CulturePop Culture Why We Need To Rethink Our ‘Criticism’ Of BTS And K-Pop

Why We Need To Rethink Our ‘Criticism’ Of BTS And K-Pop

Their rising fame of BTS has brought with it an alarming amount of scepticism. Some of it stemming from Western audiences unable to understand how music in another language could capture the hearts and minds of people all over the world.

Viewers all over the world were glued to their televisions and laptops on the late night/early morning of Sunday (20/21 May) for the Billboard Music Awards 2018 (BBMAs), an annual phenomenon that has been showcasing enchanting live performances, celebrating diverse genres of music and awarding acclaimed artists since the 90s. Although a highly anticipated event every year, since 2017 it has kicked up excitement for fans of the Korean boy group BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan/Bulletproof Boy Scouts).

This musical year saw seven boys – a group already known for defying expectations and writing a true underdog story – rise to fame in a shocking way, setting and breaking their own records with multiple songs, music videos and their newest album Love yourself 轉: Tear. In 2017, BTS was the first Korean act to win a Billboard Award, the Top Social Artist Award (with a Guinness World Record number of Twitter engagements), dethroning Justin Bieber from a seat he’s owned for almost 6 consecutive years.

This year was slightly different, however. Not only did BTS once again win this award (by a 94% margin and another possible Guinness World Record with over 42 million votes in 24 hours), they were also set to be the first to debut their album on an American stage. They, thus, became the first Korean act to perform at the BBMAs.

The success of the performance left aftershocks for days – well known Western celebrities noticing their talent and media outlets wondering who these 7 men were, taking the worldwide musical fanbase by storm. However, being in the spotlight also brings out attention that is not-so-positive.

Image Source: Just Jared

The K-pop phenomenon has always been subject to racist rhetoric, both as an undertone and blatant attacks. Thus, the exponentially increasing popularity of an Asian boy group (particularly one that had to struggle to rise to the top even in their home base) has created room for further scrutiny.

Their rising fame has brought with it an alarming amount of (perhaps unfair) scepticism. Some of it stemming from Western audiences unable to understand how and why music in another language could possibly be capturing the hearts and minds of people all over the world.

The K-pop phenomenon has always been subject to racist rhetoric, both as an undertone and blatant attacks.

This has translated into switching the narrative around the group’s success by making it seem like they’re merely an oddball phenomenon made famous by their predominantly female fan-following (called ARMYs). Although this is not a bad thing (the group has repeatedly said they are proud of their fans), the excessive attention the Western media has on ARMY seems to suggest that BTS is only famous because of their fans.

As though BTS is some kind of one-hit viral phenomenon without any substance. Moreover, the frequent labelling of the fans as “crazy”, “intense”, and even “rabid” and “dangerous”, is an insult not only to the group but also the countless people (especially women, LGBTQ and POC) whose unwavering loyalty to them stems from more than just their physical looks.

The “rabid fangirl” trope is often used to denounce artists based on the assumption that if they have a large female fandom then there must be little to no substance to them. As if women and teenage girls are only capable of forming superficial and exaggerated connections with media.

The assumption is a harmful stereotype that implies girls and women are unable to make informed decisions about the people they idolise, and also completely unnecessary since it’s their fanbase that is constantly promoting the depth of their work and ideas. It’s also an incredibly sexist argument, often used against women to invalidate their valid concerns.

While their fans continue loving them for their personal, relatable lyrics and commendable music production (the group produces and writes their own music), the public image put forth by naysayers is that they are merely a mob smitten with a group and carrying it forward on superficial grounds. This is an insult to not only the fans but also the hard work the artists have put into their careers.

Also Read: 10 Feminist Songs To Listen To When The Patriarchy Has Got You Down

This is not to say that the appreciation of ARMYs is a bad thing. The group themselves have stated how everything they’ve achieved would’ve been impossible without the fans and it is definitely their social media popularity that has introduced their music to the world. There is no denying that the public attention, which this album has garnered, is a major achievement for the group.

A lot of the attention they are receiving is positive in nature, with major critics like Pitchfork giving them objective scores as high as 7.1, and news outlets talking about how meaningful their work is. So, perhaps, it’s expected that the positive will also bring attention that is questionable.

Image Source: Bustle/Getty Images

The way some people (both famous and not) are treating the boys as a vehicle for fame, as accessories to pose and smile with without even knowing their names – these are clear indicators that BTS is succeeding and people are feeling threatened about it.

In fact, one of the most common questions they are asked is which Western artist they wish to collaborate with. While this is a good question when asked with utmost respect and curiosity, sometimes it can take the ugly undertone that BTS need a collaboration to become relevant. They are also often asked when they will release an English album or interact with fans in English, despite the fact that they are writing in their own language and should not have to change for others.

Interestingly, their collaborations have been with POC, which is an attempt at lending authenticity to the cultures that created the genres they experiment with. Furthermore, most of the Western celebrities who have been giving them and their work genuine attention are POC themselves – people who know what it’s like facing racism in the Western music industry.

BTS is writing in their own language and should not have to change for others.

But what is there to be so threatened about? BTS is a group that has constantly questioned what is considered the norm. Back home it was through exhibiting musical diversity in a fairly cookie-cutter industry, spreading social awareness and breaking local records (despite coming from a small company that provided them with no privilege). Abroad, it’s by defying the trope of toxic masculinity (they are comfortable showing emotion, wearing makeup, being experimental with fashion) and increasing the bar of what is expected of performers.

The lack of acceptance of POC in the Western musical arena – especially Asians, who remain severely underrepresented despite being the largest continent in the world – is very telling of the xenophobia and preconceived notions people have for the Eastern hemisphere.

For example, BTS and their record company felt the need to mute words from their lyrics (naega, which means “I” in Korean – a basic unit of speech) because they were worried that people unfamiliar with the language would misconstrue it as the N-word and did not want to offend anyone.

While that forethought reflects incredible sensitivity on behalf of the group, it’s a larger commentary on the audiences who are unwilling to think beyond their own languages and the work that suffers as a result. Even some of the articles written about them, or their album, clearly reflect internal bias on behalf of the reviewers. Not to mention, on social media, the insult that their fans have to hear are often incredibly racist in nature.

The fact remains that BTS is here to stay. Having broken album sales records in South Korea, they are predicted to debut at #1 position on the Billboard 200 (a commendable feat that will propel Asian representation in music) and have already sold out 4 shows in the Los Angeles’ Staples Center. It is only a matter of time before media and celebrities realise that these achievements are not merely based on mindless propping by “boy-crazy” fans.

Maybe that is exactly why it is important that they make a comfortable position at the top – to change the way people think about POC musicians and artists. People often compare their fandom to that of The Beatles – perhaps it is time to remember that some of the greatest musicians in history have always had “crazy” female fans and it is with the love and support of these fans that their game-changing discographies have gone down in history.

Also Read: Gender Stereotypes Based On The Music Playlist

Featured Image Source: Billboard


  1. Mia says:

    Omg… thank u so much for make this article especially explain why Army loves BTS not bcozmof their looks. Hell no, there is so many handsome kpop groups out there with good music, but BTS hold something more special than that to Army n to people who can understand their lyrics n their messages. Hope this article can reach more people n media to read.

    • Bts forever says:

      you are definitely correct. It’s not coz of their looks bit coz of their talent. Love you BTS❤❤

  2. intaensive says:

    This is the best article I’ve ever read about BTS. Thank you so, so much for your hardwork.

  3. Jennifer says:

    What a great article! Thank you for this!

  4. Thank you for this awesome article. ??

  5. pri says:

    this is so well written!! and every word is truth itself. thank you for writing this piece.

  6. Thank you so much for this . They’re more than their female fans, and I applaud and thank you for your words .

  7. Arpita says:

    This is an amazing article! Thank you so much Pallavi for writing this and hitting on the important parts. It’s like you can read my mind. It’s great to have reasonable writers like you who can write such great articles like this.

  8. Such an amazing article. Wonderfully written from all perspectives.

  9. Aimee says:

    This is such great article! You’ve mentioned and brought up a lot of important things that I feel had yet to have been acknowledged. More people and ARMYs should read this. Everyone should consider and think about the way not only BTS but foreign artists are treated and viewed in Western society. Thank you for writing this 🙂

  10. Anagha says:

    Thank you a ton for writing this article about boys and letting the world know who BTS really is and who ARMY really is. This article was so beautifully written I thank you so so much. It’s true people are so stereotypical and don’t support people who are doing a great job out of the norm it’s time people start expanding their mind set and start growing like most others. I’m so happy our boys are breaking boundries and making a voice for what matyers. I know I stan the right group. BTS fighting !

  11. Kriti says:

    Awesome article and much needed one considering the position BTS is achieving…

  12. Sana Ali says:

    BTS ARMY is famous for their work And the respect they show for their fan.its amazing.

  13. Loopey says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article and clearing all this mist that had been surrounding BTS and causing a lot of criticism. For me the major reason why iIlove k-pop is because of the stereotypes that they constantly break. I’m glad our country had ARMY’s like you.

  14. Priyadarshini Varadkar says:

    I shared this article with many of my friends.. and it’s not just the ARMYs or k-pop fans… But many women who listen to other music appreciated this article… Very well written… All the good vibes to you… ?

  15. klofan says:

    this is such a great article! i love it!

  16. Shivani Shintre says:

    Beautifully written.

  17. A name u wanna know says:

    OMG! Their lyrics really describe my whole life. It seems they know me very well except the fact that I exist…?

  18. Tanu says:

    Loved this article btsxarmyy

  19. Tanu says:


  20. Samra says:

    Thank you so much Pallavi for this letter.
    Such a wonderful letter it is.
    I’m gonna share it to all contacts of me.

  21. Sri Lekha says:

    Thank you so much for this article❤

  22. Bkolli says:

    That was AWESOME!!!!!well written…..there is so much in them other than their looks….their LYRICS (to which every struggling 20-something can relate to);the amount of time;effort;hard work they put into their every performance;the amount of importance they give to us ARMY’s.. ..EVERYTHING…thakyou for this article

  23. Purple tae says:

    This article is one of the best I’ve ever read of BTS . The world should know they have come to this position not just for their fans but their hard work and nature. Thank you for your well written article ?

  24. Tania Hirekhan says:

    I’m loving this…i love this…i love BTS?

  25. Tania Hirekhan says:

    I love this I am loving this I love BTS ?

  26. Mickey says:

    Thank you soooo much for writing this. People judge kpop without even looking or hearing their songs and in my complex they started calling BTS biologically transformed shit and i told them the only shit here was them…..thnk u sooo very much

  27. Iida Hietaniemi says:

    Thank you yor this amazing article. Exactly my thoughts.

  28. Lol, k-pop itself have done many racist things that even their fandom is slowly getting out of it. Think before you write something. It’s not about being racist. K-pop people don’t like black and indians. They have low thinking about India as well. Their fandom maybe increasing with 14 years old white girls, but we who were there since 2014-2013 at rethinking about praising them anymore.

    • Pallavi Varma says:

      Hello! Thank you so much for reading and responding. I completely agree with you. The in-fandom racism – especially against Black ARMYs is a huge ongoing problem. Not to mention, a lot of Asian entertainment industries tend to be racist towards each other. Just like how Indian cinema has used East Asians as a butt of jokes, they’ve done the same with other cultures. There’s no denying it. I’ve even written about it in another article of mine, talking about the cultural appropriation that K-media often indulges in!

      What I was trying to address in this article was BTS’ fame specifically, not just a blanket statement about all K-pop. Given their rising fame in the West, it’s specifically addressing the xenophobia they’re facing as a group making it big abroad – and how this xenophobia is translating into trying to devalue their work by using fangirls as a tool to do it.

  29. Gavin says:

    I really wanted to learn why you wrote this article but it has a lot of words without really addressing anything. I once asked my sister why she liked it and she said its the music. I asked again if she’d still listen to the ‘music’ if the artists were ugly men who wore no makeup. She was honest. She said ‘no’. Why do you need to justify why you adore BTS. They are talented, they work hard and most of all they’re gorgeous – why is it so difficult to admit that these things appeal to women. A guy can easily admit that he likes a certain so and so coz she has nice tits or ass. You might hate it but its true. We’re humans and its how we’re hardwired. I don’t mean to take this too deep into science and human psychology but lets not beat around the bush.

    • Pallavi Varma says:

      Hello, thank you for reading and responding! I agree that fans can definitely be attracted to the physical features of an artist/idol they like – aren’t we all human? It’s bound to happen. And I’m sure there are many fans who are attracted to BTS because of it, or it’s part of why they like them (although definitely think about the tendency of non-East Asians to either hypersexualise or desexualise East Asians. The treatment of K-Pop idols as solely sex symbols – especially idols who are minors – by fans is problematic, given the commodification nature of the industry!).

      This article was for those who don’t love them just for their looks, or love them independent of their appearance and are frustrated that they’re being reduced to just that. If anything, the effort they put into their looks is a huge testament to how dedicated they are to their performance, so I would never wish to act like it wasn’t part of it.

      Their fans have written at length, on multiple platforms, about the socio-political nature of their lyrics, about them addressing mental health in their songs, of the comfort it brings them in harsh times. While it’s impossible to say that everybody loves them for their work alone, I do think it’s important to examine why their work is important to many, and how harmful it is to pretend like they haven’t had that effect or that they didn’t intend to speak up in an extremely conservative society.

      • Uma says:

        Thanks for the article and now more people will come to know what is BTS and what is ARMY
        And I’m very happy that they topped billboard200..and people in our country know less about them I hope this will help them to know what K-pop is .. and I think K-pop is best than any other pop music in the world.

      • Aru says:

        Pallavi, I can’t get enough of your thoughtful replies! That was so well-put! Looking at appearance of idols isn’t exclusive in the kpop industry. Artists putting an effort has been a thing in all sorts of entertainment industries across the world. Yes, we appreciate the visuals, but there is so much more to appreciate! The music and entertainment industry is full of good looking people, so it’s silly when outsiders assume that’s all we care about. If it’s about visuals alone – there’s too many to choose from…what got many fans’ attention is their heart, sincerity, hard work, and personalities. At the end of the day, it’s about the music!

  30. Maria says:

    Oh thabk you

  31. Rimil says:

    Feminism in India , well bts is influential , the reason why they are so famous , criticism is part of free speech , if u don’t like it , deal with it . Hopefully u guys r not like those 3rd wave feminist . Peace.

  32. i loveed this article to the depth of my heart…thank you so much for this

  33. Helen says:

    This article is just amazing. I really applaud you for taking your time to know more about the boys and their music and letting others know about their hardwork. Thank you so much……

  34. One of the best articles about bts I’ve read so far

  35. Anon says:

    When your soul can feel the meaning of the songs without knowing the language, that is the mark of talent, and BTS has far exceeded this.

  36. Thank you soo soo much for this article…this was much needed to all those who criticize BTS for no reason…without knowing their hardwork,the problems they faced…proud to be an ARMY

  37. mochi says:

    Thank you for this well written article. The ARMY is a huge fan base but people mainly focus on the immature ARMY to show “oh these people are batshit crazy” like no. If you really want to fairly know what the ARMYs are like then get to know the difference between immature and mature ARMY okay thank you guys so much for writing this article I hope you all have a great day 😀

  38. BTSFreakeu says:

    Thanks for speaking out the thoughts of every ARMY our there…. #LoveYourself ♥

  39. Being an Indian and reading such a beautiful article makes me proud as an Indian and as an Army (bts fan)
    Whole heart of appreciation has been put n it can be seen. Thank u. ?

    We love their lyrics, music, performances, dance, dedication, bond , their chemistry, their hard work, their personality, their everything .. thats it


  40. Reshma shetty says:

    I loved this…

  41. Ankita says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this! I had been waiting to read such a news article for them. But unfortunately, a lot of American platforms have just recognized as a TREND, which they are not. I love this article so much!

  42. Sara Chan says:

    yeah. This is thing we really don’t love them buz of their looks. Armys are also human we have also seen how world look it doesn’t mean that we have never seen more handsome boys than them.we have seen. but.. there is something more special, more pure in them which only an army can understand. And that’s true. I don’t know what is that special thing maybe God blessings or something else but I just know……. That I love them and why I love them?…………… Sry it’s complicated ??????

  43. Karolina says:

    This is the best article I’ve ever read. It’s like all my thoughts were put in here. Thank you so much for this <3
    -A Latin Army

  44. Excellent article – very interesting analysis. I find BTS compelling, myself. I love KPop because it’s so full of energy and reminds me of MoTown (including the stage performances). I had the pleasure of seeing them at KCON NY 2016 and I hadn’t experienced the energy they projected since I saw Led Zeppelin in concert in 1975 (yeah, I’m not a spring chicken LOL). I have to say that BTS visuals, while fine, do NOT constitute the reason I love their music and cheer for their achievements!

  45. ncadents says:

    This is really amazing article. You presented many perspectives I haven’t even thought of yet by myself. The standpoints you made shows the unbelievable amount of factors playing role in the acceptance of diversity. Thank you very much for this eye-opening article!

  46. kelsmtb says:

    This is such an amazing and refreshing article – thank you so much! The “rabid” or “crazy” female fan stereotype is so tiring and honestly gets me down all the time. I often feel the need to apologise or joke about how much I love K-pop when actually BTS means a lot to me and literally millions of other people, including POC and a variety of others as you pointed out. Thank you!!

  47. PROpr says:

    Yes, it does feel good that an asian group is getting so much attention, but you’ve to remember that It’s doing no good to us other than the fact that we live in a country which is situated in a continent mass known as asia, and also someone already mentioned that how Koreans look up to us.

    And, It would be utterly wrong to say that BTS is superior than any other groups in term of quality, there are many talented kpop groups out there, from what I’ve seen it’s an extremely competitive industry and each one works hard to make it, but the things that I’ve been told that make them different than any other kpop group is the way they interact with their fans, who doesn’t love little spice in their life? Its like a reality show, you’re getting connected to the characters, following them and supporting them whole heartily.

    They are pretty good and getting what they deserves, actually more.

  48. I am an Indian ARMY and I am thankful for this article. I got drawn to BTS bcuz they are so relatable.. and the lyrics of their songs have deep meaning. Even Min Yoongi said “You can enjoy BTS songs if you listen without prejudice”. I hope people will understand that they went through a lot to reach here, what you are looking at is their best time.You have not seen them struggle.Maybe you should see “BTS Burn the stage” series you’ll get how hard-working life they have.

  49. Harshini says:

    Remember the time when yahoo music conducted an interview with bts and they were compared to the beatles………
    They had crazy female fans too and they became famous by their fans…..
    The same will surely happen to bts…..
    We ARMYs are really strong❤

  50. army says:

    I enjoyed this article so much. It was well written and addressed the way it feels to be an army (or fangirl of anything ever). Bts made it to the bbma’s? Top of the billboard chart? Number one songs? Music show wins? And all any of it is attributed to is “rabid fangirls”.

    It’s just so unbelievable to people that a Korean group could achieve so much without it being because their fans are “rabid”. They aren’t spoken about as musicians with insightful and beautiful lyrics, amazing productions of their music but as spectacles. Bts deserves more than that, as does army. If Post Malone, with all his problematic aspects, rises to the top it’s because of his music. But if bts does it? Their fans are crazy and have no life.

    Yes, army made this happen, but it’s only what they deserve. Yes, they are a Korean group but they are Korean MUSICIANS as everyone seems to forget. The West sees them as spectacles, seemingly forgotten their king MJ who relied /heavily/ on stage presence and visual effects to exemplify his music. No one else bothers to appreciate them as they deserve, so of course army will make it happen.

    Am I attracted to their bodies and faces? Hell yes. But I also love them for so many other reasons. Their humility in the face of success. The struggles and criticism they faced and are still facing. Their personalities. Their songs- the fact that Yoongi could make a whole song stemming from the asteroid number 134340, or that they’re willing to talk about oppression and mental health and insecurity in an honest way. They’ve dedicated multiple songs to their fan base- they love us in an equal and opposite way. Of course, there’s problematic behaviour within our fandom, but we would all prefer not to call those people army. And those things need correcting but so does what you spoke about.

    ANYWAY that went on too long, in summation I love bts and enjoyed this article c:

  51. Thank you soo much for such an amazing article on BTS! India needs to be familiar with KPOP AND BTS ESPECIALLY!

  52. I had to read this article twice to show my appreciation. I just love how a simple article on BTS propelled the discussion on feminism, empowerment, social awareness, and racism. You did a great job! Hats off to all the “underdogs” in the world (yeah right, RM).

  53. Jubi says:

    Thankyou so much for writing this article! I want each and every indian to read this

  54. Tanisha says:

    Congratulations BTS

  55. arifadnil says:

    Thank you for writing this inspiring article! Your writings encourage me to not hesitate to become Army despite other people’s judgment. I’m also inspired and I think I’ll write an article related to similar issue after this. Thank you, Pallavi!

  56. Aru says:

    Thank you Pallavi! this is an amazing article! your writing is so articulate and you did an amazing job addressing some issues! “The assumption is a harmful stereotype that implies girls and women are unable to make informed decisions about the people they idolise, and also completely unnecessary since it’s their fanbase that is constantly promoting the depth of their work and ideas.” < This point especially!

  57. I don’t their music worth listening to. And believe me, it’s not because of language. I tried to listen to them, and it was one of the most annoying experiences

  58. Cheri Teleri says:

    Well I’m not at all sure why you think this, but I certainly do not find BTS songs annoying at all. BTW I’m a classically trained soprano, and love Classic Rock – also was a beledi dancer and love Bollywood. So I’ve very ecletic tastes.
    I love MoTown which much of KPop emulates (along with Michael Jackson) – so that plus my love of dance has a lot to do with my love of Kpop.
    But BTS has that special ability to appeal on all levels to this new generation – their lyrics are moving and meaningful, speak to many of the anxieties of being a teen growing into an adult. The range of songs is quite impressive – they’ve lovely ballads, dance bops, hip-hop and some edgy raging things as well.
    BTW I really can’t stand much Western pop music nowadays – for every fun, interesting, catchy or outright good song are about 10 horrible ones. KPop however grabs THE best songwriters, choreographers, etc to put together these songs & MVs – and these KPop idols are so very very well-trained and talented it puts the West to shame.
    But if it’s not your thing, it’s not.

  59. SatyaDev Joshi says:

    This is by far the best article I have read. The “Rabid and Toxic” Fangirls really triggers me. Like they have a lot of Fanboys (including me and my friends, John Cena, James Cordon, Steve Aoki, Charlie Puth, Shawn Mendes, Justin Beiber etc.). They not only get hate from West, they also get hate from other fandoms for no good reason. Like Whenever I watches a music video of any other “So called Kings of Kpop”, there fans literally talk shit about BTS and says that their faves are trillions time better than BTS. But what triggers me even more is that when they write – “Oh man don’t speak the truth, their butthurt ARMYs will come to bash you. They are So Toxic.” But I only see toxicity by them. Literally hypocrisy at its highest level. See I no more consider BTS as K-pop. They are not a K-pop boyband anymore. They are 7 artists from South Korea who loves music and are ready to show the world their real talent. (If you don’t believe me. Then go watch Black Swan art film or Black Swan Official MV and you will get what I am trying to say.) Also Whoever who tries to say BTS as racist or ARMY a mad fandom go check how much amount they have donated for BlackLivesMatter (Both ARMY and BTS separately).

    At last I want to say Thank You. We need more open minded people like you.

    If you don’t like BTS, it’s OK.
    If you don’t care about BTS, it’s OK.
    But please don’t hate them for a Bu||$|-|¡t reason, because the world is already burning from a lot of hate. More hate will only make it even worse. And for those who think that I am defaming other Boy groups, you are wrong. I love EXO and I am a V.I.P too. But this hate and idiocy is getting out of hands.

    Hope I made myself clear

    Jai Hind

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