On May 31, BTS visited the White House on the last day of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. Addressing the surge in anti-Asian violence and to speak on the issue of inclusion, BTS addressed the press from their positions as youth ambassadors. As BTS member J-Hope remarked, “we are here today thanks to our ARMY, our fans worldwide who have different nationalities, and cultures and use different languages. We are truly and honestly grateful.”
That BTS visit to the White House is not so remarkable. American politics has historically leveraged music artists to appear relatable and expand the reach of political messaging. From Elvis’ iconic photo with Nixon exhibiting his support for law enforcement to Olivia Rodrigo appearing at the White House to promote vaccines, pop icons have always operated as transmitters of relatability and reach for pressing political issues.
What is different in this case is that the pop group in question was Korean and they were engaging the White House to address violence against Asian-Americans. BTS rarely incorporates English into their songs and their greatest controversy to date revolves around when they will join the Korean military. At this point BTS is the national symbol of Korea. Yet, BTS’ reach transcends national boundaries and they have become more than symbols of Korean culture, but rather idols of global culture.
Anti-Asian Violence and the Pushback
The issue of Anti-Asian violence might have reached its apex with the deadly attack that left six Asian women dead in a rampage directed against three spas in Atlanta in 2021. But the violence has only continued, another attack in May 2022 on a hair-salon in Dallas saw three women shot, and followed two other shootings at local Asian-owned businesses. CNN reported that only seven of 233 reported attacks against Asian-Americans in New York City in 2021 led to hate crime convictions.
How did we get here? As Fox’s Tucker Carlson remarked “yeah, so we got a Korean pop group to discuss anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States. Okay, Good job, guys.” Clearly attacking the political use of pop culture icons, and non-Americans at that, to devote attention to Asian-American issues. Rounding off the segment, Carlson dropped the question, “is there anything more destructive than white liberal guilt? It feels like it has hurt more people than nuclear weapons.”
The reality is that BTS’ appearance reflects two very important concepts with modern K-pop and the Hallyu K-Wave: Its global influence and the delicate balance that is exhibited between the fans and the artist that transcends most conceptions of what it means to support an artist. Reaching out to BTS is not an example of white liberal guilt but rather the manifestation of the evolution of the power of fandoms as drivers of political and social cultural values.
Idol Culture and Positivity
The thing that is tough to understand for Western observers is how the concept of an idol has evolved in Korea. Originally a Japanese concept to valorize an image created by an individual whose hard work is supposed to inspire the fan has instead involved a tight relationship between the fan who adores the artists and the artist who cares for the fan. The idol recognizes that their existence depends on fans, and they participate in all sorts of odd rituals to protect that relationship, including not publicly dating or expressing strong political views.
The relationship between an idol and the fan is a two-way street. The fans devote their attention to their idols, picking biases and Ults (the ultimate group they “stan” or support). They follow every move of the artist with vigorous zeal that surpasses even the original concept of Beatlemania. Many fans actively pay to be part of fan clubs and buy different versions of each album in physical form, even though they no longer have the ability to play physical albums with the dominance of streaming platforms.
While this dedication might seem odd, the support the artist typically gives to their fans is the key part of the equation that makes the entire system work. They care about the wellbeing of the fan, try to uplift them and provide a positive influence. Interactions between the fan and the idol typically result in the idol asking if the fan has eaten and request that the fans stay healthy. The idol recognizes that their existence depends on the fan and the fans then depend on the idol.
This connection and bond between the idol and fan only increased during the pandemic. Despite not being able to see their idols in person at live events, fans instead moved to YouTube, VLive and Instagram streaming events, and online forums. Isolation only increased the bond, but the troubles of the real world sometimes invade the bubble that is a constructed reality offered by K-pop.
The K-Wave and Anti-Asian Violence
The issue of Anti-Asian violence has been persistent and endemic. Violence seemed to set off anew with the conspiracy theory that China knowingly spread the COVID-19 virus, every Asian ethnic group in the United States has been caught up in the resulting violence. The issue has gotten so pressing that inviting BTS to the White House was not a bad idea.
Unfortunately, as the influence of the K-Wave increases there will inevitably be a counter-reaction. Pushback is natural in pop culture movements, yet K-pop might be the most resistant to this process given the global expansion of the industry working behind the scenes to increase the quality of the music. The entire K-pop industry, despite massive past scandals, excels because of the attention to quality and visual representations of the music that transcend most Western artists.
Twice and BTS recently dominated with shows at massive U.S. concert venues. And other lesser known K-pop groups are starting to return, with bands like Dreamcatcher, Loona, and the Brave Girls all launching U.S. tours. It’s evident that the influence of K-pop will only increase. The question is what sorts of positive gains can this influence accomplish? Can it highlight the challenge of Anti-Asian violence? Can it help moderate political rivalry between China and Korea? Can it challenge the dominance of the North Korean regime? If the gains of K-pop in culture will translate to political influence is an open question, who can really blame Joe Biden for trying?