If you haven’t heard of K-pop (Korean pop) by now, you must be living under a rock. Typically characterised by its manufactured nature of upbeat pop tracks, perfect ‘Idols’ who spend months, often years in training before ‘debuting’ with their agency and elaborate choreography and live performances, K-pop has quickly and surely been filtering into the western music world.
BTS, the seven-member group formed in 2013, are undeniably the kings of K-pop. Like the majority of K-pop acts, BTS members RM, Jin, Suga, J-hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook spent years training together after auditioning for Bighit – the now world-famous agency that began as a small music company – and debuted in South Korea in 2013. They particularly stood out for their strong hip-hop influences, with RM and Suga’s history in the underground Korean rap scene having a strong impact on audiences. They achieved relative success in Korea to begin with, and it took until the third album in their “School Trilogy”, Skool Luv Affair, to enter the Billboard world album chart.
Jump forward six years and BTS have hit stratospheric heights of success in 2019. Collaborations with western artists include The Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki, Desiinger, Nicki Minaj and Halsey, to name a few. They became the first Korean group to attend the Grammy’s or to win a Billboard award (for top social artist). They have won 15 Melon Awards, have two multiplatinum singles and are about to embark on a worldwide sold-out stadium tour, including dates at Wembley stadium (tickets for which sold out in 90 mins). Their latest album Map of the Soul: Persona topped the UK charts in its first week of release, wilst the title track ‘Boy with Luv’ smashed the previous record of Music video views in 24 hours with around 75 million. They made history in April when they became the first K-pop group to perform said single live on SNL.
With hundreds on K-pop acts out there, you wouldn’t be amiss to ask what makes BTS so special? The answer lies in their message and personality, as well as their fans. In a country known for conservatism, the messages BTS convey in their music, such as speaking out about mental health (which they gave a speech on at the UN), the importance of loving yourself and celebrating what makes you different, as well as the hardships we face in the world today, resonate with audiences both in Korea and overseas. Furthermore, where many K-pop acts are seen simply as a money-making machine, churning out mass-produced pop tracks, BTS’s involvement in their own music, with leader RM and Suga having a part in the writing and production of most of their songs, their own musical influences (from rappers such an Eminem, to British producers Honne) shine through. This has led to a huge range of genres within their albums, as well as allowed each member to have his chance to put his own stamp on the individual tracks that feature on each album.
BTS themselves have credited their success to their fans – otherwise known as “ARMYs”. The continuous content being produced by the group – through social media, fan meets, live streams, their variety show ‘Run BTS’ and their gratefulness to fans at every opportunity – has created a strong bond and loyalty between them. There is mutual support between the group and the fans, with the group’s Twitter account frequently asking ARMYs what they are up to, and ARMYs working together to surprise the group with messages at concerts, help them to break records and get their name trending on twitter for their birthdays. The diversity and kindness within the ARMY fandom is renowned, new members welcomed with open arms and fans greeting the group in thousands wherever they go in all ages, race and gender.
This barely scrapes the surface of what BTS’s success, and astoundingly, all this has been achieved without a single English-language song. In a world where things seem as divided as ever, BTS has managed to cross cultural barriers simply with the power of their music, the messages resonating without translation needed, further enforcing the quality of the music being released and the power of the group’s charisma both individually and all together.
BTS’s latest album Map Of The Soul: Persona is available now via Big Hit Entertainment.