understand what that means, we are 100 percent behind them whatever their decision might be.
In general, the Korean Wave is not going to decline in the Philippines because there are so many other growing Filipino K-pop fandoms with the ever-increasing number of K-pop artists, girl groups and boy bands. The K-pop culture here is also increasing and the support will continue to come from fans and entire fandoms for album releases, music videos, brand collaborations, concerts and events and merchandise purchases.
Cho: Even though K-pop is enjoying enormous global success, there is some criticism that K-pop is inauthentically manufactured.
BTS’ announcement that they will be taking a break also sparked a discussion about the darker side of the success of K-pop. As K-pop is increasingly being considered as a cultural content that serves to expand Korea’s national brand and identity, the entertainment companies and their artists are feeling intense pressure to succeed overseas.
The K-pop “idol” system that stresses methodical training and control has been regarded as an important component in its international success. However, it has also received criticism that this strict system is infringing on the musicians’ freedom and creativity.
Aspiring K-pop artists are scouted by various entertainment companies and put through a very strict training process from a very young age. This arduous process may ironically lead to a negative result of the wearing down the musicians’ creativity and freedom.
Many entertainment companies in the K-pop industry are working hard to survive in a very competitive global industry and protecting the artistic freedom and happiness of the artists may not be their priority. However, the industry needs to seek this very delicate balance between financial success and protecting the well-being of the artists in order to continue its sustainable long-term success.