Nostalgia for Nostalgia: BTS on American TV

By Michelle ChoMarch 16, 2021

Nostalgia for Nostalgia: BTS on American TV
Nostalgia is ubiquitous in late capitalism. In both its spatial and temporal modes of homesickness and a longing for the past, nostalgia can be a response to uncertainty, a longing for comfort in dark times. Nostalgia signifies the impossible desire for return, whether we figure this as prenatal plenitude, the exile’s lost homeland, or the putative completeness of the couple form: 1+1=1. Specifically in the context of American politics today, we see many competing versions. There’s the poisonous revanchism of the Trump cult, which filters the 1950s through a tacky ‘80s tabloid brand. Biden’s Build Back Better is also a nostalgic vision, but one that takes us to different post-crisis moments, telescoping the Great Depression and the Great Recession. 

Today’s more wide-ranging pop nostalgic aesthetics emerge from a planetary crisis that makes looking ahead a problem. But they also have to contend with the growing acknowledgement that the past — especially the romanticized Cold War fifties — was demonstrably unlivable for many, whose newly audible voices claim humanity in the present. What’s known about that putative golden age of postwar prosperity that was beamed around the world through pop music, Hollywood film, and, especially television, is that it was an Eden for a select few. No, nostalgia either for the fifties or the eighties is monstrous and uncanny. And yet, the iconography of Americana that saturated popular media throughout the Cold War maintains its affective force. Today’s nostalgia struggles to contain the impolitic longing for McLuhan’s fantasized global village of the mid-20th century, but perhaps it also does something else.

What’s ironic about the present is that many of us are homesick and also sick of being at home. Our melancholy knows no bounds. So many are also literally displaced, unhoused, unable to imagine comfort, adding another layer of impossibility that makes our current nostalgia different from prior pop culture versions we’ve cycled through during the last half century. What’s abundantly clear is that nostalgia (for the fifties sifted through the eighties or the thirties through the aughts) is an argument about the past, not necessarily as a set of disputed historical facts but as an affective force and aspirational ideal. We see this in the completeness with which nostalgia permeates the fashion and media aesthetics of the current moment, especially pop music. As Billboard watchers note, 2020’s biggest acts all deployed nostalgic pop aesthetics to fashion the sounds of the year, from Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s nineties diva reboot to Weeknd’s ‘80s technopop to Dua Lipa’s disco-revival in her Grammy nominated album Future Nostalgia. But, how do we make sense of a trend that’s also so enduring as to be a classic feature of mass media? 

Arguably, no musical group is more central to this zeitgeist than the Korean pop band BTS, whose televised performances — including this week's Grammys spectacular — are ultra-mediated paeans to nostalgia. The group and its large, international fandom routinely make headlines, sometimes standing in for the entirety of Gen Z, even though the BTS ARMY (the group’s official fandom) is far more diverse in age, gender, race, and nationality than most observers recognize. While the group has had a foothold on American pop charts for several years, their visibility reached a new apex in 2020, with two #1 hit singles. There’s an atavistic prestige to truly mass-cultural stardom, and BTS now garners breathless praise (rather than racist microaggressions) from mainstream journalists. Outlets like Time, Esquire, Variety, and even WSJ Magazine have boarded the bandwagon, aiming to explain for the umpteenth time the “it” factor that makes the group simultaneously edgy and approachable, while selling to the group’s reliable stan army. The key to BTS’s allure is actually quite simple: the group is subcultural because of its foreignness, but its crossover success in the US owes to the group’s singular focus on remixing familiar genres and narratives of American pop music and entertainment. Despite their cancelled 2020 world tour, the group has been more visible in American mass media in the last year than ever before, to repeatedly make the case for their convincing crossover into the US mainstream pop landscape via coverage in legacy media outlets. The latter seek better cross-platform integration (e.g., network TV on YouTube) by capitalizing on the group’s passionate, massive, and “very online” fandom.

Live, televised performance has been the engine of BTS’s crossover, at least in the testimony of many BTS converts, and their television strategy harkens back to earlier eras of American entertainment spectacle pioneered by vaudeville and, later, television variety shows.

The group’s charm offensive across the big three networks has been thorough, scoring high profile guests spots on Corden and Colbert (CBS), Fallon (NBC), Kimmel (ABC), SNL (NBC), and Good Morning America (ABC), today’s heirs of 20th century variety show formats. The group has also performed on every televised music show in the US media market: the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the Grammys. In the latter case, BTS were special guests during Lil Nas X’s performance of his 2019 hit “Old Town Road,” rather than performing their own music and choreography. Thus, the Grammys stage remains the group’s Everest, at least at the time of writing.

Highlighting technical mastery and intertextual aesthetics, these televised performances present a somewhat contradictory appeal to viewers, eschewing the media strategy of their Anglo-American contemporaries who aim instead for radio play and platform ubiquity on Spotify or iTunes. Instead, BTS lean into their polished performance repertoire, despite the risk of reinforcing the image of K-pop that supports the racist view of Asian bodies as robotic, unassimilable, perpetually foreign. Precisely by exporting the conventions of the South Korean pop industry, which closely integrates lavishly produced TV performances with music marketing and promotion, the group also dominates all manner of digital platforms. Like other K-pop acts, BTS match eye-popping group choreography to their musical tracks, displaying star-levels of charisma and athletic coordination in each televised musical number, while focusing parasocial intimacy on social media and in offstage media content. This duality appeals to almost everyone, except for a certain sort of straight, white, middle-aged audience, in whom BTS tends to produce intense xenophobia. (In only the most recent version of this phobic reaction, a German radio host called BTS a virus akin to Covid-19.) This group, however, belongs to the demographic for whom a lot of late night network television is written. Notably, BTS has been a repeat guest only on Fallon and Corden, whose shows emphasize pop musicality and playful, millennial energy. Alyxandra Vesey details this strategy in a 2015 essay in The Spectator—“Working for @LateNightJimmy."

As Benjamin M. Han details in Beyond the Black and White TV: Asian and Latin American Spectacle in Cold War America, variety television of the 1950s-70s frequently featured “ethnic spectacle” — musical performances by Asian and Latinx performers — to assert an ideology of globalism for an imagined overseas audience. This was part of a broader trend in commercial television to produce an anti-communist, multicultural vision of America, and circulate it through popular music and entertainment spectacle. The strategy aligned with attempts to mitigate Soviet criticisms of US anti-Black racism, on vivid display in the Civil Rights struggle, with State Department-funded tours that sent artists like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie around the world as “jazz ambassadors.” While the function of diversity in musical performance on television no longer hews to Cold War dualism, late night still seems to govern the Overton window of what counts as part of a national zeitgeist, which BTS’s American reception makes clear. If Kimmel retains vaudeville’s ethnic sidekick — notably, when BTS appeared on his show in 2018, the group shared language lessons with parking-lot security guard turned regular cast member Guillermo Rodriguez — Jimmy Fallon revises mid-century, variety-show cultural politics by highlighting the iconoclasm of foreign language musical performers on his show.

Despite truisms about the power of pop music to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, television’s spectacular function remains a keystone of BTS’s publicity strategy because the group gets limited radio play for their Korean language tracks — the lion’s share of their output. Their sole track sung entirely in English is last summer’s shimmery, retro, disco-pop hit, “Dynamite.” “Dynamite”’s overt superficiality and its outlier status in the group’s discography laid bare the xenophobia of US music industry gatekeepers, as it became their first track to hit the elusive #1 spot on the Billboard Hot100 singles chart, in no small part because it was the first of BTS’s songs to receive substantial radio play. However, the group’s subsequent, Korean-language single “Life Goes On” also rose to the top spot, despite its near total exclusion from radio airwaves in the US, a testament to the steady growth of their fandom, whose ARMY acronym, despite its martial connotations, stands for “Adorable Representative MC for Youth.” There’s a term for a BTS fan who discovered the group during Covid: “Pandemic ARMY,” and ARMY’s ranks are expanding apace of the group’s prolific transmedia engagement.

Seen in this light, the televised performance of “Dynamite” on Corden’s show from late 2020 takes on a sharpened significance as a retort to the era of American cultural imperialism via “global TV” — the image of America used as propaganda during the fifties expansion of television infrastructure in the Pacific, detailed by media historian James Schwoch. BTS exit a trailer, dance their way across the tarmac, board a jet in first class, and deplane straight onto a simulacrum of Corden’s LA studio stage, topped by its Late Late Show marquee. The final segment of the performance takes place on a copy of the interview set, complete with piped-in sounds of a faux-studio audience. The only element that can’t be fabricated is, of course, Corden himself, who remains absent from the scene. Instead, the famously hammy group member Jimin takes a seat in James’s chair behind his interview desk, before joining the rest of the members for the song’s closing bars as they add a realist touch — the staple, awkward musical-interlude shuffle. “Dynamite” is a simulacrum of American pop, exported and sold around the world, so it’s fitting that the performance would stage the group’s most commercial track as a virtual movement of cargo via trailer/shipping container from Seoul to LA. But the performance also, again, cites American mid-century variety television, which often used the trope of tourist mobility in special episodes shot abroad or segments that simulated international flights when air travel for most Americans offered a fantasy of glamour and luxury, rather than the ignominies of sardine-can seating arrangements and endless security lines.

While the performance dematerializes the Pacific Ocean expanse that separates Seoul and Los Angeles, it nonetheless affirms the significance of place — it is important that we know that BTS travel via Incheon International airport on their nation’s flagship carrier Korea Air. As the group transforms what is possible in the realm of mediated live performance on American TV, BTS also draws attention to the difference place makes, even, or especially, in the realm of remote content creation under pandemic constraints. In the jumbled collage of Americana that is their “Dynamite” music video, BTS deploy a series of nostalgic locations that mash-up millennial pop culture’s mid-century cliches: the teenager’s bedroom, the donut shop/diner, the record store, plus a roller-rink turned discotheque. There’s also a ‘90s Space Jam segment on a basketball court and a Teletubbies-inspired chorus. What may seem like mere postmodern monstrosity is actually a commentary on the pleasures and perils of nostalgia as well as a subtle nod to the racial history of the pop crossover.  

BTS has been nominated for their first Grammy in the category of “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance,” not for their 2020 magnum opus Map of the Soul:7, a genre experimenting LP that offered a career-culminating statement on their seven-year history. Instead, their nomination is for “Dynamite,” which was chosen by their US distributor Columbia records specifically to engineer a crossover hit. In addition to the comfortingly pastel sets, the group choreography is also surprisingly familiar. Throughout the music video, the group spells out its debt to the King of Pop and first crossover teen idol sensation Michael Jackson by moonwalking across the set. However, the influence of MJ’s televisual presence only become clear when comparing the movements of the “Dynamite” choreography with Jackson’s famed live performance of “Billie Jean” on the 1983 TV special “25: Motown Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” where he first debuted the moonwalk. Highlighting MJ’s stylized miming of the fifties greaser combing his hair, Dynamite’s dance moves place BTS in a genealogy of crossover musicians, deliberately pointing to American pop’s history of deracination.

As Michael D. Dwyer notes in Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties, Michael Jackson repeatedly appealed to fifties teen idol culture to accomplish his crossover from Motown phenom to mainstream pop star, specifically operationalizing the music video form, despite its explicitly anti-Black MTV platform. What endures across the pop culture landscape is the way that a pre-civil rights image of Americana secures mainstream pop as invisibly racialized. In other words, what’s undeniable to us now—the whiteness of Reagan-era nostalgia — was indeed what passed as American culture writ large, both at home and, importantly, in the many overseas markets in which American popular culture circulated. Framing the question of pop nostalgia transnationally necessarily changes the way we read nostalgia’s rhetorical gestures, as they signify differently to geographically distinct audiences, a point largely missed by the pop industry gatekeepers at the Recording Academy. BTS will feature on the roster of remote performances for the 63rd Grammy Awards this week. Incidentally, the show will be newly helmed by producer Ben Winston, who co-created “Carpool Karaoke” when he worked on The Late Late Show with James Corden and tweeted admiration for the Corden performance I’ve been writing about here.

BTS’s Grammy nomination has a crucial context that goes beyond thirst for recognition from US pop industry peers. They’ve been running up against a hard deadline: their mandatory conscription in South Korea’s military, which is one of the many enduring traces of the Cold War that remain in South Korean society. BTS’s oldest member was due to enlist on his 28th birthday on December 4, 2020, which would have required the group to reshuffle the seven-member lineup to which fans are deeply attached. South Korea’s National Assembly came to the rescue in the nick of time, passing a revision to the Military Service Act to grant a two-year deferral for high profile pop musicians, so that Jin could remain a BTS member through the other side of the pandemic. This deferral provision is being called the “BTS Law” in South Korea.

BTS’s use of the old-school medium of network television and its integration of music performance as mainstream entertainment keeps alive a notion of a broad global public, codified during the Cold War, that’s been lost with audience fragmentation and narrow-casting. This suggests that the key modifier of globalism today is its virtuality, a point that is also old school — harking back to a mid-20th-century vision of fantasized mobility — at the same time that it responds to the relentlessly material crises of the present moment. The group’s large, international fandom exceeds the scope of the US, but so does American television’s reach and its aspirations to the universality of its bourgeois-liberal (and in the case of late night TV, often blatantly patriarchal) world horizons. While there are other examples of televised pop music performance with comparable aims to broad public reception — e.g., the Super Bowl half-time show — BTS’s targeted conquest of American TV viewership is a throwback to an older model of networked televisual connection, but in a moment in which such connections signify different boundaries and geopolitical dynamics. Mainstreaming foreign languages in mass media and decentering US players is important, even if the forms on offer are reassuringly familiar, and BTS are meaningfully disruptive in their language of expression and their provenance, outside the circuits of Euro-American pop industries. The outright falsification of US democratic ideals during the Trump era coincided exactly with the meteoric rise of BTS’s popularity, as well as K-pop’s visibility as a genre of popular entertainment in North America. In this context, while BTS’s US television appearances are made possible through the group’s strategic deployment of nostalgia, they also draw our attention to the difference that inheres in repetition. BTS’s exceptional presence and mediating function reminds us that no matter how homesick, you can't go home again.

LARB Contributor

Michelle Cho is Assistant Professor of Korean popular culture at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include Korean film, television, video, pop music, and the convergence of politics and platforms in Korean wave fandoms. 


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