K-pop is no stranger to Western music awards. In 2013, Psy won for Top Streaming Song for “Gangnam Style” at the Billboard Music Awards (BBMAs). That same year, another significant victory in the west came from SNSD, who won Video of the Year at the inaugural YouTube awards for “I Got a Boy”. There’s also the MTV European Music Awards (MTV EMAs) that take place yearly with Big Bang being the only k-pop group so far to have won Best Worldwide Act in 2011, beating out Britney Spears.
Fast forward to May 21, 2017, where we find history seeming to repeat itself yet again at the BBMAs. BTS was nominated for Best Social Artist, a category centered on social media popularity. The overall score came from online votes and number of weeks on the Billboard Social 50 chart. Sure, this was a popularity contest in the strongest sense, but BTS wasn’t battling against nobodies. Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Shawn Mendes all have strong fandoms, and their social media follower numbers pretty much dictated they’d be tough competition. Then again, this is the K-pop fandom, and we’re not to be underestimated.
If anything, it felt like there were a number of expectations of what would happen before and after the BBMAs. A number of fans predicted disaster in the form of failure and racism. Others anticipated a historical moment that would further extend the path of the Hallyu wave towards the west. Whether you saw the glass half-empty or half-full, let’s go over what fans thought would happen versus what actually happened.
Expectation: BTS wouldn’t attend despite being a nominee.
Reality: Only a week after voting started, Twitter exploded with various confirmations that BTS had been invited to attend the ceremony. It was quite charming to see Big Hit show off the official invitation on their Twitter account. Billboard also verified the invite along with Mike Mahan, president of Dick Clark Productions, which was in charge of the ceremony broadcast. Of course, fans weren’t satisfied with a mere appearance guarantee, leading us to…
Expectation: BTS would perform at the BBMAs.
Reality: No, not today! Despite rumors circulating that the group would hit the stage for a couple of songs, the broadcast ended with nary a “bultaoreune” uttered from Suga. While a lot of fans were disappointed by this realization as the credits rolled, many found entertainment from fancams of the guys enjoying themselves throughout the ceremony. Do yourselves a favor and head to the group’s Twitter for a clip of J-Hope filming his bandmates singing and dancing to Cher.
Expectation: Nobody would care about BTS at the magenta carpet, and they’d be seen for about three seconds.
Reality: Not only were there various media outlets interviewing them, but some of the members went viral for being their usual attractive selves. I’m talking about Jin “The Third One From the Left”, Jungkook “The One in the Middle”, and V “The One on the Left”. This was possibly one of the most humorous occurrences of the night. Some fans were a little perturbed by their new monikers, but is it really a bad sign when strangers to K-pop are asking, “Who are these cute guys?” In previous years, we would’ve gotten “Who are these ugly Chinese dudes?”, which isn’t to say that didn’t happen. The racist comments still came, but the positive “Please tell us their names because they’re hot” remarks garnered more attention.
Expectation: Everyone except Rap Monster would be extra awkward since they speak little English.
Reality: BTS was extra per usual. Jin especially seemed to love relishing in his new self-title as “worldwide handsome”, blowing kisses like he was in a parade. J-Hope continued professing his desire to collab with Tinashe. Suga snuck in a few surprise quips in English that even caught Rap Monster off guard. V found random things to stare at. Jimin and Jungkook were the quietest but still managed to get some camera shine. Rap Monster showed off his leadership skills by translating for the group and encouraging his members to speak. Basically, BTS stayed true to themselves despite the language barrier.
Expectation: Western celebrities won’t bother giving BTS the time of day.
Reality: Guess who made new friends? The Chainsmokers, Camila Cabello, Desiigner, and Halsey are just a few famous names spotted interacting with the group on social media. It was so nice to see how kind and gracious celebrities were to BTS. Not that I expected anyone to be nasty to them, but thankfully, they weren’t ignored. Their charms appeared to win them many new fans among celebrities who met them.
Expectation: BTS would lose the award because ARMY are too annoying and disrespectful to others.
Reality: As usual, there were a number of antis rumored to be plotting for an upset by voting against BTS. It also didn’t help that social media was rife with talk of BTS being in danger of disqualification for bad ARMY behavior towards other nominees or votes not counting because of inaccurate hashtags. All of this unnecessary drama is sadly to be expected whenever you have a popular group with a heavily hated fandom.
EXO-Ls circa 2013 may recall this same kind of mess when their group was nominated for Best Worldwide Act for the MTV EMAs. It’s 2017 and nothing really changed except the results. BTS did win Best Social Artist, much to the delight of K-pop fans, including those who were previously hateful towards the fandom and group. Amazing what a little global recognition can do to change angry tweets into celebratory posts.
Another thing to note is the standing ovation BTS received. This is a far different scene than the cold reception Tiffany got when she accepted the YouTube award for SNSD four years ago. It’s unclear if this is an indication of how far K-pop has come, or just a result of BTS lucking out with a more accepting crowd.
Expectation: It’s just a social media award. Nothing that’ll make headlines.
Reality: The interviews and articles came out in abundance to highlight BTS for their historic win. People wanted to know about this group that defeated Justin Bieber, the person who has consecutively won this category for half a decade. BTS beat out huge Western names with larger social media followings. By now, we know that the number of followers has no direct correlation to the dedication of the fandom. Not saying that Beliebers, Arianators, Selenators, or the Mendes Army lacked passion; they probably gave it their all. It’s just that K-pop fans can really go hard when they want something. Over 300 million votes speaks to exactly how determined we are.
But to touch on the “just a social media award” quips, I want you all to think about exactly what that means for a group like BTS. They’re a South Korean group with songs in Korean and Japanese — not English — who garnered enough global support through social media that they were recognized with an award for it. As K-pop fans, most of us know firsthand how xenophobic people can be when it comes to listening to music not in their native language. Think of how many non-English speaking artists make non-English music worldwide. There’s thousands of them, but BTS got the nomination. Justin Bieber had a winning streak until BTS became a contender. This wasn’t some small feat.
Maybe fans cared about this because it’s the dream we have for all of our faves in K-pop. It’s not about gaining Western validation. It’s about earning worldwide respect. It’s about having a group prove that you don’t need to sing in English to dominate global music charts. Yes, other groups have proven that, but with K-pop, it’s primarily in the Asian countries. Reaching out to the Western hemisphere is another accomplishment in itself, especially when it’s more common for artists to gain more traction if they produce English albums. (Note: By English, I’m referring to the language itself, not those who hail from the country of England.)
I don’t expect BTS’ win to completely obliterate xenophobia and turn everyone into a K-pop lover. I do expect we’ll get a flood of new fans, some of whom will obviously jump on the bandwagon for clicks, likes, and shares. They won’t last long, so just ignore the fakery for now. As for the curious minds who genuinely seek to know more about K-pop, I hope fans welcome them as openly as BTS was received at Billboard.