By Izzy Angus
How international pop superstars BTS paved the way and changed the game
What does it take to be the biggest boyband in the world? Evidently, it takes seven charismatic men, striking visuals, high production values, multi-genre tracks adorned with percussive raps and sparkling verses almost entirely in Korean, polished and perfected dance moves in perfect sync and millions of adoring fans. You see them on Time-100’s Most Influential People of 2019 List, in front of the United Nations speaking as UNICEF ambassadors, at #1 on the Billboard 200 three separate times in 11 months and at the center of massive, rumbling, glowing stadiums.
방탄소년단 (romanized: bangtan sonyeondan), or BTS, is a seven-piece pop group from South Korea, composed of members RM (Kim Namjoon), Jin (Kim Seokjin), SUGA (Min Yoongi), j-hope (Jung Hoseok), Jimin (Park Jimin), V (Kim Taehyung) and Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook).
They cannot be just another boyband. Not some passing trend nor inexplicable phenomenon. Outgrowing the constraints of any label— boyband, K-pop, idol, celebrity— BTS signify a cultural moment that transcends even music: one that centers love, community, vulnerability and humility.
Since their conception, BTS have championed the voices of youth, writing music that makes social commentary on suffocating education systems, political and social injustices and mental health. BTS debuted in 2013 under BigHit Entertainment, a small entertainment company founded by Bang Si-Hyuk. Bang set out to subvert the pristine Korean “idol” (K-pop artist, in Korea) image and put together a group that had the industrial power of an idol group while simultaneously embodying the company’s slogan, “Music for Healing.” BigHit condemned harmful “slave contracts” and the abusive work environment that K-pop is notorious for, ensuring the members of their personal agency and prioritizing their passion for music and development as artists. In an unforgiving, highly competitive market, Bang and BTS had a long and tumultuous road ahead.
Debuting with an explosive bad boy concept, not only did they inherit the financial struggles of a small company, but they also trespassed upon the clean-cut idol image. With their debut EP, 2 Cool 4 Skool, the rebellious, fire-eyed, teenage hip-hop group BTS, or 방탄소년단, translating to Bulletproof School Boys, committed themselves to representing and protecting the raw, resilient and powerful youth of Korea— not your average idol.
In a music industry as saturated as South Korea’s, idols must meet the golden standard of performance. Their choreographic precision, charismatic stage presence and unwavering vocals are the products of hours and hours of rehearsals, every day, often in addition to packed schedules. They record, rehearse and perform nonstop— hardly ever resting— releasing new music, promoting and touring every single year in order to compete.
This could be why BTS is so off-putting to some Western consumers. Chocked up to “just another K-pop group,” they must seem too pristine and industrious. Unfamiliar, foreign and intimidating. When Americans call BTS’s success “manufactured,” I try to explain the Korean music industry— a machine that demands this level of production. Yet, nothing about BTS’s success is manufactured. They were kids, 13 to 20 years old, when they left home, moved schools and committed themselves to BTS: a small nobody group from a small company.
BTS gained traction because of how they excelled within their constraints of the industry, while still challenging it. Without the privileges of a large company, they grinded their way up, from “nothing to something,” consistently cranking out immaculate performances and high quality albums, whilst, above all, championing their artistry and their deeper social values throughout.
Unlike many other idol groups, the members participate in the songwriting, production and/or composition of every single track. Writing autobiographically about loss, depression and insecurity in their more reflective tracks as well as determination and self-love in their electrifying, empowering stadium anthems— they imbue their own narrative into their songs. This kind of critical engagement with the highs and lows of personal development is rare in an industry that notoriously restricts the individuality of idols and propagates idealized pictures of what joy, masculinity, femininity, beauty and love should look like. BTS wields genre and conceptual shifts as artistic tools to illustrate their growth from teenagers to adults. Every member has a musicality and narrative that shines through their respective performances. The complicated personal narrative and self-fashioning afforded to each member— as they live, work and grow so closely to one another under such strenuous schedules and public scrutiny— crafted seven highly unique, thoughtful, complex and admirably dutiful artists.
In addition to exhibiting vulnerability in their art, the boys, as many fans comfortably call them, established an unprecedented rapport of playful authenticity, openness and familiarity with their fans. Through an active social media presence on Twitter, vlogs, casual livestreams, and fan-meetings, BTS regularly interact with their fans, known as ARMY, giving them peeks to their daily schedules, their personalities, their struggles, as well as the personal frustrations and joys of working and living with one another as they grow up together.
BTS consistently humanize themselves and their fans through this rapport. The group recognizes the comfort a fan could find in them: hope in their lyrics, joy in their live performance, life-lessons in their candid personal reflections. In return, they find similar comfort in ARMY, since, for the past six years, they are who believed in them and advocated for them when everyone else counted them out. This openly communicated reciprocity of duty and gratitude between BTS and ARMY lies at the heart of the group’s success, alongside BTS’s indomitable work ethic, skill as musicians and dedication to one another as friends.
Fans want the world to see, hear and understand BTS in the same way that they do. Tens of millions of fans— of all ages, genders, and nationalities— all believe in BTS, their message, their skill and their integrity as individuals. BTS resonate with fans in their song lyrics, journal entries, interviews, speeches and winding thoughts they share as they speak to us on a livestream over their quiet midnight hotel dinner, coming down from the high of a sold-out show to an audience of 80,000.
Fan translators work for free to share and distribute content in their respective languages. Fans organize philanthropic projects in the name of members, in the same way that the members organize their own in the name of ARMY. Friends are connected, on and offline, within a massive community, brought together by the cultural superpower that is BTS. In return, the boys continuously promise to work harder— to write, record, rehearse, tour, perform— to reciprocate the love and energy poured into them. It’s a viciously benevolent cycle.
In mid-April, BTS kicked-off on their sixth conceptual era, Map of the Soul. They are in the midst of their Speak Yourself Stadium World Tour, which references their #LoveMyself UNICEF campaign. Through this campaign, BTS advocate the practice of self-love through acknowledging multiplicity— “to love myself for who I was, who I am and who I hope to become,” as RM said before the United Nations General Assembly in 2018. Loving yourself is accepting and learning from mistakes. Loving yourself is accepting both your capacity and potential.
As BTS meet hundreds of thousands of fans throughout the summer, in explosive open-air stadiums glittering with light and love, they will continue to prove that love, music and humanity will always transcend any language. BTS will continue to speak themselves and sing their message as long as anyone is willing to listen.
Contact Izzy Angus at iangus ‘at’ stanford.edu.