I’m a Gen-Xer, and I like to think the nature of music during my formative years is such that I can tolerate a wide spectrum of styles and concepts. I pride myself on my ability to listen to almost anything for at least a little while, and see if there’s something in there worth liking. I’ve got my limits (there’s only so much death metal I can handle, and modern mumble-rap is … frankly stupid) but in the main I like to think I’m pretty tolerant of a lot of different music from a lot of different artists from a lot of different places.
What tends to turn me off quickly, though, is a rabid fandom. I don’t mind listening to any artist for a song or two, just to see. But if I have to do that while enduring rhapsodic waxings about why I need to love it, you’re going to lose me. So I was aware that K-pop existed, and had heard the name BTS, but the neo-Beatlemanic fan army that surrounds the entire genre is something I find more than a little off-putting, so I left it alone.
This week, however, I came across the news that “Permission to Dance,” BTS’s new single, had replaced their previous single as the #1 song on Billboard. So I popped open a YouTube window and watched the video. I have to admit, it’s catchy. Boy-band derivative, certainly, but catchy nonetheless.
I feel like I see what BTS is doing. They’re channelling Michael Jackson by way of *NSYNC. And making fun pop music doing it. There is, to be fair, a level of vaguely unnatural otherness that surrounds every member of the group. The hair is a little too perfectly artificial. The skin is a little too smooth. The look is a little too androgynous. But the extremely stylized vibe works on these guys, because pop idols have always been a little transgressively fashion-forward. It’s a boy band full of Michael Jacksons. And there’s … nothing really wrong with that, actually.
I have to admit, too, that the video is awfully subversive for a catchy pop fluffball of a song (written with Ed Sheeran, so the press says). “We don’t need permission to dance!” is the great call of the chorus, and while that’s a fun cultural battlecry all its own (Kevin Bacon on line 1 for you, gentlemen …), the video involves a whole slew of people not just deciding it’s time to dance, but taking their masks off to do it. The first chorus even cranks up in front of a wall with the words “The Wait is Over” emblazoned across it. In today’s lockdown-hysterical climate (speaking of rabid fandoms … ), that’s pretty brave. I can see where BTS could take a hit on this from the maskholes: “So you don’t need permission to superspread, either? What about the variant?! Why do you hate old people?! So Irresponsible!”
As one rapidly approaching “old people” status myself, I stand with BTS on this one: we don’t need permission. To do anything.