BTS' "Dynamite" Defies the West Much More Than It Bends to It
It's easy to depict the song's all English lyrics and music video tribute to Western pop culture icons as searching for Western validation, but "Dynamite" hints mostly at the type of semiotic disruption that BTS has been notable for.
BTS (aka Bangtan Boys) who began their career as a hybrid of K-pop and hip-hop, is no longer part of Korea's patrimony only – they have solidified themselves as the biggest pop group in the world. But you wouldn't know that if you looked to standard metrics of commercial success in music, either the older ones, such as radio, or contemporary, like streaming services playlisting.
"Dynamite" (2020) adds something different to their story.
The Music Video for the disco pop track shows the seven men paying homage to several pop culture icons of the West – mainly Michael Jackson, by reproducing his characteristic dance moves, including the famous moonwalk, performed by member Jin.
Given that it's BTS' first promotional single all sung in English, it might be easy to depict such tributes as strategical to pull Western audiences, mostly those of the United States, the biggest music market in the world. (They had released "Waste It on Me" in 2018, but it wasn't promoted; and member RM contributed with an all English verse in Lil Nas X's "Seoul Town Road" in 2019, but it was the rapper's official single, not BTS').
However, Western music and pop culture has always been referenced in BTS' body of work: there are allusions to Pink Floyd in their music video for "Fire" (2016); Nirvana in the music video for "Run" (2015) and the "Love Yourself's Highlight Reels" (2017) short videos. This isn't counting the film and literature references, like Singing in the Rain in the "Boy with Luv" (2019) music video; and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the lyrics of "Hope World" (2018), among others.
BTS' Korean culture is referenced often in their music – we hear it in "Paldogangsan" (2013), "Silver Spoon" (2015), "Ddaeng" (2018), "Daechwita" (2020), for example. Also, they have made a name in the United States and became successful around the world by singing mainly in Korean and sticking to their own marketing and promotion patterns.
Considering all that, it's unlikely that the presence of Western culture references in the music and visual content of BTS is justified by Eurocentric-based adoration. If anything, such references are placed on an equal level amongst others, even being presented in critical ways or through the group's interpretation rather than reproduction. That's a prominent feature of BTS' artistry: "to adapt texts from the Western canon" (Menton, 2020), with no necessary commitment to their metanarratives.
With "Dynamite", they're doing it again. This time in the midst of a pandemic, we see Western music references in the '70s sounding disco and funk songs (genres that had their momentum in Korea too, but were born in African-American communities). BTS also mixes in Michael Jackson signature '80s era moves, visual references of '60s British rock (the Beatles, the Kinks), and even '90s-era grunge (Nirvana). There isn't a single moment in history in which the "Dynamite" plot fits, and its celebratory vibes certainly don't reflect 2020 either.
In their promotional interviews for "Dynamite", the BTS members have expressed their desire that the song will bring positivity to fans in spite of the tough times during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is resistance in the form of joy, and for that alone, it's a wonderful song.
While the nostalgia the song and music video evoke, coupled with the easy-listening melody and the English lyrics, might make "Dynamite" perfect for Western consumption, it's unlikely that its undeniable appeal to Western (and especially north American) audiences, implies search for validation.
The members stated that they chose to record in English because the lyrics sounded good like that. But given the group and their team's visible promotional efforts with the song, it's not surprising that "Dynamite" seems to aim for the type of semiotic disruption that BTS is notable for: when conventional measures of success gain new meanings, representing a larger geographical, cultural picture.
As Lee notes: "(…) the meaning of BTS's success has exceeded growth in popularity and has acquired new values. Western fans speaking and singing along in Korean create a rupture in existing linguistic hierarchy as well as in the distinction between center and periphery represented by such hierarchy. In this sense, it can be affirmed that the BTS phenomenon is deterritorializing from the domain of music and reterritorializing as symptoms of social and cultural change" (2019).
Now that BTS is singing in English, are they succumbing to the linguistic hierarchic pattern that Lee speaks of? And how can the presence of a Korean group in US pop culture defy the status quo, if said group is singing in that country's language, promoting in their style, and deliberately calling on their imaginary to reminisce their own icons?
The answer lies in the past – not in the past we see in the music video, but in BTS' past. To understand what the success of "Dynamite" means for the future, we need to look at the story BTS and their fans have built.
BTS has sold out worldwide stadium tours, and amassed hundreds of #1 iTunes spots and literally billions of streams in all the world's continents. In the United States, they've topped Billboard album charts many times. With support from their loyal fans, BTS disrupted the underlying structure of the US and many other Western countries' mainstream pop culture, which welcomes mostly local artists, or English-speaking ones.
BTS' promotional single that preceded "Dynamite", "ON" (2020), ranked #4 on Billboard Hot100, despite having little to no radio airplay, relying only on sales and music and video streaming from their passionate fans. Of all the distribution methods counted that are relevant both for the general public awareness and for charting purposes in the US, radio is the last to embrace BTS. Many US DJs have categorically said that it's hard to play a song that's not sung in English.
As "Dynamite" is an all English-language song, it's expected that US radio will be more receptive to this song than it was with BTS' previous singles. And it is.
With "Dynamite", radio and general audiences are forced to be taken out of their comfort zone by, paradoxically, being put in their comfort zone. The Korean group is doing exactly what's needed to be acknowledged by those who have refused, until now, to give the K-Pop band airplay.
Had BTS' biggest hit to date been sung in Korean, it would still have been the cherry on top of their already impressive seven-year trajectory. BTS has been hammering at the wall that separates them from a larger US and UK mainstream audiences for years. They've recently realized that all it takes is a little "Dynamite" to bring that wall down.
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