What Happens if Dynamite is BTS’ Only Grammy Win?
Ruminations from an ARMY Documentarian on BTS’ 2021 Grammy Nomination, Dynamite, and the Future
This article has been written in response to August Brown’s article in the Los Angeles Times: “Did BTS Get Robbed of a 2021 Grammy Nomination?” First off, it is relatively uncontroversial to say that BTS were robbed of not a 2021 Grammy nomination, but six. As the title states, the author of the article you are reading is an ARMY (a BTS fan) and a documentarian. She does not claim to be a music critic or music historian. What follows is a collection of the author’s thoughts on BTS’ Grammy nomination and why what happens on Jan 31st could be pivotal for determining BTS’ future.
BTS debuted as a septet in June, 2013. The label company BTS is signed with, Big Hit Entertainment, had little money to pay for expensive stage looks, instead dressing the seven members in rather obvious knock-off designer brand pieces, much to the amusement of their peers. Fast forward to 2020, and the BTS members each have net worths in the seven figure range and have graced the Grammy’s Red Carpet in matching Bottega Veneta (high fashion designer) top coats. Thus marks BTS’ rags-to-riches journey that fans and BTS members themselves have now come to hold dear. But obviously commercial success alone does not equate with deserving a coveted golden gramophone.
So let’s return to 2013, when “Blurred Lines” and “Come and Get It” were popular in the US (songs with date rape and culturally appropriated Indian themes, respectively) and when BTS released their first title track. “No More Dream” is an aggressive hip-hop track that quite literally laughs at their then school-aged peers who wanted material luxuries to show off (“big house, big car, big rings”) but had no “dreams,” or plans, to earn the money required to make such lofty purchases.
While it was the norm for Korean idols to sing about love and pining, from the get-go BTS established that their music would serve different purposes: comfort, motivation, and scathing societal critique. The majority of their discography has been in line with this mission, from songs about social issues like cell phone addiction, lack of opportunity equality, and the Sewol Ferry Disaster, to songs about more individual struggles like imposter syndrome, anxiety caused by watching the news, suicidal thoughts, and most recently, COVID-induced depression.
The author does not wish to say that songs about topics other than love or sex are somehow automatically superior to those that are. But if the Grammys are supposed to go to excellence in music, then in terms of being “Grammy-worthy,” surely some points have to be given to artists who consistently push the envelope in terms of what mainstream music is allowed to talk about, and who consistently resonate with millions around the world by doing so. Certainly some extra notice must be taken by Academy members when nearly every song in their discography has said artists in the songwriting and/or producing credits, right?
BTS submitted Map of the Soul: 7 (henceforth MOTS:7) for Grammy considerations in the Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Engineered Album Non-Classical categories. The 20-track studio album followed a global art initiative called “Connect, BTS” wherein the BTS members partnered with 22 artists in 5 cities around the world to host art exhibitions (in-person and online) “to redefine the relationships between art and music, the material and immaterial, artists and their audiences, artists and artists, theory and practice.” They held an interview series (posted on Youtube) where they spoke 7-on-1 with each of the artists about their work and the specific project they chose to include in Connect, BTS. Never before has an artist released an album while boosting other artists in other mediums to the extent that Connect, BTS did.
The album itself also focused on artistry as its core theme. The single “Black Swan” speaks of the fear the members have for losing their passion for music and dance, referring to such a time as their “first death[s].” “Dionysus” talks about the creative process, getting drunk in one’s art, and calls on the audience to “follow the crazy (drunken) artist.” Jimin’s “Filter,” at first listen, is a lively Latin number, but the lyrics tell the story of a person (either the artist or the listener) changing their outward appearance as easily as changing Instagram filters to fit the liking of their peers. Jungkook’s “My Time” centers on childhood lost to stardom. Several Western music icons contributed to other songs: Halsey collaborated on “Boy with Luv,” Ed Sheeran produced “Make it Right,” Troye Sivan co-wrote “Louder than Bombs,” and Sia provided vocals for the digital version of the title track “ON.”
But MOTS:7, the album which when performed live can comfortably fit Grand Central Station, did not receive a single Grammy nomination. To be fair, many deserving artists were snubbed this year, including Halsey and The Weeknd. The Grammys are also historically notorious for snubbing those who earn critical and commercial success (Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) and Kanye West’s Graduation (2007) in the Album of the Year category and Metallica for best hard rock in 1989). American record executive and author Steve Stoute has traced the Recording Academy’s out of touch nature to its “overzealousness to produce a popular show that is at odds with its own system of voting and fundamental disrespect of cultural shifts as being viable and artistic.” Which makes one wonder, why wouldn’t an award show whose ratings have been falling want to give a performance slot to the most popular group in the world? If it’s a good show they want, why not invite the group that can comfortably fill half an hour of Korean award shows’ airtime? If MOTS: 7, with a global coalition of artistic input and support, with its core theme being the facets of artistry, isn’t deserving of a Grammy nomination, let alone a win, what is?
In the wake of the pandemic lockdown, BTS released their first all English single “Dynamite.” According to BTS, the goal of the song was to give energy and comfort to fans and folks around the world in these difficult times. The music video’s colors are bright and the beat is catchy and danceable. As the song is entirely in English, the members did not have anything to do with the song writing, choosing to keep the demo as Columbia Records’ CEO Ron Perry (and others) wrote it rather than rewrite the simplistic lyrics in Korean. The song reached #1 on the Hot100 due, in some part, to it enjoying the full support of the radio industry in the US who played it regularly in their rotations.
And now, Dynamite is their only Grammy nominated work.
Giving BTS a Grammy for Dynamite would be like giving Lin Manuel Miranda a Grammy for his work on the Electric Company. Was the song novel? Yes. Was it culturally impactful? Sure. Should it get a Grammy? Sure, but only if the mountain of other ground-breaking, generation defining work BTS has put out work is also recognized.
As happy and as proud as fans are that BTS have been recognized for something, the snub for MOTS:7 is mind-boggling. Had the Academy followed the same policy of their unexplained Halsey and The Weeknd shutout, and not nominated BTS for anything, it may have been an easier decision to understand (the Academy is xenophobic). But to gloss over MOTS:7’s depth and brilliance, to purposely only nominate Dynamite… that becomes an even more xenophobic and perhaps more sinister message to unpack.
Let’s say that this is the only nomination that BTS achieves. Given the Academy’s treatment of BTS’ work in the past, and their treatment of POC American artists today, this is not a far-fetched assumption to make. And let’s say further, that BTS does win it. What’s the message?
A week before the Grammy nominations, BTS released another album, “BE,” whose gentle predominantly Korean title track, “Life Goes On” has received negligible radio spins. Getting a Grammy is often regarded as a peak in one’s musical career: the best work an artist puts out. The Dynamite nomination, combined with US radio stations ignoring BTS’ newest album, feels as if the industry is framing Dynamite as BTS’ “breakthrough,” or peak, in the US.
Fans know that this narrative has no basis in reality. BTS broke into the US Billboard charts for the first time in 2015. They held their first stadium concert in the US in 2018. “BE” is their 5th #1 album in the US. BTS are under contract with their label, BigHit Entertainment, until 2026, which means six and a half more years from now. If they disband in 2026, they would have been active for 14 years. To assume that their peak was a simple English disco-funk pop single released off the cuff during the worst pandemic in 100 years is, quite frankly, ridiculous. With how hard BTS work, BTS will continue to grow such that the peak of their careers will be in 2026, assuming they don’t renew past that.
Giving BTS a Grammy for Dynamite would be like giving Lin Manuel Miranda a Grammy for his work on the Electric Company.
The worst part of this whole situation is that BTS themselves are members of the Recording Academy. They have performed at Grammy events and have been interviewed at the Grammy museum. They were not nominated for the 2020 Grammys, but they flew from Seoul to participate in their award show as part of the Old Town Road medley. If Dynamite is their only Grammy win, the message becomes, “You’re allowed to be here, but are only good enough to win when you sing the English song that Ron Perry (the head of Columbia Records) wants you to sing.” As mentioned before, BTS did not write the lyrics of Dynamite. Ron Perry had several songs written according to his vision and input, and sent these to BTS to choose from. BTS chose Dynamite, and they certainly perform it in a distinctly BTS-style, but most of the creative decisions were personally made by Ron Perry.
Regarding the general public, who likely will never watch the aggressive dance performances of N.O. or We are Bulletproof pt. 2 and who likely will never read the breathtaking lyricism of The Truth Untold or Singularity, to present “Dynamite” to them as the best of BTS feeds into the “BTS is a vapid, uninspired boyband” stereotype. It is worth noting that BTS choosing to often perform their softer, simpler, brighter pop songs such as Boy With Luv or Make it Right while on American television has helped grow this stereotype. With Dynamite all over American TV commercials and now present on the Grammy stage, this could be the nail in the coffin for public perception.
There are other Korean music labels that have made it clear they want acknowledgement from the Academy. SuperM and Blackpink notably submitted to be nominated this year. With the gaining popularity of Kpop in general in the wake of BTS’ commercial success in the US, the author envisions a future where a third Grammy award show is created, “The Korean Grammys” similar to the “Latin Grammys.” There are enough Korean artists that are popular in the US to fill such a show, that if there were only a category called “Best Kpop” incorporated into the main award show it would cause such a ruckus as to who was left out. Such a show would not be created as August Brown suggests, not because it has been a “perennial” wish of Kpop fans for such a system of segregation to exist, but because it seems the Academy is so married to avoiding acknowledging excellence from artists of color that they would rather relegate them to separate stages than allow them to receive the accolades they have earned.
If such a future should come to pass, it would be as hilarious as it would be tragic. To have a “Korean Grammys” when there are already so many (most would say too many) award shows in Korea would be redundant. And who would qualify? What is “Kpop?”
There is an abundance of literature as to why the term “Kpop” has no meaning but here are the main highlights: Korean artists across the board often release songs and albums in languages other than Korean such as English (Dynamite!), Spanish, and even Hindi. It is not uncommon for Korean artists to perform covers of songs from American and Latin pop stars during their own concerts. There are Korean artists who are members Korean diaspora (people who grew up in the West). There are artists in Korean pop groups who are not ethnically Korean.
Would Korean-American artists who were born and raised in the US then be shuffled into the Korean Grammys? What about Chinese-American or Japanese-American artists? Would there be a catch-all “Asian” Grammy award show with a “Bollywood” category that would include both popular Punjabi singers like Diljit Dosanjh and playback singers (singers who sing for Hindi cinema and are not performative artists)?
If the Grammys are supposed to be for excellence in music, then they should really go for it. Sixty-one years of tip-toeing around the fact that good music does not limit itself to any one nation’s sovereign borders is enough. Open the flood gates. Abolish the “World Music” category. Honor excellence regardless of where it is found and who produces it.
Given all this, the ultimate question becomes: What would be better? To have BTS win for Dynamite and have that potentially be the only Grammy they ever receive, or for them to lose this time around and pray that enough societal and financial pressure is applied to the Recording Academy that BTS can be recognized for the life-changing work that they have created with their own blood, sweat, and tears. For a fandom that has taken the reigns of pushing BTS into the forefront of the current social conscience, who is single handedly responsible for the selling of BTS albums in the US, who spent the better part of two years calling in to radio stations and getting cursed out for requesting BTS, is difficult to contemplate these questions because the Recording Academy is the one entity the fandom cannot touch. The fandom can give BTS as many #1s on the Hot100 as it wants to, but ultimately, there is no direct action the fandom can take to give BTS what every singer wants the most.