On Sunday May 21, the US Billboard charts held their annual Billboard Music Awards (BBMAs). Seven guys, called BTS, showed up to take the Top Social Artist award with 300 million votes behind them.
Twitter exploded. Articles from CNN, Vogue, and Rolling Stone appeared (just to name a few). Comments varied from people vehemently opposing their win, to people vehemently defending the achievement. People who had no idea who BTS were had their interests piqued.
BTS winning isn’t just significant for the K-pop community; it’s a milestone for Asian representation in the Western media landscape.
Seeing faces ‘like us’
How many Asians in entertainment can you name who are also household names in Australia? I can probably count them on my fingers.
There’s a sore lack of people ‘like us’ in Western media. It’s a diversity issue that’s been called out by the Asian community for many years. Asian-American actors like Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, and Constance Wu have spoken about how, in their acting careers, they are constantly typecast; always the supplementary sidekicks in an Anglo-centric narrative.
It’s only quite recently that representation is starting to shift in a positive direction, with the industry edging towards diversity. For example, the TV adaptation of Eddie Huang’s book Fresh Off the Boat being the second mainstream TV show in America to feature an Asian cast (the first being Margaret Cho’s All American Girl). In Australia, we have The Family Law on SBS, which is returning with its second season on June 15. It’s the first - and currently only - drama program in Australia written by, and featuring, an Asian cast.
The lack of ‘Asian faces’ isn’t just in TV or film, but music too. Many Asian musicians have remarked on how difficult it is to make a break in the Western industry. In the world of K-pop, this includes Asian-Americans like Tiffany from Girls’ Generation, Nicole from KARA, NS Yoon-G, Ailee, and Eric Nam; with Eric saying it was easier to break into the Korean industry than in America due to the misrepresentation and under-representation of Asians in Western media.
If we look at Australia; Prince Mak, formerly of JJCC, said in the Financial Times, “I just thought it was easier for me to start from Asia. My ‘look’ is not what appeals to Australian TV,” and Jang Hanbyul, former lead vocalist of LED Apple, told SBS, “The reason why I looked into the K-pop industry instead of a singing career back in Australia was because of the perspective that Aussies have for Asian artists, and how difficult it is for an Asian artists to be successful in a Western country. That’s the only reason I came back to my parents’ home country.”
The rejection of Asian-ness
If we travel back ten years, we’ll recall several extremely successful K-pop artists – BoA, SE7EN, Rain, and Wonder Girls – branching out with American debuts to tepid reception. More recently, Ailee (under A.Leean), SPICA, and CL have also taken on the US market, but the main consumers continue to be K-pop fans who have already heard of them, and not the new mainstream American audience they're really after. We can consider PSY the first real breakthrough into mainstream America with Gangnam Style.
So why is BTS’s win significant?
— BillboardMusicAwards (@BBMAs) May 22, 2017
Think about it like this: A South Korean idol group has broken a record in a mainstream American music award show.
People are now paying attention, not only to BTS, but for what they unofficially represent – Asian faces in mainstream music, and arguably the entire K-pop industry.
It serves as representation. It's so important for Asian communities to see people that look like them, share the same cultural experiences with them, and speak the same language as them to receive acknowledgement on an international stage. There are over 19 million Asian-Americans. In Australia, 12 per cent of our population is of Asian descent, and in metropolitan cities like Sydney, that figure hits 20 per cent. BTS’ achievement encourages Asian youth in these communities to believe in their identity, and think, “Ah, I can also break barriers."
For the A.R.M.Ys who voted so that BTS could win the award and bring worldwide attention to this Asian pop group, in mainstream media, you should be proud.
We can only hope the doors that BTS have opened at the BBMAs lead down fruitful paths, not only for them, but for K-pop, Asian faces in music, and Asian representation.
For those going to the BTS concert, be sure to check out the SBS PopAsia stall on the day; you can meet our new radio host Kevin Kim and win VIP seated tickets!
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