The biggest album in the country this week is a Korean-language album from a seven-member boy band who started making music ten years ago. BTS, who have become global superstars over the course of the last few years, have released four albums in Korean and three in Japanese — zero in English. In fact, it’s still pretty rare for an album like Map Of The Soul: 7, to achieve the chart dominance it has as an album without English lyrics, the album title and most of the song titles are in English, but that’s about it. In the past, the band has spoken out that keeping the lyrics in Korean is as core to the band’s identity as their own heritage, and remains a huge part of their sound, period.
Earlier this year, BTS became the first K-Pop group to go platinum in America, and their upcoming world tour, with several dates in the states and Canada, is poised to make them even bigger. Not that their incredibly successful 2018 tour didn’t already put them on the map in a huge way, and help pry open the door two years ago for acceptance of pop music in other languages. Genius, the lyric site made famous for its annotations and meticulous message boards full of diehard fans poring over and debating artistic meaning, has launched English translations for Map Of The Soul: 7, which have already racked up close to 180,000 visitors in the week and a half since the album dropped. Meanwhile, the album’s second single, “On,” is No. 4 on the Hot 100 — indicating a No. 1 single isn’t totally out of the of the picture, either.
The success of BTS comes at a time when the reassessment of America-first and English-dominant art is happening in real-time. In the film industry, a non-English language film won the biggest award of the year, for Best Picture, for the first time ever. And while the winner, Parasite, is also from Korean culture, it isn’t just Korean art that is gaining attention on the world stage. The prominence of Spanish language art in the music industry and beyond is increasing in visibility more than ever before, and especially considering that census population estimates from 2019 peg the percentage of Latinos in America at close to 20%. With close to a fifth of the country speaking Spanish — for many of them as a first language — the importance of pop music that provides accessibility and representation is hard to overstate.
In that arena, few stars can vie with the recent popularity of Bad Bunny, aka Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a 25-year-old Puerto Rican singer and rapper who surprise-released his second album YHLQMDLG (or Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana, translation from Spanish: “I do what I want) last weekend, announcing the album was coming just days before on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. The album’s lead single, “Vete,” which came out in late November of last year is currently hovering on the edge of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, at No. 99, but will likely see a bounce back up after the full record’s release — it had climbed as high as No. 33 in the past.
Breaking out in 2018 with his debut mixtape X 100pre — a project that included cameos from Diplo and Drake — Bad Bunny gained momentum working with Colombian singer J Balvin on their collaborative project Oasis in 2019. The pair most famously worked together on a song with Cardi B, “I Like It,” which featured a reworked sample of the inescapable Pete Rodriguez boogaloo hit, “I Like It Like That.” When that song went to No. 1 in the summer of 2018, it was a signal that the changing pop landscape in America had officially shifted. A year later, when the duo returned with Oasis, it hit No. 9 on the Billboard album chart and received plenty of accolades on year-end lists, including the No. 10 position on Billboard‘s own list of best albums. Just a few weeks ago, he appeared alongside Jennifer Lopez and Shakira at the Super Bowl halftime show, which is basically one degree away from a household name.
It’ll be another week before the numbers on YHLQMDLG come back, but based on the initial reaction from fans online and Bad Bunny’s past success, it wouldn’t be surprising for the album to come in close to the top of the chart — though it will have the continuing dominance of BTS to vie with. As white pop stars are increasingly less visible and less influential on pop culture (and pop music in particular), the shifting cultural landscape proves that despite some holdover pockets of conservatism, the American public is embracing a wider of sounds and languages than ever before. No longer does an album need to be in English for American audiences to give it a shot, and truthfully, the representation for audiences who always wanted music in other languages is stronger than ever before. So, whether it’s a boy band from Korea or an upstart Puerto Rican pop star, pop music is slowly but surely becoming a haven and a springboard for diverse voices — no matter what language they’re speaking.