With “Dynamite,” BTS beat the US music industry at its own cheap game

Even if you don’t pay much attention to pop music, you most likely have heard of the K-pop boy band BTS. And you also may be aware of the group’s late-summer bop “Dynamite,” which made history when it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart’s No. 1 spot — then made history again when it scored the band a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo or Group Performance.

First, the single held steady at the top for two weeks — a true feat in a year when most of us have probably been battling giant attention deficits — then fell to No. 2 in week three and four, then bounced back up to No. 1, kicking off October with, as the song itself declares, “a little funk and soul.” “Dynamite” dominated the charts for six weeks straight — a feat that seemed unheard of just six months ago.

The massively popular K-pop group became only the third band in history to release a single that debuted at the top spot, putting it in a league with Aerosmith (for 1998’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”) and the Jonas Brothers (for 2019’s “Sucker”). It’s probably significant that both of those bands, in different ways, are so quintessentially American — because so, too, is “Dynamite.”

Written by veteran UK producer David Stewart and former UK pop star Jessica Agombar, “Dynamite”’s production was reverse-engineered from the way the band and its studio BigHit typically operate. BTS members are all musicians who’ve individually produced and written tracks on their own albums. “Dynamite,” however, was reportedly approved by the head of Columbia Records before the band itself ever signed off on the lyrics.

And those lyrics … oy vey. We need to talk about the lyrics to “Dynamite.” I need the world to know that BTS’s artistry cannot and must not be defined by the lyrics to “Dynamite” — because the lyrics to “Dynamite” aren’t true BTS lyrics, not really.

They are, instead, a consummate subversion of what Americans, or at least American producers, think “American” music needs to be in order to get radio play and air time. They’re awful. I hate them — but they’re also brilliant. And I need everyone reading this to understand why.

K-pop has long struggled to win mainstream American acceptance. BTS got closer than anyone — but it still wasn’t enough.

But first, some background: I’ve been listening to K-pop since 2005, and a fan of BTS since 2016 or so — “Not Today” was the first BTS song that really grabbed my attention, and I’ve been on that train ever since. I think the Korean pop music industry is one of the most sophisticated entertainment industries in the world, and that Korean idol music is among the smartest, most stylish, and most compelling genres around.

Like many K-pop fans, I’ve been deeply frustrated over the years by the inability of Korean idol groups to break into the landscape of American pop music, beyond a few viral hits like “Gee” and “Gangnam Style” that were more like novelties than true critical sensations. The increasingly global success of many newer K-pop bands, along with the advent of major fan conventions in the U.S. like the bi-coastal KCon, have drastically shifted American attitudes towards Korean music over the years. I couldn’t have imagined when I attended the first East coast KCon back in 2015, for example, that Blackpink would be headlining Coachella just four years later.

But despite all of these inroads, K-pop bands have long been effectively shut out from mainstream American radio play. I wrote about this quandary in more depth back in March, when BTS managed to score its highest place on the Billboard pop chart yet, with their then-latest single “On.”

As I noted then, despite BTS garnering a staggering number of global achievements — including performing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, on Saturday Night Live, and at the 2019 and 2020 Grammys — American radio DJs have expressed some very specific reasons for not giving the band more air time. Chief among them: The band’s refusal to sing in English.

This explanation — blatant, petty American xenophobia — is the main reason that BTS’s previous big singles, from its harder stuff like “Mic Drop” to summery, chill bops like “DNA” and “Boy With Luv,” never managed to really get off the ground in the U.S., despite having essentially conquered the internet and streaming sales. Keep in mind that as I write this, BTS is just shy of spending 200 weeks straight at #1 on the Social 50 chart, Billboard’s metric for the musical artists with the highest social media engagement. That’s almost four years at the top of the chart.

That’s a lot of weeks to be, as one fan put it, “the biggest group in the world with the worst radio play.”

BTS hit a xenophobic wall. So it changed tactics.

Because not enough radio stations had begun to budge on their xenophobic discrimination, “On” was only able to reach #4 back in March. Breaking into the Hot 100 Top 5 at all was a major and important milestone, but the band’s longtime goal was to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Prior to “On,” the band was always extremely vocal about its dream of attaining chart dominance without sacrificing its identity by singing in English. “We don’t want to change our identity or our genuineness to get the number one,” the band’s leader RM told Time last year. “If we sing suddenly in full English, and change all these other things, then that’s not BTS.”

In retrospect, “On” really feels like a last-ditch, full-out effort to break that barrier once and for all. For that single, BigHit brought out a literal brass band, produced two separate music videos and a dance video, dropped a radio edit featuring Sia, and shut down Grand Central Station for a fantastic taped performance on The Tonight Show. It was all great — and none of it was enough.

So BTS did what they said they’d never do: they changed tactics. They gave in. They released a song that was, for the first time ever, entirely in English.

Missing the mark with “On” seems to be the point at which the band capitulated on its longstanding rule about recording songs in Korean. And lo and behold, the moment they released that English-language song, “Dynamite,” the band suddenly got extensive radio play — over 1,500 plays around the country on its first day of release. With this final obstacle cleared, in part thanks to fans who worked their asses off to stream and download the song obsessively, BTS finally got their coveted #1. And then they got it again, and again. Then they released a record-breaking (and marvelous) Tiny Desk concert. Then The Tonight Show dedicated an entire week to showcasing its artistry.

To be clear: It’s absolutely amazing that the runaway success of “Dynamite” made all of this happened. These are marks of distinction that feel long overdue for BTS.

But the fact that it happened because of this song in particular — well.

Let us consider the most popular song in America right now.

“Dynamite” is a collection of disjointed clichés that are trolling Americans

The songwriters themselves frame “Dynamite” as a bop for the pandemic. Agombar, who’s credited on plenty of peppy hits like the Jonas Brothers’ “What A Man Gotta Do,” told Billboard that she and Stewart wanted to produce an infectious, uplifting hit in the middle of a very downbeat year. And musically, at least, “Dynamite” hits the spot: It’s a self-announced blend of “a little funk and soul,” infused with lightly synthesized harmonies.

The band coasts over a backing track with an itchy electric guitar and intermittent horns until everything drops out for an a cappella chorus of “Da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-EY!” that you can’t help but sing along to. It’s bubble pop at its best, an infectious delight.

But the lyrics of “Dynamite” are a total mess. The first line (“Shoes on, get up in the morn, cup of milk, let’s rock and roll”) is a surreal echo of the first line of Rebecca Black’s notoriously terrible song “Friday (“Seven a.m., waking up in the morning … gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal”). It’s all downhill from there, devolving into a loose connection of aphorisms and idioms that sound vaguely fun, peppy, and pointedly “American.”

The first verse continues through a series of imagistic rhymes with little to no connection to each other: “King Kong, kick the drum, rolling on like a rolling stone / Sing song when I’m walking home, jump up to the top, LeBron / Ding-dong, call me on my phone / Ice tea and a game of ping pong”. By the time we’ve reached the second verse, the song has spread out into random disjointed things Americans allegedly say: “Ladies and gentlemen, I got the medicine, so you should keep your eyes on the ball.” Or, “Disco overload, I’m into that, I’m good to go.”

None of these things make any sense, form a coherent picture, or really allow us to visualize what city is “the City” that our seven band members are “shining through.” The band’s performance of the song at the VMAs in August seemed to suggest it was Manhattan, but the music video portrays it as something closer to Las Vegas. Then there’s the image of “iced tea and a game of ping pong,” which sounds like something closer to … anywhere from Atlanta to Seoul.

The mandate on the form of “Dynamite” came not from BTS itself or from BigHit, but from Columbia CEO Ron Perry; according to Stewart, the band members and their studio suggested only a few minor lyrical changes. As Agombar noted, Perry “knew exactly what he wanted.” What he wanted was a song built around lyrics that sounded like they were created by an algorithm spitting out random artificial answers to the question: “What are things Americans like?” Computer whirr. “LeBron!” Computer whirr. “Iced tea!” Computer whirr. “THE CITY!”

And that’s fine on one level, because god knows that from “someone left the cake out in the rain” to “why be mad when you can be glad?”, pop music has never had a shortage of terrible lyrics. But on another level, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating that BTS had to release a song that’s the most distorted, clichéd version of what Americans would expect a K-pop song in English to be, simply because that’s the only way their label thought they could get radio play in the US.

Perry’s goal was allegedly to attain the “holy grail” for BTS: a song that could chart at #1. But some salient background context: Perry and his company, which has handled BigHit’s U.S. distribution for years, have long been criticized by BTS fans for failing to properly promote BTS to U.S. radio stations. For example, although Columbia handled the U.S. distribution for BTS’s two major singles earlier this year, “On” and the stunning “Black Swan,” BigHit carried most of the band’s American promotion. Both singles underperformed in radio plays, and Columbia got slammed by fans for not doing more to push the music.

In contrast, for “Dynamite’s” release, Columbia literally centered its promotion around the news that BTS would be singing in English:

Excerpt from promotional materials Columbia used for “Dynamite,” emphasizing that this BTS song is in English this time.
Twitter

I suspect the real reason that Perry wanted native English songwriters to produce this nonsensical song full of random Americana wasn’t that BTS’s existing music wasn’t good enough to do well on American radio. I suspect, rather, that BTS’s existing music wasn’t good enough for him. (Vox has reached out to Columbia for comment.)

But there’s an ultimate delightful benefit to Perry’s myopia — because by so effectively fulfilling the American industry’s demand for a song that caters to American’s worst expectations, BTS has essentially trolled all of us.

Hopefully “Dynamite” will allow Americans to finally see the full range of BTS’s talent

To be blunt: While “Dynamite” is catchy and fun, it offers nothing that’s superior in any way to any BTS song before it. The only thing it offers beyond general good vibes and charming musicality is a kind of birds’ eye view of America — sung in English by native Koreans.

“Dynamite” is what a British songwriter thinks real Americans think “America” might look like to a bunch of Korean singers. It’s America refracted, then refracted again, then placed onto the shoulders of a bunch of sophisticated international musicians whose artistry is so high that they somehow managed to transform it from a kitschy mess into one of the most solid hits of the year. By totally owning “Dynamite,” the band played the US music industry’s cheap game so well that they exposed its superficiality better than any other artist in my recent memory.

Which song should really have been BTS’s first US No. 1? “Moon,” one of their other 2020 singles. I know “Moon” could have easily charted No. 1 in the U.S., because it topped the iTunes store’s sales chart this year in over 100 countries, including the US.

I’m clearly biased here, because “Moon” is my favorite song of 2020. Performed by BTS member Jin and written by a bevy of international songwriters including band members Jin and RM, “Moon” is a lush, bouncy treat. The lyrics are a marvelously sophisticated love letter to fans in which Jin weaves a metaphor of himself as a lonely satellite that’s chosen to revolve around, and reflect light upon, the fans who love him.

“Everyone says I am beautiful,” he sings, “but my oceans are all pitch-black / A star where flowers bloom and the sky is deep-blue / The one that’s truly beautiful is you.” All of this is, of course, conveyed mostly in Korean — and the average American listener won’t know what the lyrics mean until they seek them out.

But I believe that most of BTS’s music itself is enough to get across the sense of the lyrics. In “Moon”’s case both the music and lyrics are beautiful, magnetic — BTS at its best. This is the BTS that deserves to be topping the Billboard charts. But frankly, I’m not sure American pop music fans — or at least the US pop music industry — even deserve a song like “Moon.” Not when they’re begging for something as lyrically insipid as “Dynamite” instead.

Still, following the success of “Dynamite,” mainstream media is now noticing what many of us noticed long ago: The success and infiltration into the US mainstream of international artists is not a fluke. BTS is a disruptive force in the industry, one that marks a change that’s here to stay.

Hopefully that means “Dynamite” will finally blow the hinges off the gates the U.S. industry has been keeping shut, not only so that more international artists can pass through them, but so they can do so on their own terms — without having to pander to a broad-based culture that doesn’t appreciate them unless they’ve draped themselves in red, white, and blue.

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