“Maybe … Grammy?”
This was the answer Suga of BTS jokingly gave in May 2018, when asked in an interview with Liam McEwan what the next step for the band might be, beyond recognition on the Billboard music charts. The answer was met with an eruption of laughter and disbelief, the other members finding his answer ridiculous.
Six months later, during the 61st Grammy Awards nomination ceremony, BTS’ third studio album “Love Yourself: Tear” received a nomination for Best Recording Package. Two years after that, on Nov. 24, BTS’ hit disco-pop single “Dynamite” received a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
BTS, an underdog group from across the world that debuted in 2013 from a company nearing bankruptcy, had grown big enough and broken enough barriers to be recognized by the Recording Academy. It’s an achievement most musicians, especially non-Western ones, can only dream of – or in BTS’ case, disbelievingly giggle at the thought of during an interview.
This year marks BTS’ first time being nominated for their music. Listed alongside hits like “Intentions” by Justin Bieber and Quavo and “Rain On Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, the Recording Academy's nod to “Dynamite” is a testament to the septet’s hard work and determination, as well as the surge of Asian representation in the American entertainment industry. It’s a win in anybody’s book.
So why, then, does the nomination still feel a bit like a loss?
Because it’s not enough.
In the two years since BTS’ first bout of recognition at the Grammy Awards, the group saw a meteoric rise to global domination. In 2020 alone, BTS’ list of achievements is seemingly endless. The band released three chart-topping albums, including “Map Of The Soul: 7,” which became the best-selling album in the world.
They also topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart three times, with three different songs. Their success is immense and unprecedented for a group who are, as far as the American music industry is concerned, outsiders.
Many have compared BTS’ triumph in the American entertainment industry to that of the South Korean film “Parasite” and its director, Bong Joon-ho. Yes, both BTS and Bong Joon-ho have won numerous awards and paved the way for more Korean and Asian artists to break into the Western media landscape, but the comparisons don’t hold up much further than that.
Where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could look past the one-inch barrier to award “Parasite” an Oscar, the Recording Academy failed to do the same for BTS. Instead, they chose to nominate only “Dynamite,” sending a clear statement that stings of xenophobia: No English, no Grammy Awards.
BTS has always believed in the idea that music transcends language. Like a catchphrase, those three words show up in countless speeches and interviews, and BTS’ legion of fans, known as the ARMY, works hard to ensure that the artists’ faith in music’s ability to transcend language is not misguided.
And thus, BTS has been unapologetically Korean throughout their rise to international fame – not only singing in Korean but also frequently donning Korean traditional garb and touring fans around their home country, offering little bits of cultural knowledge.
“Dynamite” is BTS’ one and only fully-English song. Because the group is so adamant about making majority-Korean songs, “Dynamite” came as a surprise to ARMYs and BTS alike.
The members explained in a livestream and subsequent interviews that they came across the song serendipitously and, after trying to switch out the English lyrics with Korean, realized the song works best in English. They created it to be a revitalizing boost of positivity during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
The song’s enormous success in America was both a happy accident and also exactly what could be expected from the biggest band in the world dropping an English track.
For once, the radio, notorious for practically ignoring BTS’ Korean releases, finally began to play a BTS song on regular rotation. For once, Columbia Records, BTS’ label on this side of the Atlantic, ran a massive promotional campaign for a song by the group, unlike anything they’d ever done before.
“Dynamite” was how BTS finally conquered the American music market. It easily became a viral sensation, breaking record after record and earning BTS No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart not once, but three times, a first for them and for any Korean act.
Amid the whirlwind of achievement and celebration, for once, BTS’ leader RM started to doubt his favorite catchphrase.
RM explained his conflicted emotions in a candid livestream a month or so after “Dynamite” first topped the charts. “‘Music truly transcends every barrier like language.’ Even while I was saying that, I questioned myself if I indeed believe this,” he said, thinking over the importance of lyrics in music.
After years of growth through deeply moving Korean music, strewn together with larger narratives based on psychology and literature, what ultimately pushed BTS over the tipping point into total American fame was a catchy pop tune with relatively plain English lyrics.
“Dynamite” is undeniably a great song, but it’s only a sliver of the true extent of BTS’ artistry and musical identity. Meanwhile, “Map Of The Soul: 7,” the world’s best-selling album that was ignored completely by the Grammy Awards, contains masterpieces like “ON” and “Black Swan” and showcases BTS’ full range, in full Korean.
That’s what makes BTS’ Grammy Awards nomination so irksome. Insofar as getting recognition from the Recording Academy, the septet is forced to follow in the footsteps of millions of Asians and Asian Americans who, despite going above and beyond in their craft, have had to simplify their culture or identity to appeal to the white masses. Then, they are told that they should be grateful to at least have a seat at the table.
Not only is it a clear act of xenophobia to be forced to assimilate to succeed in the West, and also condescending to be told to settle for less, but the oversimplification of Asian culture is what leads to problems like orientalism, othering and cultural appropriation.
Worse still, the no-English-no-Grammy-Award ultimatum the Recording Academy gave BTS casts doubt over a statement that is true, when it should instead be casting doubt over the Recording Academy itself. Music does, in fact, transcend language. BTS topped the Hot 100 chart with Korean lyrics twice, first with their remix of Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love” and then with their latest single “Life Goes On.”
Their latest album, “BE,” earned them their fifth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and the following week, Bad Bunny’s “El Último Tour del Mundo” reached the same spot, marking the first all-Spanish album to top the chart.
The problem is not language – the problem is the Recording Academy. The problem is the Academy's refusal to step out of a system of racial bias and corruption. Time and time again, they’ve come under fire for problematic moves. From Adele winning Album of the Year over Beyonce’s “Lemonade” in 2017 to this year’s snubbing of The Weeknd and countless other artists of color, any strides made recently to be more inclusive seem totally performative.
Despite BTS having the most successful year out of any musicians in the world right now, the Grammy Awards nomination BTS received was the bare minimum. Had “Dynamite” not been in English, the song wouldn’t have received a nomination at all, regardless of BTS' artistry.
The Recording Academy continues to lose its credibility as it operates on a skewed scale, awarding mediocrity among white artists while requiring people of color to assimilate and bend over backward to receive even a little bit of acknowledgment.
In the words of Drake on his Instagram story, following this year’s nomination ceremony, “What once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones that come after.”
In the music industry, usually, the side of progress wins. Right now, we’re living in the age of Genius lyric translations and subtitled music videos, and the Recording Academy refuses to keep up. So maybe a Grammy Awards is indeed the next step for BTS. Or maybe, BTS has already proven themselves to be much bigger and have much more to offer than the small, corrupted honor of a Grammy Awards will ever be able to represent.