Pop

How International Artists Took Pop Music’s Center Stage In 2020

“It’s like The Beatles were here,” Ellen DeGeneres said of the K-pop boy band BTS’ 2017 arrival at LAX ahead of their first-ever US tour. She may not have realized it at the time, but DeGeneres’ comparison was incredibly apt. This year, BTS became the first band since The Beatles to have three Billboard No. 1 albums in just one year and they even received a kind co-sign by Paul McCartney himself. Tickets to their first North American shows sold out within minutes, mirroring the Beatlemania seen in 1964. But BTS’ Beatles-like following is part of a larger phenomenon that has been overshadowed by the pandemic’s disruption of the music industry: 2020 was the year international artists took the center stage in American pop music.

K-pop groups and Latinx Reggaeton artists alike commanded charts, album sales, and broke impressive streaming records this year. Earning over 38 billion streams in 2020 alone, people listened to Latin music more than any other genre. Of the 38 billion, Bad Bunny was the most-streamed artist globally and J Balvin was close behind in third place. K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink also scored big in 2020. BTS became the first South Korean act to both hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and receive a Platinum certification in the US.

Seeing as the American music industry has been historically dominated by English language music, this is a big deal. But how did these artists manage to break into the mainstream and what about 2020 caused a shift to prioritize non-English language voices?

In K-pop music especially, the success of groups like BTS and Blackpink did not happen by accident. Rather, it happened through intentional investment. K-pop’s global roots can be traced way back to South Korean’s economic downturn of the late 1990s. As outlined in the 1999 Basic Law for Promoting Cultural Industries, at least one percent of the country’s annual budget is diverted to promote South Korea’s cultural industries like music in order to increase their influence on the world stage. The music itself reflected this global approach, with many groups opting to translate their albums into Japanese or Mandarin to reach larger audiences.

The government’s major investment, coupled with K-pop’s fashion, feel-good lyrics, high-production videos, and expert choreography, jolted the genre’s worldwide reach. Between 2005 and 2016, the Korean music industry was ranked 29th globally by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). In 2016, it was in 8th. Things moved quickly from there: Just a year later, BTS embarked on their first-ever US tour, selling out stadiums and making their US television debut at the American Music Awards. Then in 2018, Blackpink became the first K-pop girl group to perform at a US festival when they took the Coachella stage ahead of Beyonce. Finally, BTS were invited to perform with Lil Nas X at this year’s Grammys, a definitive marker of their mainstream success.

While K-pop music saw a big push by the South Korea’s music industry, the same cannot be said about Reggaeton music. In fact, many award ceremonies didn’t credit the achievements of Reggaeton artists until this year. When the Recording Academy unveiled their nominations for the 2019 Latin Grammy awards, there was one thing immediately apparent: Reggaeton artists had been snubbed across the board. Ozuna’s Aura was the top-selling Latin album of the year but did not garner a nomination. Despite winning a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2018, Karol G’s name was also missing from the nomination list. The lack of recognition for Reggaeton sparked the viral movement #SinReggaetonNoHayGrammy, which boycotted the awards for failing to nominate Reggaeton in any of the major categories.

The Recording Academy saw Reggaeton artists’ frustrations, and they listened. “We hear the frustration and discontent. We invite the leaders of the urban community to get involved with the Academy, to get involved with the process, and to get involved with discussions that improve the Academy,” they responded. Fast-forwarding to 2020, the Latin Grammys nominated J Balvin and Bad Bunny for a number of major categories including Record Of The Year and Album Of The Year. Furthermore, this year’s American Music Awards also took note of the importance of Reggaeton music. The AMAs expanded their categories to include awards for Favorite Latin Male/Female Artist, Favorite Latin Album, and Favorite Latin Song.

Along with advocating for change in institutions, Reggaeton artists are becoming a different type of innovative role model within music. Bad Bunny and J Balvin have used their platform in 2020 to challenge toxic hyper-masculine stereotypes and become progressive voices for a younger and increasingly diverse generation. “[Bad Bunny’s] discourse and look both defy gender mandates and stereotypes,” noted José Forteza, a senior editor at Condé Nast Mexico and Latin America. “He breaks the sort of accomplice masculinity codes that have hurt women’s rights and discriminated against men whose trajectories have not adjusted to a macho identity.” Bad Bunny can be seen provoking these norms both through his “Yo Perreo Sola” video and his acceptance speech at this year’s Billboard Music Awards, where he advocated for the respect of women’s bodily autonomy.

Like Bad Bunny and J Balvin, BTS has also advocated for social justice this year. Those who weren’t aware of K-pop’s influence were suddenly confronted by swarms of stans this June. Along with helping BTS raise $1 million to donate to Black Lives Matter, K-pop fans flooded the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag to drown out racist posts on Twitter and Instagram. Fans also mobilized to protect protesters when they successfully crashed the Dallas Police Department’s eyewitness app by continuously uploading fancam videos.

While BTS’ influence was seen through their fans’ online activism this summer, their true success can be tracked through impressive charting numbers and viral successes. This year, Blackpink and BTS smashed YouTube’s video premiere records. BTS’ “Dynamite” video debuted on the site with 101.1 million views in just 24 hours. But they weren’t the first K-pop acts to gain viral success on YouTube. Sun Lee, the head of music partnerships for YouTube Korea noted that “it might have been impossible for K-pop to have worldwide popularity without YouTube’s global platform.” This is proven by Psy’s viral 2012 “Gangnam Style” visual, which became the first video on YouTube’s platform to reach 1 billion views. Nearly a decade later, it’s commonplace for K-pop groups to rack up over a billion views, like Blackpink’s “Ddu-Du Ddu-du” and “Kill This Love” videos have done this year.

K-pop may have dominated charts thanks to two decades of government investment, but Latin artists’ 2020 success can be measured by something truly American: capitalism. This year, huge brands signed major partnership deals with Latin artists. Bad Bunny is featured in a massive promotional campaign for Cheetos. He also collaborated with Crocs for his own line of glow-in-the-dark kicks, meaning the divisive shoe can now be seen as stylish (another 2020 event that no one saw coming). J Balvin also recently unveiled a shoe collaboration, announcing his Nike design for his colorful Air Jordans. But Balvin’s biggest deal of the year was undoubtedly his multi-million dollar McDonald’s partnership, which came with a line of exclusive merch and acted as an indication of Reggaeton’s reach. “We’ll just keep reaching more globally than before, and we want to keep showing the planet that this movement is here to stay,” J Balvin told Uproxx about his music genre’s influence in connection to his McDonald’s partnership. “And that’s what we’ve been doing. Keep working and keep elevating the culture and connecting with the world and definitely with the United States, too.”

From major brand deals to racking up billions of views, Reggaeton and K-pop artists alike have stepped into pop’s limelight. And if there’s any positive music trends to come out of 2020, it’s that international artists like BTS, Blackpink, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin are finally getting the recognition they deserve in the American mainstream.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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