BTS: Caught between an entertainment rock and a military service hard place

The South Korean boy band, BTS, continues their domination of the music charts. On May 21st, they released a new all-English pop song, “Butter,” which has broken a number of records because of their devoted fan base and the fact that it’s a catchy song. (You, too, should stream “Butter”). While BTS’ musical successes continue to set them apart as leaders in the global music industry, their domination can only continue for so long. Fans know that a concern for many male groups is their time away from music and in South Korea’s mandated conscription. For 18 months, male South Korean citizens are required to enlist in the military by the time they are 28 years old. However, a recent change in the law prompted by the success of BTS, allowed individuals who elevate the country’s global reputation to postpone their mandated time in the military by two years, when they are 30 years old. The reason for this mandate is because the Korean War never ended and at any point, active combat between North Korea and South Korea can start again. As with many wars in Asia, America is involved; therefore, BTS and other male groups straddle an in-between of success determined by America. 

In a previous blog post, I noted the popularity and dominance of BTS in the American music industry that secures them the title of one of the most successful Korean male acts. Their success as global superstars is tied to their global dominance which is primarily denoted by Western accolades: they are Grammy-nominated and have topped the Billboard charts since the release of their new song, “Butter.” Interestingly, it is these accomplishments, determined by American critics, that define BTS as one of the most successful male group acts. On the other hand, the possible end of their career is military service for 18 months that is influenced by American intervention in the Korean War.

A brief overview of the Korean War: after World War II, America’s concern about communism forced them to focus their foreign policy on containing it. Asia and specifically, Korea was the site of this war on communism when the US and “the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily divide Korea and oversee the removal of Japanese forces” (National). The Soviet Union occupied the North and was organized as a communist government by Kim Il Sung; the United States occupied the South and was organized as the Republic of Korea (National). It was primarily these concerns about the growth of communism around this time and in Asia that prompted the US to intervene, and unfortunately, Korea was a puppet of some sorts for the stronger powers of the US and the Soviet Union. The outcome: a military and humanitarian disaster. Many lives were lost on both sides with many civilians caught in the crossfire and the separation of families, consequences that can’t ever really be resolved or healed. 

BTS is similarly caught in a crossfire in both their entertainment and military obligations. While they were a largely successful act before they caught the attention of the US market, it was this very attention that placed them in their own stratosphere as global artists. It capitulated them into a whole new level of fame and thousands of new loyal and dedicated fans. On the other hand, the presumed end of their careers is tied to their military service which the US has played a part in. This is an example of the damaging effects of US imperialism (if it wasn’t clear before) and how the US continues to dictate the people of the countries that it has intervened in. 

Recently, President Biden was abroad building a foreign policy agenda focused on repairing alliances and re-establishing America’s leadership on the global stage. Biden’s approach is focused on ensuring that any foreign policy decisions are made with domestic impacts in mind. While it is important that the President of the United States leads with clear commitment to protecting American citizens abroad, it might be worthwhile to also lead with consciousness of the effects for the very people and countries in which the US believes it necessary to establish its presence.

(By Michelle Nguyen)

(Photo Credit: UNICEF)

BTS as a model for solidarity

To call BTS a global phenomenon is an understatement. If you are unfamiliar with the boy band from South Korea, a quick Google search reveals numerous headlines that document their record-breaking successes. As music artists, they have attained a number of accolades that signify their impact on music and as a collective of seven men, they have had great impact on social movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate. It is this latter movement that reveals their symbolic status as successful Asians that have made it, by all definitions of Western musical success, in America. It is a success story that many Asian Americans, including myself, can relate to: the successes of Asian children validate the sacrifices of their parents. All too often these accomplishments in social, cultural, and political life erases the enduring trauma of hate and racism that Asians and Asian Americans continue to experience. This is most evident from the racist rhetoric about the coronavirus, the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, and the tragedy of the Atlanta shootings.  This new political reality calls for a new collective awakening that dismantles the Western definition of success and the antiquated model minority myth. 

Bangtan Sonyeondan or BTS, the globally recognized moniker, is a seven-member boy band from South Korea. If you ask fans or ARMYs what BTS means to them, answers vary from the impact of their music to the joy of their non-musical content that perhaps figures in fans’ real lives cannot produce. This is not just because the seven members are representative of the age group of their fans but also their telepathic understanding of their fans’ wants and likes from them as musicians and entertainers. That communication explains their global success, an accomplishment that many artists, Korean or Western, only hope to achieve in their musical careers. Furthermore, BTS has inspired social change with their messages against prejudice and violence. In June 2020, at the height of the racial protests over the murder of George Floyd, the septet donated $1 million US dollars to Black Lives Matter, which was later matched by their fans. Since 2017, the band has partnered with UNICEF for their LOVE MYSELF campaign to stand against hate directed towards youth and promote love. That social power is significant, and in a global world with arbitrary borders, BTS are model and productive global citizens. Thus, BTS transcends their significance as musical talent and can be reimagined as symbols for the Asian American experience. 

For some Asian Americans, cultural and social expectations of success are high because something is always sacrificed for it. My parents gave their all to give my sisters and I the best opportunities, and we took them to excel and succeed. By a Western definition of success, many Asian Americans have made it: they are doctors, lawyers, scientists and other white-collar occupations with multiple higher education degrees. This proximity to whiteness is the Achilles’ heel: Asian Americans are conveniently white and non-white. For example, the model minority myth perpetuates a harmful image of Asians as academically superior with great musical capabilities. It erases differences across nationalities within the Asian American category and creates a monolithic image of Asian Americans. When an Asian individual lives up to this stereotype, they become the model Asian American for all others and more importantly, for white Americans to ignore their racism and prove the American Dream is alive and well.  

On the dark side of this coin is the history of anti-Asian racism reveals a record of otherizing and dehumanizing Asians. Stereotypes about Asians were anchored in the image of disease carriers with questionable morals and intellectual inferiority to support narratives that they would degrade racial and social purity in the United States. These stereotypes are reproduced today in the rhetoric of Kung-Flu and China Virus. Unsurprisingly, as these narratives were espoused by political leaders, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 169%. This unchecked racism culminated in the violent and racist attack on massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia where six of the eight victims were of Asian descent. Therefore, Asian Americans simultaneously approximate whiteness and occupy racial imaginations. 

BTS represents this in-between: as artists, their musical successes exceed all Western standards and expectations, and as Asians, they still face prejudice for their identities. They shared this reality in a group statement against the number of increasing violent incidents against Asian Americans. This straddling between two racial categories is an issue because it erases experiences of hate and racism for Asians. On the one hand, the proximity to whiteness almost offers relief from experiencing racism. If you succeed, then you can escape experiencing hate. On the other hand, Asian American experiences of racism are not too serious until it becomes too much in terms of the number of reported cases and in degree of violence. At the center of these determinations are familiar systems that dictate the American experience for minority individuals, that distinguish between the fortunate and less fortunate. Therefore, Asian Americans should follow BTS’s lead and show solidarity and community with other minority groups that are oppressed under the same systems.   


(By Michelle Nguyen)

(Photo credit: Hype)