K-pop group BTS made pop music history with their explosive 2020 single, “Dynamite”. It became the first song by an all-Korean group to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Within Korea, Bangtan Sonyeondan (the name with which BTS is more known as domestically) cemented their place among the ranks of retired Olympian Kim Yuna and Tottenham footballer Son Heung-Min as breathing banners of national pride.
But how much good did “Dynamite” really do for Korean culture? Its lyrics are entirely in English. Both of its songwriters, David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, are British, which for some may diminish the significance of its global success. Is the hit single really a triumph of Korean music and the result of successful diversification of the globalised music industry? Or is it an omen of homogenised world music, blanched and pureed under Anglophone influence?
L’exception française is the French response to such questions. France has a history of protectionist cultural policy, which was pursued by the post-WWII culture minister André Malraux. This was contemporaneous with, if not caused by, Anglophobia in the 1950s and onwards (although fear of Anglo-American superiority existed as early as the late 19th century); in the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle sought to target the Anglo-American as ‘both a historical and a contemporary geopolitical’ rival. It was under de Gaulle, of course, that Malraux was Minister of Cultural Affairs. In line with such history, for music ‘l’exception’ involves a legal minimum quota of French songs played on the radio. A 2013 Financial Times article largely defends the measures, arguing that it: ‘should be understood more positively: as safeguarding a niche for some French cultural products’. Today, eight years later, with world music more globalised than ever in our age of streaming, I doubt such a safeguard is necessary.
The old-world equation of globalisation with Americanisation, the invasion of the Harley-revving rock stars and NYC-dreaming songwriters, no longer holds. Variety’s 2019 article declares our age of Spotify as ‘a time where breaking in America is no longer the primary goal or the definitive sign that an artist has made it’. The mainstage belongs less and less to 15-months-long America tours, Madison Square Garden and the Ed Sullivan theatre—and more and more to streaming platforms, installed in smartphones all over the world. So we begin to witness dynamics much more diverse than the non-American artist / American audience or American artist / non-American audience relationship.
Another dubious equation is that of globalisation with homogenisation. ‘Mondialisation ne signifie pas uniformisation du monde’ [Globalisation does not indicate global uniformisation], argues French political scientist Jean-François Bayart in an interview with Alternatives Economiques. In fact, globalisation has been producing new varieties.
Take rock music. It began, yes, with American rock and roll in the mid-20th century. But what followed American Elvis singing ‘That’s all right’ in Memphis, Tennessee wasn’t simply a range of echoes—although the line ‘that’s all right’ and its many permutations seem to be chorus favourites everywhere—with a kick of gayageum or maracas to vaguely signpost the band’s nationality (this record better sell, man, says the Hawaiian-shirt-sporting record company executive, as the non-Anglophone band frontman from a non-Anglophone country gulps foreignly). The best of what followed was a diverse harmony of original and incredibly distinct rock music from across the world.
French rock musician Renaud declares, ‘Y’a eu Antoine avant moi / Y’a eu Dylan avant lui’ [There was Antoine before me / There was Dylan before him], in his song “Société tu m’auras pas”. This grumbling, broken-voiced descendant of Bob Dylan scribbles French discontent all over his American inspiration, projecting his Frenchness onto American rock’s subversive self-expression—his disgust for the average French bourgeois and bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) makes him all the more French. With Apple Music’s ‘Renaud Essentials’ playlist downloading in the background, I dived into link after link of ‘Similar Artists’ profiles, stumbling upon my current two French favourites, Alain Souchon and Laurent Voulzy.
Mexican band Maná, which I “discovered” from their collaboration with Santana, sent me into a completely new direction. Proudly and loudly rock en español, they blast an internationally popular yet strikingly Latin American sound, imbibed with cumbia and bachata sounds.
Listening to Maná via streaming, as with earlier French musicians, further facilitated my exploration. Hours of listening and half a dozen clicks later, I landed on Spanish-speaking music elsewhere. I began with La Oreja de Van Gogh. When my high school Spanish teacher recommended the band years earlier, I had brushed them off to the back of my mind—the effortlessness and low commitment of the streaming platform allowed me to tap on ‘Puedes Contar Conmigo’ light-heartedly, then download their essentials, then become their loyal fan of 4 years—and still going strong.
Though I may have just exposed my rather low effort, ‘Top Hits’ listening tendency, my experience is but a quick glance at how diversified globalised music can be, and how easily accessible it has become. This is not to reject l’exception française as entirely pointless—its drive toward state sponsorship of local artists is just and needed. Its protectionist grounds, on the other hand, are indeed debatable, if not outdated in this era of incredibly fluid cultural exchange through streaming and online sharing.
“Dynamite” is undoubtedly a product of Anglophone influence. Yet even this single, as an Insider article argues, is more of a ‘balancing act’ between appealing to English-speaking and Korean audiences, and still engages with several elements of BTS’s ultimately Korean identity. Only a few months after the song’s release, “Life goes on,” another single by the group, this time predominantly in Korean and involving Anglophone as well as Korean songwriters, debuted at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was the first non-English song to do so. BTS’s successes, then, seems to me as a triumph of Korean culture—if not world culture.
Image credit: Yun_Q via Flickr (Public Domain)