As the world is gripped by the Barbenheimmer fever, guess what BTS ARMYs, the fandom of the K-Pop boy band, BTS (Beyond the Scene/Bangtan Sonyeondan) are doing. They are curled up with an excellent book that is a historical account, a pop culture treatise, a translation, and, most importantly, an anecdotal history of BTS titled Beyond the Story: 10-Year Record of BTS. Until June 2023, if you came across a BTS song, liked it and wondered, hmm, I wonder what their names are, you were sure to fall down an internet rabbit hole of what can only be described as venturing into wonderland.
That’s how it feels to most of us. And where do you find this information? On search engines, yes. But more importantly, on fan sites, discord, Facebook groups and, most important of all, on fan-written BTS biographies on Wattpad.
A BTS encyclopaedia
Now, ten years after the group’s debut, all this information has been collated into a comprehensive book written by Korean journalist Myeongseok Kang and BTS members, and translated by Slin Jung, Clare Richards, and International Booker Prize-nominated translator Anton Hur. Written over three years, with in-depth interviews, the seven chapters of the book trace the journey of different eras – the trainee days of BTS, images and looks, album track lists, and song details of every album from BTS’s debut single album 2 Cool 4 Skool to Proof.
The folklore about the group’s origin and success has now found a home in a book about and by BTS. It is already a New York Times bestseller, a first for a Korean title. Before BTS, veteran K-Pop bands H.O.T. and BIGBANG released autobiographies as a group about their journey through K-pop, but this is the first one to be translated into English to speak to BTS’s international fandom.
The book is a straightforward answer to the question: “Who is BTS?”
There’s nothing I can say about the band that hasn’t already been said. There’s nothing I can say that won’t sound predictable or obvious. For instance, the fact that I am an ARMY. The unique aspect of this 496-page book is that each song or video discussed in the chapters can be viewed by scanning the QR code at the bottom of that page. It is at once an encyclopaedia for the uninitiated and an emotional roller coaster ride for longtime fans.
The stories have been woven together within the context of the larger Korean music industry by the journalist and candid, in-depth interviews with BTS. Of course, all of this is on-brand for BTS – opening up, sharing their struggles, or things that may be embarrassing for others but are important life lessons for BTS. There are details such as the fact that they practise more than 16 hours daily, their initial doubts about making a debut, doing justice to their fame with their music, and other creative and personal concerns.
The book goes into how the band found what Kang calls “alchemy” because it is a special set of circumstances, people, and hard work that made BTS what it is. Big Hit Entertainment’s director and BTS’s producer Bang Si-hyuk bet everything on a group of trainees to debut as BTS, and everyone else was let go from their contracts. The group discusses what it was like to create music under such immense pressure despite Bang’s faith in the group.
Before going further into BTS’s journey and the book, it is important to note those who walked so BTS could run. Seo Taiji and Boys exploded on the Korean music scene in 1992 and completely changed the face of Korean music. From the 1980s Korean ballads to this new art form, a mix of K-Pop, hip-hop, and alternative rock, Korea was in the grip of Seo Taiji fever and this pop culture moment is well-documented in K-Dramas such as Reply 1994. Followed by Seo Taiji’s subsequent retirement from the industry at the group’s peak popularity, a group named H.O.T. debuted in 1996 with again, a surprising mix of K-Pop and Hip-Hop genres, style and choreography in 1996. They are classified as the first generation of K-pop or Idol music as we know it.
The second generation comprised K-pop groups like BIGBANG and later, EXO was posited to be the group of the third generation of K-Pop music, until BTS burst onto the scene. The Korean pop music industry is a tough one to break into because of its high saturation. For most groups, it is the period after their debut when the real struggle begins because they soon find out, as BTS did, that they are “small fish in a big pond”.
‘You don’t find BTS, BTS finds you’
In May 2022, I was travelling in a car to a bubble tea place in New Delhi with three women – all of us BTS ARMYs of different age groups, with different careers – a writer, a law student, a photographer, and a college professor. And all four of us hummed the lyrics to Ddaeng aloud to the music blaring from the car’s speakers and discussed how we found BTS at very different ages – the youngest one at 16. The rest of us, who found BTS in our twenties, wondered how great it would have been to have found them during our teenage years – to hear from someone you idolise that you are enough, you are beautiful, love yourself and at the same time, to hear their artistic and personal insecurities sung in a medley of rap, hip-hop, and soothing vocals. During this discussion, the youngest fan turned to us and said in a wise voice, “You know, you don’t find BTS, BTS finds you exactly when you need them in your life.” And that is true for most of us.
It isn’t the social media algorithm or the many news articles or your sibling who is into K-pop, or a friend who introduces you to them. It could be anyone. But there comes a moment when you are absolutely mesmerised by their music and end up discovering songs that speak to you and your struggles at that moment in time. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Seo Taiji or if you don’t understand a word of the Korean language. For most of us, teens and twenties are a period of solitary struggle. We are told how great it is to be young, how good we have it, how easy life must be. But it is BTS who wrote a song named Whalien 52 about the loneliest whale in the world. There’s also a song named 134340 about Pluto, which is not quite a planet nor a non-planet – a metaphor for a broken relationship. BTS’s authenticity and grittiness make them hard to ignore.
‘A cottage industry production’
The book slowly opens up to the journey of Bulletproof Boy Scouts, the initial name of BTS, to how they became Behind the Scene or BTS. The band’s members – Kim Nam-joon (RM), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Jung Ho-seok (J-Hope), Min Yoon-gi (SUGA/AGUST D), Park Ji-min (Jimin), Kim Tae-hyung (V), and Jeon Jung-kook (Jungkook) – each belong to a different region of South Korea, and met each other for the first time in Seoul.
The stories of their beginnings exist in the fandom as folklore. For example, Min Yoon-gi aka SUGA had many odd jobs on the side to support himself and his family and on one of these jobs, he got into an accident as a delivery boy and had to undergo multiple surgeries on his shoulder over the years. When you see him perform on stage, especially in the choreography of RUN BTS, it is hard to imagine that he went through such a tough phase. But every BTS member has similar experiences of hurting themselves during concerts, practice, or performances and powering through it all. The group also doesn’t shy away from discussing struggles with mental health. In his debut solo album, D-Day, released under his stage name AGUST D, Suga sang of the past hurt in the song, Amygdala:
“Uh-uh, the sound of mom’s heart ticking away in my ears
Uh-uh, my accident that I couldn’t even mention
The call I got during my work about father’s liver cancer
(Woah-oh) Hoped made the best decisions
(Woah-oh) Because they’re also all in the past now
So, is all countless suffering for my own good?
What didn’t kill me only made me stronger
And I begin to bloom like a lotus flower once again.”
Similarly, other members, before their solo projects, explored what their solo voices would sound like within BTS and the album born out of that was Map of the Soul: 7. Jungkook, the youngest member of the group, explored what it meant “to live in the real world” when he first joined BTS at their trainee dorms. RM/Kim Namjoon became a natural team leader being the oldest trainee (in terms of the time he spent training at Big Hit). The struggles, apart from personal and related to their performance and talent, were also philosophical: do we pursue happiness or give it all up in pursuit of a higher goal?
For Jin and RM, these discussions were important while V/Kim Taehyung found ways to continue the gruelling training through some stolen moments of happiness, for instance, sharing a favourite food with RM despite being on a strict diet or bonding with Jin over their favourite anime. Outside the training, what made BTS stand out was its digital marketing strategy.
While the big groups debuting around the same time, such as EXO, had big promotional budgets, slots for television promos and frequent appearances and marketing hype supporting them, BTS was, in their own words, “a cottage industry production”. And so, they decided to utilise the medium of the internet to their advantage. Their first Naver page which used to contain a lot of hate comments during their debut phase, is now a shrine for BTS fans and folks visiting in the hope of their own miracles.
Their YouTube channel BANGTAN TV has preserved their oldest vlogs and the BigHit website still contains the very first blogs they created – from song uploads to Jin’s tteok recipe. While other groups’ members appeared in the biggest variety and reality television programmes, BTS created their own self-managed vlogs and the popular variety program, Run BTS. It brought forth their unfiltered personalities and entertained fans through a series of games and activities.
BTS not only rejected the idea of genre-specific idol music by combining the genres of idol music containing military-precision choreography with their strong hip-hop roots, but they also rejected the traditional marketing approaches due to a lack of funds in their initial years. This enterprising spirit, a start-up mentality, gritty determination, self-produced content, and criticism from online anti-fans or cyberbullies and certain public figures cemented their faith in themselves even further.
The unbreakable bond between ARMY and BTS
From their war with anti-fans emerged the ARMYs, the faithful BTS fandom. The more they were denied their place in the K-Pop industry which is said to work in a formulaic sense, the more determined they became to prove others wrong. What set them apart from other groups was the fact that they weren’t censored by their company and instead of talking about the glamour of the K-Pop industry, they focussed on their own experiences in their songs. They also posted videos of struggles and moments of happiness like Jin’s Mukbang (food eating) show, Eat Jin. The band’s attitude towards hardships can be summarised in two lines Kim Taehyung said in the book, “So, I fell down, no big deal”. The sentiment also appears in their third-English single, Permission to Dance, created in 2021, at the height of the pandemic. “’Cause when we fall, we know how to land”.
The band is also known for its responsibility towards its fans, the ARMYs who have been with them through thick and thin. One may hear BTS and ARMYs quite often, in a single breath. The Korean entertainment industry, whether it is music, television or web dramas or film, is known for establishing a loyal fanbase and relies on them for a significant chunk of revenue through membership fees, increasing merchandise sales, album sales, streaming songs, YouTube views, and voting at awards. This isn’t limited to public participation but also extends to fan meetings, both virtual and in-person and tickets for these are also sold like concert tickets.
For most actors, musicians and celebrities, these fan meets happen all over East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand) and even in Dubai and Australia. For BTS, the fandom may be an extension of their existence. Time and again the band has called on ARMYs for support, whether for their music, or the charities or causes that BTS supports. Any donations made by them are quite often collectively matched by the fans. As J-Hope mentions in the book about BTS’s United Nations invitation, “Because I’m an extremely ordinary person. Just a Gwangju native, with a very ordinary upbringing, so much so that all this took a while for me to accept.”
For a BTS fan, it is tough to choose one single favourite album or era and a similar sentiment follows a reader through the journey of this book. It is tough to choose a favourite chapter or section. But the most relatable era that everyone will connect to is the Pandemic-era album, BE. Throughout the pandemic, as anxiety about the future gripped everyone, BTS didn’t remain unaffected by it either. Feeling disconnected from their fans, they too had moments of self-doubt and wondered if the path to success that had emerged since their debut would all but disappear. Songs such as Life Goes On, Telepathy, and Fly to My Room gave voice to our pandemic anxiety.
BTS returned bigger and better with BE and their first three English singles, Dynamite, Butter, and Permission to Dance. Meanwhile, Korean Dramas such as Crash Landing on You and Squid Game had become worldwide hits and the band’s transition from Korean to English also brought in more fans. Before some members’ individual military enlistments, the band released Proof, an ode to the last ten years of creating music as a group in which they curated new tracks and released the demo versions of a few older songs.
The K-pop idol group, BTS, which started out as a dream for each of its members from different cities and towns in South Korea turned into a quest to prove themselves when faced with hostility and pressure. Today, BTS no longer needs to prove anything to anyone. As the members embark on their solo careers and personal journeys during the military enlistment periods, the only thing they are focusing on is expressing themselves fully, using all the love and lessons they carry with them as BTS. This book, a history of BTS in their own words, is an ode to Act One of the group. Like their last produced song, Take Two, fans have this book as a keepsake to remember the biggest, smallest, and happiest moments (and also the not-so-happy ones) that they’ve spent listening to BTS. Beyond the book, for BTS and the ARMYs, here’s hoping for an Act Two and that the best is yet to come.
Beyond the Story: 10-Year Record of BTS, Myeongseok Kang and BTS, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur, Slin Jung, and Clare Richards, Pan MacMillan.