Tania Herman’s new SCMP opinion piece (‘In tokenising BTS, the Grammys were not only crude but cruel – it needs the K-pop kings more than they need awards‘) writes like an angry fan tweet, except in full sentences, uses modern buzzwords like ‘tokenising’ and ‘zeitgeist’, and of course, extends far beyond 140 characters. To be fair, Herman is very articulate in expressing the concerns of many who viewed the Grammys snub as unjust. But surely professional journalism should at least present two sides of the story, and not pull all of their arguments from r/bangtan? To be fair, Herman isn’t the sole person who is doing this (see another article by Forbes on the same theme).
But before I discuss why Herman’s article is misguided, let’s just outline some common ground.
First off, it’s clear that the Grammys sometimes makes decisions that are incorrect, wrong, or misguided. Its failure to include ‘Blinding Lights’ by the Weekend, one of the biggest hits of 2020, in the nominations shocked many. The Grammys, after all, is an institution made up of humans (albeit humans who are supposed to be specialists in their field), and humans often make mistakes.
Second, it’s also clear that Grammys has a problem with race. Black and minority ethnic (including Asian) artists are consistently underrepresented in the Grammys nomination and awards process. Whether this is a matter of subconscious or conscious bias, this needs to be properly addressed and dealt with. Meaningful reform needs to take place. Black artists should not continue to be shoehorned into the rap and R&B categories. The ‘secret committees’ which have an extremely large influence over who is shortlisted and nominated need comprehensive review.
However, these problems with the Grammys does not mean that every failure to give a black and minority ethnic (BME) person an award is automatically ‘racist’. Sometimes there are good and legitimate ground for preferring a non-BME artist over a BME artist. Their music was perhaps just genuinely better.
Third, I just want to make clear that BTS is a great artist. Its achievements have helped break many boundaries in both K-pop and the global music industry, and I’ve been a fan of many of its songs (not so much its latest music, but Spring Day remains one of my favorite K-pop releases). I’ve followed BTS from around 2015 (I’d like to say I knew them before they became popular), so it’s been great to see their journey from a relatively unknown artist to global superstars.
I also think they handled the Grammy loss sensibly and maturely, even making light of their reaction to their loss at the Grammys through a video they posted on Twitter. So props to the boys for taking it so well.
This article isn’t so much targeted at BTS itself but at why certain complaints about the Grammy’s treatment of BTS are simply baseless.
So, let’s look at Herman’s arguments (as well as some other arguments floating on Twitter) on why the Grammy’s was ‘cruel’ to deny BTS the award.
Argument #1: The Grammy’s ‘used’ BTS for views but didn’t give them anything in return. This is unfair.
The argument takes the idea that the Grammys itself is an institution of declining relevance, drawing in fewer and fewer television views each year. In order to boost its ratings, it ‘used’ BTS by heavily promoting its appearance on the show, while disregarding BTS’ artistry and talent. Closely linked with this argument is the idea that the Grammys needed BTS more than the BTS needed Grammys.
The argument portrays BTS as a powerless artist in an imbalanced power relationship who was ‘used’ by the Grammys, but this distorts the picture of what BTS really is. It neglects the fact that BTS belongs to one of the biggest media entertainment companies in Korea with an USD$7 billion market capitalisation (Big Hit Entertainment) and is signed with Columbia Records, one of the biggest recording labels in the US. BTS is of course, a group of artists, but at the same it also represents a well-oiled money-making machine with loaded commercial and financial interests. The truth is that BTS – or Big Hit – voluntarily signed up for the Grammys, knowing that appearing on the Grammys would enable it to access a wider international audience, greater connections within the music industry, gain extra reach and make headlines from the prestige of getting a Grammy nomination. It was fundamentally a market transaction – between Big Hit and the Grammys – in which both parties ‘used’ the other to obtain benefits.
So the argument that the Grammys ‘owed’ BTS a win by capitalising on their appearance really doesn’t go that far. Moreover, should we really be giving music awards based on who is contributing most to Grammy television viewership?
Argument #2: BTS broke all sorts of records and was a bigger hit than Rain on Me.
Many fans continue to point out the fact that it had the highest number of streams on Spotify in a single day, broke records for the most viewed Youtube video in the first 24 hours, topped Billboard 100 charts for 3 weeks in a row, etc. All these are, of course, amazing achievements. But the Grammys isn’t a popularity contest where the winner is chosen according to who has the most fans. After all, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ by H.E.R. won Song of the Year over much more popular acts, such as ‘Don’t Start Now’ by Dua Lipa and ‘Cardigan’ by Taylor Swift, because the award itself is for songwriting. ‘I Can’t Breathe’ was the best song, at least according to the Recording Academy.
In fact, many fans seem to neglect that the award was for ‘Best Pop Duo/Group Performance’, not for ‘Best Group’. On the Grammys website itself, it says that the award is given to “artistic excellence in a duo, group, or collaborative vocal or instrumental pop performance“. So the pop performance (i.e. the song) should be evaluated on its own merits without regard for how successful or deserving the group may be.
Now some might say that ‘Dynamite’ was a better song than ‘Rain on Me’. With its catchy melody and upbeat vocals, ‘Dynamite’ definite crowd-pleaser. But one could make a reasonable argument for the opposite. Dynamite’s lyrics were simplistic, its melodies were repetitive, and it represented a musically unadventurous English debut (at least compared to BTS’ earlier Korean works). One might say that ‘Rain on Me’ was the superior song. And the Recording Academy decided that this was the case. Who’s to say who’s right or who’s wrong? I mean, we might say that the Grammys made the wrong judgment call but can we really say they were cruel or even wrong to do this? I don’t think so.
Argument #3: The Grammys ‘tokenised’ BTS.
According to Herman, the BTS snub was “doubly crass” because ” their appearance was promoted as a celebration of the group’s impact and a show of diversity at an event that has historically been criticised for lacking it.”
The nomination of BTS for the Grammys broke glass ceilings in many aspects, and was a step towards diversifying the Grammys awardees pool. And it gives cause for everyone to celebrate this diversity, including the Grammys itself. So naturally, the Grammys publicised this incredible achievement. But does this, in and of itself, really constitute tokenism? Can we really say that the Grammys purposefully used BTS to give the false appearance of diversity?
But does this really impose any sort of moral obligation on the Grammys to hand BTS the win? Should diversity in itself be used as a criteria for judging whether ‘Dynamite’ demonstrates the most artistic excellence? At the very least, this discussion pertains to a very morally and politically contentious area concerning affirmative action, in which there is no absolute right or wrong.
Despite our differences in opinion, Harman is right to point out that “the band’s impact on the zeitgeist is undeniable, with or without the award”. The incredible achievements of BTS on the global music scene is undeniable, and is even more moving when one considers their humble origins as an unknown group back in 2013. But there’s a difference between making sure BTS’ “talent, artistry and worth as individuals” is respected, and complaining that the Grammys was ‘cruel’ not to give BTS the award.
As a long-time K-pop fan, what’s upsetting is how K-pop online circles (on Twitter and otherwise) can give rise to echo chambers propagating highly emotion-loaded arguments, often with a disregard for objective reason. These arguments then find their way into mass media and journalism. Harman’s piece is just one instance of that. It’s something I find sad about how K-pop has evolved over time.