Am I Wrong for Loving K Pop?
BTS is a global phenomenon and a huge part of the popularity of the Korean Wave. So is it wrong to love K pop? Join Joe and Toby as they look to blues icon Keb Mo for some answers.
Joe: Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the surprising connection between songs past and present and share the fascinating stories that make music a universal language. I’m Joe Watson and I’m here with my co-host Toby Brazwell. What’s up my friend?
Toby: Well man if I’m being honest. I’ve been better.
Joe: We’ve had some sad episodes, I feel like we need to flip the script a little bit here.
Toby: We do. Well that’s why I’m happy to be here. This is good, this is therapy. Well these are challenging times to say the least, and I’m old enough to recognize this moment for what it is. This is what I call a woodshed moment.
Joe: Oh, I’m intrigued. Please tell me more.
Toby: Jazz pioneer, Charlie “Bird” Parker would practice his saxophone for 11-15 hours a day to not only perfect his skills but to also help his music evolve. He would call that “shedding”. He mentioned that it would drive his neighbors crazy, which I can totally understand, but I can’t help but to think that it also was instrumental to making him the legend we know him to be today.
Joe: Practice makes perfect. That shedding term is supported by journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell’s in his book Outliers where he states that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a craft and reach the level of expertise. So why bring all of this up now?
Toby: Well due to Covid a lot of us have been working from home, and in doing so we get a lot of time to spend with ourselves. It certainly gives us time for some major introspection. Allows us to challenge our previous belief system and maybe just maybe push our personal limits and try some new things. Maybe some music from some different artists we haven’t heard from before?
Joe: Ahh… I see what you’re doing now. I would even venture to say that’s the perfect segue into this episode where we are going to focus on the global musical phenomenon known as BTS. Also known as Bachman Turner Superdrive.
Toby: Um, no. That is not what BTS stands for, you’re confusing them with BTO, or Bachman Turner Overdrive.
Joe: My bad. BTS... That probably stands for Blood Tears and Sweat.
Toby: Ok two things. No again. Blood Sweat and Tears is a great band, and the BTS band that we are referring to actually has a song of the same name, but that’s not what BTS stands for.
Joe: Then I guess it’s time for me to get off the Spinning Wheel, allow you to take the wheel, and tell us a little more about this supergroup.
Toby: BTS or Bangtan Soneyodon is the name of the Korean Boy Band that has become a global sensation. This 7 member group is composed of the following members: RM, Jin Suga, J-hope, Jimin, V and Jung Kook. Now if some of these names sound like rapper names, there’s a reason for that. This group actually started off as a hip hop group and then later transitioned into more of the traditional boy band that we are familiar with here in the states.
Joe: Well this is fascinating to me, and further cements the notion that hip hop is the new rock n roll, and as you have said, the most influential genre in music right now. Doesn’t seem like anyone wants to be a rockstar anymore right? They all want to be rappers. I want to be a rapper, Toby. I just want to be cool like you.
Toby: And you can be Joe. You can be.
Joe: Eh, I don’t know if that's in my wheelhouse. I’ve never tried, but…
Toby: I didn’t say a good rapper.
Joe: Fair enough.
Toby: Bantan Soneyondan is actually translated into bulletproof boy scouts. So BTS is essentially the teflon dons of the boy band word!
Joe: Does that make them the Stefflon Dons of the rap game?
Toby: Ok, too far. Flag on the play. Now you are just Hurtin’ Me.
Joe: Well done. Well before you get too out of sorts, let me explain the concept behind the name. The group wanted to block out stereotypes and criticism on adolescence like bullets. Now that’s something I feel that any of us that remember what it’s like to be a kid can get behind.
Toby: It’s music with a purpose which to me is one of the best types of music to make. A lot better than a creepy children’s song OR disturbing songs like the ones we discussed in the last episode.
Joe: In June of 2013, BTS released their debut album 2 Cool 4 Skool. Which, clearly they didn’t go to school because they spelled everything wrong. The album did chart at number 5 in South Korea but didn’t reach the commercial success that they wanted with only 24k copies sold that year. In January 2014, they released Skool Love Affair, still don’t know how to spell school, which sold 250K copies. In August 2014, BTS released their first Korean Studio LP Dark and Wild which sold over 200k copies and solidified the move into the R&B sound.
Toby: So I’ve heard of the group over the years and I’ve watched their fandom grow. One of the other things that separates this group from me outside of the obvious fact that they’re not from an English speaking country is that somehow these guys have figured something out. I mean let’s face it, outside of the Jonas Brothers and before them B2K, boy bands have not been popular at all over the last decade. Or maybe I’m just getting old. What are your thoughts on boy bands?
Joe: Well first of all, we are old. We’re not getting old. I think you’re forgetting a huge boy band in the last decade, One Direction. I’m with you though, generally speaking I find that boy bands are manufactured by record companies to pander to a younger audience. Not to say that there’s not plenty of talent in those bands. But there’s usually only one Justin Timberlake in these outfits if we’re really lucky.
Toby: Which is why the solo careers of all the One Direction members is going to be fascinating to watch. Though they didn’t break up but instead went on “hiatus” in 2016, each member has put out solo material. So far, Harry Styles and Zayn seem to be the most successful, and the front runners on the charts, but I guess only time will tell.
Joe: Yea that is interesting. I feel that at the very least, individually there is a lot more talent in these fabricated bands so it makes sense that they can go off and have their own careers after they’ve done their stint.
Toby: Agreed. One thing I also know is that from looking at all of the behind the scene footage I’ve seen from boy bands, It’s a lot of hard work. But from my perspective, it certainly looks like all the hard work has paid off for BTS.
Joe: Yea agreed. In Sept of 2016 BTS released their second Japanese studio album, which is fascinating by the way. They make these Korean albums, and then they go and make Japanese albums to spread their popularity. So that album was titled YOUTH which peaked at #1 in Japan and sold 500k in the first week. The lead single was called Blood, Sweat and Tears and that broke a record on YouTube held by previous K POP groups with over 6 million views in 1 day. That’s a good day.
Toby: 6 million views. If you follow the timeline, the dates are kind of confusing, because it seems like they have two or three releases every year. They work hard. No one can say that they don’t. And like we said, it’s obviously paying off. That’s a lot of people watching some kids do music, especially during a non-quarantine time. Their next release was entitled Wings and opened at #26 on the Billboard Charts which was the highest chart from any K pop group. Which is just one of many records they broke in a short period of time.
Joe: Their single Mic Drop was the first K pop song to debut in the top 40 on Billboard. They are the first K pop group to have two singles certified gold by the Recording Industry of America and they were also the first first K Pop group to have a platinum single in the United States.
Toby: We could literally spend the rest of this episode discussing how hugely popular BTS has become OR you can take our word for it and check out some of their music on the playlist for this episode. Let’s now connect the dots to a blues legend. BTS has a song called Am I Wrong from their album Wings that actually samples a track from blues singer/songwriter and Grammy award winner Keb Mo. Joe, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about Keb Mo.
Joe: Sure. Singer, guitarist, songwriter, and keeper of the blues, Kevin Roosevelt Moore was born on October 3rd, 1951. He picked up the moniker "Keb Mo" from one of his drummers, and the record label thought it was pretty cool, so it stuck. I feel like you’ve also got a great name to combine with that whole T Braz thing. You’re gonna be famous, I can feel it.
Toby: Well in my mind, I’m already a legend, so it’s just a matter of time before the world catches up. Keb Mo has already reached legendary status, accumulating five Grammys, playing alongside countless artists, and even taking part in a special White House concert celebrating American creativity.
Joe: What’s cool about that is before all of that, he was hanging out with crimson cephalopods.
Toby: I’m sorry, what? Is that the name of one of his early bands or something?
Joe: Close. One of his first recording gigs in the early 70s was with Jefferson Airplane guitarist Papa John Creach.
Toby: So papa don’t preach, but he does play a mean fiddle?
Joe: Ok, good job there. I like that. Keb Mo played on four of Creach’s solo albums, and then in 1975 Keb recorded the song Git Fiddler with the rest of Jefferson Starship for their Red Octopus album.
Toby: Now I understand the cephalopod reference.
Joe: See isn’t that a cool word?
Toby: That Red Octopus album went Gold and spent 4 weeks at #1, largely on the strength of the hit single “Miracles”. Starship was making a deliberate commercial shift in their music with this album, and it worked. Let’s put that easy listening track on our playlist for this episode, along with the Git Fiddler track.
Joe: In 1980, Keb released a debut R&B album under his given name, Kevin Moore. Unfortunately, the label it was released on, Chocolate City, promptly folded.
Toby: Chocolate City was a subdivision of the Casablanca record label, so you know what they said to Kevin on the way out the door.
Joe: Play it again Keb?
Toby: Either that or here’s looking at you kid.
Joe: Casablanca was responsible for signing Parliament and releasing some of their most popular albums, including the platinum selling Mothership Connection. So thank you Mr. Bogart, for letting us enjoy all that Bootsie baby!
Toby: Look at you with the throwback to Riffs on Riffs season one and all of our Bootsie love. Let’s put a little “Give Up the Funk” on the playlist for this episode.
Joe: Better be careful when you crank this one people. It might just tear the roof off the mothersucker.
Toby: Keb spent the next several years touring and immersing himself in the Delta blues tradition of Robert Johnson, who Keb has said he was heavily influenced by. He also appeared on stage in several versions of the musical Spunk, playing the appropriately named Guitar Man.
Joe: His second album, simply named “Keb Mo”, showcases his shift into traditional blues, including a couple of Robert Johnson covers.
Toby: This is also the album that contains the “Am I Wrong” track that BTS sampled for their song of the same name. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, this track packs a lot of passion into a simple blues refrain.
Joe: Like a lot of great bluesmen, Keb wields his voice and guitar with equal power. This song asks one of the most common questions of all time: Am I Wrong for loving you?
Toby: You ask a really good question, and I think my wife sometimes wonders that very same thing.
Joe: No sir, she does nothing of the kind. The hook for this song is so simple, so it's fascinating that it becomes this integral part of the BTS song of the same name.
Toby: The BTS track was produced by Sam Klempner, James Reynolds, Josh Wilkinson and in my opinion is a good example of effective sampling not just for the sonic effect, but for content.
Joe: There is no doubt that the lyrics for the BTS song are focused on being socially conscious and that to me is a startling difference between BTS and a lot of the boy bands of yesteryear.
Toby: Definitely. I’d like to take a moment to discuss the lyrics, but before I do, we’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be back with Riff on Riffs.
Toby: Let’s take a moment to discuss the lyrics:
“If what you see on the news is nothing to you
If that comment is nothing to you
If that hatred is nothing to you
You’re not normal, you’re abnormal”
Joe: So if you take away the beat and all the music, close your eyes and just listen to the lyrics- it’s almost like this track could’ve been listed with some of the protest music we discussed a couple of episodes ago. If you remember, the Marvin Gaye song “What’s going On” was initially presented to the 4 Tops and they turned it down because they thought that it was too political and they didn’t want to risk losing fans. BTS is actually realizing success from going all in and being socially conscious by performing songs like this.
Toby: And these tracks are actively voicing the concerns and thoughts of the youth. That’s nothing short of fantastic and I’m hoping that songs like this will help people think more proactively about how we can make this world a better place.
Joe: The “Am I Wrong” track isn’t a one off on social consciousness, either. On the BTS album 2 Cool 4 Skool, there’s a song called ”No More Dream” where the lyrics tell young people that they don’t have to adhere to their parent’s expectations. That young people should be allowed and even encouraged to follow their dreams.
Toby: I totally believe and support that sentiment. It’s crazy that your perspective changes as you get older. I understand now as a parent that you want your children to be successful and pursue their dreams. Sometimes it’s very hard not to assign your own dreams to the equation and try to make up for your own perceived failures as well.
Joe: Yea, I mean you go to any high school game in America right? You’ve got overly aggressive parents trying to relive their real or imaginary glory years through their children. I have two words for that: For Shame.
Toby: In another song called Dope which comes off of their 2015 release “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 1”, BTS has lyrics that speak directly to the youth in South Korea and aggressively challenges them. Let’s take a look at some:
Why are you hanging your head and accepting it already? energy energy energy
Don’t ever give up, you know you’re not lonely
So can I get a little bit of hope yeah
Wake your sleeping youth, go”
Joe: Let’s acknowledge the fact that there is definitely a challenge in translating lyrics and getting the true meaning of a song when it was originally written in another language. But we certainly get the sense of what BTS was trying to say. They are referencing the Give Up Generation where due to social pressures and bad economics people feel forced to give up on certain things. When the song says “give up on 3” it means giving up on courtship, marriage, and childbirth, and this is called Sampo.
Toby: Opo is translated to mean 5 in the Give Up Generation reference and in addition to the other 3 things that you just mentioned, we add 2 more to the list: employment and home ownership. There are actually 10 things on the list, and the 10th is life.
Joe: Ugh, that’s incredibly sad. Although the song doesn’t touch on all 10 it does address the Give Up Generation as a whole. BTS’s song actually asks for the youth to wake up and not accept things the way they are and try to make things better.
Toby: That’s definitely the message that needs to be shared and among the young and old. And not just in Korea. There is a generation of young people here who are referred to as the Boomerangers. They are of the age to live on their own but due to economic hardships have found themselves living back with parents. It just goes to show you that despite what continent we are on, a lot of us are going through the same issues.
Joe: No doubt. Life is life. I gotta say I’m frankly impressed that the members of BTS are in touch with themselves and the community as a whole. They are actually choosing to be the voice of the youth and singing about political stuff, which is different from the type of songs that we would normally hear from a boy band. That’s the beautiful thing. We know that music has power and the fact that this group has decided to use their power for good is inspiring.
Toby: I will be honest, I had no real idea of what KPOP was until recently. For those listeners that may not be familiar, what is it exactly? And why is it REALLY getting popular now?
Joe: KPOP is simply a shortening of “Korean Pop” and refers to music originating in South Korea. It’s seen a huge surge in popularity over the last couple of decades, and combined with the popularity of K dramas, which fascinate me too. I’ve got a teenage daughter, and she's watching, with subtitles and everything, Korean stuff on Netflix. So all of this is a part of what is referred to as the Korean Wave.
Toby: Social media and the internet have obviously helped eliminate global borders. But the other interesting thing to note in regards to South Korea is that the government has specifically funded and subsidized the creative industry, recognizing that it is a powerful way to impart social influence and reap financial rewards. That’s fantastic. Government subsidizing art? You can't get better than that.
Joe: What a crazy concept. Supporting the arts? Maybe there’s some human value in that? And don’t say anything Toby- but maybe there’s financial benefit to? Maybe that’s part of the reason South Korean girl groups like BlackPink are shattering records and charting on the Billboard Hot 100. And there’s no denying that from a pure entertainment standpoint, all of these acts are legit. It’s not just Korea, either. If you want to see a show, go check out a Baby Metal performance on YouTube.
Toby: Yeah I’ve seen some videos and I can tell you that all of these groups are for real, they are just as talented as any other group out there. And here’s a hot take for you. I think that maybe, just maybe K Pop groups might revitalize the boy band and girl band groups back here in the states. They might be able to crank things up past 98 degrees. No more will liking boy bands be a something for only alleys and backstreets. We might finally have more groups that are insync with the young and help our children grow from boys to men. That’s what I want.
Joe: See when you start spewing stuff like this I know it’s time to wrap up the show.
Toby: Listen. I think it can happen. I think it’s destiny for children everywhere. It was destiny's child.
Joe: You know what I have to say to that? No No No.
Toby: I’m hoping that all of our listeners have the perspective that we’ve tried to provide you with a little TLC…
Joe: He’s still going people!
Toby: ...during this episode so that you can all feel the supreme feeling of shangri la during the short period of time that we have you. It’s good to change things up and offer a little mix to normalcy. And add some spice!
Joe: Are you done?
Toby: Well listen. One thing you have to say is I went all in one direction.
Joe: You are done. You are officially done. So please, take a moment, and tell the good people what we discussed this episode.
Toby: That was great.
Joe: See? You are a legend in your own mind!
Toby: Give myself a little self-applause. So, on this episode we delved into the KPOP sensation known as BTS. We discussed their hit song Am I wrong and the Keb Mo song that It sampled with the same name. We also talked about the Korean Wave and its global impact.
Joe: Well as always, thank you for putting up with Toby, and joining us on this crazy journey, and be sure to check out the playlist for this episode on Spotify and Apple Music. Just do a search for Riffs on Riffs. While you're at it, please leave us a review on whatever platform you listen — it just might help someone else stumble upon our witty banter and bad puns. Be sure to connect and dialog with us on social, @riffsonriffs. As always, thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time for Riffs on Riffs.
Toby: Keep listening. Huzzah.