The Bigger Picture To Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’s Grammy Nomination

A discussion into the significance of Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’s Grammy nomination and the points it raises concerning the Grammys, today’s current musical landscape in the West, and the ongoing fight for Asian representation in music.

On December 7, the Recording Academy released its list of nominees for the 2019 Grammy Awards, revealing that BTS’ Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ album had been nominated for Best Recording Package.

The category celebrates the visual identity to an album with the award given to the winning album’s art director. In this instance, Seoul-based branding company HuskyFox would be awarded the honour in being the creative team behind the design to Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’. Other contenders for the category include Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, St. Vincent’s Masseduction, The Chairman’s The Offering, and Foxhole’s Well Kept Thing.

The fact that a non-English album by a foreign Asian act was considered and reviewed by a conservative panel for an awards ceremony with a reputation of being apathetic towards inclusivity should be celebrated. The Grammy Award itself for Best Recording Package should also not be belittled when too often the design process to perfecting a visual look is undervalued by non-creatives. Fundamentally, all of these details have been highlighted and honoured.

In an article, Billboard K-Pop columnist Jeff Benjamin further asserts the significance of the nomination:

BTS earning the recognition (along with their art team) is a further testament to the importance of the larger teams that collectively work together to bring not only high-quality music but top-notch visuals and packaging that coincide with the larger themes represented by the music.

South Korean media outlets have also shared such sentiments in spite of complex industry politics. In an instance like this, any major entertainment company with connections would take the opportunity to media play, that is to create a media frenzy. However, numerous articles released have shifted focus towards how BTS were not nominated themselves or for their artistry; the undertone of disappointment very transparent. Regardless, an acknowledging of the nomination’s significance persists. After all, there have only been few South Korean artists to have been nominated and to win Grammys in the ceremony’s entire history before this week’s announcement, any nomination is worth recognising.

Though, fans of the group and other publications be can’t help but stand by the belief that BTS and their body of work for 2018 were deserving of more. It needs to be established that BTS couldn’t contend for the New Artist with their release a staggering 70 songs this year alone surpassing the category’s requirement of a maximum is 30 songs in three albums. However, a number of fans were hoping for a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album. This isn’t unreasonable, especially considering the newly released Billboard year-end charts.

BTS made Billboard history by being the first Korean act to enter Top Billboard 200 Artists and Billboard 200 Albums. Moreover, the group had earned #8 on 2018’s year-end chart for Top Artists and had ranked #2 on the year-end Top Duo/Group chart just under Imagine Dragons. The Korean powerhouse had also claimed the top spot for both Independent Album Artists and World Album Artists year-end charts. Their hit single, “Fake Love”, debuted at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and had been certified Gold by the RIAA. The track has already featured in multiple lists celebrating the year’s best songs as compiled by streaming services and publications. 

At debut, Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ had landed at #1 on the Billboard 200 on May 27, 2018. The album was ultimately the first Korean album to top the chart and was also the highest-charting album by an Asian act. Its longevity was demonstrated on the year-end chart for Billboard 200 Albums, coming in at #101. Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ had also featured the Independent Albums end-year chart at #3 and had topped the year-end World Albums chart.

In regards to its reception, Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ was well received by music critics. Notably, the album had earned a 7.1 rating from influential music publication Pitchfork—a score higher than the ones given to several albums nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album and Album Of The Year.

Therefore, while receiving a Grammy nomination in itself is a grand feat, there is little room for doubt in questioning if BTS should have won more nominations. However, what BTS were not nominated for in the end should come to little surprise to anyone aware of the Recording Academy’s long history of reluctance to champion diversity, along with its disputed credibility and fairness. Such issues have persisted in recent years.

In 2014, the 56th Annual Grammys saw its Rap category infamously dominated by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. That year, the only award the duo had not claimed was Best Rap/Sung Collaboration which was unsurprisingly the only sub-category the pair had not been nominated in. Among their controversial wins, the most infamous is regarded to be Best Rap Album with the pair winning over Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, Drake, and Kanye West. In particular, Lamar’s second studio album, good kid, m.A.A.d city., was considered to be a shoo-in with its widespread critical acclaim for its thematic scope and lyrics along with its certified triple Platinum status. The debate about The Heist‘s win focused on race seeing the Recording Academy’s majority white panel, and Macklemore’s musical identity as a rapper compared to the other nominees. In the end, Macklemore himself had even apologised to Lamar, posting the ill-famed screenshot of his text messages to the rapper on social media in which he admitted that he had robbed him of the win.

There was also the instance of the 59th instalment of the awards ceremony for Album of the Year. In 2017, during what was intended to be her acceptance speech, Adele expressed her feelings of being undeserving of the award and instead decided to use her stage time honour fellow nominee Beyoncé and her empowering work. The singer went to the extent of breaking her gramophone trophy in two so that she could share the award with her fellow nominee whom she thought rightfully deserved the win. While both artists’ works for the year were received well in music circles, Beyoncé’s Lemonade was revered for its bold sound and politically and socially charged messages while, though a well-crafted example of modern pop, many regarded Adele’s 25 to be the traditionally safe choice for a Grammy award. Additionally, that year’s ceremony marked the third time that Beyoncé had been passed over of Album of the Year, losing to Taylor Swift in 2010 and Beck in 2015. Furthermore, while winning a Lifetime Achievement Award and scoring twelve nominations, esteemed music icon Diana Ross has never won a gramophone trophy. 

With that becomes clear that a noticeable trend is present with who loses to who. Bruno Mars’ clean sweep at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards can only be loosely argued for as a win for Asian representation considering that most are unaware of his half Filipino background. That the begs the question, is he an icon of Asian representation? Essentially, such a thought inherently challenges how an audience can revere him as such while not erasing the non-Asian parts of his heritage.

Fundamentally, this is only a symptom of the wider struggle Asian artists face to be able to stand in the Western contemporary music industry. Within the small number of mainstream Asian names in Western music, the more substantial part are multiracial and like Mars—Tyga, Nicole Scherzinger, and Kehlani to name a few.

A New York Times article by Mireya Navarro written in 2007, the journalist raises that while a number of Asian-American artists are signed to labels, the roster is inclined towards talents of mixed heritage given their racially ambiguous looks.

Though, that’s not to dismiss their own struggles. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2007, Mars reflects on his disappoinment when initally pitching hit single “Nothin’ on You” to an industry professional.

He goes, “Oh man, oh man, what a song. You know what kind of white artist we could break with this? Blond hair, blue eyes, we could make this kid the next thing!”

Reflecting the time period the piece was written, Navarro asserts while that people music industry have no explanation as to the lack of mainstream Asian-American artists, such musicians and scholars claim that prejudices and racial stereotypes have been damaging and harmful. The writer offers the following:

The image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.

Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them.

In the article, Andy Goldmark, who at the time managed Burmese Chinese singer Natalise, who now fronts Natalise + the Sunset Run, reasoning that rather an existing bias and prejudice, Asian-Americans had yet to form a sound distinct to their identity in the way African-Americans and Latinos had.

That if there were to be mainstream names in the music scene, then culture and tradition had to be at the forefront whether it be in incorporating Asian instruments or lyrics that address issues specific to the community.

Asian-Americans have tended to follow what’s going in the pop world rather than use the Asian-American path to invent new things,” said Mr. [Andy] Goldmark, a songwriter and music producer and a former vice president for talent at Jive Records.

While Goldmark raises an interesting point, its foil can be found the presence of then-relevant Asian-American musicians—Cassie, Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, and, of the Black Eyed Peas—who enjoy success in a range of genres without necessarily blending their heritage into their music.

Moreover, such logic comes with the potential danger of tokenising the Asian identity, to make it a novelty palatable to a Western audience. Ultimately, it ignores that Asians hopeful of making it in have to be signed by a label in the first place.

After encountering difficulties in pursuing music in the U.S, Korean-American Kpop singer Ailee looked towards South Korea for a music career nearly a decade ago. Upon her debut, she went on to win multiple awards from prestigious Korean year-end awards show with her vocal prowess informally dubbing her as Korea’s Beyoncé. In a phone interview with Reuters in August, reflected on her hardships, declining to say which U.S. entertainment companies had rejected her.

They told me it’s difficult for people who are Caucasian or black or Latino to feel that way toward an Asian person.

A similar story can be seen with John Park. The musician was a semifinalist on the ninth season of American Idol in 2010, though, he went on to later auditioning for Korean talent show Superstar K2’s second season within the same year, where he had placed second and subsequently signed with a music label.

In essence, it’s not uncommon for Asian-Americans and Asians born in the West to turn to their homeland as their path to music careers. The Kpop industry especially is no stranger to this with auditions held by major labels in major global cities standard at the time.

However, Navarro notes that instead of signing with a Western music company, musicians of Asian descent have adopted a more grassroots approach. She commented on the then-rising practice of composing songs and uploading tracks online, taking gigs at small clubs and Asian festivals, and how some have gone to the extent of creating their own company.

These trends highlighted in an article written in 2007 can be seen characterising in today’s current Western musical landscape; one in which in which record labels are no longer the gatekeepers of a music industry that is now experiencing the effects of disintermediation, the rise of streaming services, and the state of an ever-increasing globalised world.

Content sharing online platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud have created a space for various Asian-American singers like Arden Cho, David Choi, Jason Chen, and AJ Rafael. The hip-hop scene has witnessed the exponential rise of young U.S. entertainment company, 88rising. Initially, attracting attention for viral online content, the label now sees immense success after only being founded in 2015, housing and distributing the music popular Asian acts like Keith Ape, the Higher Brothers, Kris Wu and Joji. In particular, the latter’s debut studio album, Ballads 1, had charted at #3 on the US Billboard 200 and had also topped the US Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, making him the first Asian-born artist to do so. In addition, Chinese singer-songwriter and EXO member Lay scored a win for Mandarin pop in October, as his album, NAMANANA: 03, debuted at #21 on the Billboard 200. Moreover, indie rock, in particular, has seen a number of Asian American women break into the scene with acts like Jay Som, Mitski, and Japanese Breakfast that sees the creation of a new normal within mainstream rock. Taiwanese American Kpop artist Amber Liu has also recently celebrated the success of her first solo tour in North America, Gone Rogue.

However, representation in the West is not limited to those of East Asian descent, Asians of various identities have also seen success. Another 88rising artist, Rich Brian, whose debut album, Amen, marked him as the first Asian musician to reach #1 on iTunes Hip Hop charts, hails from Indonesia. Former One Direction member, Zayn, is setting milestones for South Asian musicians in the West. Hayley Kiyoko, who had recently beat out acts like SZA, Khalid, and Lil Xan for Push Artist Of the Year at this year’s 2018 MTV Video Music Awards, embraces her identity as an LGBT+ woman of Asian descent.

With that said, when a South Korean act that doesn’t sing in English gradually enters its way into the Western music industry in the way they did, it’s significant. BTS had no initial intentions of breaking into the U.S.; instead, it was a fanbase that opened a space for them to thrive. That’s not to discount their subsequent achievements—after all, there would be no support, the kind that triumphs over a language barrier and culture differences with ease, if there was nothing of worth supporting.

Hallyu has grown exponentially over the years—and that is only natural as new technology advances to close the gaps between countries, and cultures. Unlike Jpop, the Korean idol industry has been able to expand globally by mobilising online accessibility. Though it can’t be denied that the PSY’s 2012 viral hit “Gangnam Style” and its dance left a mark on modern pop culture, PSY as an artist and his following attempts to match the song’s success were seen as a novelty rather than taken seriously by western audiences. However, current idol groups have developed solid fanbases that have created spaces for them to flourish in markets that were not as accessible before. Multiple Kpop music videos featuring on YouTube’s list of trending videos is not a rare occurrence. Groups touring North America has become more frequent along with Kpop albums making appearances on Billboard’s charts.

However, BTS have arguably extended beyond what’s still relatively a niche with their achievements. It needs to be understood that online vocal support doesn’t always translate to sales. The previously mentioned Billboard end-year charts can attest to BTS’ strength.

While Western publications have to a tendency to describe the group as a sudden phenomenon, it should not be neglected that BTS’ path to where they currently stand was gradual. In 2016, upon its release, the group’s second studio album, Wings, had set a new record for Korean music by charting at #26 on the Billboard 200, the release becoming the highest-charting and best-selling Korean album on the chart at the time. In addition, its repackage, Wings: You Never Walk Alone, reached iTunes′ Top 10 within 24 hours of its release. It marked BTS as the second Korean act to make the chart after PSY and “Gangnam Style”. Moreover, a promotional track off the album, “Spring Day”, had also debuted at #15 on Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100. In all, while maintaining domestic popularity were able to BTS set new Billboard records for Korean music, and were able to successfully sell out a stadium tour in North America this year alone.

Therefore, it can be established that the contemporary Western musical landscape isn’t truly scarce of Asian acts or that there is no demand to see such artists at the forefront. That’s not to say the current condition of Asian representation in the industry is fine; this process is gradual after all. Instead, what needs to be addressed is how or rather if a historical and prestigious ceremony representative of such an institution has adapted to this.

In October, the Recording Academy had declared that 900 new voting members were invited as an inclusive move. These new music industry professionals were either female, people of colour, and under the age 39. A Billboard article reported:

“The moves come five months after the May formation of The Task Force, which is charged with identifying barriers and unconscious biases that impede the advancement of women and people of colour in the music industry and coming up with best practices for the Recording Academy and the industry.” 

This year, BTS were not the only Asian act to have their album nominated for a Grammy Award. Breakout star H.E.R. of Black and Filipino descent earned five nominations including Album of the Year with her self-titled compilation album. Interestingly enough, Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ also shares its category for Best Recording Package with a record crafted by another recognised Asian artist, Mitski’s Be The Cowboy.

Be The Cowboy is the Japanese American singer-songwriter’s fifth studio album. Upon its release, it had received widespread acclaim from music critics, earning an 8.8 score from Pitchfork. If it has already been established that BTS’ Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’s 7.1 rating had been higher than some albums competing for Album Of The Year, then what does this say about Mitski’s nomination? Essentially, Be The Cowboy has already topped multiple year-end lists for 2018’s best albums from established outlets like The New York Times, Time, and Vulture. Though despite this, Best Recording Package seems to be the only category in which like BTS, Mitski is recognised by the Recording Academy.

The claim of its commercial success falling short of more nominations can be objected to with artists like Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Travis Scott snubbed for Album of the Year. This year’s category alone has already sparked confusion and debate for what qualifies. Furthermore, to argue that nominations are purely based on acclaim would also be flawed. If that were the case, then competition between Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys against Janelle Monae’s criminally underrated Dirty Computer for the award should have never existed given its universal mixed reception from critics.

Moreover, the credibility of this year’s instalment of the awards has further been challenged with Post Malone’s “#rockstar” revealing to be an ineligible track for one of the main distinctions of Record of the Year.

Consequently, despite the Recording Academy’s most recent efforts, it is evident that the Grammys still suffer from persisting and in this instance, inextricable issues of exclusivity, and dubious criteria. Ultimately, if an Asian-American artist like Mitski is struggling to find acknowledgement for what critics believe to be a phenomenal album—what BTS were not nominated for should have been expected.

Regardless, this shouldn’t detract from the significance of the awards ceremony recognising Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’, a non-English album from a foreign Asian act even when it should arguably qualify for more. However, with that said BTS would have been continued to be successful with or without a nomination. Ultimately, this isn’t a matter of fans demanding to see some form of Western validation for an Asian artist—to reduce the topic to that would be foolish. The crux of the matter is Asian representation in the Western music industry and an institution’s inherently xenophobic nature.

Despite personal opinions or issues, the Grammys remain one of the most significant annual events for music in the West. A gramophone trophy still has a strong association with musical success—and that’s why heated debate of who is deserving and who is not is always set in motion each year.

While the nomination marks BTS as the first Kpop act and Korean group whose album has received a nomination, they are not the first Korean artist to be nominated or to win a Grammy Award; a fact not to be too optimistic about. Since the first Grammy Awards in 1959, the ceremony has only recognised a handful of Korean acts. Lyric coloratura soprano Jo Sumi was the first to be nominated, the singer being nominated three times and winning the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 1993. In 2015, Korean sound engineer, Hwang Byeongjoon, earned a nomination for Best Engineered Album, Classical and was awarded Best Choral Performance for Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil.

Therefore, a non-English album by a five-year-old Korean act receiving any form of acknowledgement by the Recording Academy is important, especially with today’s current music scene. Furthermore, while the some have maintained that Best Recording Package neglects the Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ as an actual body of work in focusing on surface level aesthetic, the category has a history of recognising artists who stray from the awards ceremony’s safe and conservative tradition. Ultimately, Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ places BTS alongside the likes of David Bowie and Frank Sinatra whose first Grammy nomination was also for Best Recording Package.

Truthfully, the Recording Academy would have no losses in dismissing BTS’ submission for the event and that the category itself is not something to be necessarily belittled.

Though now equipped with a Grammy-nominated album, naturally most question what’s next for the group. Hopefuls are anticipating that this Grammy nomination marks the first of many in the future while others are demanding a proper music nomination for next year’s Billboard Music Awards given BTS’ performance this year.

While the apparent xenophobia to the music industry previously highlighted, the group is also confronted by thinly-veiled misogyny that contempts everything marketed towards and bolstered by young girls.

The claim of BTS’ fanbase being composed of 12-year-old girls is a myth dispelled one too many times. The demographics for ARMYs reflect a great diversity both domestically and globally. Despite this, interviewers still tend to present the fanbase as rabid and fanatical to the group in questions, which the group has gracefully side-stepped.

Ultimately, an area where these two issues come to hinder the group is U.S. radio play. Despite having a number of high charting songs on the Billboard Hot 100 or major streaming platforms like Apple Music, and Spotify, fans having their radio requests declined is all too common. That or having to resort to negotiating social media clout with radio DJs and stations for just one song played.

Though in the end, the group have already persisted in the face of such prejudices with accomplishing momentous achievements within this year alone. BTS has become the face of a successful Unicef campaign, LOVE MYSELF, aiming to end violence against children. They have addressed today’s youth in front of world leaders at this year’s United Nations gathering in New York, being the first Korean musical act to do so. The group have also been dubbed as “Next Generation Leaders” by Time Magazine, and had also featured on the magazine’s list for the “25 Most Influential People on the Internet.” BTS had revealed that they had intentions of renewing their contracts with Big Hit Entertainment in 2019 for an additional seven years. Fans can only have higher hopes.

Above all, the Grammy nomination for Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ highlights a step towards inclusion from an institution but also highlights its struggle to adapt along with the persisting issues of a larger music scene regarding Asian inclusion.

To conclude, in an interview with the internet’s busiest music nerd, Anthony Fantano, Japanese-born and London-based artist Rina Sawayama makes a short reflection on today’s current music landscape.

The upcoming singer discussed that the wave of Asian acts succeeding in the U.S. this year provides her motivation in finding her place within the U.K. music industry, a scene much different as she revealed that there was still an indifference towards BTS and their success from industry professionals despite the group having sold out two nights at the O2 Arena. She also expressed support towards those spearheading the movement and opening more opportunities for other artists, commenting that the music industry as a whole was still experiencing the shift and that there was still a long way to go.

In the end, Sawayama finished off with the following:

It’s a really great time to be doing music as an Asian person.

Thoughts? Congrats if you’ve actually read the whole thing. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of raving about how great the boys are when entering this discussion, however, I really do think that this is bigger than the group. That said, I do view the boys themselves as key figures in such discourse. I’m just glad BTS is part of something meaningful—that they could be what Jeff the Purple Wiggle and Kathleen from Hi-Five were to me as a kid to today’s children, or at least play a part in normalising seeing faces like mine. Tweet at @ForeverBTScom!

Written by S. Acierda

If you're reading this, remember to drink water. Been around since Jungkook was still a rapper. Yell at me on Twitter @s_vacierda.