Opinion

Can the K-pop boyband BTS … save the world?

A battle is raging in front of our eyes, but this is no ordinary war. While the combat may be bloodless, no one should be fooled. This clash is fierce and unforgiving, representing the ideological struggle of our age. On one side we find men wearing animal horns and dressing in furs. On the other are legions of devotees draped over their computer screens. This contest of wills is the ultimate postmodern showdown. I’m talking, of course, about the fight for our future, namely, the legendary battle of far-right conspiracy theorists v K-pop.

And the good news is that, in this war, K-pop – that globally renown, highly engineered, synthesiser sounding, toe-tapping, arm-snapping, bubblegum pop music – keeps winning.

The latest evidence landed a few days ago with a post on Reddit, where one Redditor wrote that her “liberal left-wing QAunt” had “descended down the rabbit hole of Qlore from cabals who eat kids to democrats/Hollywood celebs trafficking people to Epstein island.” Then, the poster explained, “it all just … stopped. She stopped sharing Q stuff, stopped believing in it, started talking about liberal stuff again like it never happened. I was baffled. Did she have dementia? A stroke?”

The answer, my friends, is right there, plain for everyone to see. Her aunt’s saviors? BTS, the seven-member megastar boyband from South Korea.

“She started getting into K-pop as soon as Dynamite was released,” the redditor wrote, referencing BTS’s 2020 hit and their first song completely in English, “and dear lord, now she knows their names, their mom’s names, their favorite food, etc. From what she told me, they inspired her to be a better person. They would make donations to BLM, rally for accessible mental health for all and promote self-love and compassion. She is now an ARMY and I guess … That’s that?”

For the uninitiated, ARMY stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth. (I cringed when I learned that, too.) Adorable aside, BTS’s ARMY is a formidable global force for good. As the post indicates, ARMY takes BTS’ message of “radical poptimism” and parlays it into global fundraising campaigns to “heal the world”. Made up of millions of young and admiring fans across the planet, ARMY has raised money for everything from helping rape survivors in South Africa to planting trees in Ecuador.

Most donations are relatively small and, like the band, not overtly political, but when BTS took a stand against racial discrimination by donating one million dollars to Black Lives Matter in 2020 (which seemed only appropriate considering they draw so heavily on African American music), ARMY rallied its own fundraising campaign and matched the million dollar donation in a quick 25 hours.

In other words, if you thought K-pop was all hair gel and dance moves, you’ve got another thing coming. K-pop fans are not to be underestimated, and they are inventing community everywhere they go. In the United States, at least, that community has an increasingly political bent. US K-pop fans are young and energetic, highly literate in all kinds of social media, and lean heavily toward socially progressive causes. This has translated into a kind of Covid-era activism from the home computer.

In June 2020, K-pop fans in the US took over a white supremacist hashtag on Twitter, spamming the hashtag with either nonsense messages or anti-racist posts. When the Dallas police department asked people to send them videos of protestors that same month using an app called iWatch, K-pop fans quickly crashed the app by bombarding the system with content from their favorite K-pop stars. Also in 2020, K-pop fans, along with TikTok users, were credited by many with registering for thousands of tickets for Trump’s 19,000 seat-rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then deliberately staying home to ruin the event.

Genius. And here I was thinking the appeal of the music was in the beat.

K-pop activism is about more than melodies and personalities, and it moves in stark contrast to the social isolation that marks so much of our society, especially during our contemporary Covid era. K-pop activism is about belonging and the common good. As one 18-year-old BTS fan from California told Good Trouble magazine, “I wasn’t in a great place when I became ARMY. Having music that makes you feel a little less alone helped me a lot. The more I listened, the more their message resonated.”

For that reason, maybe K-pop’s counterpoint to far-right extremism isn’t so hard to understand. Both movements may offer subcultures to belong to, but those subcultures couldn’t be more different from each other. Another K-pop fan, a 43-year-old man from Cincinnati, told Good Trouble magazine that the “opposite of the toxic brew of ugly Trumpist nationalism happening in the US” is something inherently positive. “BTS has created a virtuous cycle of infectious hopeful optimism that crosses every language, cultural, or age barrier.”

This fan’s description of the BTS world seems like a far cry from the nether reaches of the dark web, where much of the far right exists. Understanding the difference seems important at this moment. Reputable research on extremism warns us that people join extremist groups not because of commitments to any particular faith or ideology or because of personality type.

Rather, social isolation, economic insecurity, and extended loneliness are among the real vulnerabilities, and all kinds of radicalizations thrive when people fall into this state. As the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right puts it, social isolation “exacerbates already existing grievances, leaving individuals vulnerable to extremism”. It’s no wonder that wacko conspiracy theories have thrived under Covid lockdowns.

This is not to argue that every lonely person is about to become a QAnon follower or a Proud Boy, but we should recognize that our isolated and atomized society – made all the more so because of Covid and, in some way, our technology – comes with risks attached. Hannah Arendt, the great twentieth century political philosopher of totalitarianism, understood this well.

Arendt wrote about how “the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society” made worse by society’s “competitive structure and concomitant loneliness”. The result of this atomization helped to facilitate “an especially violent nationalism, to which mass leaders have yielded against their own instincts and purposes for purely demagogic reasons”. She wrote that shortly after the second world war, but it almost sounds as if she’s describing today’s Republican party.

Okay. This is getting heavy. Can you hear the bass boom? I’m ready.

What I mean to say is that while K-pop fans, like far rightists, may also be labeled as cultish and extreme, and while K-pop stars are sometimes extremely culturally insensitive, it may still just be possible enough to see K-pop activism as a deradicalizing movement. Just look at what K-pop activists are accomplishing compared to what the far right is doing. At the very least, the K-pop activists seek to embrace the world rather than to dominate it.

As music, K-pop is most certainly fully formed consumerist kitsch. It’s a purely manufactured, post-industrial product pulsing and blinging at the heart of global capitalism. Yes. But, also, come on! It’s just so damn danceable! I’m pretty sure Emma Goldman would have invited BTS to play at her revolution. And had he been alive today, even an old anti-fascist curmudgeon and universal hater of pop music like Theodor Adorno probably would’ve secretly had his own favorite BTS band member. My guess? He would’ve chosen J-Hope. Makes sense. Always choose hope.

  • Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York

4 Comments

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  4. my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide’.

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