BTS's Grammy Nomination and the Culture Technology of K-pop Idol Groups

Recently, one of the most-discussed topics in the music business has been the 2021 Grammy nominations announced last week. BTS is nominated in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category, officially making them the first K-pop act to ever be nominated for a Grammy (prior to BTS, the only Korean nominees have been Doohee Lee, the BTS art director nominated for Best Recording Packaging in 2019 and Sumi Jo, a soprano who won for Best Opera Recording in 1993).

There’s lot around Grammy season in general that can be discussed - including some of the exclusions and complaints from this year’s nominations - but what I found really interesting about the nominees in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category is that all of them were collaborative projects between solo artists, save for BTS:

  • “Un Dia (One Day),” J Balvin, Dua Lipa, Bad Bunny & Tainy

  • “Intentions,” Justin Bieber Featuring Quavo

  • “Dynamite,” BTS

  • “Rain On Me,” Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande

  • “Exile,” Taylor Swift Featuring Bon Iver

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong in this observation; the qualifications for the category explicitly allow for collaborations, according to Wikipedia:

According to the 54th Grammy Awards description guide [The Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo / Group Performance] is designed for pop recordings by duo / groups or collaborative performances (vocal or instrumental) and is limited to singles or tracks only.

And while this year’s nominees seem tilted in favor of collaborative performances, the balance of nominees for each type (duo / group versus collaboration) seems to be quite equal over the award’s history - since the award was first given out in 2012, 22 of the 52 nominated works to date were by groups or duos.

Having about less than half of the award’s nominees be categorized as either group or duo is probably expected, and nothing to write home about. (Aside: Going forward, I will diverge from the Recording Academy’s distinction between duos and groups and refer to both as groups, where a duo is simply a group with two members). What is more interesting is the circumstance under which BTS is the first K-pop group to be nominated for a Grammy: the nomination is for a category that specifically recognizes the works of pop groups, and BTS represents a musical genre, K-pop, that almost completely operates around artist groups.

Data from music charts in mid-November, right before Grammy nominations were announced, helps to illustrate the prevalence of artist groups in Korean music. I pulled data on the Top 200 weekly most popular tracks globally and in the United States below from Spotify and the Top 200 weekly most popular tracks in South Korea from Gaon (as Spotify currently does not track streaming numbers in Korea) to compare differences in the types of musical acts that were performing popular records for each region. Below are the distributions of individual artists versus groups that had a Top 200 track in mid-November:

It’s clear that there is a marked difference in the types of performances that are popular in each market. In Spotify’s American region, the number of tracks attributed to solo artists outstrips the number of tracks for any other performance type in the Top 200 chart. The distribution of performance types for the most popular tracks in American charts looks similar to that of the global charts - this should come as no surprise, as western music, particularly American music, has seen an outsize influence on popular music around the world and artists that trend in the US also tend to trend globally.

The South Korean chart data, however, shows large divergence from its American and global counterparts. Most of the Top 200 tracks were attributed evenly between groups and solo artists, with Korean groups showing a slight lead. The dominance of groups in popular music can be specifically categorized as a dominance by idol groups - of the 85 songs that were performed by Korean music groups in the Gaon Top 200 during mid-November, 71 of them were by idol groups.

K-pop and Idol Groups

Why are idol groups so prevalent in South Korea but not really found in most music markets around the world? First and foremost, it’s difficult to talk about K-pop without also mentioning specific idol groups - in most cases, being a K-pop artist is synonymous with being a K-pop idol. The idea of an artist as an “idol” was initially borrowed from Japan, but the characteristics of a K-pop idol have become uniquely specific in its own right. Forming musical group in the US may be as easy as getting a few people in a room together, but as many passionate K-pop fans know, becoming a K-pop idol requires years of work before even stepping foot in front of an audience: first is the audition, which occurs through one of a handful of dominant music entertainment companies or on an audition reality program. After that is a training period, which can take anywhere from a few months to many years. When trainees are finally ready for their debut, an event that is heavily marketed for and anticipated by K-pop fans around the world, they are then typically packaged into an idol group.

Lee Soo-man, the founder of S.M. Entertainment, one of the largest K-pop agencies in the market, is considered the original inventor of the K-pop idol trainee system. In a 2012 New Yorker article he mentioned that K-pop was a “cultural technology,” meant to appeal to mass audiences. K-pop idol groups achieve this through a variety of ways - they learn Japanese, Chinese and English to appeal to the markets they plan to enter, create dazzling visual displays with their synchronized choreography (their dance skills having been honed through years of training), and sing to Korean language songs that follow Western musical trends. Most importantly, K-pop groups have many members, each with a distinct public image, ensuring that there is someone appealing in the group (known by fans as a “bias”) for everyone.

Just how many members does an idol group need to make sure that there is a bias for everyone? In 1996, Lee Soo-man created his first idol group, a boy band called H.O.T., with five members. Since then, idol groups have proliferated across the industry, increasing not only in number but also in variation of size. Records from a Kaggle dataset show the changes in the size of boy and girl idol groups (at the time of debut) over the years:

In recent years, the average girl group has had 5-6 members at the time of debut, whereas the average boy group has debuted at slightly larger, with 6-8 members. The variation in the sizes of groups, however, has been large. NCT, a boy group debuted by S. M. Entertainment in 2016, is the largest idol group ever, debuting with 18 members and currently consisting of 23. NCT stands for “Neo Culture Technology,” representing Lee Soo-man’s vision to create a group that would have an infinite number of members divided into subunits operating in different markets worldwide. In a sense, it is the ultimate form of what K-pop intends to embody - a force of mass appeal that still finds a way to cater locally.

K-pop Collaborations

If we return to the topic of BTS’s nomination in the Best Pop Duo / Group Performance Grammy category, there is one more observation in Chart 1 to note - artist collaborations are better represented on the American and global charts, and less so on Korean one. Specifically, there are nearly three times the number of artist-collaborated or featured songs that charted in America than in Korea. On one hand, this helps to explain why the other Grammy nominees in BTS’s category are products of artist collaborations. On the other hand, this trend has resulted from what I suspect is a consequence of an group-dominated market - idol group members have so much loyalty to their groups and their agencies (artists in the same agency are often labeled as “family”) that it is very difficult for idol group members to get permission to collaborate or feature on a song with an artist from a competing idol group or label. In fact, I would say that despite the antagonism that sometimes exists between different idol group fandoms, Korean audiences quite enjoy idol collaborations - a collaboration between K-pop idols IU and BTS’s Suga, for example, charted at No. 1 on Gaon for over three weeks earlier this year. It is the infrequency of these sorts of collaborations that results in the gap seen between Korean charts and their western counterparts.

Success Outside of South Korea

Needless to say, K-pop idol groups have found massive success not just in Asia, but globally. BTS remains, however, one of the only K-pop groups to have achieved the same mainstream recognition that Western musical powerhouses like Taylor Swift or The Weeknd have seen. In second place is the girl group BLACKPINK, who has seen a growing global fanbase but still lags far behind BTS in American music charts. I’ll mention Chart 1 one last time - BLACKPINK charted 4 songs in the global Spotify Top 200 but was beat out by BTS in the American charts, who released the only Korean song in the Top 200 for the region. For what it’s worth, the girl group has embraced collaboration with a multitude of American pop heavyweights this year, including Cardi B, Selena Gomez, and Dua Lipa, likely to increase their American presence.

BTS’s success in the American music industry, notable for its competitiveness and trend-setting nature, has created somewhat of a playbook for K-pop industry watchers. The idol group promotional wheel has now expanded to include live performances on Jimmy Fallon and interviews on “Good Morning America.” Since BTS first appeared on The Ellen Show in 2017, there have been many more appearances by K-pop idols, including BLACKPINK, NCT 127, SuperM, TWICE, on American talk shows.

Some of this is by design. While successful K-pop idols such as Rain or Psy have previously appeared on American TV, the Korean Herald describes that after BTS’s success, casting directors have come around to the idea of K-pop as mainstream and have become more willing to feature popular groups on their shows.

What remains to be seen is if American listeners will embrace idol groups with the same enthusiasm. Successful acts in American pop music often emphasize their musical talents, not their looks; they are characterized by their wide diversity, not their mass appeal; and many of American pop’s top performers have a dynamic stage presence, but don’t ever dance. Somehow, BTS was able to gain mainstream recognition where others have tried and failed before. For the other idol groups, who have only ever known a system where the path to success has been baked to perfection, this may prove to be a tough act to follow.