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Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to ignore the immense rise of K-pop heavyweights BTS.
The South Korean boy band has made an unprecedented break into mainstream Western culture. They’ve topped charts, broken YouTube records, and racked up much-hyped appearances on Saturday Night Live and awards shows like the Grammys.
For K-pop fans, BTS has been big for a long time. But if you’re out of the loop, it’s fair to think the seven-member band popped out of obscurity before linking up with Halsey for a hit single and setting a record that hasn’t been achieved since The Beatles.
The band’s social media expertise, internet popularity, dedicated fanbase, and willingness to talk about taboo issues has fueled their global domination. Add a dash of the West’s growing openness to music with non-English lyrics, and you’ve got a recipe for international success.
Who are BTS?
Much like other K-pop groups, BTS is slick — the result of years of intensive preparation as part of a trainee system which churns out pop stars.
RM, a.k.a Kim Nam-joon, is the band’s leader and main rapper. He’s also the most public-facing. He’s the bilingual member of the the group, apparently learning English from watching Friends.
The band is the creation of Big Hit Entertainment, whose CEO Bang Si-Hyuk first met with RM after being impressed with his rapping ability.
Bang initially wanted to create a hip-hop group centred around RM, but changed his mind. He built a more traditional idol group with RM at the core after deciding he wanted a group that could “lend a shoulder” to the youth. Suga and J-Hope were added for their rapping expertise, while singers and dancers Jungkook, V, Jimin and Jin also joined the group.
BTS’ debut came in June 2013, when they released their first album 2 Cool 4 Skool, which featured singles “No More Dream” and “We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2.” Back then, the band presented a harder, hip-hop image.
Their first release wasn’t exactly a breakout success, with the album only peaking at number 5 on the South Korean music charts at the time.
What’s behind BTS’ success?
Even in South Korea, BTS’ rise to the top was an unlikely one because they weren’t from a K-pop powerhouse. Three agencies produce the country’s biggest artists locally and internationally: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. BTS’ label, Big Hit Entertainment, was a smaller, newer player in the market, and the only group they had before BTS was a short-lived girl group called GLAM.
“When they came out, they were very much the underdog.”
“When they came out, they were very much the underdog,” Sevana Ohandjanian, a producer at Asian pop music show SBS PopAsia, explained. “There wasn’t a huge amount of money behind them, there wasn’t anybody super, super famous in the company to back them, and so their success was really unexpected.”
Aside from mostly writing and producing their own songs, part of BTS’ success is due to their willingness to talk about youth issues that are considered taboo in Korean culture. They share this drive for social commentary with early K-pop act Seo Taiji & Boys.
“They’ve talked about the education system, they’ve talked about depression, anxiety, all these things which Korean society generally doesn’t want to talk about,” Ohandjanian said. “[BTS] came out of the gate and straight away, they were singing songs like ‘No More Dream,’ their debut song, which is literally about kids not having goals or aspirations and telling them to get up and find something to do.”
That takes us back to Big Hit Entertainment CEO Bang Si-Hyuk’s initial vision for BTS. He wanted an idol group that young people could side with, rather than, in his own words, a band that “dogmatically preaches from above.”
“What BTS does well is tell their own stories,” Bang explained to South Korean newspaper, The Central Times. “Since we decided that BTS would be singers who told the truth about reality, we said, ‘Let’s talk about pain, and let’s say that instead of just living passively, we should work hard to overcome obstacles. Whether we win or lose, it’s having dreams that makes us young.'”
The band’s leader, RM, echoed those sentiments about being honest and open in their work — while being really good at what they do, too.
“I think that the secret to BTS’ success can be summed up with the keywords ‘sincerity and skills.’ I think the public can see sincerity,” he said.
In the last few years, BTS has performed at the American Music Awards, the Grammys, plus primetime TV shows like The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
Although BTS predominantly sings in Korean, the band often includes subtitles on much of their content and music videos, which isn’t always the case with other K-pop artists. It’s another reason why BTS has been so successful in the West.
“There are so many fans who become translators so that they can help the people understand, but also I think what BTS proved is that music can go beyond just linguistic borders, in the same way that you might listen to music that has no words and enjoy it,” Ohandjanian explained. “You can listen to K-pop and enjoy it even if you don’t understand all the lyrics.”
Who is the ARMY?
BTS is bolstered by a loyal, global network of fans called ARMY, who work to amplify the band’s presence online during a new release or a TV appearance. It’s an irrepressible marketing machine. ARMY stands for “Adorable Representative MC for Youth.”
Every K-pop group has a name for their fanbase: EXO fans are called EXO-L while Big Bang fans are called VIPs. Fans of Girls’ Generation? They’re called SONE — that’s pronounced “so one.”
In different countries, there are dedicated ARMY collectives, fans who run events and combine forces to help support BTS. On the internet, they show their support via Twitter on a much, much bigger scale. They use planned hashtags and curated messaging to mold the Twitter conversation on a global scale.
Their combined efforts have resulted in some big wins: BTS and Halsey’s video for “Boy With Luv” became the most-viewed music video debut in YouTube history, with 74.6 million views in its first 24 hours.
BTS’ album, Map of the Soul: Persona, was the band’s third number-one album in less than 12 months, according to Billboard. They’re the first group since The Beatles to achieve that feat.
The relationship between BTS and fans
The dynamic between K-pop fans and their idols may seem extreme to general music fans. For example, if you’re a K-pop star, fans will disown you for having a romantic relationship.
E’Dawn, a former member of the 10-member group PENTAGON, had his contract with his label terminated last year after his secret relationship with singer-songwriter HyunA was revealed. Fans accused him of betraying them.
“It is a generally accepted idea that you don’t date and you don’t really get to have a public relationship of any kind with a person that you might want to go out with because your entire love life, public life, private life, is all dedicated to your fans. That’s what it is in K-pop: that relationship,” Ohandjanian explained.
BTS has a particularly close bond with their fans, thanks to how adept they are at using social media to give glimpses into their lives.
Members also occasionally post photos and messages on Fancafe, the band’s internet forum, which aren’t posted to other platforms — although there are several Twitter and Tumblr pages dedicated to archiving that content.
BTS fans are more diverse than you think
As BTS, and K-pop more generally, becomes more popular around the world, the fanbase diversifies.
Saturday Night Live, which hosted BTS recently, was criticized by fans for a promo which characterized the band’s fans as a gaggle of screaming teenage girls.
“This idea of the crazy fan girl is so derogatory, it’s just a ridiculous thing that’s been perpetuated … it’s always this assumption with pop music, and especially with BTS now, that if you’re a young woman and you love them, you don’t love them because of their music, you love them because they’re pretty. And that’s not what it is,” Ohandjanian added.
This is really cute! But I really hope people look up BTS beyond just cute teenage girls fangirling over then – their fan demographic is actually quite diverse and represents a wide age spread as well as gender!
— M 🐧 ✨ (@PercievdOrder) April 10, 2019
We are more than a gaggle of teenage girls. I’m in my 20s, have a degree, speak 3(ish) languages and am a research technician working with Cancer Research UK. THIS isn’t on.
ARMY ARE NOT ALL TEENAGERS.
ARMY ARE NOT ALL GIRLS.
ARMY ARE DIVERSE!
— Lorraine with Luv 🇬🇧 | PERSONA GA 📌 (@lozzawayne) April 10, 2019
I understand that this is a “joke” and a skit, but this same joke has been made for years and years now and it is so detrimental. It reduces fans to “screaming fangirls” which then in turn disregards the music quality behind the groups we like. Sad to see something so uninspired. https://t.co/c6P7lrGEzJ
— Chaotic Jin Stan™ (@seokjingersnap) April 10, 2019
BTS is just one of many K-pop acts
K-pop artists have long tried to break into markets outside of their native South Korea, and BTS has finally achieved that goal.
PSY, who broke through international charts with “Gangnam Style” in 2012, introduced much of the world to the high-energy, maximalist aesthetic of K-pop and an accompanying dance that seemed to consume parties for a good part of a year.
While “Gangnam Style” will be looked back on as a one-hit wonder, BTS keeps pumping out international hit after hit. And there’s more from where BTS came from.
Other K-pop artists are making big moves into America, too. BLACKPINK, has been hot on BTS’ heels. The girl group is also breaking YouTube records and making coveted appearances at Coachella and on The Late Late Show. There’s also NCT 127, a boy group in the midst of their first tour in America, and another act, Monsta X, is set to do the same later this year as part of a massive global tour.
“Hopefully there’s a lot more, and people will accept the idea of music that is not in English being played on the radio,” Ohandjanian added.
“What a crazy idea.”
UPDATE: May 1, 2019, 10:08 a.m. AEST Clarified that Jungkook and V are also singers too.