One unfortunate side effect of BTS being the biggest pop group in the world is that all sorts of people will drop their name for clout. Often, this results in corny but ultimately harmless social media shoutouts from celebrities who want to get on the BTS bandwagon. But sometimes, it results in heinous remarks from people who invoke the Korean pop septet in a desperate bid for controversy and media attention.
The latter happened on Thursday, when German radio host Matthias Matuschik unleashed a torrent of racist “jokes” about the boy band. Apparently incensed by BTS’s cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You” during their recent MTV Unplugged performance, Matuschik likened the group to the coronavirus and said they needed to be eradicated with a vaccine. He added that BTS deserved to take a “vacation” to North Korea for the next 20 years for their cover, then tried to preemptively shield himself against accusations of xenophobia by arguing that he drives a South Korean car. (This is false: As Jae-Ha Kim notes in her excellent Teen Vogue piece, Matuschik’s Daihatsu Copen was manufactured in Japan, not South Korea.)
After facing predictably swift and severe backlash from the BTS ARMY, Bayern 3 issued a limp apology in which they described Matuschik as a “character” who was attempting to “express his opinion in a clear, open and ironic, exaggerated way,” per a Distractify translation. In a follow-up statement issued today, Bayern 3 “apologize[d] in all form” for Matuschik’s remarks but insisted that the host is “miles away from racist views,” and said it “resolutely distances itself from any form of racism, marginalisation and discrimination.”
Matuschik offered a similarly pathetic statement to Buzzfeed Germany yesterday, claiming that he would have been similarly displeased had a “German or Trans-Castanian band” covered “Fix You.” He also said he “underestimated the huge fan potential behind [BTS’s] three letters” and described the ARMY as “fanatical followers of a musical cash machine.”
Does any of this feel familiar? It should. For years, BTS have been the subject of thinly veiled racist attacks masquerading as jokes. Last September, several British writers and media personalities caught heat for making snide, dismissive comments about the group, including game show contestant Anne Hegerty, who called them “a little Korean boy band that’s fundamentally not important.”
Almost exactly a year ago, Howard Stern Show staffer Salvatore “Sal” Governale claimed BTS and their team were carrying the coronavirus, adding, “These people are traveling, they’re not locals, they’re going from country to country to country. It’s a dangerous situation.” And in June of 2019, Australian TV show 20 to One co-hosts Erin Molan and Nick Cody dismissively referred to BTS as “the South Korean One Direction,” while guest comedian Jimmy Carr said, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried, so I guess it could have been worse—but not much worse.”
These remarks don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re already racist when taken individually, but cumulatively, they perpetuate a dangerous anti-Asian bias that is prevalent across numerous cultures and, as Kim notes, often results in physical violence toward Asian people worldwide.
Matuschik’s on-air tirade followed the same template set by the aforementioned examples: Make racist comments, feign ignorance (and innocence) when rightfully called out, play the victim in the face of criticism, and finally, issue a halfhearted non-apology. Like countless offenders before him, Matuschik and Bayern 3 apologized if his remarks hurt anybody. This is merely damage control intended to absolve the offending party of wrongdoing and put the burden on those who rightfully took offense at Matuschik’s statements. It’s not an apology at all; it’s gaslighting. And as hundreds of thousands of fans noted on social media, racism is not an opinion. The intent of Matuschik’s comments is irrelevant, because they were largely perceived as hurtful and perpetuated damaging stereotypes.
Matuschik’s own statement to Buzzfeed Germany makes it impossible to glean any sincere contrition from his or Bayern 3’s responses. His description of the BTS ARMY as “fanatical followers of a musical cash machine” additionally perpetuates the sexist, ageist stereotypes of BTS fans as hysterical teenage girls who are easily manipulated by marketing tactics and incapable of distinguishing music based on its artistic merit. These stereotypes are patently untrue for several reasons. For one, the BTS ARMY comprises people of all genders, ages, races and ethnicities. And yes, that does include teenage girls—who are arguably the greatest tastemakers in popular music, and clearly capable of appreciating music for its artistic merit.
It is particularly blasphemous—to borrow Matuschik’s own word—that he made his remarks just days after BTS’s watershed MTV Unplugged performance. The group mostly performed songs off its new album BE, which was largely inspired by the feelings of loneliness and burnout caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the band members’ despair over not being able to see their fans in-person. The members of BTS talked at length between songs about their desire to reconnect with fans when the pandemic ends and the power of music to keep them afloat during these unprecedented times. For Matuschik to hear the group make these disarmingly vulnerable admissions and still decide to compare them to a virus that has killed millions of people around the world takes a special kind of callousness.
If there is a miniscule silver lining to the Matuschik saga, it’s that his comments seem to have garnered more coverage and swifter condemnation than any racist remarks directed toward BTS in the past. That’s not much of a consolation, and progress in the quest for racial equity—in the music industry and at large—is still being made at a glacial pace. Still, the response from BTS fans and major publications around the world is heartening, and it reinforces an important truth: BTS’s achievements and massive global fan base speak much louder than their racist critics.