Back in 2019, BTS’ dedicated fanbase, the ARMY, held out hope that the South Korean group would be recognized for the then-upcoming 2020 Grammy Awards. Given what the “Bangtan Boys” have to offer — a culturally-transcendent combination of popularity, artistry, and musical facility — seeing them listed among the honorees would have been apropos. However, their omission from the nomination pool prompted their followers and fellow artists to voice their disdain. (Collaborator Halsey wrote on Twitter, “BTS deserved many nominations…the US is so far behind on the whole movement.”)
Instead of The Recording Academy opting for a deja vu moment, fans of the skilled septet were able to breathe easy when the 2021 nominations were announced last November. BTS is named alongside Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and more as nominees in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category, thanks to their song “Dynamite.” If they win on March 14, they will be the first South Korean group to achieve this feat. (In 1992, coloratura soprano Sumi Jo became the first South Korean artist to win a Grammy, followed by record engineer Byeong Joon Hwang in 2015.) A foreign act with this particular mainstream nomination — especially one with a pull as strong as BTS — is colossal. Win or lose, there are multiple factors bolstering the moment’s gravity.
Based on investigations into obstacles faced before the implementation of The Recording Academy’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force in 2018, “marginalization of certain ethnicities into specific roles [and] music genres” was a major issue not long ago. Since then, several Asian-American musicians have been honored by the Recording Academy. R&B musician H.E.R, who proudly identifies as half-Filipina, has won two Grammys and is up for three wins at the upcoming ceremony. Jhene Aiko, who is of Japanese descent on her mother’s side, has three 2021 noms, including Album Of The Year. Korean-American electronic/hip-hop deejay Tokimonsta was nominated for the Best Dance/Electronic Album award in 2019.
Yet, the Grammys’ acknowledgement of artists native to East and Southeast Asia, like BTS, Blackpink, BIGBANG, and 2NE1, has been few and far between, despite their documented success, unparalleled popularity, and obvious musical and performance skills. Given K-Pop’s saturation of the western market within the past few years — from BTS’ reign over the Billboard charts, to Blackpink’s 2019 Coachella performance, to collaborations with Grammy-winning artists like Lady Gaga and Cardi B — ignoring these artists would mean the Academy is ignoring the progression of music’s direction.
But it’s clear that there are still implicit reservations from the Academy with honoring these acts. “Dynamite” is a huge hit — it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, was listed as one of 2020’s best songs by several outlets, and has been featured in major brand campaigns. It’s also the band’s first entirely English song. When BTS, who are unapologetically true to their roots, garners recognition for their talents at this level only after the dilution of their culture, it shows that there is still so much work to be done. Especially given the xenophobic, anti-Asian hate crimes occurring throughout the world as of late, it’s important to The Recording Academy to support artists regardless of their assimilation to our culture in order to fit our levels of “comfort” with theirs.
Outside of what BTS’ nomination and potential win could do for the future of Asian artists, this victory would also be huge for boybands in general, who are often cast out from Grammy consideration. Judging by the unclear standards of what Grammy voters gravitate to sonically and artistically, one may infer that the Academy’s palate is too “dignified,” rendering boybands’ catalogues somehow unworthy of consideration.
’80s and ’90s boybands such as New Kids On The Block, Backstreet Boys, and N*SYNC have never won at the Grammys, despite nominations earned during the height of their reigns. Additionally, One Direction was never considered for any Grammys, yet former member Harry Styles is up for three awards this year as a solo entity. Does the popularity of boybands negate appreciation for their artistry? It shouldn’t, especially since popularity and talent are not mutually-exclusive entities. If rewarding — hell, even nominating — a boyband is a stab at the Grammys’ credibility, the Academy may want to take a look into the past (and present) at some of the nominees, winners, and snubs of the annual event, and then think about what (or who) is truly diminishing their credibility. (Additionally, nominating boybands for Grammy Awards could potentially help The Grammys’ decreasing ratings, which have seen a steady decline in recent years.)
All things considered, the fact is that there’s only a one-in-five chance that BTS goes home with a win on Sunday. If they go home empty handed, there really is always next year. This major loss also wouldn’t cancel out their impact, which exceeds musical, cultural, racial, and even economic barriers. (They’d also be in good company, as Queen, Bob Marley, and their collaborator Nicki Minaj have significantly influenced music and culture without Grammy gold of their own). Although, that’s not to say a win wouldn’t be just as sweet. The group’s Kim Nam-joon — known by his stage name RM — mentioned in an interview that winning a Grammy Award would be “the final part of the whole American journey.”
Regardless of The Recording Academy’s need for continued growth and diversity, BTS’ 2021 Grammy nomination opens the door for a firmer understanding of the magnitude of foreign musical acts outside of our American bubble. While a potential win would prove BTS’ supremacy of the global music landscape, their impact will always resonate, and has undeniably shifted the tides for years to come.