K-pop supergroup BTS made pop history on August 31 when it became the first Korean group to have a number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 with their first wholly English-language single Dynamite. The song topped Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart and rose to number one on the iTunes charts in over 100 countries. It also set a YouTube record for the most views in 24 hours. BTS’s success, particularly on the Billboard Hot 100 recently, highlights the need to re-examine how we define pop music within the global music industry.
The Billboard Hot 100 and Top 200 are pop music’s apex. These charts are based on three metrics – streaming, radio airplay and digital sales in order of importance.
The radio component of the charts is derived from monitoring radio airplay from over 1,200 radio stations throughout the US. Interestingly, in the week that Dynamite topped the charts, it didn’t enter the Top 50 Radio Songs chart. BTS’s, and to a wider extent K-pop’s, lack of western radio airplay has been a consistent bugbear.
The reason that BTS was able to top the Billboard 100 without radio play was due to their fandom, ARMY. ARMY has long realised that one way to ensure the success of their chosen group and their visibility within western media is through sales and streaming. Media academics, Dal Yong Jin and Kyong Yoon suggested that the lack of Korean pop content in mainstream media catalysed the development of the Korean pop culture social mediascape.
While BTS was able to top without radio play, radio is still powerful in the US market and is music’s largest and most influential market. Around 272 million Americans still listen to radio, with radio reaching more Americans than any other platform in 2019. The inclusion of radio airplay within the Billboard Hot 100 metric keeps the major charts bent in favour of English-language, particularly Euro-American (American, Canadian and British), music.
Language has been identified as one reason for the lack of mainstream media attention, with Dynamite’s success attributed to its English-language content. However, BTS’s enduring popularity since 2016 and that of other K-pop groups such as BLACKPINK, demonstrate the ability of significant sections of the Euro-American audience to enjoy non-English songs.
The fact that K-pop, despite its popularity, continues to receive such low or non-existent radio play is arguably due to gatekeeping of radio rather the preferences of the audience.
This exclusion applies to other languages on American radio. Despite over 50 million Spanish speakers in the US, only two Spanish language songs have charted in the top ten.
The centres of the global music industry have historically been London, New York and Los Angeles. This means that artists from these cities and English-language music have an outsized influence within the global music industry.
Genre definitions are also an aspect of gatekeeping, which have historically kept Black, Asian and ethnic minorities and non-English speakers out of the hit parade. Radio stations programme according to genre.
Recently, there has been a move to define K-pop as a genre separate from pop, with the MTV VMAs including a K-pop category, a move criticised for ghettoising K-pop from pop.
K-pop insiders themselves disagree that K-pop is a distinct genre. Veteran K-pop journalist, Tamar Herman, wrote that K-pop was a fandom and an industry, rather than a genre. Likewise T.O.P, of K-pop group Big Bang, known for its R&B and rap influences, noted that:
You don’t divide pop music by who’s doing it. We don’t say, for instance, “white pop” when white people make music.
Pop music can be defined in two ways. First, it is music that is popular on a mass scale. And, second, since rock and roll in the 50s, it is a mass market melting pot of sonic influences, including R&B, disco and dancehall.
K-pop fits both understandings. Among many accolades that demonstrate its mass popularity, BTS is the first group since The Beatles to have three number one albums in a single year on the Billboard 200 Chart. Music academics Hyunjoon Shin and Seung-Ah Lee noted in their book, Made in Korea, that:
[K-pop] had the familiar twinges of R&B, rock, hip-hop, and soul that is so heavily used in contemporary western pop music.
They also note that (one of) its main distinctions is its origin story.
Black performers have long endured similar limiting genre definitions. In a year marked by Black Lives Matter protests, the music industry has been forced to question the systemic racism inherent in their genre labelling. The long criticised “urban” music category has been disavowed by labels and the Grammys.
Upon winning the Grammy Best Rap Album for his 20202 album IGOR, Tyler the Creator said that:
They always put [us] in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category … I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be in pop?
Foreign black performers have also long dealt with limiting genre definitions. Being relegated to reggae or urban stations and award categories has severely limited the hit prospects of Jamaican reggae and dancehall musicians. Despite dancehall being the sound of successive summers, only Euro-American performers are programmed on pop stations, such as Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.
Non-musical factors such as race, nationality and language have impacted BTS’s journey in the global music industry. When the Beatles had three number ones in one year in 1995-6, they won three Grammys. BTS, for the same feat, received no Grammy nominations or awards. However, the institution obviously recognises their importance, archiving suits they wore to the awards in the Grammy Museum collection.
BTS’s experience continues to expose the entrenched fissures around race, language and national origin in an industry which purports to be global. While K-pop has its distinctive characteristics, there are far-reaching political and economic implications of leaving K-pop out of pop’s definition.