VMAs 2019: “Best KPOP” and the problematic exclusion of BTS

When BTS won Daesang at 6th EDaily Culture Awards, RM gave an enlightening acceptance speech about the significance of arts in society. Citing the words of Kim Goo, “The only thing I’ve wanted, is the power of high culture”, RM explained how the arts and its consumption by people humanises society and contributes towards the effective creation of its culture. What tangible institutions fail to achieve and inculcate, culture does by leaving a lasting impression on its consumers.

We all remember how Stephen Colbert enumerated the “Fab Four” set for BTS’ appearance on his show but the comparison of the septet with the iconic group did not just limit around the numbers. While the primary premise of comparison was indeed three consecutive number one albums within a single year (a feat earlier achieved by The Beatles), it isn’t difficult to see why BTS’ name was mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles. 

The quartet’s influence extended beyond music and expanded into cultural structures like arts, language, literature and politics. Their words and works thrive even today as fans of The Beatles pass on their legacy to their future generations in hope that the new generation will appreciate the message and meaning behind songs like “Hey Jude”, “Yellow Submarine” and others.

Today, when fans engage with BTS, they do not just engage with seven Korean individuals. Interacting with translators who help listeners understand the complex colloquial references in BTS’ music, fans learn about the life of people in South Korea. When some of them try and learn Korean to understand BTS’ works better and interact directly with the Korean locals and other fans, they also make a point of educating people about their own culture, the place they come from and the history they carry. 

This healthy exchange stands true to the definition of globalisation where the attempt to humanise individuals paves the way for the construction of a habitable society that perceives people as individuals beyond their race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity while at the same time respecting the differences that make us who we are.

As BTS spread the message of love and posits power and accountability amongst people,  especially young people, fans use different mediums (arts, literature, games, social media, music and others) to reciprocate and further spread the septet’s message with people around them including their friends and family.

The group has managed to bring people across the globe together to launch conversations and initiatives around social and material issues as well as issues that govern consumer’s behaviour in multiple industries including music (sales, bundling, and streaming pattern), retail, physical goods, service industry and many others. In the last few years, several reports have been released that underlines the social as well as the economic impact of BTS. In one of our earlier pieces, we detailed BTS’ transition from resources to assets for South Korea. Here’s an excerpt:

“In a study released by Hyundai Research Institute, BTS’ contribution to the South Korean economy was estimated to be 4.1 trillion won (S$5 billion) every year, an equivalent to 26 mid-size companies. The group was also considered to be a reason behind the increased interest of people in the country as a tourist destination. With the group contributing more than 7% of the visitors in the country, it was estimated that 1 in every 13 foreigners visited South Korea because of BTS.”

But when a few weeks ago, when the MTV VMAs released their list of nominees for 2019, fans learned that the western industry, which claims to extend its arms towards artists across the globe, is yet to catch up with BTS’ impact.

Segregating the group from the other popular artists including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Jonas Brothers, Shawn Mendes, and many others, VMAs pushed BTS into a separate category called “Best KPOP” along with other KPOP artists including BlackPink, Monsta X and EXO. The issue did not just end with the creation of a separate category but instead aggravated with the way Korean artists were treated by VMAs. For BTS, the website highlighted Halsey’s image, keeping the group in the background. Monsta X suffered a similar fate when the official Twitter account for the VMAs congratulated French Montana and not the main group even when Montana only had a small feature in the group’s single and not the other way round. It took a few days for the VMAs to amend their mistakes but the deed had already been done.

While fans wholeheartedly congratulated BTS for their nomination in the non fan-voted categories, one cannot help but think what would have been the group’s fate at the VMAs had they not collaborated with Halsey? By snubbing them of main nominations and putting more emphasis on the collaboration, the VMAs sidelined BTS as artists in their individual right, giving preference to bias over the music.

For some fans, a separate category might appear as a sign of inclusiveness and an opportunity of visibility by the awarding body but in reality, it is not. Increased exposure through a niche category does not mean equal representation and for BTS, who have already proved their mettle by securing the top place as one of the biggest artists across the globe alongside Drake and Ariana Grande, a separate category took away the chance of both exposure as well as representation. BTS did not just deserve a nomination in “Video of the Year” category but also in “Artist of the Year” category.

For both BTS and other Korean acts who managed to break several records on platforms like YouTube and Spotify, a separate category inhibited them from testing the waters by competing with other western acts. Outdoing their competition in their home country, the natural progression for these artists would have been the direct contention with popular acts like Jonas Brothers, Swift, Khalid, and Mendes. 

If people really wanted to see a KPOP category, they would have watched KPOP awards usually organized in South Korea. Dividing artists on the basis of language and ethnicity completely defeats the purpose of arts and instead hints towards underlying xenophobia in the attitude of the voting community that did not want to acknowledge the success of non-English speaking acts.

Not only does the creation of the “KPOP” category generalise the artists and their specialized genres but it also completely ignores the meaning of the term that is usually connotative of an industry rather than a style.

Bucketing artists within a niche is not an effective strategy of promoting fair competition. Instead, it removes all the possibilities of fair comparison and contest.

Arguing that the Korean artists including BTS would not have won without the support of their fans promotes a false belief that any artist can thrive in the industry without the support of fans or that only English speaking acts can dominate the game.

It is the consumer that creates demand for an artist and not the vice versa. The strong buying power of BTS’ fans has already shown its positive impact through the group’s monetary contribution in both domestic as well as the western music industry.

Plus, by winning Top Duo/Group award at the BBMAs, BTS have shown that they can dominate in the non fan-voted categories too. So, is that what the VMAs feared?

Others who argue that BTS have still not penetrated into the market as a lot of general public is yet to discover and accept a non-English speaking group forget that the responsibility of penetration does not merely lie with the artist and their fans. One needs to realize that the consumers of BTS’ music comprises of both English and non-English speakers and by acknowledging their legitimate success in the industry, the VMAs would have set an example in the industry for their peers, as the BBMAs and Grammys did.

The “number” of fans for any artist is never a static number. With the rising popularity of BTS in different sectors and industries, the number of fans is bound to grow. The nominations should have been an acknowledgement for their growth in some of the toughest markets in the world despite being a non-English speaking group. Instead, the VMAs excluded them from the nominations for the very same reason.

What are your opinions on the nominations? Share your thoughts via tweet @CelebMix.

Written by Ayushi

Hi! I am Ayushi from India. The only thing that is consistent about me is my passion for writing and reading. Weaving words to form a story is the best thing I know and the only thing I want to do.
"Writer by nature is a dreamer, a conscious dreamer."
-Carson McCullers

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