The K-Pop phenomenon are blurring the pop world’s boundaries of gender, language, and style, according to our 15-year-old columnist
In our new column TEEN ANGST, a different teenager makes their views heard on Dazed each month. Here, 15-year-old Texan student and BTS fan Milagros Wilson writes about why the band’s gender fluid image is so inspiring.
Being young is hard. Life throws a lot at you at once. Between school, work, sexuality, and identity, it can feel like we have to decide on so many big, life-changing things when we’re young. And when we decide, it’s supposed to be for the rest of our lives. Those who go against the path that society has laid out for us are the outliers and the artists; the dreamers and the queers.
Recently, a group that embodies this outlier position has come to the forefront of the musical world. RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook are the seven that make up the global phenomenon BTS, who have become the first K-pop group to be nominated for a Grammy. These seven Korean boys in their 20s – who have never produced a song entirely in English – are revolutionary in their thinking, and their music is changing the western world. Why? Because BTS takes a different approach to music and life: fluidity.
BTS’s body of work focuses on the fluidity of self. They exist in their own joyful world, beyond the trappings of society and gender. They wear non-gender specific clothing, blurring the lines between skirts and pants, women’s and men’s clothes. Each member has a style that is unique to them, and breathes confidence and creativity. They might shave their legs, or they might not. They wear make-up, and change their hair colours often. Masculinity, femininity, androgyny: they can take on all of these guises without missing a beat. More than anything, there’s the sense that they don’t even think about it; they’ve evolved beyond society’s definitions of them. For young people everywhere, this fluidity in expression is momentous to see on display from an all-male group.
To describe BTS as being queer or androgynous is not to assign a specific sexuality or identity to any of the members – instead, it’s about describing the fluid nature of their aesthetic. In the band’s music and performances, they flow between languages and styles, mixing Korean, English, Japanese, and Spanish in the forms of rap, ballads, hip hop, and EDM, among others. At the 2018 Melon Music Awards, all of this was on display, along with choreography that evokes the murmuration of hundreds of birds moving at once, and draws your eyes seamlessly from one member to another. They pulsate as one heartbeat in seven bodies, singular but bound together.
In their early days as a group in 2013, BTS’s rap members – Suga, RM, and j-hope – were criticised by other members of the underground rap community in Korea for their ‘girly’ style and winged eyeliner. The were considered cowards who caved to the temptation of becoming idols; they were looked down on for their effeminate style and leaving the ‘true’ hip-hop life behind. “I will prove it to you,” RM said then. There is no doubt that BTS has proven that hip-hop can be more than its strictly defined parameters. “Hip-hop may not allow cute concepts, but I do,” Suga now comfortably says into the mic at one of their sold-out fan meetings (as shown on their DVD Happily Ever After). This signifies the coming of a new era. One where hip-hop is not dictated by toxic masculinity, but by the ‘cowards’. By the ones who now hold the mics, and drop them.
The fluidity of BTS’s identity especially comes through in their intricately written lyrics. Their songs are gender-neutral. They use “her”, “she”, “he”, “him”, “they”, and “them” as interchangeable pronouns, and switch tenses often, which leads to a sense of fluidity in meaning. They never trap themselves into a single concept as a band; instead, they adapt every few months with the release of a new album. The chords that bridge their seven voices flow uninterrupted.
In the canon of BTS, all forms of love and its many dualities are explored. They sing, rap, and speak of love openly in ways that go beyond traditional, monogamous, sexual ideas of romance. They suggest that love for yourself and others goes so much further than physical attraction. It is refreshing to see a pop band that writes songs and produces music videos that don’t objectify people.
“In the canon of BTS, all forms of love and its many dualities are explored... They suggest that love for yourself and others goes so much further than physical attraction”
After a trip to Malta over the summer (one of the few breaks in their schedule), they were asked, in their reality series Bon Voyage, what the trip and BTS means to them. “We’re a family,” Jin answered. This familial aspect has clearly affected their relationship with their broad and diverse fanbase; they don’t project celebrity superiority, instead remaining humble, and appreciating the people who support them. BTS treat each other and ARMY with affection and care that can be so healing, especially for those whose immediate family rejects them.
This year, they even spoke at the UN, to launch UNICEF’s new initiative for the world’s youth, Generation Unlimited. Preceded by older diplomats and leaders, BTS spoke freely about mental health, a topic that remains taboo in Korea and around the world. They acknowledge their own struggles and those of their fans, but also how we can keep on living and having hope. “I stopped looking up at the night skies, the stars. I stopped daydreaming. Instead, I just tried to jam myself into the moulds that other people made,” RM said, before ending with the message of their Love Yourself series of albums: “We have learned to love ourselves, so now I urge you to speak yourself.”
K-pop isn’t taking over the world; BTS is. Their unique vision for art and music is singularly queer, fluid and androgynous in ways that no other boy band is achieving on the same global scale. Because of this, their existence itself is political, and they embrace that by speaking up for issues young people face. Of all the meaningful things they’ve said over their career, the quote that encapsulates them perfectly is the statement of simple acceptance that opens each of their concerts. RM always says a variation on this: “Please be mindful of each other; your neighbours, your friends, your lovers, or whoever.” That’s BTS: fluid, accepting, loving, and kind.