The iHeartRadio Music Festival happens every year over two nights in September in Las Vegas. This is the tenth anniversary and due the pandemic, live music events aren’t an option anymore. Variety confirmed yesterday however that plans are now in place to continue with the festival virtually, Ryan Seacrest is hosting, and the following artists have already been booked: Coldplay, Kane Brown with Khalid, Keith Urban, Migos, Miley Cyrus, Thomas Rhett, Usher, and BTS.
In an interview with Variety, John Sykes, the president of entertainment enterprises for iHeartMedia, described how the event will work: two venues have been booked – one in Los Angeles and one in Nashville – and only the artists and their crews will be permitted on the premises during their performances; following each performance, the stages will be completely sanitised in preparation for the next act. Zoom suites will be set up so that the artists will feel like they’re performing for an audience without violating physical distancing guidelines. The performances will be streamed on September 18 and 19 and then cut together for a broadcast special airing on The CW on September 27 and 28. It’s an interesting read about all the precautions that are being put in place to make this happen and what precedents might be set for future events going forward, especially since, at least in America, and especially in California (now the state with the highest coronavirus case count), they are nowhere near being able to control the spread of COVID-19. LA might be “on the brink” of another stay-at-home order.
Which is why I’m curious about BTS and the travel. There was no indication in this interview that BTS’s performance would be happening from South Korea, suggesting that they would be among the artists performing in Los Angeles at the iHeartRadio Theater. Which would require the band and their entourage to fly from Seoul to LA in September. John Sykes told Variety that, “Because so many acts live in L.A. or Nashville, we found a way they can drive to the venue.” BTS is not driving to the venue. And they have their own venue in South Korea, as we saw during Bang Bang Con: The Live last month. Remember, this is the only band in the world that’s been able to pull off that kind of a live virtual concert, with over 750,000 viewers (including me!), during the pandemic. So it’s not like they need the American venue to be able to participate. Which is why I’m annoyed that this question didn’t come up during the conversation. BTS has the bestselling album of 2020 in the United States, South Korea, Japan, and worldwide. I’d want to know how exactly the most successful artists of the year, so far, are going to be performing. But it all goes back to the lens, the western-centric lens that prioritises western arts and western artists, resulting in a skewed perception of who’s really listening to whose music.
It benefits iHeart to have BTS as part of their lineup because they actually know that BTS has sold more albums in America than ANY OTHER ARTIST. They need BTS for this festival to attract the attention, to get it trending on social media, to juice up their numbers so that they can present them to their advertisers and sponsors. The irony here though is that BTS is not widely played on iHeart commensurate with their sales.
BTS’s Map of the Soul: 7 became the top selling album in the US and beyond WITHOUT help from iHeartRadio. So it’s a bit insulting that they’ve invited BTS to help them out with their festival during COVID times when they’ve barely acknowledged them on their platform, non?
What does BTS get out of it then? As established, iHeartRadio needs BTS more than BTS needs iHeartRadio and it’s not like they need to spend their charitable energy on an American media conglomerate. This, then, is about their own strategy. And as the band has said, on multiple occasions, they want Grammys. The eligibility period for the 2021 Grammys ends on August 31, just three weeks before the iHeartRadio Music Festival. All nominees will have had to release work prior to that date. And from there the nominations are determined. While the Recording Academy has yet to confirm nomination announcement dates due to COVID complications, the process 100% is ongoing and, as of right now anyway, the Grammys are still happening on January 31, 2021.
BTS, despite having the bestselling album of the year, is not considered a Grammy frontrunner in any of the major categories. This isn’t their fault, but unfortunately it will be their work – to get in front of Grammy voters and make their case. The iHeartRadio Music Festival, a major music event after months and months of industry quiet, is a great opportunity for the band tell the western music industry about itself, ask them how much longer they can ignore them, and challenge the status quo. Like I said, this shouldn’t be their fight. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have to keep stating the obvious. But it’s the fight they seemed to have tasked themselves with. As Duana and I discussed on an episode of our Show Your Work podcast back in February, their ambitions are beyond financial; their ambitions are “Beyond The Scene”, you might say. Back in 2017, when BTS expanded their band identity, they declared that the purpose of their music was reach those who “don’t settle for their current reality and instead open the door and go forward to achieve growth". Even if it means doing radio companies a favour when they don’t deserve it.
I’ll end this then on a BTS song appropriate for this occasion and, yes, one of my favourites. It might actually be my ultimate, ultimate favourite BTS track. When I finally get around to finalising my BTS playlist, this will actually be on it. The song is called “Bapsae”, “Silver Spoon” in English, with lyrics that include:
“Change the rules, change change
The ones' that came before us want to,want to maintain
But we can't do that, BANG BANG
This ain’t normal
This ain’t normal”
This one is for those who think BTS is just fluff and no substance. The song was written as an indictment of previous generations of Koreans who have coasted on privilege and entitlement, ignoring how young people have been systemically disadvantage by tradition and unrealistic and thoroughly unmodern expectations. It also, as you can see, applies to the western recording industry and the xenophobia of western cultural curators.
Beyond its message though, the song is a BANGER. There’s no official video but the dance practice video is just as satisfying. This choreo is fire. I’m including both the original and the mirrored version, you know, in case you want to pick up some moves.