This guest entry was written by Courtney Lazore. Courtney is a writer and editor with special interests in travel, food, culture, language, history, and the arts. And maybe anything and everything related to Korea and cats. When she’s not working her day job at a state university, she’s binging video games and desperately trying to keep up with BTS. You can find her on her website or Twitter.
Views and opinions expressed in this entry are solely those of the guest contributor.
If you ask fans of K-Pop superstars BTS why they love their group, most of them would probably answer something along the lines of “Because they’re different.” But what does that really mean? Are fans just blinded by their own bias towards a specific group, or is there really something else at play here? Many have started to claim that BTS is not K-Pop, or at least, not just K-Pop. While posting opinions like this on Twitter often results in needless fanwars and witch hunts, sometimes, a deeper look at what’s going on in the world of K-Pop can be quite enlightening. In the case of BTS, something Koreans call “Han” may be one of the underlying threads of their phenomenal success.
Han is a difficult concept to explain. It’s deeply rooted in Korea’s culture and psyche, and there is no one English word that directly encapsulates all that Han is. The Chinese character for Han (恨) can mean hatred, bitterness, rancor, and other related words, but many Koreans describe Han in a variety of ways, everything from sadness and resentment to an unresolved feeling due to injustices of the past. It can also incorporate feelings of helplessness and a desire to take revenge. At the end of it all, though, there is a hope that each person can take control and repair whatever past injustices he or she has suffered.
For a country that has been invaded numerous times over the course of its history, the development of this sort of baggage makes sense. Korea has experienced multiple invasions by the Chinese and annexation by the Japanese, the cost of which was often cultural erasure. When the Korean War reached an armistice, Korea was split in two and made to follow the Russian agenda in the North and the American agenda in the South. Within older Korean societies, the class system placed harsh burdens on the poor, leaving them little hope for a decent life or any sort of societal change. It should be no surprise that Koreans have internalized this struggle while maintaining hope that control would be returned to them, whether it was control of their country, culture, or their own lives.
Life in South Korea has surely improved since the end of the Korean War, but the idea of Han still lingers. It’s expressed in many forms of Korean media including literature, art, films, pansori (a traditional form of musical storytelling), and music. When Han is present in an art form, Koreans may relate to it more easily. But is Han present in K-Pop?
Most of the time, that answer is no. In Korea, the term K-Pop isn’t used to describe what the rest of the world thinks of as “Korean pop.” If you watch an entertainment news broadcast, the term may be used in an international context, but Koreans refer to this music instead as “idol music.” Idol music isn’t that popular among the general public, especially among those who are beyond their teens and twenties. Some Koreans don’t even consider idol music as “Korean” (as seen in this Reddit post) because the songs are purchased from Western producers and have an obvious lack of Han. This is where BTS often diverges.
Han is present in quite a few BTS songs, and it’s these songs that have a better chance at drawing in more of the general Korean public as well as older fans. It’s also not a stretch to say that Han is what makes BTS more popular around the world—even though Han is a very Korean concept, the emotions and struggles it represents are surely felt by many people all over the world. This makes BTS’s music human and relatable, and to some Koreans, it makes their music entirely Korean.
Han is clear in some of the early songs that deal with injustice and struggle such as “N.O” and “No More Dream,” and also in later songs like “Baepsae” and “Spring Day.” Lines in “N.O” talk about suffering while sacrificing one’s dreams in order to meet the expectations of parents and society. “No More Dream” follows a similar theme, encouraging youth to follow their own dreams rather than remain held by society’s unrealistic expectations. “Baepsae” plays with the idea of class, the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and makes a strong statement in support of the underdog. Many of their songs are made up of lyrics about a harsh society, struggle, and overcoming that struggle.
It’s also clear that BTS’s music has evolved over time; there was a noticeable shift in more recent releases. Some would argue this is to appeal to a bigger audience, and this could be true. But it’s also possible that this shift (as well as some of their earlier songs that have a happier tone) are representative of that hope within the struggle. BTS had a hard start, but with everything they have overcome and achieved thus far, a shift in their music is only logical.
The question remains: is BTS K-Pop? The best answer is probably an ambivalent “yes and no.” They’re K-Pop in the sense that they are presented as such: awesome choreography, music videos with great cinematography, and concepts that define entire albums. They’re also simply known as “K-Pop” to most of the outside world. However, in Korea (and more recently among some international circles), there appears to be a shift in perception. That is to say, many are regarding BTS differently than they do “idol music,” and it is this shift in perception that brings about the just assertion that BTS is not just K-Pop, but rather a deeper, truer expression of pure Korean music. BTS has thus far proven themselves to be something more than the shiny, polished stage performers we typically expect from K-Pop. They’ve managed to break out of the stereotypical pop music mold, acting as a cultural force that can tie the communities of the world together with a common thread. There’s always much to be said about the power of music, and managing to unite culture, music, and the human experience is truly a beautiful thing.