Numlock Sunday: Lenika Cruz on the global cultural influence of BTS
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Lenika Cruz, who wrote On BTS: Pop Music, Fandom, Sincerity, a collection of her work from The Atlantic about the consequential musical act.
I have really enjoyed her coverage of the artists; we had an excellent conversation in September 2020 all about her early work about them, and it’s so cool to see her stuff bundled in this cool package.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lenika, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
It's really nice to get to chat with you again. I can't remember how many years it's been since the last time.
But what a year for BTS though. Do you want to start at the beginning and talk a little bit about what this band is and what they've meant to you in the big sense?
What's been nice about this book that collects the writing that I've done about BTS for The Atlantic is that when I reflect on it, I can kind of see the trajectory of both my own writing about them, but then also of their own career. The first piece that I wrote, the first piece in the collection, is about my experience of becoming a fan. It's pretty personal, and it was something that I wasn't sure about writing at first, because I wasn't quite sure when I set out to do this piece what exactly I was going to say other than "I really, really like this group." So in the piece, I talk about how I was watching SNL one night in April 2019 for work, and BTS happened to be performing that night. I wasn't really familiar with them.
I knew that they were big and that they were a Korean pop group, but other than that, I just couldn't have told you one of their song titles, didn't know their names, they weren't really on my radar. So after I watched them perform I was like, "I feel like I should know about these guys. They're really talented and the songs are super catchy." So I went down what we call the rabbit hole of YouTube videos and listening to songs the following week.
At first, it was in a bid to be a more informed journalist about them, a more informed culture journalist. Then what ended up happening was I just realized how passionate I was about them. I think I just realized that I hadn't felt so inspired and excited about a group or any musician, really, in a very long time, and especially not as an adult. A lot of those feelings, it was really cool and fun, but also it was a little surprising to me just, I didn't really know how to explain it, like why was I spending hours and hours watching videos and wanting to learn their names and wanting to go see them in concert, and was this normal?
What I realized is that in both writing that piece and then connecting with other people who are also fans of BTS, I think I got a better and maybe more mature understanding of fandom as an adult, and what that can look like. I've been able to reflect on a lot of the stigmas that people who, especially women, young women, who count themselves as part of fandoms tend to face. But for the most part, I think that the music and performances and the work of BTS really speak for themselves. They're just extremely talented. They're seven members — they are involved in writing and producing all of their own music. They explore some themes that I think really resonate with their audience, including mental health, the challenges that young people face, and I think they have such a great message in their work, even if you don't speak Korean. And there's a genuineness and I think a sincerity to their work that has been present since they debuted back in 2013.
I want to talk about that sincerity real quick. I think that's a really great place to start. When you're talking about pop music, oftentimes the mentality about it is that it's a bit manufactured. Perhaps it's a little bit deliberately done by corporate machinations, but whenever you hear people talk about BTS and report about BTS, really the sincerity kind of comes across in a unique way. How do you balance this corporate product at a time with this fundamental sincerity that they appear to be bringing to the table and the fans certainly bring to them?
It's definitely something that I grappled with. Obviously we as fans can't know every single thought or feeling that BTS has. We don't have access to that and nor should we. I think what is great about BTS is that they acknowledge that. I think it might be hard to explain, but they're honest about the limitations of connection, but then also the possibilities of connection despite barriers such as language and distance. I think there's a way in which they, in their music and also their interviews, that they acknowledge and confront and interrogate the "artificiality" of pop music, of performance. So just having that sense of acknowledgement of self-awareness I think on their part when they talk about the difficulties of being so globally famous, and of having cameras follow them everywhere, there is a sense that, okay, they're not naive about their place and how fans see them and what they are representing to fans.
Their ability to both acknowledge the positives and the negatives of visibility and fame is one reason why their sincerity kind of stands out. There's also something that I can't really summarize; it's something that you can only experience for yourself if you end up watching some of the videos or interviews that they do, especially the ones from even years ago, or the ones that are hour-long conversations amongst themselves about crying in the bathroom of an award show because they were terrified of what was happening, because they didn't feel that they deserved the fame or that they deserved the attention, or that they were just scared of what lay ahead for them.
There are just things like that that I as a consumer of music and culture don't tend to see, especially with highly visible celebrities. So there's one of those things that I think gets past a lot of people's like, bullshit sensors, if I can use that phrase. Some people are going to not appreciate them or will reject what they stand for just because of the way that the K-pop industry is, or because they simply exist within the larger pop music machine, if you can call it that. But I think that those two things don't have to be at odds. I don't think sincerity and authenticity and connection are impossible if they arise from these particular circumstances of, I guess what's called a machine or a corporatized approach to music.
You have this line here that I think is really great and gets a huge idea of what you're writing about here, which is that, and I'm just going to quote you: "It takes real effort to unlearn a lifetime's worth of social messaging about what kind of pop culture is to take seriously."
You write for The Atlantic, it is one of the longest ongoing magazines in America. I can imagine that there's, whether it's implied or actually existing, that there's pressure to not write about Korean boy bands. Did you feel that?
I would say that I feel like I've been so lucky at The Atlantic to be encouraged by my editors, the people around me, to, this is what our editor-in-chief Jeff Goldberg calls pursuing our obsessions. I think the editors of The Atlantic really do trust their staffers to go after the things that really, really fascinate them. I think that that sense of trust is really important. It wasn't really my idea to write about BTS. This was something that my colleagues were like, oh, why don't you write about them? You know so much, this is super interesting.
So I did feel very supported, and I wasn't being judged by the institution. I think I definitely also recognized how significant it was for people who read that first piece and then all the other pieces that I put out after that, to see a defense of a Korean boy band or K-pop group in a place like The Atlantic, which is an American politics and culture publication that goes back more than 150 years.
I think that that sense of prestige, and I don't know, high-browness maybe, makes some readers sit up and take notice in a way they might not otherwise have. Then at the same time, I've been a culture editor at The Atlantic since 2014, and anytime we cover something that might be seen as low culture, if it's not literature or if it's not prestige TV, then someone is going to complain, like, "Why are you stooping so low to cover this?"
I don't think that The Atlantic has that approach to culture. We embrace both the "high" and "low" to examine what those things say about us as a society, as a culture. So we take it all seriously. I think coming from that perspective was really valuable in writing about BTS. I guess I would say that even though I and a lot of other people have had to unlearn things that we grew up hearing about, oh, that's very frivolous, or pop music is shallow and there's no point in writing a 2,000-word article about it, I actually found that there is so much more than meets the eye to a group like BTS, and obviously many other groups as well, but in particular them, given the way that they resonated globally and then also in America despite most of their music not being in English.
Can you expand on that? That's a super interesting angle to this. What are some reasons that they are very culturally important?
There are a lot of factors working against them, and that have made their global popularity quite unlikely. I would say the first is obviously the fact that they make music predominantly in Korean. There are plenty of K-pop groups and or Asian musicians who, in trying to reach Western audiences, will perform songs in English. BTS didn't release their first all-English song until 2020, until the pandemic hit. Even by then, they were already extremely popular.
They debuted in 2013 with a very small label in Korea called Big Hit. The K-pop industry in Korea is dominated by three different labels, and their label wasn't one of them. So they had a lot of things sort of institutionally working against them in Korea, in their own home country. They weren't able to get on a lot of the shows, the mainstream shows, performances in Korea because they were either too small or they didn't have that kind of clout with these broadcasters.
What they did that helped them was obviously focusing so much on the music and the performance and the lyrics. They, from the very beginning, were very involved on social media. They would upload videos of themselves, just very short and casual ones. They had an openness with their fans in terms of sharing clips and tidbits about their lives in a way that was pretty rare. When you look at the idol industry in Korea, so much of the way that these groups tend to work is by — I don't want to say policing their image — but there isn't as much openness. They're not going and posting hundreds of videos of themselves.
I think that created a sense of intimacy with BTS's fans early on, who are known as Army. It was that relationship, really the intensity of how Army felt about BTS, that allowed word about their music to spread. I would describe the fandom as a very grassroots sort of movement.
BTS became quite popular in America early on, and some would say they even became more popular in America than they were in Korea. Part of it, I talk about this a little bit in the book, but the music critic Kim Youngdae, he was telling me about how BTS is maybe more accurately described as a hip-hop group that can also dance and sing really well, as opposed to just what Americans would think of as a typical boy band.
Their influences early on were drawn from American hip-hop. That sense of them being underdogs, of them speaking honestly about their own personal stories, I think a lot of that might have appealed to listeners in America. Then after a certain point, after maybe 2017 or so, they really just exploded on the global stage. You saw them at the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards, and it was partly because of the intensity of the fandom’s belief in BTS that allowed them to enter these rarefied spaces.
It wasn't because the American music industry decided like, "Oh, we should pay attention to BTS because they're so great," it was like, “Wow, so many people love this group. We can't afford to not have them on our telecasts.”
We've got to wrap it up in a second, but I wanted to talk about how you end the book, which is your essay about BTS and the White House. And that is a pretty damn rarefied space as far as rarefied spaces go.
What do you think that kind of meant and for their cultural impact and potentially legacy, how they serve as ambassadors?
That appearance is really interesting, and I think it makes a lot of sense in the context of their previous appearances at the UN General Assembly. When they do appear in a more activist or political context, they're very clear not to describe themselves as activists. They always emphasize that they're entertainers, and I think they take that power very seriously, and they recognize that simply by going somewhere they can attract eyeballs and they can redirect awareness. Them going to the White House at the invitation of President Biden was something that surprised a lot of people, and that some people were definitely skeptical about. Part of that is because they were invited to talk about anti-Asian discrimination and the Stop Asian Hate movement, and a lot of people were wondering, why are these seven guys from Korea who are not subject to what Asians in America are dealing with, why are they speaking on this? Why they being invited and not other people?
From the perspective of BTS, I don't think they would dare to suggest that they could speak directly on these matters. But the fact is that awareness of a lot of crimes against Asian Americans is pretty low across the country, and I think they saw this as a matter of, either we go and we can possibly help, or we can choose not to go, and we're sort of wasting our influence by not going. That was my interpretation of this.
I don't think that a group like BTS can solve these problems that we face here in this country. But there's no doubt that they mean something to a lot of Asian and Asian American fans in this country, just seeing seven guys from Korea being lauded on some of the biggest stages, and being praised and embraced and being seen as attractive, and I think a lot of that is very heartening for people who are just not used to seeing Asians in mainstream culture.
It's very complicated, entangled, and it's much more complicated than I was able to explain in the actual piece. It's so important that a group like them don't see themselves as somehow apart from the concerns of the things that their fans are dealing with here in this country.
Well, the book is out now; it is called On BTS: Pop Music, Fandom, Sincerity. Lenika, where can folks find it? Where can they find you?
They can find me on Twitter for now, @LenikaCruz. And then you can buy the book pretty much anywhere. You can get it on Bookshop or Amazon or Target — the link is in my bio if you follow me on Twitter.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.