Why the ‘boy band’ concept will live forever
As the wildly successful Kpop group, Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS), shatters global records across streaming platforms and Billboard charts, they continue to face challenges to their artistic legitimacy. It bears asking: why do critics have a history of denigrating popular boy bands? Back in July of 2013, men’s magazine British GQ came under fire after publishing a cover story featuring the five members of the wildly popular boy band, One Direction. The article opens with the first-hand account of a One Direction concert experience, courtesy of a then thirty-four-year-old Jonathan Heaf, the magazine’s chief content officer. While Heaf did not paint a flattering portrayal of the band by any means, his critique was based less on the band itself, but more on their fanbase. He graphically describes One Direction fans as “knicker-wetting banshee[s] who will tear off [their] own ears in hysterical fervor when presented with the objects of her fascinations,” and, in alluding to the quality (or perceived lack-there-of) of One Direction’s music, goes on to say that their fans “don’t care about the Rolling Stones. They don’t care about the meta-modernist cycle of cultural repetition. They don’t care about history. All these female fans care about is their immediate vociferous reverence.” Directioners were not pleased.
This style of critique is far from new. During the height of Beatlemania, critics often dismissed the band’s talent by sneering at their fanbase, labeling them as sex-obsessed, brain-washed consumers, unable to identify between true musical ability and their own intense, sexual urges. More recently, fans of BTS (known as ARMY) have been referred to by news outlets as hysterical, obsessive, and, as reported by Douglas Greenwood of The Independent, “Directioners on crack.” In a 2018 statement on BTS, Capital FM’s Ronan Kemp perfectly parroted Heaf’s critique of One Direction, wondering if fans were “there for the music” or “for what the kids look like?” All this begs the question, why aren’t other bands with cult followings such as Radiohead, The Grateful Dead, or Phish similarly denigrated for their rabid followings? And what is unique about the boy band audience that reflects so poorly on their idols?
What this mostly comes down to is the question of whose cultural taste matters. Most obviously, the boy band audience is almost always predominantly young and female. As Heaf exemplified in his article, cultural critics often dismiss this female fandom as being hormonally motivated by boy band members’ sexual desirability rather than any presence of artistic skill. However, in dismissing fans’ interest by hyper-focusing on the sexual element of the boy band, critics often miss a deeper and more important element in generating a female fanbase: the specific crafting of artistic content to meet the desires of women and girls. Boy bands are one of the few cultural constructions that must, in order to maintain their popularity, prioritize female desire and take female pleasure seriously.
Though many popular artists (such as Drake, The Weeknd, and Charlie Puth) write songs about women, at best their content centers around male sexuality and at worst is blatantly objectifying. Hearing the Weeknd sing about how he “just fucked two bitches” in his song “The Hills” is not revolutionary. In fact, it only mirrors the rhetoric most women frequently hear about their sexuality. In contrast, hearing BTS sing about the fear and frustration of losing passion for what you love in their track “Black Swan” from their latest album, Map of the Soul: 7, is unbelievably refreshing. Though BTS boasts an impressively diverse fanbase, it remains predominantly female, and the music they make communicates very clearly to their fans: you and your interests matter. Ariel Lebeau perfectly describes this phenomenon in her article on One Direction for Complex Magazine. After falling into a late obsession with the band, she realized that “in a music industry that simultaneously treats teen girls as the most lucrative consumers but the least respected audience, One Direction speaks directly to [female fans] and says something that their demographic doesn’t get to hear as much as it should: You are important.”
In addition to fandom-based critiques of their music, BTS also faces rampant racism and xenophobia from the American recording academy and global media outlets. While groups like One Direction never had to compete in a category for “Best British Pop,” Kpop acts have been forced to compete with one another in the “Best Kpop” or “World Music” categories at events such as the VMAs, excluding them from competing with mainstream pop. Black and Latino artists have been similarly relegated to “urban” categories for years, establishing pop music made by white artists as the standard. Even while major U.S. media sources such as The Tonight Show have showcased BTS, other mainstream publications such as Hollywood Reporter have reinforced poor coverage of the group through misuse of Korean language and excessive attention towards the group’s lack of complete English fluency.
BTS has faced two major challenges to critical acceptance: not catering to traditional masculinity and not catering to a Western-centric music industry. While these challenges may have affected the recognition of the group’s accomplishments by major Western music authorities, it has only served to further grow their fanbase. Not only does their music send the message that the desires of their female fans are real and important, but so are the desires of their fans who are not white and who are not from Western countries. All three of these messages are a distinct departure from the majority of American pop music, which dominates much of the global music industry. As of now, BTS is catering to the broadest and most diverse fanbase a pop act has ever seen. As the boy band continues to take the world by storm, we can only wait while traditional Western arbiters of taste try to catch up with them–and their fans.