The nominations for this year’s MTV’s Video Music Awards (the VMAs) sparked backlash from fans of the K-pop group BTS on Tuesday, when the surprise creation of a new category just for K-pop artists spawned the hashtag revolt #VMAsracist.
The nominations for the awards show, which will be broadcast live from Newark, New Jersey, on August 26, dropped just days after BTS’s hit collaboration with Halsey, “Boy With Luv,” was certified platinum with over a million sales. The song and band received a nomination for Best Collaboration, as well as further nods for Best Choreography and Best Art Design. But despite a year of huge success for the band itself, BTS failed to snag nominations in the major artist categories.
Instead, the VMAs introduced a new category, Best K-Pop, and placed BTS there, along with other major K-pop bands like BLACKPINK and EXO.
This year’s ceremony is not the first time MTV has segregated international pop artists into their own category: the “Best Latino Artist” category has been on the ballot list since 2010, and MTV’s annual Europe Music Awards — the international VMA equivalent — has genre categories, but also breaks out separate award categories for every region in the world.
BTS fans, however, have berated the decision as a racist double standard in MTV’s major awards categories. They flooded social media with hashtags protesting BTS’s sidelining, many citing metrics related to BTS’s tremendous overseas success.
Though the optics admittedly aren’t great, it’s impossible to know whether race or nationality is actually involved in BTS’s sidelining. The VMA nomination process is highly mysterious: it’s completely opaque, and may be entirely based on the whims of MTV executives — and who really knows what they’re thinking? (Vox has reached out to MTV for comment.)
Still, the argument that BTS deserves to be nominated in the major categories, as befitting other major artists of the year is a compelling one. It’s pretty hard to deny that BTS is a pop phenomenon whose ongoing commercial and cultural success in the U.S. shows no sign of slowing down.
BTS has indisputably earned a place alongside other major 2019 artists.
For BTS, the past 18 months have been a non-stop historic run of milestone accomplishments. The band capped off 2018 by becoming the second-biggest artist of the year in the U.S. in terms of total album sales; BTS outsold everyone except Eminem. They also became the first South Korean band in history to debut an album at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart, as well as the first to have a single land at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
BTS’s latest album, Map of the Soul: Persona, only spent one week in April as the No. 1 album on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. But Map of the Soul is the band’s third consecutive chart-topping album in the United States in less than a year. The last band to do that, by the way? The Beatles. (And to top it off, those albums were each well-reviewed.)
The band sold out a world tour in a hot minute. They produced attention-getting collaborations with Steve Aoki, the Chainsmokers, Nicki Minaj, and Halsey. They performed in Times Square on Good Morning America, then became the first Korean band to perform on Saturday Night Live. They scored their first Grammy nomination in 2019 (more on that in a bit) and presented an award at the ceremony — and then the group was invited to join the prestigious Recording Academy of Grammy voters. They even snagged a couple of Guinness World Records for their incredibly engaged fanbase, which helped them snag an appearance in the annual Time 100 after winning the magazine’s reader poll for the second year in a row.
By any industry standard, this is all a remarkable amount of success. Fans sound very persuasive when they argue that if BTS were an English-language band, they’d be a shoo-in for the VMA’s main awards categories.
But while BTS’s exclusion from the main awards category seems like a notable omission, we also have to note that the VMA nominations are just generally kind of a mess this year.
The VMA nominations are a mix of expected nods and baffling oversights
This year’s VMAs are, as ever, a mixed-up batch of shoo-ins and puzzling oversights. BTS’s omission from the main awards is perhaps the biggest, but not the only head-scratcher.
Certain big nominations make plenty of sense. Powerhouse artists like Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift led the list of nominated artists, with 10 nods each including for Video of the Year and Song of the Year (for “thank u, next” and “You Need to Calm Down,” respectively) while breakout newcomers Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X, whose hit songs have each made them formidable contenders, followed with nine nominations.
BTS outsold the Jonas Brothers’ album Happiness Begins, headlined by summer-bop wannabe “Sucker,” but the brothers’ comeback still ranked as Billboard’s biggest album debut of the year so far. So it’s easy to see why they wound up getting nominated for all three main awards: Video, Artist, and Song of the Year.
But other nominations seem more arbitrary. For instance, it seems completely inexplicable that Lil Nas X missed a nod for Artist of the Year, given that his unstoppable hit “Old Town Road” is currently just a week away from becoming the longest-charted #1 single in Billboard Hot 100 history. Instead, Lil Nas got placed in the New Artist category; respectable, but truly reflective of his tremendous accomplishments over 2019? That’s debatable.
Meanwhile, the 21 Savage video “a lot” (featuring J. Cole), wound up getting a nomination for the biggest award of the night, Video of the Year, but not an award for Best Collaboration. And none of the nominees for that award have as many YouTube streams as “Boy With Luv”’s 460 million views. Taylor Swift’s polarizing, exhausting video for “You Need to Calm Down” has been out for a month but hasn’t even cracked YouTube’s 100-million mark; is it really Video of the Year material?
BTS’s omission from the main awards is even more suspect, considering that BTS’s most recognizable collaborator, Halsey, snagged a nomination for Artist of the Year despite picking up only one other nomination outside of her collaboration with BTS. The fact that MTV’s VMA voting site featured Halsey and not the full seven-member band itself on their nomination picture didn’t help, either:
bts has almost 4M sales
jonas brothers have less than 1M
…but sales don’t mean shit if you aren’t of caucasian descent!
while we’re at it,, let’s crop bts out of their cover bc ofc there’s NO way bts could make their own success!#VMAsRacist pic.twitter.com/ZcbN9NHGsq
— alice misses seokjin !! (@gurlwluv) July 24, 2019
And the VMAs debacle isn’t the first time that BTS has been ignored by award nominations committees. Remember their Grammy nomination from earlier this year? Yeah, that was for Best Album Package, an award so minor, it doesn’t even get presented at the main ceremony. The Grammys, however, seemed to have thoroughly made up for it — or milked BTS’s popularity, depending on how you look at it — by allowing BTS to present at the ceremony and then turning the camera on the band whenever possible.
Perhaps the most equitable treatment the band has received in the U.S. awards system so far is at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards — and that fair play is due to their own success. (Ironic, given how little that seems to factor into other awards.) The Billboard Awards’ nods are based entirely on Billboard chart metrics, rather than voter perceptions. When BTS received nominations in two big categories, Top Duo/Group and Top Social Artist, they took home the awards easily. In the Top Duo/Group category, they won over major American artists like Imagine Dragons and Panic! At the Disco.
You can argue that the VMA’s new category is a mark of respect to the remarkable rise of K-pop as a whole. It arguably allows many Korean artists to compete in a U.S. awards system, when they probably wouldn’t get far in other generalized, domestic-focused pop categories. And that’s great. But this idea only really works best if it’s very clear that BTS and other K-Pop bands are also at least being fairly considered for the major categories, too.
And fans of the other nominated K-pop artists were none too happy about being shunted into the category either.
Perhaps these distinctions mean little to anyone not in the respective fandoms for these bands. But on a larger cultural level, the VMA backlash reflects the ever-increasing parasocial relationship between pop artists and their fandoms, as well as fans’ ever-growing call for the rest of the world to recognize and respect the artistry and talent of K-pop artists.
More than any other awards show, the VMAs always somehow manage to reflect the pop culture zeitgeist in a way few other awards shows managed to do. This year, as a result of the new category, and the backlash it’s brought, it seems the VMAs are reflecting the zeitgeist before they even get started.