Before BTS took the stage at the 54th annual American Music Awards to receive the fan-voted award for video of the year, the nine members of the K-pop band were spotted taking selfies. This was probably more popular in the US than some of the themes and selections contained in their ten new songs, shown on the ABC broadcast in California.
In an interview with reporters before the live broadcast, Suga, the oldest member, admitted that the band hoped to make a mark by surprise. “But even though the award show is staged a bit differently compared to some Korean events, I think the message of our music is more important. It’s about a universal message,” he said.
The band sang the Psy-style hit DNA, which has dominated Spotify streams in the US in recent weeks. And while this felt like more of a traditional pop performance than this past summer’s AMAs where the group performed Love Yourself, building to a slamming techno close, DNA was still something of a shift in tone. At times it felt less like the vocals were rising in falsetto as they normally do and more like they were attempting to convey a pure love song. Despite the skills of their members – Suga is especially strong on high notes – they didn’t quite get it right. There were some lovely singing moments, but the bulk of the performance felt like they were trying a bit too hard. With a pen and paper, they’d probably spell their lyrics perfectly.
The introduction of an American winners’ category was a break from recent AMAs, which have mostly focused on the most popular YouTube video. In Korean, DNA isn’t its own song, so there are few concepts of love it can use as a verse. But that’s the deal with some of the most popular K-pop tracks in the US. Some Korean rap songs have fully broken out in the states, like Big Bang’s Zip and GOT7’s Welcome Back. Psy himself has had a very successful international career, thanks to his hit, Gangnam Style. The genre has moved away from diss tracks about other K-pop groups in recent years, such as 2017’s Blame It on the Sun. The highlight of Psy’s entire career, at least for the time being, was undoubtedly Love Yourself, where the 22-year-old went off on a viral monologue about love and self-love. The band was the first to win video of the year at the AMAs, where Psy has three nominations this year.
BTS’s group member, V, told Variety earlier this week that he was perplexed by the focus on YouTube hits, calling it “not a very accurate gauge of popularity”. “When [the country] first started doing it, it was like, the most popular Korean artist didn’t win. And after that they went away from it and just did music videos,” he said. “And that’s what we like. You know, we want it to be a collaborative thing.”
Part of that collaboration is starting to happen in the form of the group’s music. Along with trying to focus on a universal story, they’re also doing more collaborations. Of their nine new songs, seven were co-written by outside artists such as EDM producer and BTS collaborator Steve Aoki, and the last two tracks – titled End of the World and DreamWorld – were done with rapper Vince Staples. This is part of an attempt to broaden the audience base for a band that remains very heavily within Korea – about 90% of their online fanbase lives there.