Friday, May 17, 2019

Are BTS the next Beatles?

(The Beatles, 1969)

(BTS, 2018)

Are BTS the next Beatles?

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert made the comparison explicit but I’ve seen the charge thrown around for a while. The mainstream English-language press has no other benchmark for a group of male musicians popular with young women. “This is Beatlemania big,” said CNN. On the other hand you have well meaning fan girls who implicitly understand the condescension aimed in their direction from cultural gatekeepers for liking a “boy band” and who have adopted the Beatles comparison as a point of pride because the Beatles are respected by those cultural gatekeepers. From a thread by @AnnieLuvsBTS1:

“The Beatles wrote inspiring, beautiful lyrics that were like poetry, songs that tug at your soul and make you think about life’s large topics. @BTS_twt’s music does the same thing. Their songs push you to think and question the status quo, and they make you glad to be alive.”

She’s not wrong to feel the way she does. I certainly shared some of those same sentiments when I was a young woman obsessed with the Beatles and I can easily see how BTS evokes similar feelings. But then you could say the same about any band you loved. I felt (feel) the same way about Belle & Sebastian, who are far from these levels of popularity.

And this is from a medium post by Heidi Samuelson:

One clue is found in the fact that people stop calling the Beatles a boy band after they started writing songs that were more musically complex, stopped touring in arenas full of screaming young women, and started being “cool” for men to listen to. But this is all a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? I’m sorry adult men who use liking the Beatles as some barometer of coolness, but it was the same four “boys” who recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that recorded “Revolution 9.”

Again, Heidi here is absolutely correct. The Beatles only truly shed the teen dream label after releasing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 when they’d stopped touring and started really like, exploring their inner selves, man, and taking heaps of psychedelics topped with some borrowed Indian mysticism.

Here’s what I think.

The Beatles were four very young men from a rough and tumble provincial city in post-War England. They had likable personalities, good looks, and charm for miles and, thanks in no small part to the talent and vision of behind-the-scenes producer George Martin, they recorded some fantastic albums. But the Beatles were young and naive and at the mercy of the men who had their recording and management contracts. This meant doing a lot of stuff they really didn’t want to do… the same stuff now being held up as as proof that the Beatles and BTS are the same. Aw, isn’t it cute?? Beatles dolls! BTS dolls!

The Beatles toured relentlessly through the early 1960s to stadiums full of shrieking fans so loud that not even the Beatles could hear themselves play. They hated it. They hated the fans. They felt trapped.

If you’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night--a true masterpiece and a film that 100% deserves to be in the Criterion Collection--then you see what their lives had become. It’s made light of in the film but I’ve read more than enough Beatles biographies over the years to know that the feeling of being trapped and surrounded by the shrieking hordes of girls was a sad reality for John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Once they had enough power to quit being the touring zoo animals--gawked at by horny girls in every city across the world--they did. But what was left behind? Four slightly older men who had never really grown up, now only had each other to focus on. They fought their unfair recording contract, fought the press who had turned on them, and fought each other. Ringo had nothing to contribute in the studio; George had too much to contribute in the studio for John and Paul’s egos to handle; and the two lead songwriters found themselves at odds about which direction their music should go in (John: more artistic and weird; Paul: high kitsch and schlocky). Eventually the cracks became too big and they split. John’s tragic death in 1980 at the hands of an obsessed male stalker meant they would never reunite again.

When I see these comparisons I keep asking myself, where in that story do we want to draw parallels to BTS? Are they trapped by fame? Hunted by fan girls? Bickering over artistic direction? Fucking their way through hundreds of groupies? Doing inhuman amounts of drugs? Locking themselves in their studios passive-aggressively replacing each other’s instrumental tracks? I mean, maybe? But it’s not exactly the comparison I’d want to highlight.

The Beatles story is ultimately not a positive one. They may have had fame and fortune but at what cost? The four smiling “moptops” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 were only ever an illusion. The Beatles drank, smoked, snorted, and fucked their way across the world, growing increasingly bitter and jaded with every tour stop. They had little respect for their fans or for women in general (although that second one would change, for some of them, in later years see: Ono, Yoko).

But they did make great albums. (Even if Paul replaced Ringo’s drum tracks.)

And they did come to represent a sea change in the way people thought about rock music. The year Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, 1967, was the same year Rolling Stone magazine was founded and those two things form the foundation of the Rock Canon. The building blocks of today’s Rock Music Industrial Complex. (What Heidi is challenging in her essay linked above.)

Which brings me to the other point that the perpetually lazy, misogynistic, and xenophobic English-language media and the well meaning fan girls are missing out on is the broader context: There can never be a “next” Beatles in America because we no longer have any sort of meaningful shared mainstream music culture.

The music industry in the USA ate itself. It no longer has any sort of cultural relevance. There’s a reason aggressively marketed K-pop was able to get a foothold in a notoriously foreign-language averse country like America: we no longer make this kind of music ourselves. Mainstream music here is either generated by an algorithm deep in the bowels of the IHeartRadio laboratory building or it’s deeply personal lyrics vomited up by an acoustic guitar wielding singer-songwriter. Anything in between is a holdover from the 1990s and early 2000s. We don’t have anything to compare to the way that these K-pop acts perform music that is emotional without necessarily being private and personal and broadly appealing without sounding like it was spit out of a SongBotT4500.

And, importantly, these K-pop acts ARE IDOL GROUPS. That means they not only encourage fans to feel like they are a valuable part of the acts’ teams--through voting on music shows, streaming, writing fan chants, etc.--but they also offer support to fans, writing messages telling them to study hard on exams or to take care in going to work after staying up late to watch a performance.

The Beatles sold over 8.5 million albums (not including singles) in just the USA alone in 1964. If BTS are lucky with sales for the rest of 2019 maybe they’ll get to 500,000 in the USA? Maybe one million?

It’s estimated that 73 million Americans watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Just about 40% of the population at the time. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert averages about 3.5 million a night. The videos of the appearance on YouTube (at the time of writing this post) have about 1-2 million views each, a percentage of which are probably coming from outside the US and/or represent repeat viewings by fans.

Does this mean BTS aren’t amazing and epic and all of those things? Of course not!!

BTS are amazing and epic and it’s incredible they can hold concerts in 60,000 seat venues here in America.

It’s just worth keeping in mind that their audience will never be as mainstream and as big as the Beatles because we no longer have the kind of shared culture in America that allows it. And if those 60,000 seat venues are filled with fans who travel long distances to attend (me!) or attend multiple shows on the tour (not me this time but there are quite a few) it doesn’t make the achievement any less incredible.

BTS are not the next Beatles. They are their own thing and that’s okay. It’s more than okay, it’s… 대박.

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