Abba did it, and so are BTS – singing in English to reach a bigger audience and sell more albums. It doesn't mean they're selling out, as Netflix's This Is Pop reminds us

The K-pop group’s, Permission to Dance, In 1974, Abba performed, Waterloo, in English

“We said, ‘if we are allowed to sing in English, we must’.”

So says Benny Andersson of Swedish pop group Abba in This Is Pop, a new Netflix documentary that dropped in June – but these words could just have easily been uttered by a member of BTS.

The K-pop group’s Permission to Dance, which topped the US Billboard’s Hot 100 in the week beginning July 18, is their fifth No 1 on the prestigious music chart. Of those five, only one – last year’s Life Goes On – was in Korean; the rest have been in English.

This has led to debate about the localisation and anglicisation of BTS’ music for the American music market. Their original English singles – Dynamite, Butter and Permission to Dance – are enthusiastically upbeat and not necessarily typical of BTS’ singles.

The K-pop group’s, Permission to Dance, In 1974, Abba performed, Waterloo, in English

Permission to Dance is BTS’ fifth No 1 on the US Billboard’s Hot 100. Photo: YouTube

Opinions vary as to whether this is the right move for BTS. Some declare it a new venture and era for the group and others question whether the band are “selling out” while trying to appease a sizeable US market. The group has been forthright that they are aiming for a Grammy win with their latest releases.

While watching This Is Pop, produced by Banger Films, I was struck by just how old a conversation this is. In 1974, Abba performed Waterloo in English, not Swedish, at the Eurovision Song Contest because English is more commonly spoken around the world.

“That’s pretty foundational, that to be somebody in the global pop music [world] you’ve got to be able to speak and sing in English,” declared Ola Johansson, a music geography professor at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown in Pennsylvania and author of Songs from Sweden: Shaping Pop Culture in a Globalised Music Industry, in a subsequent scene.

Andersson and Johansson’s quotes came from the third episode of This Is Pop, dubbed “Stockholm Syndrome”, which focused on how Swedish songwriters and producers came to become dominant power players in pop.

Although South Korea’s music scene didn’t get a single mention – likely because Banger Films recently produced K-pop Evolution for YouTube (full disclosure, I am a talking head in that one) – much of what artists and experts said about breaking out as a Big, Global Pop Star resonated immensely with regard to BTS’ success.

The need to sing in English to surpass a regional market; R&B group Boyz II Men on how they felt white acts surpassed their success in some part because they were less difficult to sell to the typical boy-band-loving audience; Shania Twain and others discussing how reluctant the country music industry was for anything new; the charting wars evoked by industry folks to sell Britpop albums – the list goes on, evoking issues we still see nowadays.

Time and again throughout the series, I was struck by how little things have changed since pop artists became popular – all along, it’s been the American music scene where success is paramount. Many moments in This Is Pop may as well have been subtitled “this is how the industry was and this is how it is”. If you’re different, that’s fine … but you are going to have it much harder if you don’t play by the dominant rules of the industry.

This is, of course, an exaggeration: many of the same music icons who struggled to make their way did eventually make it, either by doing things so differently they couldn’t be ignored or by playing by the rules so well they made everyone else look bad.

BTS, in their own way, have done just that: they got to the top with their unique style and an aim to win a Grammy, so they’ve adjusted (to some degree) to music that ostensibly targets the music awards’ primary market.

Still, they’ve made it clear these songs are different from their other songs – last year’s BE album was Korean focused and not quite as classically, effervescently dance pop as BTS’ English tracks, and their upcoming album is apparently much the same.

But it’s not too different: BTS have a history of releasing trilogies of albums, and this trio of singles feel similar to that element of their discography. It’s a new development, not a divergence. At the end of the day, they’re still a popular act, and pop greatness – however diverse and imaginative a band’s music – is still dictated by how that music resonates with audiences. By performing in English and sharing addictive, uplifting songs during the coronavirus pandemic, BTS are working within that industry on their own terms.

Localisation for a new market isn’t anything new for the K-pop group: just as Abba sang in English, BTS have released many songs in Japanese. These are no less part of BTS’ discography than any of their Korean releases.

And it’s not just Abba and BTS: Celine Dion’s English releases are well-known, but the My Heart Will Go On singer initially made her name as a French artist in Canada. Shakira and Ricky Martin, too, debuted in Spanish before English.

There’s nothing wrong with singing in a different language, it’s just how things have been, and still are being, done and will be done for the foreseeable future, if you want to be a star in the Western music world. The American music industry, with its money, remains the dominant, most lucrative taste-making market, determining the hits that resonate around the world.

While there are occasional artists who make waves regardless of the language they’re singing in – BTS and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny come to mind – This is Pop emphasises the near-futility of trying to resonate with the biggest music market in the world as yourself, when you are considered an outsider by the insiders. It’s the sad truth that the largest music market in the world is the US, and it’s an industry reluctant to embrace diversity and non-English music.

The penultimate episode of This Is Pop is called “What Can A Song Do” and I think that’s probably the episode I’d have placed BTS in. Their songs have resonated with millions across the world for being everything from pandemic comfort tracks to taking on social inequity. Permission to Dance is no different – a recent article published through Weverse Magazine examines the power of BTS’ music and how it is relayed through their English songs, and explores several examples of how the newest single pokes at Western, Orientalist viewpoints.

Them trying new things to reach new audiences isn’t a bad thing – it’s just different. Whether you like their recent releases or not, you have to recognise that there is a reason and intentionality behind the recent pop hits that BTS have created.

Abba wanted to be heard beyond Sweden and recognised that English was the tool they needed to do that, and BTS are essentially doing the same to move beyond their millions-strong fandom’s borders. That doesn’t make them any less authentic or any less BTS. It’s just another stone laid down on the path they’re paving as the pop superstars of this era.

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