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BTS's 'Army' of fans spoke their minds in pandemic year, analysts say

BTS made history after rising to the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October. The group has also gained attention with donations to Black Lives Matter. File Photo by Corey Sipkin/UPI
BTS made history after rising to the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October. The group has also gained attention with donations to Black Lives Matter. File Photo by Corey Sipkin/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- South Korean pop sensation BTS's $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter speaks to the demographics of the boy band's fandom but also reveals the restrictive conditions in which the band's diverse fans, known as the "Army," must operate in the West, analysts say.

Black Lives Matter, which has organized protests across the United States following the death of George Floyd in police custody, was of special importance to BTS fans, said Crystal Anderson, a faculty member at George Mason University and author of Soul in Seoul: African American Music and K-pop.

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"Definitely for BTS's Army, they were really motivated by having members of BTS speak directly to something like BLM," Anderson said. "That mattered a lot to them."

Anderson, who researches the aesthetics of Korean music, said contemporary K-pop pays tribute to Black music, including R&B and hip-hop, without appropriating those styles. She says there has been debate over BTS's donation. Was it an authentic gesture, or simply a PR stunt by one of the most successful bands in the world?

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"It's a hard question to answer because it goes to intention," Anderson said. "I do believe that Army believes that BTS are sincere in their support of BLM. But you have had people who have critiqued that."

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David Oh, an associate professor of communication arts at Ramapo College in New Jersey, says the sizable donation involving BTS fans to the cause of U.S. racial justice did not surprise him, given what he knows of K-pop fandoms in the West.

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In countries like the United States, where Asians are a racial minority, fans of K-pop of all backgrounds are largely denigrated, Oh says.

"It's strange to their peers," the analyst said. "Why would they like music from a place understood as inferior to the West?"

Oh says the stigmatization of K-pop fandoms in the West has, perhaps ironically, contributed to the success of the fandoms, which are driven by social media-savvy users.

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"Because fans are only able to engage in the community together online, I don't find it surprising they were able to utilize digital technologies as effectively as they did," he said, referring to BTS supporters who matched the band's donation with an additional $1 million. "That's the way they have to live their fandom."

BTS's donation to the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protests came as the K-pop group prepared to make Billboard history. BTS rose to the top two spots on the Hot 100 chart in October with songs that included the English-language "Dynamite."

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But as a Korean boy band rises to unprecedented stardom in the United States, a spike in anti-Asian sentiment amid the coronavirus pandemic is prompting new questions about the effectiveness of pop culture in changing social perceptions.

In a roller-coaster year when figures of authority, including President Donald Trump, have labeled COVID-19 as the "China virus," Asian American activists have said the official statements have encouraged a surge in anti-Asian racism and hate crimes.

Anderson says it's too early to tell how much of a real-life impact Korean pop culture has had in turning the tides of discrimination.

"We're still in the pandemic, so it's hard to say," Anderson said. "But given what we've seen, the increase in anti-Asian racial sentiment the same time when you have probably the most exposure and the most history-making events happening to a K-pop group, one could suggest that in this moment that cultural capital is not working against anti-Asian racial sentiment.

"It could be because these are two divorced constituencies."

Oh, who is teaching a class on Korean pop culture this semester, says the Trump administration has encouraged resentment, but the development could be being met with opposition.

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"I think we can have two things happening simultaneously," Oh said. "There is greater xenophobia enabled by this administration but also a resistance to it that allows for more space, almost like an act of defiance.

"We're getting entrenched xenophobia. But we're also getting more possibilities of Asian popular culture at least making inroads in the United States."

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