The way he sees it, BTS is “re-exporting” the classic boy-band style “to the rest of the world where we had initially drawn much of our inspiration,” RM said.
But much of K-pop’s appeal lies in the way it diverges from that blueprint — in the bold collision of rhythms and textures that defines a song like BTS’ “Fake Love,” for instance, which has a chaotic energy nobody ever got from ‘N Sync.
The music’s thrillingly fluid ideas about gender also have distinguished many K-pop acts from their American counterparts. The group’s frilly costumes and sensual moves reflect pretty evolved thinking about pop-star masculinity — certainly beyond what we’re accustomed to seeing in our homegrown teen idols.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, that welcome sense of freedom is the product of a K-pop industry far more rigorously controlled than the American music business.
In response to a question about the meaning of its Coachella appearance, the members of Blackpink said in an email, “To perform at Coachella has been one of our biggest dreams ever since we were trainees” — striking language that pointed to the system by which K-pop artists are carefully groomed for stardom.
Obviously, differences remain between here and there.
Yet American pop has a way of streamlining what it absorbs. You can hear that in Tomorrow x Together, a young quintet assembled by Big Hit Entertainment, the successful Korean company behind BTS.
On its debut EP, which came out this month ahead of an expected trip to the U.S. in the spring, the boy band echoes Justin Bieber and Boyz II Men; it’s cleverly produced (and as sonically detailed as the most ambitious K-pop) but also feels newly geared to American tastes — one reason that Republic Records, home to Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, has signed on to promote the group in America.
It’s unclear to what extent BTS, which will support its upcoming album with a stadium tour, has allowed its music to creep our way; Big Hit is keeping “Map of the Soul” tightly under wraps.
Might the group try singing in English? Last year, RM seemed wary of the idea, describing BTS’ Korean lyrics as a core feature of its music.
But anyone tracking K-pop’s crossover knows that, for all its success on social media and on streaming platforms like Spotify, the style has yet to gain a foothold on Top 40 radio, at least in part because of that language barrier. (Yes, “Despacito” demonstrated that American programmers are willing to spin a song not sung in English. But they haven’t jumped on one like that since.)
In its email, Blackpink said airplay in this country is “definitely important” because it “allows us to introduce our music to new fans.”
And those new fans are increasingly crucial, given the uproar in Korea over recent allegations that two older K-pop stars had engaged in sexual misconduct including sharing videos of women without their consent.
For some, the disturbing charges have punctured the false promise of K-pop’s squeaky-clean presentation.
But fresh eyes, like those in America, often see what they want.