BTS Make History With This VMA Win — But What Does It All Really Mean?

BTS, also known as Bangtan Sonyeondan, also known as the biggest boy band in the world, just made history. Again. Breaking records and winning trophies have become as second nature to the group as pity-laughing at oldest member Jin’s dad jokes at this point, but this win — the MTV Music Video Award For Best Pop — has a particularly nuanced significance.
The septet, composed of RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook won four VMAs: Best Pop, Best Group, Best Choreography, and Best K-Pop this year for their music video for “ON." They’ve won VMAs before — the fan-voted Best Group award as well as Best K-Pop in 2019 — but their nomination for Best Pop was the first time the group, or any Asian group for that matter, had been nominated in one of the ceremony’s main categories. 
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In 2019, the VMAs added the Best K-Pop category to the awards ceremony, but the move received heavy backlash from critics and fans. Many saw this as a xenophobic move on MTV’s part, as they felt the network continues to ghettoize international (often meaning non-Western) artists, even though BTS boast accomplishments that top those of their peers nominated in the main award categories. Their 2019 video “Boy With Luv,” in fact, saw the biggest 24-hour debut of any music video on YouTube in history at the time with 74.6 million views (Taylor Swift came in second).
And after the torrent of criticism swirled online, MTV hastily added three more fan-voted categories — conveniently adding BTS to the new category “Best Group,” which they easily won. But to most fans, especially BTS’s fans called ARMY, the gesture came too late. In the end, they felt as if the network was looking to preserve its viewership count and placate the fandom rather than truly respecting and recognizing the artistry of the Korean musicians.
This year, MTV tried to make reparations in the form of giving BTS a seat at the Best Pop table — and given the fact that the visual for “ON” has tens of millions more views that its competitors (at the time of writing, 237 million views and counting), if they hadn’t it would have be a gaping omission. The VMAs also booked BTS for their first-ever performance and the TV debut of their new, sparkling nu-disco English language song “Dynamite.” But while this was seen by some as a step in the right direction, others felt the group were snubbed from the most prestigious all-around awards, like Video Of The Year and Artist Of The Year.  
Fans, of course, were pleased to see BTS clinch another title — a win is a win, after all, and this is a historic one, at that. But there’s been a change in the air around the VMA discourse this year. One in which members of ARMY, as well as many international music fans at large, have questioned why the network’s validation matters at all. “Dynamite” obliterated the YouTube premiere record, and amassed 10 million views in less than half an hour. BTS’s Map of the Soul: 7 continues to be the biggest U.S. release of any band so far this year, and the group keeps selling out stadiums with or without anyone else’s approval (including the Grammys). Western award shows are assumed to be the ultimate measures of success. It’s the reason why Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho’s description of the Oscars as a “local” event seemed so subversive. But attitudes are changing — and the relatively unbothered response of fans is a harbinger of that evolution.
“ON” is a song about tenacity and grit. It’s a song about persisting and moving forward despite the challenges, because to give up on your dream would be to suffer a worse fate than death. With this ethos in mind, what really matters comes into focus — touching as many people as possible through art. Rapper Suga said as much during a recent press conference for “Dynamite,” when asked about their charting aspirations for the song: “We built this song to give a little strength to people to listen to it. So our goal is for as many people as possible to listen to it.” And BTS have proved that you can certainly do that with or without a Moonman on your shelf.

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