On October 29, Be, Korean pop group BTS’s latest album, zoomed straight to the top of the Billboard 200 chart. It had been released only nine days earlier. No one was surprised.
Since their debut in 2013, the seven-member group have broken records with metronomic regularity.
They are listed in the Guinness book for having performed the most-viewed live-streamed concert ever. Their Love Yourself world tour was the highest-grossing tour by a group in 2019. Their fanatically loyal fan base ensured that the boy band’s Twitter account holds the record for the highest number of retweets, replies, likes or other interactions on the social media site.
Perhaps the only group before BTS to have inspired such loyalty – and broken records with such frequency – is the Beatles. In fact, when Paul McCartney was asked during a recent interview whether any contemporary pop groups seem to echo the “true artistry” of the Beatles, he immediately invoked the Korean group. “I couldn’t sing one of their songs,” he said, “but I like them.”
Here’s what you need to know about the superstars of Korean pop – or K pop as it’s known to the fans.
BTS made its debut in 2013. The band comprises rappers RM, Suga and J-Hope, and singers Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook. They co-write and co-produce their music. The average age of the band members is 25.
Their name stands for the Korean expression Bangtan Sonyeondan, which literally means “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”. Four years after their debut, as part of a branding exercise, BTS said that their name would also stand for “Beyond the Scene”.
BTS is the brainchild of South Korean music whiz Bang Si-hyuk, the founder of Big Hit Entertainment. The country has a tradition of idol groups – bands created by business corporations that perform factory-produced tunes. Idol groups are bound by stringent contracts, which leave them with little wriggle room and a share in the profits.
BTS, however, have brought their own individual talents and collective energies to their compositions. Big Hit gave the band members more creative freedom than their rivals get.
BTS’s roots lie in hip-hop. Its first two members, the rappers RM and Suga, wrote and performed their material in South Korea’s underground scene. Both were inspired by Epik High, the acclaimed South Korean hip-hop group.
The third member J-Hope was a rapper and dancer, much like India’s Raftaar.
Four singer-dancers were added to the group, and the BTS formula emerged: music that blended hip-hop with high-energy performances. This meant that BTS could provide the clinical razzle-dazzle of idol pop as well as the angst of personal songwriting.
Early BTS songs play up the group’s hip-hop origins. For instance, the 2013 single N.O tackles the pressures South Korean kids face to excel academically.
Crunchy guitars and thumping beats abound in songs that channel adolescent braggadocio and self-doubt. Their debut album Dark & Wild reflects the wannabe-thug spirit BTS carried in these years. The single War of Hormone balances this attitude with the all-weather charm BTS would hone to perfection later.
Since their debut, BTS has been ridiculously prolific, yielding five Korean albums, four albums in Japanese and six EPs.
Suprisingly, BTS has found huge popularity outside East Asia. In March, an article in Forbes magazine pointed out , “At the moment, BTS is responsible for 40% of all non-English No. 1 albums in US. history, and in time, that percentage may climb, as it remains fairly rare for any act that performs in another language to reach the top...unless their name happens to be BTS.”
How did an Asian act conquer the West?
BTS has built on the achievements of South Korean pop groups such as Wonder Girls and Big Bang, which were already popular in Western markets. Many of these groups had been disbanded by 2017, after which BTS took off in the West, starting with a performance at the American Music Awards in November.
They soon acquired a fanbase cutting across nationalities and ethnicities. These fans call themselves the ARMY, an acronym for Adorable Representative MC for Youth. India has a committed ARMY wing as well. The group is especially popular in the North Eastern states.
The ARMY has been politically active in recent years, raising $1 million for the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US. In June, BTS fans reportedly messed up a Donald Trump election rally in Tulsa by buying tickets en masse and not showing up, leaving the US President unhappy with the sight of hundreds of empty seats.
The group’s musical evolution allowed fans to follow them as they would a television series. By calculation or inspiration, BTS updates lyrical themes from one release to the next in a way that makes chronological sense.
Moving away from the sophomoric sass of Dark & Wild (2014), BTS’s work in The Most Beautiful Moment in Life phase took a mellower and contemplative approach to young adult themes. BTS rolled out two consecutive EPs and an album in this phase between 2015 and 2016.
Their following album Wings (2016) took the coming-of-age themes forward. The music became more eclectic and genre-agnostic.
The album featured solo tracks from all seven members, highlighting their individual strengths. The band’s three rappers have since released their own mixtapes, pursuing music that is more adventurous than their day job allows.
This approach hasn’t been previously attempted by idol groups or Western boy bands such as Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Westlife. In these outfits, fans remember the two frontline singers at best, and the rest hang back.
Big Hit Entertainment’s Bang explained his company’s approach to BTS to Time magazine: “When they [solidified as an] idol group, I promised them they would be able to pursue the music they wanted [including hip-hop]. Because it was hip-hop, they could express their thoughts and we wouldn’t touch that.”
BTS’s ability to be heard on their own terms proves that only the most independent-minded Korean pop artists can break into the West. A good example is PSY, the irreverent pop star who is anything but the typical Korean idol.
Among the ways in which BTS have been innovative was doing the opposite of what earlier idols groups did.
They did not adopt American imagery in their music videos in a literal manner to try to break into the foreign market. BTS strongly held on to their Korean identity. In the video for the super-hit track Idol, traditional Korean clothing and architecture can be seen.
Another example is Spring Day, which embodies Han, the traditional Korean idea of deeply-held grief. This notion is missing in most South Korean idol music tailored for export, noted a recent article in the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture.
“At a point where most previous international K-pop idol acts would try to blend in deeper into the local market, BTS chose to double down on their Korean-ness,” Korean journalists TK Park and Youngdae Kim observed in Vulture. “BTS seemed to realise that they couldn’t be like preexisting K-pop idols, nor could they be like American boy bands.”
BTS’s subsequent releases in the Love Yourself series (one extended play, one album, one compilation album between 2017 and 2018) and Map of the Soul series (an extended play and album in 2019-2020) followed themes of mental health and self-care.
Their two-year UNICEF-backed Love Myself campaign was in line with BTS’s current image of a pop group addressing mental illness and similar issues. Their marriage of constant self-documentation with musical themes (the pandemic-themed Be, for example) is consistent with their push for authenticity .
With their music and choreography fine-tuned to perfection, and the Western musical establishment acknowledging their success, BTS have indeed become the princes of pop.
Together with their relentless social media marketing, BTS and Big Hit make sure that fans never tune out. The web series Bangatan Bomb and Run BTS give fans a behind-the-scenes look at the group. Another web show, In The Soop, which was released during the pandemic, follows the group surviving in a forest away from their sheltered lives.
The band directly engages with its fans on the app, Weverse, owned, of course, by Big Hit Entertainment.
Will the good times last? The Beatles released all their studio albums within seven years and disbanded after having been together for just a decade.
Idol groups and boy bands have a short shelf life. All BTS members have to serve in the South Korean military for two years before they turn 30. The maximum age was 28 until December 1, when the government amended their law exclusively for popstars. There’s the issue of burnout, given their productivity. For example, every video performance of Dynamite is different.
There’s also the matter of losing the spark that made them unique. Be has been a hit, but it has received mixed notices for being conservative compared to their previous work.
It might be too early to assess BTS’s significance. They have ended the dominance of American and British artists in the global pop music industry. It’s not that non-English acts did not top the Billboard 200 and sell out arenas before. But they were outliers. Nobody has done this as quickly and fiercely as BTS. Perhaps it’s best to drop the K from K pop while talking about BTS.