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Is It Just Me, or Is The Hollywood Reporter's BTS Article Really Xenophobic?

The piece reads as a smug, condescending view of Korean culture through a patently white, Western lens.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for dcp

This morning, The Hollywood Reporter released their much-hyped BTS feature story written by Seth Abramovitch, a senior writer who flew out to South Korea to interview the band.

Trigger Warning: Su*c*de

But while an in-person profile on the world's most popular musical group sounds like a surefire hit, upon reading the article I couldn't help but feel that THR pushed a highly problematic, xenophobic view of South Korea and the K-POP industry as a whole.

BTS Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

Now, upfront, I want to give Abramovitch the benefit of the doubt. I don't think he set out to write anything intentionally malicious. But at the same time, his article bleeds Western superiority and invokes a sense of "otherness" in discussing Korea that struck me as ridiculously misguided. The fact that those sentiments were likely subconscious makes them all the more worthy of discussion.

Throughout his piece, Abramovitch alternates between being an ill-prepared outsider ("I admit to being a little fuzzy on some of the finer points of BTS history, like where they came from, why they are so appealing to so many millions or even what BTS stands for") and a biting social critic ("Since its origins in the 1990s, K-pop has been part Motown, part Hunger Games.") The resulting piece reads as a smug, condescending view of Korean culture through a patently white, Western lens.

This is the first line of the BTS article: "The restaurant is called Dotgogi, which means either Sesame Meat or Aged Pork, depending on which online translator I consult." In a profile piece, the first sentence sets the mood. Here, Abramovitch opens with the "otherness" of a Korean word and the possibility of two different translations. This feels like lazy shorthand to convey an implicitly xenophobic sentiment about being in a strange land unlike his own (his being the Western world, where everything is "normal").

Abramovitch goes on to introduce BTS as "the first group since The Beatles...to score three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart in less than a year," before tacking on, "a feat that's all the more astounding considering their songs are mostly in Korean." Again, this strikes me as off-putting. We live in a global society where most people have access to media from all around the world. Nobody bats an eye when a song with Spanish lyrics tops the charts or a LatinX performer enters the public eye. What exactly makes it so much more astounding when the group in question is Asian?

BTS and Halsey https://www.radio.com/blogs/michael-cerio/bts-and-halsey-preview-their-boy-luv-performance-billboard-music-awards

Abramovitch continues to paint the BTS boys as simultaneously affable and fake. He suggests that everyone is carefree and open ("You'd think they were just seven college buddies catching up over a meal") but only up until he starts asking pressing questions about politics. "Indeed, whenever the conversation turns to anything controversial — or just slightly provocative — their answers have all the spontaneity of a Disney animatronic figure," writes Abramovitch. "For instance, when asked if they have any reservations about resuming their tour in America during such a politically fraught period, a switch seems to flip in RM's brain."

This language, again, seems to draw upon racist, xenophobic sentiments about Asians as robots, when, in fact, a lot of Western artists would likely answer politically fraught questions in the same way. That's not being dishonest, and it's not because they live "in a bubble," as Abramovitch writes. It's because many artists with wide global appeal like BTS see their primary job as bringing joy to fans, and alienating any of them, even the ones they may personally disagree with, is not in line with their ethos as performers.

Once again, my goal here isn't to nitpick the writing, but rather to point out how these biases, while probably subconscious, negatively inform the piece as a whole. Throughout the piece, Abramovitch's goal seems less about understanding BTS and their feelings on any particular topic and more about placing them within the context of a Korean industry that Abramovitch sees as problematic.

In fairness, there are a number of issues in the K-POP industry, especially in regards to the way that some companies treat their performers. But at the same time, plenty of Western music labels mistreat their performers, too, and it feels weird to see a white, Western writer paint it as a distinctly Korean issue. The abuse of artists by major companies is an issue well-worth discussing, but the conversation should always include the context of capitalist structures everywhere that seem to incentivize said abuse.

Moreover, in his attempt to explain the evils of the K-POP industry, Abramovitch passively dredges up the death of Jonghyun, a beloved K-POP star from the group SHINee who lost his battle with depression in 2017. Here, Abramovitch writes especially tactlessly, not even referring to Jonghyun by name. "In 2017, the industry drew intense scrutiny after a member of SHINee...took his own life," he writes before excerpting Jonghyun's final note. This feels incredibly disrespectful, especially in light of how the media tends to treat beloved Western artists who've lost similar battles to depression. It would be unimaginable to read an article that referenced beloved comedy icon Robin Williams, who brought joy to so many lives, only as "a movie actor who took his own life." Why, then, is it okay to treat a beloved K-POP star like Jonghyun that way?

Jonghyun Beloved K-POP star, JonghyunHan Myung-Gu/WireImage

In effect, the THR article ignores Jonghyun's personhood and legacy as a wonderful singer, songwriter, dancer, and human being, instead footnoting a tragedy that deeply affected many people just to fit into an argument that doesn't even necessarily hold up. In fact, while Jonghyun's passing did lead to discussions in South Korea about relieving the pressures of the competitive nature of the K-POP industry, it primarily drew attention to the need for mental health awareness, with Jonghyun's family starting a foundation to help support artists struggling with depression. Many people suffer from depression, and blaming someone's lost battle on any one thing seems, at best, to misunderstand the complexity of mental health issues. More importantly, relegating a human being only to their untimely passing without even mentioning their name seems particularly callous. Jonghyun's family, friends, fans, and loved ones deserve better.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with Abramovitch's article is one of representation. Why would THR send a middle-aged, white writer like Abramovitch, who seems to express something akin to pride in his own lack of understanding of Korean culture, to write about Korean culture? Why did they think anyone needed yet another "middle-aged white guy flounders to understand K-POP" take? That's not even to say they shouldn't have sent a middle-aged white writer, but at least send someone who seems to display an interest in researching the culture beforehand. Instead, at best, this BTS profile reads like a xenophobic "othering" of Korean celebrities. At worst, it's just blatant disrespect.

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