How BTS became the world’s biggest boy band (and global diplomats along the way)

At the start of the year, South Korean President Moon Jae-In established the future global goals of the nation, situating BTS as its beating heart of cultural diplomacy. ‘With pride in our culture, I will make sure that it is being utilised to further the agenda of the future industry so that every citizen can enjoy a sense of accomplishment… I will work to establish an environment of fair competition where the creation of the second generation of BTS… is possible.’ As the first South Korean act to top the Billboard 200, sell out a global stadium tour, and achieve a flurry of other firsts with spectacular influence, BTS has taken South Korea to the summit of cultural influence in the West. 

How BTS has gotten here, however, is still a mystery to both Western audiences and Korean media; the meteoric series of successes BTS has achieved has forced journalists, industry insiders, and netizens to reevaluate almost every aspect of the Western music market. Some have attempted to explain away their significance, citing a vague ‘K-pop formula’ and a Korean westward pivot to American due to geopolitical tensions in East Asia. Even so, BTS’s global popularity has little to do with their notable predecessors of Psy, EXO, or BIGBANG — all of which have held tentative footholds and sizeable fan populations in the US, but failed to break through to the general public.  

In 2015, BTS’s conceptual Most Beautiful Life album series took every fact known about the American market, the ‘final frontier’ of the K-pop industry, and shattered them on stage. Their impact was immediate. BTS played four major cities in America that summer, bringing in over 4,000 attendees per night, and the album’s part-two follow up that fall was their first to enter the Billboard 200. Since 2016, each of their consecutive albums have overwhelmed the previous on US charts, culminating in Love Yourself: Tear which landed No. 1 on Billboard at the end of 2018, the first and only Korean act to do so in history. 

Image Courtesy of LG_Q7_BTS_에디션’_예약_판매_시작 via Wikimedia Images © 2018, some rights reserved

Last year also saw BTS sell-out a 42-date global tour, starting in Seoul and playing in stadiums across North America, Europe, and Asia, with a comeback tour commencing this May. If BTS’s Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist in 2017 seemed like a passing curiosity, 2018 proved doubters wrong: BTS won the BBMA again, their latest album was nominated for a Grammy, and they finished the year with 29 global music awards including their 17th daesang (grand prize) at the Asian Artist Awards. BTS has swept into the international market and left industry professionals stunned and brands scrambling over themselves for a chance at the world’s most quantifiably active, international, and diverse fan audience, ARMY. 

RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, Taehyung, Jungkook — seven young men from the backroads and quiet neighbourhoods of Korea, all schoolboys when they first began. They weren’t the K-pop group that was supposed to make it— not in Korea, and certainly not in the West. All major Korean acts from the past decade have come out the Big Three –the record labels of SM, JYP, and YG– and a widely criticised system of exploitation and grooming as heightened by the recent suicide of idol Kim Jong-Hyun and a long history of trainees claiming sexual abuse. Bang Si-hyuk, an industry veteran and successful songwriter, left YG to form his own agency, Big Hit Entertainment in 2010 and began to assemble a group of young teens (first known as Bulletproof Boy Scouts/Bangtan Sonyeondan) as his first debut hip-hop group. Bang intended ‘bulletproof’ to function as a power of the boys’ ability to withstand the pressures of society, granting the final members unusual levels of personal expression in an idol culture that projects members as mild, inoffensive blank slates in which fans can project their fantasies onto. In response, BTS’s fanbase was named ARMY, envisioned with the idea that they would constitute an unassailable legion of support backing the seven boys in their battles. BTS was never meant to be mild; it was always about a socio-political reaction.

Marshalled by the group’s leader and main rapper, RM, BTS writes music that is emotionally vulnerable and reverberant of their times. Their early albums shake with anger, dabbling in golden era sounds of G-funk, boom-bap, and turntablism, alongside the residual nu-metal and trap bangers, reaching out to a young generation that often seen as ‘cursed’ in Korean society. The members write and produce all of their own songs, suffusing the lyrics with critical awareness and a generational unease: They rap, curse, and sing about the suffocation of Korean traditionalism, social anxiety, depression, and broader themes of cultural obsession with materialism, self-love, and identity. BTS refer to themselves as baepsae, a fabled reference to the largely unimpressive, short-legged bird (the crow-tit in English) whose foil is an elegant stork, the hwangsae. It’s a Korean analogy to its core, but one seen multiplied in a world fragmented by haves and have nots. They weren’t intended for global domination, but BTS and their message has empathetically resonated with international fanbases through their teeming universality. 

BTS’s mythology is founded on its ‘realness’, cultivated by the members’ exceptionally intimate presence on social media. Whereas Western stars often appeal to a cultural image of masculinity, privilege, power, and privacy, BTS have always shown considerable humility; letting their fans in to their quiet moments of struggle, pain, and depression. Suga, the group’s 26 year-old rapper, told The Guardian last year that ‘Fame is like a shadow. There’s light and there’s darkness; it’s something that follows you constantly and not something you can run away from’ (translated from Korean). The group communicates to their fans with surprising honesty, encouraging a relationship with ARMY that evokes one between close friends. BTS achieves this primarily through a steady stream of visual and personal content uploaded unto Twitter, YouTube, Naver, Weibo, fancafes, and V Live, a Korean video streaming platform. 

What makes their presence exceptional from Western artists—aside from the endless highly-polished marketing materials, concert recordings, music videos, and TV spots— is that fans also receive candid selfies, highly-interactive personal tweets, and a ‘genuine’ insight into the daily life of the seven members. This can especially be seen on the V Live platform which hosts a weekly series, Run BTS!, that welcomes fans to get a glimpse at the true friendship between the seven members; the members read comics, make pottery, play video games, laugh, argue; interacting with each other in informal settings just like anyone would with their own friends off-camera. They work hard to nurture their image as open, accessible, and constituted of ‘real’ young men, complete with complexities and insecurities. BTS often take to video diaries to open up to fans, each individual member expressing their own interests and sentiments outside of the greater brand. They are off-script (often rambling and using non sequiturs and pop-culture references) and highly critical of the world they and ARMY interact in daily.  

Their steadfast fan base is what has given BTS its profound socio-cultural influence; the soft-power implications of this relationship is clear. In October of last year, South Korea awarded the septet the Hwagwan Orders of Cultural Merit in honour of their efforts of spreading South Korean culture and language throughout the world as the Blue House’s torchbearers of the Hallyu Wave. They have changed the face of K-pop and disrupted the traditional notion of cultural diplomacy, as not only the first Korean group to reach the upper echelons of the Western music industry, but to shake it up from the inside. Just one month prior, the group were invited to the UN General Assembly in New York as UNICEF ambassadors in which RM gave an English-spoken speech on self-acceptance within youth to an international audience of politicians, diplomats, and industry leaders. RM finished his speech with: ‘No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, your gender identity, just speak yourself.’ This line, referencing gender and sexual fluidity, was met with notable positivity in South Korea, whose president is publicly against homosexuality. 

Online, BTS’s fan power of cosmopolitanism is dominating and expansive. The borderless (or tribal) nation-building of social media has allowed ARMY to generate profound social influence without regard for the politics of their home country or social reproach, driving a fearsome industry of clicks, votes, purchases, and views. The music video for BTS’s latest hit, ‘Idol,’ earned over 56 million views within its first 24 hours; BTS’s brand ambassadorship with Hyundai’s Palisade range brought 20,506 pre-orders within the first 12 days; their average daily views on YouTube is over 9 million; and as of writing, BTS have over 3 billion streams on Spotify, the most streamed Non-English/Spanish act in history. In a modern influencing economy, BTS and ARMY is supreme. 

North American ARMY have especially evolved to constitute a distinct fanbase with fully flexed PR and philanthropic arms; they are serious cultural ambassadors, translating (at real-time) BTS promo material into various international languages, organising sophisticated campaigns for increased Western media attention, and crusading their music and statement to local communities. What is good for BTS is good for ARMY, and rooting for them feels like rooting for your own beliefs. A fan told a Vulture reporter after their concert at New York’s Citi Field that she felt like ‘loving BTS was an escapist release from the news cycle or American racism… the cross-cultural, global nature of the fandom was part of the experience.’

BTS’s meteoric rise to success and more importantly, its staying power in Western markets calls into consideration the dominance of Euro-American influence on global media and audiences. They primarily speak and perform in Korean, with only RM fluent in English. They have never made an attempt to blend in to the local market or meet the demands of any particular audience. The members are less interested in evacuating American rappers in favour of incorporating their Korean heritage into their music despite loud concerns over international marketability. The members appear in the ‘Idol’ music video in hanbok –traditional Korean formal dress– and sing in chuimsae, a historical call-and-response between audience and performer as seen in Korean pansori. 

‘Idol’ itself is a hyper-visual, cleverly sarcastic response to the Western audience’s claims of mass-produced origins and androgynous visuals (which typically reveals more about narrow American standards of masculinity than it does anything about BTS). They are not passive nor submissive in K-pop’s relationship with the US cultural field, bringing to light the structural (and neo-imperialistic) barriers that prevent Asian artists to receive comparable official recognition. BTS’s only Grammy nomination had come via ‘best recording package’ despite being invited to present an award, and often their Western fan base must engage in grassroots guerrilla marketing to secure time on major radio stations and physical album sales. 

The story of BTS so far has been told in terms of industry metrics, market share, and part of the larger economic and cultural hegemonic competition between East and West. This is why the West has gotten BTS wrong. The relationship between BTS and ARMY —and BTS and the world— is about the want for community, mindfulness, intimacy, and shared connection in an era of global market capitalism and hyper-dependency on social media. The dominantly feminine, youthful fanbase that is the foundation for global cultural trends and the pop-culture industry, has historically never been treated with respect nor recognition by the international community. BTS is not the first, nor will it be the last, to offer sincere appreciation to this population, but the group and its message are the only ones yet that have reached an unprecedentedly large international community with remarkable humility and appreciation of their success. Without ARMY, there is no BTS; a sentiment of honesty that is rare in the global neoliberal culture of viewing fans as utilitarian consumers of entertainment.

A Guardian reporter quotes RM on the eve of their sold-out show at London’s O2; ‘We know that popularity is not for ever, so we enjoy the ride, the rollercoaster, and when it ends, it just finishes. We’re on the jets and in the stadiums, but I don’t feel like it’s mine. It’s like we just borrowed it from somebody.’ Colette Bennett, an entertainment and cultural journalist told Vox last year that she was struck by RM, Suga, and J-Hope’s famous refrain of ‘I love, I love, I love myself / I know, I know, I know myself’ sung in concert; ‘I looked around me at hundreds of people in their 20s cheering every word, and I thought, ‘My god. They’re using their influence to teach young people — the ones most inclined to grapple with self-hatred — to start considering what self-love means.’ From their captivating, inclusive, and visually stunning concert experiences to the intimacy of listening to their songs alone, BTS helps their fans search for self-identity, humbly offering sensitivity, love, and personal introspection as a source of their strength along the way. 

In the global cultural crossroads of increasing cosmopolitanism and inclusion, and reactionary populist sentiment and persistent Orientalisation —as seen in frequent mockery of RM’s fluency in his second-language, English, Korean cultural insensitivity by Western journalists, and anger by industry professionals in BTS’s refusal to record an English-only album— BTS’s continued existence is also a statement of confidence of their Korean identity and unwillingness to compromise to Western standards. The American market is no longer the ultimate gatekeeper of global cultural success; rather, an Asian act is leading the conversation now. BTS represents a zeitgeist propelled by a generation of young adults that are largely in favour of rejecting nationalism for globalism, partisanship for understanding, and traditionalism for authenticity. In 2019, seven young men from Korea who still can’t quite believe their success, are now the biggest boyband in history and have no plans of giving away that title.



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of Jimin memories gallery via Flickr © 2018, public domain