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Do You Know BTS?

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Rhythm Planet readers might be surprised to see this post about the K-Pop group BTS. I don’t normally cover pop music, but over the past months, BTS has become a global musical phenomenon unlike anything I have ever seen. Yet most people I know still remain oblivious to the group. I’m not a BTS expert, so I’ve asked a huge fan I know to introduce us to the group and explain why we should all get to know BTS. — Tom Schnabel

The seven-member K-Pop group BTS—short for either their Korean name Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boy Scouts) or an English name Beyond the Scene—is currently on the tail end of their Love Yourself world tour, which began in Seoul on August 25, 2018. The sold out tour has so far taken the members through 11 cities across North America and Europe plus 5 cities and counting in Asia. They’ve performed 34 concerts to date in major venues like Citi Field in New York, The O2 Arena in London, and the Tokyo Dome. Their most recent stop at Singapore National Stadium—where they were the first pop group from anywhere ever to perform—drew 45,000 passionate fans. What truly amazed me, however, was that fans from all over the world shared in the excitement and joy of the Singapore concert via more than one million tweets that weekend. It’s just one example of the powerful reach of BTS, and excitingly, they are still on the rise.

I joined the BTS ARMY (as the fans are collectively called) only this past August, when I happened to see an NPR music blog post about their candy-colored music video for the song “Idol.” It had broken YouTube’s record for the most number of views (45 million) within the first 24 hours of a video’s release, yet I had never heard of BTS. I was blown away by the dance moves and liked the song’s positive message. As an Asian American, I was also surprised and delighted that members of an Asian boy band appeared to have become worldwide heartthrobs. I wondered who they were and how they managed to connect with fans from Peru to Turkey, all while singing and rapping primarily in Korean. A YouTube search led me to introductory videos and a staggering amount of official and fan-made content. I quickly noticed—after watching just a few videos and reading some of the comments—that the group had forged a deep connection with fans through its music as well as what the members generously share about their lives via social media.

BTS members have a hand in writing and producing much of their music, and their lyrics often draw from their own experiences. They sing/rap candidly about dreams, doubts, and struggles, reflect on what they’ve achieved, and express satisfaction at overcoming haters who derided them as fluffy pop idols. Their most recent suite of three Love Yourself albums addresses themes of self-love and self-acceptance, and refreshingly to me, no glorification of sex, drugs, or violence is anywhere to be found. BTS’s heartfelt and sincere messages have resonated with its youthful ARMY, inspiring them to persevere in their own struggles and believe in their self-worth. I regularly see fan comments on Youtube and Twitter saying how much the group has helped them through hardship and depression. BTS’s positive influence is all the more important considering that Korea has one of the highest suicide rates of industrialized nations, with a troubling increase in teen suicides.

BTS also tries to create a positive impact on the lives of young people through its philanthropic endeavors. Shortly after the first Love Yourself album was released in fall of 2017, BTS partnered with UNICEF on the #ENDviolence initiative and simultaneously launched its own Love Myself campaign—both with the goal of ending violence against children and teens. The members and their management company collectively donated almost half a million U.S. dollars to the campaign and pledged a percentage of the proceeds from their album sales as well. While passing through New York last September on tour, BTS spoke at the United Nations in support of its UNICEF collaboration. Group leader RM acknowledged their sense of responsibility as role models and urged their fans to find their own voices:

BTS debuted in 2013 under Big Hit Entertainment, one of the smaller management companies in Korea. The seven members—RM, Jin, SUGA, J-Hope, Jimin, V, Jungkook—are currently between 21 and 26 years old. As is normal under the K-pop entertainment system, the members live together dormitory-style beginning from their trainee years. BTS started out in cramped quarters and slept in a single room, and some of the earliest members to join have now lived together for almost a decade. They have overcome hard times and celebrated triumphs together as a team. Not surprisingly, the members consider each other as brothers and BTS as a family. They’ve remarked that something feels off if one of them is away from the group, and their lyrics make frequent reference to the Bangtan brotherhood.

The members’s closeness and rapport shine through in hours of behind-the-scenes footage from rehearsals, dance practice, backstage, and music video shoots, as well as in several reality/variety series (Run BTS!, Bon Voyage, Burn the Stage) that they’ve filmed. Their genuine affection and support for each other only further endears them to an adoring ARMY, myself included. It’s simply charming and joyful to watch the members tease each other, have fun, and goof around like the young men that they are, even as they work extremely hard at their craft. Kudos also to Big Hit, for often prompting the members to think and talk openly about their achievements and fears in the many videos (such as this one) produced for fan consumption. The members express amazement that so many of their dreams have come true, but also struggle with the pressures that come with success. They look ahead to the future, knowing that this ascendance—and their youth and energy—won’t last forever. They speak of enjoying the moment and growing old together with ARMY. I find their emotional maturity and groundedness admirable given their youth and rapid rise.

In fact, ever since their debut in 2013, BTS members have shared their thoughts, feelings, and their everyday lives with fans through social media. There are video logs wherein they talk about anything, live chats on their fan cafe, live video broadcasts, and above all, thousands of tweets from a shared Twitter channel, where they currently have over 18 million followers. All the official online content combined with the group’s social media presence have allowed ARMY to connect with the members as real people rather than as idols on a pedestal—regular guys who still do their own laundry and love to eat instant ramen and Panda Express. By reaching out to their fans so openly and frequently, the members have cultivated a loyal fan base that reciprocates with a fierce love and devotion.

BTS understands how much ARMY contributes to their success, and the members take every opportunity to express their gratitude. The group won Billboard’s Top Social Artist of the Year award at the BBMA’s in both 2017 and 2018 thanks to ARMY’s efforts. ARMYs around the world lobbied hard to get them nominated in 2017, even though many people at the awards didn’t even know who BTS was at the time. Hardworking volunteer ARMY translators provide translations and subtitles for Korean lyrics, tweets, and videos almost instantly, so that international fans can understand in English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic…you name it. Non-Korean ARMYs memorize the Korean lyrics (and many are learning Korean) so that they can sing along at concerts. They are vigorous defenders against real or perceived slights to the group. They are also quick to embrace anyone who gives the group a chance, because as big as BTS has become, it has yet to fully break into the western mainstream as a K-Pop act. K-Pop is not simply American pop sung in Korean. It is a genre unto itself where music, complex choreography, eye-popping videos, and edgy fashion all play an important role. The guys wear makeup and dye their hair rainbow colors. Language aside, these are not familiar aesthetics for male artists to a western pop audience, and it may still come off kitchy like Gangnam Style.

2018 was a very good year for BTS, with two number one albums on the Billboard 200, a Time magazine cover, not to mention the sold out tour. Their accomplishments on and off the world record charts are too lengthy to list—the word “first” currently appears 85 times on their Wikipedia page. But 2019 might be the year that BTS and K-Pop finally break through to a wider audience. The group was invited to present an award at this year’s Grammys, and they’ll be seated in the second and third rows along with the biggest pop stars in the west. The Recording Academy, which has been under attack for a lack of diversity in the Awards, has surely thought shrewdly about the good visuals offered by the group’s prominent seating. However, I do think they’re acknowledging BTS’s global success, even though it has yet to score a number 1 single on the Billboard 100. I’ll take bets that the ratings will be higher. I know I’ll be watching the Grammys for the first time in over a decade just to cheer the guys on.

In Season 3 of BTS’s Bon Voyage travel series, Jin, the eldest member of the group, goes around Malta jokingly asking random people if they know BTS. He probably won’t need to ask that question much longer. Even if their music isn’t your thing, I hope you’ve come to know BTS as not just “the new One Direction,” but an inspirational bunch of hardworking musicians and dancers who happen to be some of the nicest idols around.

Get to know the individual members of BTS:

A short playlist of some favorites:

The poignant music video for Spring Day, which pays tribute to the victims of the South Korean Sewol ferry tragedy (be sure to turn on English captions if they don’t come on):

A huge thank you to all the ARMY translators and in particular the following whose hard work has allowed me to get to know BTS — @JL_Kdiamond, @btstranslation7@doyou_bangtan, and @BTS_Trans. Cheers! — @brightstars88

[Correction: This post was updated to say BTS has not yet had a number 1 single. Their song Fake Love did make the top 10 on the Billboard 100.]