Abstract: BTS rebrands itself as liminal to the boundaries of ‘pop’ music. This presentation will examine the politics of this liminality. I examine how BTS transcends, transgresses and reinvents these categories in their unique negotiation of borders in music. These negotiations animate the tension that Arjun Appadurai pointed out between the commodity potential and the singularity of an object in postmodern commodity culture. Let us discover how BTS presents interesting insights into this tension through the unique modality of music and self-image.[each aspect of this paper is being developed as standalone separate publications]
While the song itself is about the struggles of being a public figure and musician, these introductory lines are very telling of an inherent tension that BTS has faced against the fortresses the genres, and categories in music have built over time. The categories ‘idol,’ ‘musician’ and ‘artist’ are all coordinates in a wide discursive range of South Korean and the larger musical realm. Each category comes with its own set of structures, norms and practices as much as each category has its own perks. The strict boundaries of these categorisations give rise to competing claims for benefits and concessions, as well as for awards and recognition. When BTS received the fifth-class Hwagwan Order of Cultural Merit in 2018, it raised many questions and fans speculated the possibility of exemption from military service as well. However, in response to a popular query regarding the same, the government assured that allowing a ‘k-pop’ band to exempted would mean challenging the long-standing distinction between ‘classical’ music and ‘popular’ music. For BTS the longest challenge has also been to navigate the larger orders of music as a global artist, where locationally specific categorisations like k-pop fail to contend or be absorbed by universal categories of music like ‘pop’. The question that these instances present to us, is about the nature of the discourses that sustain the borders of these categories, and how these discourses can be transcended or transgressed by genre fusions, collaborative work and significantly smart strategies of marketing by a band like BTS.
The ‘pop’ in pop music stands for popular culture. In other words, culture consumed by masses is what constitutes popular culture. Popularity attests to mass appeal of a particular commodity. The imagination of ‘art’ as form of a ‘high culture’ with its own niche refutes being collated with that which everyone enjoys. Pierre Bourdieu in his landmark work Distinction theorizes the idea of cultural capital, where cultural forms are appropriated to negotiate symbolic parameters of ‘class’ identity. Therefore, class positions, and their borders are protected by limited access to the category of ‘high culture’. Therefore, ‘pop’ culture barely ever shares the symbolic prestige associated with ‘art’. Therefore, ‘artistic’ forms of music like classical or orchestral, or even opera music resist being associated with anything near ‘pop’ music.
These boundaries are products of postmodern discourse, as is the demarcation between folk culture and the rest of culture. As products of discourse, those invested in very vehemently protect these boundaries thus leading to relegation of any genre of ‘pop’ music outside of this hierarchy, regardless of the nuanced compositions and musical complexity they boast of. Gramsci, the 20th century Italian Marxist has taken great lengths to theorize the ‘cultural hegemony’ that the ruling classes enjoy. Cultural Hegemony reaffirms the access and ability to dictate the direction and flow of capital and discourse by maintaining the boundedness of the category of ‘traditional intellectuals’. This category here would be inhabited by bodies like the Recording Academy, classical musician and even the South Korean cultural wing of the government. Their positions as ‘experts’ of music cannot be challenged by any composition that fits the ‘pop’ genre and reach like BTS’ does.
Thus, here is where Appadurai’s perception of the tension between ‘singularity’ and commodity-ness comes into full view. ‘Art’ or ‘high culture’ seeks to be a commodity, as an object that can enter the market, but actively resists ‘popularity’ so as to not lose its ‘singularity’. Where does this leave works by bands like BTS? How are they aware of the politics of recognition and prestige attached to these processes?
“…the world of art is increasingly tied to the related worlds of collection, criticism, auction, appraisal, and commodification.” (21, Appadurai, “The Thing Itself”, Public Culture)
Appadurai here refers to art in terms of paintings, sculptures and art installations. However, what this indicates is that music, like art, is but an abstract objective product of labour. However, what makes the music meaningful is the worlds of discourses, and regimes of value that it engages with. The popularity and mass consumed music of BTS also has another arena of politics to engage with, which determines its location on the map of art and music. In addition to the set of politics between pop and high culture, BTS also faces a double relegation being from the non-West. The tag of k-pop, whether or not they proudly embrace it, brings with it a significantly polarized world of politics in the global domain of music. The cultural hegemony in the world of music is dominated by the West, as in most other things, wherein the category of ‘pop’ is sanitised of the non-Western elements that could possibly occupy it, for example BTS. Despite the widespread popularity of BTS even in the West, its assimilation into the category of ‘pop’ still registers resistance from the doyens of music’s market in the West, like the Recording Academy, and the various radio stations. So vehement is this attempt to distance non-Western elements regardless of their popularity, from the Eurocentric, English speaking nature of ‘pop’ music, that Western award shows came up with a new category to register the popularity of bands like BTS, that of ‘k-pop’.
BTS over the years has produced some magnificent quality of music. However, their music is not abstract form of notes arranged together in melodious orders. BTS seems to deploy very consciously some strategies to navigate the politics and limits of all these categories in the world of music. Some of the songs by them registers their frustration with the regimes that limited them in their early career. Take Airplane pt. 2(from Love Yourself:Tear) for example, ‘It’s time to console you who couldn’t make it, I’ll give you the flight points as a present.’ Not only do they routinely transgress, transcend and challenge normative generic boundaries of music, and k-pop as a system, structure and phenomenon. But they also reinvent modality of music entirely that posits their brand as a composite of elements beyond music. This model of marketing is significantly powerful, and it, therefore, becomes worth our time to pay academic attention to how exactly BTS seeks to establish its liminal self. As most people since MAP OF THE SOUL: 7 have been, ‘the genre is BTS’. This statement attests to BTS’ productions as having transcended the borders of music and makes forays into art, culture and literature all at the same time. I will briefly examine four such strategies deployed by BTS in manufacturing this liminal brilliance, all of which work reinforcingly in a coalition with each other.
As an ARMY, I can safely vouch for how many of us dwell in the starlit galaxies that BTS has gifted us with. These metaphors of pure poetic genius serve much more than lyrical melodical purposes.
“I was here
You were the one that made your way to me; I do believe your galaxy
I want to listen to your melody; Your stars in the Milky Way
Don’t forget that I found you anyways; At the end of my despair”
(Magic Shop, Love Yourself: Tear, 2018, BTS)
The ‘galaxy’ based metaphors institute powerful anchors of ontological imaginations that ARMY evocatively engage with. Materially speaking, these ‘galaxies’ find their realities in closed ARMY+BTS spaces like Weverse. The suggestion that a universal predicament of precarity haunts this generation irrespective of ‘who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity’ is a significant one in constructing an alternate mode of ontological belonging. Their music, the para-social interactions and platforms, the reality shows, and the behind-the-scenes series like Bring The Soul, Break the Silence and Burn the Stage are all significantly formulative of these alter-ontologies, and enable an imaginary in their audience that transcends their material location like borders of nations, an also that of music and its role in everyday life.
These alter-ontologies and songs like Spring Day, Mikrokosmos and Love Yourself, the whole Love Yourself era in particular witnessed the emergence of BTS as a master-symbol of consolation and therapy. Rooted in the neoliberal discourse of care, and mental-health, BTS transformed the meaning and purpose of music, putting its formidable galactic metaphors to care-giving affective labour. Launching multiple platforms, modes of ‘loving’ the self and others, BTS carved a niche for itself, as being no longer just the bulletproof boy scouts for the youth facing social norms. But they also donned the armour of being a caregiving superhero Anpanman, whose quotidian everyday-ness accentuated the alter-ontological imaginary while transforming the market of music into incorporating questions of material and emotional utility. ‘even if it takes up all my strength I will be sure that I stay by your side.’ (Anpanman, Love Yourself: Tear, BTS) The marketing model, which included their collaborations with UNICEF on their end-violence campaign demarcates itself from celebrity ambassadorships that UN often engaged with on many counts. Not only has ARMY turned out to be a formidable force of capital through the #MatchAMillion campaign in the light of Black Lives Matter movement. But ARMY also instituted some organisational foundations of the fandom, wherein para-social spaces exhibit potential for affective exchanges or trauma, pain, suffering, and depression. Across several interviews, ARMYs (including me) cannot stop recounting how powerful BTS’ meaningful engagement with issues of mental health, social norms and regimental paradigms of success has been to their own affective states. BTS, in this way, went beyond the usual affective kin-relationship that k-pop idol culture was used to promoting. They took that model a step further by establishing a wide-ranging environment with varying level of profit generation (some coming entirely for free to its users) dedicated to the cause of affective labour.
BTS also redefined the limits of music as a form of expression by mounting their melodic genius within a web of literary canvas. BTS’ music from the HYYH era has endorsed rooting their message in a wider world of narrative. The narrative function of their music is also reflected in their music videos, and in the narrative of the self that dominated the subsequent eras like Love Yourself and Map of the Soul. Narrativising experience and emotion sustained the affective labour and alter-ontologies, as the Bangtan Universe propagated an alter-ontology of the members themselves. A deeper dive into the psycho-social philosophies of the soul, ego, and persona took forward the autobiographical element in their music. These narrativisations enabled a deeper engagement from their audience into the vectors of emotion that their songs sought to project, as extensive networks of fan-made fictional universes sprang up from the base laid by BTS’ Save Me webtoon and the novel The Most Beautiful Moment in Life : the Notes. Narrativising as a marketing strategy perhaps reflects best in the way BT21, the collaboration with Line Friends, shaped up. Each domain of narrative, be it the music videos, webtoon, novel, or the BT21 web-series mirroring the members’ own affective states and personalities reinforced the imaginaries that their vision of using music as affective labour sought to install. This also propelled their music to induce creative engagement from their audiences and engage them affectively. The enormous potential of the several narratives that are being cultivated since the Run era will soon serve more purpose with the forthcoming album in October being anticipated through the release of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life : the Notes. pt 2. Marketing models by Big Hit and BTS, therefore, dialectically engage the literary, musical and artistic forms through narratives thereby, transcending yet again the normative domains of pop music.
BTS’s last album sought to introduce a new dimension to their pre-release promotion. The whole project of Connect, BTS not only reinforces this collectively precarious alter-ontology that the HYYH era introduced, but also incorporates another non-popular cultural form, ‘art’ as a part of the assemblage that BTS represents. Projects like Aerocene, Catharsis, Rituals of Care not only invoke the Posthuman and Post-Anthropocene undertones that has dominated the sphere of art in recent times, thereby signalling a significant ontological reordering that echoes with some of BTS’ own metaphors. They also map BTS’ musical enterprise as a part of a larger framework of visual and performative art. This could be both an acknowledgement of the wide range of interest of its audience-base, ARMY, as well, as BTS’ own strategy to exceed the locationally specific anchors of the tag ‘k-pop’. By involving far reaching coordinates of artistic voices with universalist traces, BTS seems to seek an entry into a larger circulating market of art and culture. The increasing significance of art installations as a part of BTS’ performance universe also signals a new vision of sonic sociality. The diverse range of BTS’ musicality from Latin to Korean traditional sounds, is mirrored in the diverse anchors to the conceptual frameworks of their albums as expressed by their collaboration with artists across the planet and genres. Art-installations have always been a part of performances through stage designs.
However, pushing the aesthetic flagging these undertones in music videos, BTS sought to push their strategy to establish their singularity within the regime of ‘pop’ through their performances as well.
“7 billion different worlds
Shining with 7 billion lights
7 billion lives, the city’s night view…
Inside those pitch black nights
The lights we saw in each other
Were saying the same thing
Starlight that shines brighter in the darkest night” (Mikrokosmos, Map of the Soul: Persona, 2019, BTS)
The live performance of Mikrokosmos at Melon Music Awards, 2019 brough together these elements of BTS’ singularity to a spectacular climax. The galactic metaphor of Mikrokosmos found a material formin the visual treat at an event that was not even BTS’ own concert. The alter-ontological imaginary, the assemblage of visual art-installation as stage décor and audience luminosity at this performance, along with affectively consoling lyrics of the song, brought the whole narrative of BTS’ strategy to establish and hold their hegemonic singularity to a pinnacle. The performance of Mikrokosmos routinely, even at concerts, upheld the scale and the representation aesthetic that Connect, BTS was seeking to articulate. The mortality and body of the artist in a live performance, wove into the fabric of the artwork and the consciousnesses of its audience in a significantly pervasive way. However, this live performance embedded the impermanent spectacularism of this assemblage through its grandiose fabric, thus sealing the singularity of BTS as a commodity in the impermanence of the performative sociality.
Putting these processes together, it truly becomes more pertinent to pay attention to the nuanced strategies that BTS has deployed in staging their critiques, and silently evading the limits placed on them by regimes of discourse in music and politics. The weaving together of narratives, metaphors, performances and cultural forms as entrenched in BTS’ long career reflects their intelligent ways of delving into the dialectic of singularity and mass appeal by transgressing normative boundaries of music and culture. Given their eclectic range, BTS is sure to surprise fans in forthcoming albums and projects.
About the Author
Tannishtha Bhattacharjee. Tannishtha is a PhD student of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She holds MPhil, MA and BA Honours degrees in History from the University of Delhi, India. She specialises in Marxist histories, cultural history, and histories from below. Her life as an ARMY and an academic often collide in producing a deeply analytical and passionate investment in BTS’s work.