BTS: What makes the record-breaking K-pop group different?
By Rosemary De Souza, Features Editor
In the K-pop world, artists start training for music, dance or acting when most kids are going through elementary school. Many artists are stuck aspiring to be the next big thing and others earn the admiration of audiences in South Korea and around the world.
But one group has withstood the barriers of race and language, garnering the respect of foreign critics and audiences alike. BTS, an acronym for the Korean phrase “Bangtan Sonyeondan” or “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” in English, has become the first K-pop group to continuously break records on an international scale and earn a seat among the ranks of the greatest artists in the modern era.
The beginning of a “Big Hit”
Let’s start from the very beginning.
In 2005, Big Hit Entertainment, the agency that now manages the world’s most popular Korean boy band, was formed. However, not much was to be expected from the newest-kid-on-the-block. The “Big Three” entertainment companies — SM, YG and JYP— have been around since the 90s and created some of the most legendary artists in the country like Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, Big Bang, Wonder Girls and 2ne1, to name a few.
Today, Big Hit is still a small entertainment company with only two current acts affiliated to its name — BTS and South Korean singer Lee Hyun, in comparison to many solo artists and bands under the “Big Three.” But it continues to achieve the one thing the “Big Three” companies have yearned for a long time — international fame.
“We really started at the bottom,” says “RM” or Kim Namjoon, leader of BTS, to CNN. “When we first started no one paid attention to us.”
So how did the group that consists of RM, Jin, Suga, Jungkook, Jimin, V and J-Hope, achieve the fame many big names in South Korea wanted for so long? Let’s revisit history.
Trial and error
It is not common for Korean music to be entirely translated into English. But it has happened, giving agencies hope that the songs might get the attention of Western audiences.
In 2009, the Wonder Girls by JYP Entertainment made it to number 76 of the Billboard Hot 100 list with the English version of their song “Nobody.” This was a first for a Korean pop song.
The quartet went on to join The Jonas Brothers on tour and guest on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and the Wendy Williams Show.
In 2011, Girls’ Generation by SM Entertainment released their hit single, “The Boys,” a song produced by a few artists including Teddy Riley, one of Michael Jackson’s producers.
To expand the group’s reach outside of Asia, they signed a deal with American labels, Interscope Records and Universal Music Group and performed the English version of the song on American shows like the Late Show with David Letterman and Live! with Kelly early the next year.
But regardless of their attempts to break into the American market, “none of these promotional opportunities made much of a lasting impact,” says Jeff Benjamin, a K-pop columnist for Billboard. “These groups felt a need to cater to the Western audience by changing what made people love them in the first place.”
The Wonder Girls collaboration with Akon on “Like Money” turned them into “autotuned robot queens” and the innocent persona of Girls’ Generation was ruined with a song (“The Boys”) about “getting it in,” says Benjamin in his Billboard article.
2ne1 by YG Entertainment, however, was a closer shot to global fame because of the individualized personas of each member of the group. Instead of making English versions to their songs, the girl band brought their top Korean hits into the American music scene, along with collaborations with American artists like Will.i.am and apl.de.ap.
In 2014, the group debuted at number 61 on the Billboard 200, making it the highest-charting Korean album in the United States.
When the girl group disbanded in 2017, they left fans with two songs — “Goodbye” and “I Am The Best” — that ranked number one on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart. Their album, Crush, ranked the highest on Billboard’s chart for a K-pop group at number 61. It did not take too long for that record to be broken again.
BTS: Journey to Number 1
By the time 2ne1 came to an end, BTS was already making it to the Billboard charts just two years after their debut. In 2016, their The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever album made it to number 107 on the Billboard 200 and that number jumped to 26 for their album Wings later that year.
The accomplishment marked “the best week ever for a K-pop album,” according to Benjamin, where BTS earned the highest-charting album and sales week. It also made BTS the first K-pop group to have three entries on the Billboard 200, after hitting the charts in 2015 and 2016.
The group’s song “DNA” broke records set by American artists, namely Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Rihanna, garnering 20 million views in only 20 hours on YouTube. In that same year, BTS also became the first K-pop group to sell out US arenas and win a Billboard Music Award, beating Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande in the Top Social Artist category.
Those were big strides for the Asian community as the music group continuously hits the mark and breaks the barriers of race and language, as many fans continuously listen to music they still don’t know the words to.
The world finally meets an all-Asian pop music group that does not conform to the equation set by the music industry but uses relatable lyrics, their unique personalities and witty compositions to win the hearts of people around the world.
“If you listen to their past hit songs, it doesn’t really sound like they’re trying to make a catchy pop song, instead, they’re using genuine hip-hop beats with clever wordplay and thought-provoking lyrics,” says Paul Han, co-founder of the gossip news site Allkpop, to CNN.
Social media also played a crucial role in their 2017 Billboard win, according to Billboard writer Tamar Herman. BTS members use social media to connect with fans, unlike the carefully crafted communication between fans and many K-pop idols through their label. This lent a hand in garnering over 300 million votes by social media users on the Billboard music site and Twitter.
“It’s become a habit to be natural and always open,” says RM. “We tweet about silly things and every small thing.”
Early this year, BTS became the first K-pop group to lead the Billboard 200 with their album Love Yourself: Tear, and debuted then again in first place with their latest album Love Yourself: Answer.
The debut of their latest album also allowed them to return to the number one spot on the Billboard Artist 100 chart, a spot they first claimed in June and marked the first for a K-pop act.
The group has been named as one of Time magazine’s “Next Generation Leaders,” a month after BTS spoke at the United Nations, encouraging the youth to love themselves — a recurring message in their music.
Still curious about why BTS is number one?