If you’re not a K-Pop (AKA Korean Pop for those out of the loop) fan, there’s still a good chance you’ve heard of BTS. From the sofas of American late-night to the American Music Awards’ stage, they’ve long since cemented their status as global music icons. The sensational boy band, formed in 2013, is so far the only Korean group to reach #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and their newest single featuring Halsey, “Boy With Luv,” already has hundreds of millions of YouTube views. You could say they’re the biggest boy band in the world right now – and the world would tell you you’re absolutely right.
But even in 2019, that title is rarely one that goes to artists outside the “traditional” epicenters of global pop culture: the U.S. and Britain. Korea has been patient and strategic, though, and after years of observing the huge value of pop culture as a national export, the country dove straight into the pool of cultural influence in the 90s and hasn’t looked back. This position of pop cultural authority – what is widely called the “Korean Wave,” or “Hallyu” as coined in China – seems to have grown exponentially (in the US specifically) in the last decade. You know sheet masks? Originally Korean. Minimalist and athleisure street style? I’m not saying Korea solely invented it, but Korean influencers have led the way as global tastemakers in beauty, fashion, and culture in a major way in the 2010s. And in so many ways, the K-Pop aesthetic is a glorious culmination of all of that cutting-edge cultural influence.
As a mainstream American viewer, a few things stand out when watching the new BTS video “Boy With Luv.” First, oh hell yes – the dance moves. Listen, I don’t care if you’re the epitome of bubblegum pop or you’re a total metalhead: we can all appreciate some well-choreographed group numbers. We may never know the secret of why boy band choreography does what it does, but it certainly sets the stage for a super in-sync (sorry) kind of you-can’t-sit-with-us squad aesthetic, which is something BTS has in spades.
The second standout: gender expression. Disclaimer, again, that this is from a middle-of-the-road American perspective, but BTS is playing with gender expression in their clothes, hair, and moves in a way we just don’t see in American boy bands at the moment. It’s undeniably pretty.
Yes, grooming and style has always been a thing for American boy bands, but as far as we’ve explored androgyny in the mainstream, it’s always tended to lean a bit masculine. BTS is giving us pretty strong feminine-coded visuals, from dangly earrings to what looks to be lipstick. The thing is, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. It doesn’t even necessarily seem intentional. They’re just super trendy guys following what’s cool (which tends to make its way over to the States several months after it peaks in Korea). Rather than code their style as a political play on gender roles – as we usually assume in the US – it seems like the kind of aesthetic BTS presents in “Boy With Luv” is solely supposed to be visually appealing: people like to look at shiny, brightly colored things, and those things don’t necessarily have to be attached to a gender.
This is a really crucial point about cross-cultural influence in pop. While music videos are “often perceived as simply innocent and fun entertainment,” according to global communications expert Kathryn Sorrells, “these forms of popular culture are powerful transmitters of cultural norms, values, and expectations.” Especially when new trends – like ultra-feminine unisex fashion – appear in the music videos we already watch, these styles start to seamlessly blend into what we understand as “cool.”
When presented without comment and not made a fuss over by our favorite celebs, it seems like something as historically charged (at least in the US) as androgyny just becomes…style. While this certainly doesn’t undermine the work of people that use clothes as an intentionally political statement, it does a whole lot to normalize “edgier” styles like androgyny on a large scale – which frees up a whole lot of opportunity for the mainstream to get more creative and expressive with its own style. Definitely an exciting thing.
What America’s warm embrace of K-Pop aesthetics might mean is that we’re starting to become more lax with our social roles and follow what’s edgy and trendy – rather than stick to our guns as the world’s pop culture arbiters. K-Pop may not have started this kind of pop cultural revolution in the US, but it’s definitely a current player in bringing innovative fashion, beauty, and culture to the American masses. And yes, as Americans we really love to cling to our global pop culture authority, but the visually stunning (and hugely popular) aesthetics of K-Pop might be slowly helping us ease our grip – and normalizing much freer forms of style and self expression in the coming years. Want an exclusive look at what’s next? Just look to Korea.