How BTS and their ARMY changed K-pop — and the world

In 2012, Rolling Stone revealed a listing of the 10 K-pop bands most definitely to make it huge in the US. Achieving important US fame was a newly attainable, if nonetheless distant, milestone for South Korean pop teams due to the 2000s’ large exporting of South Korean tradition abroad — a pattern often called Hallyu, the Korean Wave. Rolling Stone’s listing, which appeared two months earlier than Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” included teams like Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, and 2NE1 — the best bands of what’s usually considered the “second generation” of pop teams to emerge throughout K-pop’s rise to worldwide prominence.

It didn’t, nevertheless, embrace a bunch of teenage boys, then-recently assembled by means of a studio audition course of, who have been being meticulously polished and prepped for their debut. On December 22, 2012, the group launched quite a lot of Soundcloud clips that includes its seven members rapping in Korean and English — together with a rap cowl of Wham’s “Last Christmas.”

It was hardly the stuff of attention-getting Korean hip-hop. But the band in query — Bangtan Boys, later formally often called BTS — would go on to utterly remodel the picture of all-male boy bands in South Korean music and shatter conceptions of what breakout success seemed like for South Korean bands abroad.

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BTS’s rise to prominence has been so immense over the previous few years that the band’s newest single, “Butter” — their first since a trio of groundbreaking, historic No. 1 singles in fall 2020 — is a serious occasion.

BTS made headlines in 2020 with the hit single “Dynamite,” which turned the first K-pop music in historical past to debut at No. 1 on the US Billboard “Hot 100” chart.

Having already racked up greater than 60 million YouTube views in its first 12 hours on-line, “Butter” already appears positioned to be a good greater hit for the band.

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These US chart-toppers are large accomplishments for BTS. The band has spent years constructing up to now, slowly conquering the American music scene with one milestone after one other. Since 2018, once they turned the first South Korean band in historical past to debut an album at No. 1 on the US Billboard chart, they’ve collaborated with main artists like the Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki, Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, and Halsey. They’ve carried out in every single place from Good Morning America to Saturday Night Live, from Times Square’s New Year’s Eve live shows to Grand Central Terminal.

In 2020, BTS garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group efficiency. They’ve even snagged a few Guinness World Records for their extremely engaged fanbase.

So why was BTS the band that lastly broke by means of the tradition barrier abroad to make important waves in the US? The reply lies in a mix of things, and most of them are about change: the altering nature of K-pop’s studio tradition and the method “idols” are produced; altering depictions of masculinity in South Korea; altering ranges of acceptable expression in K-pop; and, above all, the strategy BTS has taken to constructing its fan base and interacting with its followers.

But to know all this alteration, we now have to again up a number of years to know how K-pop turned the regimented trade it’s right now — and how BTS subverts that routine.

How did K-pop turn out to be a $5 billion world trade?

Vox discover K-pop’s elaborate music movies, adoring followers, and killer choreography for our Netflix collection Explained.

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BTS is the product of an trade insider who needed to create a brand new sort of idol

K-pop started on April 11, 1992, when a hip-hop trio referred to as Seo Taiji and Boys carried out in a expertise present on a nationwide South Korean community. Seo Taiji and Boys have been innovators who challenged norms round musical types, music subjects, style, and censorship, which was unprecedented for a tradition whose musical manufacturing had spent the previous few a long time subjected to strict authorities oversight. But it wouldn’t final.

In the ’90s, three powerhouse music studios started cultivating what would turn out to be often called idol teams. Assembled by means of auditions and years of grooming inside an intense studio tradition — the extremely regimented system of idol group manufacturing in Korean and Japanese music studios — idol teams are polished to perfection, designed to current the very highest requirements of magnificence, dance, and musicality. Children who enter these studios spend most of their lives enduring rigorous coaching to turn out to be a part of an idol group. If they’re chosen, the studio exerts an enormous quantity of management, not solely over the songs they sing and the method their band is marketed but in addition over their day by day lives.

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Idol teams have come to dominate the Korean music trade, however there are well-known poisonous and abusive components to idol life. Over the final decade, the Korean authorities has taken steps to finish the structural exploitation that has been a serious a part of Korean studio tradition. But in the early 2010s when BTS was shaped, most studios had a extremely regimented, restrictive strategy to idol group manufacturing. As a part of the course of, they systematically ironed out most of the private expression and socially acutely aware music that Seo Taiji was initially identified for — in any case, it’s onerous to precise your self once you’re contractually forbidden to have a private life. Even right now, idols sometimes solely be at liberty to open up about their struggles after their studio careers have come to an finish.

It was inside this setting {that a} man named Bang Si-hyuk started to quietly construct a unique sort of studio, and to domesticate the band that will turn out to be BTS. A profitable songwriter and music producer, Bang was nicknamed “Hitman” for writing a string of standard songs, from g.o.d.’s “One Candle” in 1999 to T-ara’s “Like the First Time” a decade later. He labored as an arranger and producer with the studio JYP till 2005, when he left to type his personal Big Hit Entertainment.

But Bang additionally struggled together with his place inside the trade. As a studio proprietor, he confessed to insecurity about his work and mentioned he admired singers who might specific their personalities in their music. This mixture of concepts — the trustworthy musical expression of 1’s inventive anxieties — would turn out to be an important component of BTS.

In 2010, Bang started to assemble a bunch of teenagers for a bunch he referred to as the Bulletproof Boy Scouts. This would go on to turn out to be Bangtan Boys, then BTS, however the substances of their success have been inherent in the authentic title. Bang supposed “bulletproof” to perform as a celebration of the children’ toughness and means to resist the pressures of the world. But he additionally needed the band to have the ability to be honest and real — not immaculate idols groomed amid studio tradition, however actual boys who shared their genuine personalities and skills with the world.

This strategy was fairly totally different from the regular studio strategy to idoldom, whereby idols are skilled to be nice however gentle — to perform as clean slates upon which viewers can mission their fantasies. By distinction, Bang needed BTS to be filled with figures that audiences might relate to. In a 2018 interview with the South Korean newspaper JoongAng, he described how he initially considered BTS as consisting of mild, sympathetic idols who might mentor their followers:

To create that band, Bang needed to shake up the established precedents for a way idol teams are handled. BTS wouldn’t have strict contracts and curfews, and they’d be allowed to debate the pressures of stardom. Their lyrics could be open about the cultural stress positioned on Korean teenagers to excel and do effectively and to repress their anxieties. In brief, they might be frank, trustworthy, and pure.

How they did it: a consciously genuine model mixed with socially acutely aware messaging

“We came together with a common dream to write, dance and produce music that reflects our musical backgrounds as well as our life values of acceptance, vulnerability and being successful,” mentioned BTS’s chief, RM, in a 2017 interview with Time. There are six predominant methods BTS breaks with established precedent for K-pop boy bands to hold out this mission:

  • They continuously write their personal songs and lyrics.
  • Their lyrics are socially acutely aware and particularly attuned to describing the pressures of recent teen life in South Korea.
  • They create and handle most of their personal social media presence.
  • They aren’t signed to “slave contracts,” nor do their contracts have the grueling restrictions of different idol teams.
  • They are inclined to deal with advertising whole albums relatively than particular person singles. (This is basically nonetheless true regardless of their latest string of singles in the US.)
  • They speak overtly about the struggles and anxieties of their profession as a substitute of presenting an especially polished picture always.
  • It ought to be famous that almost all of those components have been current in quite a few different latest K-pop teams — most notably Big Bang, which in all probability influenced BTS greater than another K-pop group. What Big Hit Entertainment did, nevertheless, was systematize these components in BTS, and market them onerous.

    In the earliest movies of the band, from the months earlier than their 2013 debut, the members have been styled as younger and sweetly harmless, sustaining the frequent “schoolboy” idea of male K-pop idol teams. When the group formally launched in June 2013, nevertheless, it was with a tough model paying homage to old-school gangster rap. Their first single, “No More Dream,” was an ode to teen apathy, a rebellious rejection of Korean traditionalism.

    And it wasn’t precisely standard: Early viewers reactions included a variety of eye-rolling at what was seen as a superimposed gangster picture the band hadn’t earned. And whereas they have been clearly leaning on the confessional lyrical apathy of Seo Taiji and his early successors, all of it appeared contrived relatively than actual.

    A K-pop commentator who goes by the mononym Stephen ran a weekly podcast, This Week in Ok-Pop, from 2013 to 2017, which chronicled new releases in K-pop and inevitably documented the rise of BTS. But Stephen and his co-hosts have been initially skeptical of the band. “Now K-pop has faux hip-hop undertones everywhere,” he mentioned. “But in 2013 there wasn’t really that much, other than Big Bang. So when [BTS] came out with this very in-your-face, ‘We’re hip-hop’ image, it felt a little silly.”

    Stephen identified that K-pop generally suffers from this drawback. “K-pop really likes the look and attitude of hip-hop, but not too much. It’s very surface-level: hip-hop as a culture rather than as a musical genre.”

    BTS’s climb to success, then, concerned the band discovering a method to talk that this confessional picture was actual. They did this by mixing their openness on social media with blunt and trustworthy lyrics — and proudly owning their standing as an underdog group battling to succeed towards different bands who got here from established studios with bigger budgets. They spoke overtly of the affect of Big Bang, which was additionally identified for its socially acutely aware messaging. And they coated Seo Taiji’s ”Come Back Home”:

    In essence, they discovered a method to imbue their musical model with substance. This led to well-reviewed, pointedly private works like their three-album collection The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, which deftly blended “theater [and] autobiography.”

    Their two most profitable singles from this era managed to neatly embody this new course. “I Need U” (2015) was a refreshing, personalizing step away from hip-hop towards an R&B sound, whereas “Dope” (2015) overtly celebrated the limitless grind of their lives: “Over half of the day, we drown in work / Even if our youth rots in the studio / Thanks to that, we’re closer to success.”

    “Dope” additionally drew consideration to the band’s expertise in a serious method: It was the second South Korea realized that these boys might dance.

    “‘Dope’ is probably my favorite video of all time,” Stephen advised Vox in 2018. “Focusing on dancing like that — they weren’t the only ones doing it, but they were definitely the best ones doing it.”

    “And they alternate,” he added. “They do the big, boisterous, in-your-face dance video. But they also do those more emotional mini-art-flick type videos.” And no BTS artwork flick is healthier than “Blood Sweat & Tears,” the gothic, beautiful 2016 single that launched them into a brand new stage of worldwide fame.

    Colette Bennett is an leisure reporter and an enormous fan of BTS — however although she favored their music, it took some time for her to take their message significantly.

    “When The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series started, I saw something,” she says. “And that’s when I went back and watched their old vlogs. Up to and after debut, [these] skinny kids all crammed in a studio the size of a broom closet. Just … being honest about how much they poured into what they were doing, humble about being scared and unsure, etc.”

    To Bennett, the band’s frank dialogue of psychological well being and the expectations positioned on Asian teenagers was revolutionary. In 2016, she wrote a profile of the band that argued that they have been altering the nature of K-pop by means of their interpersonal strategy to image-making. While watching them on their 2017 “Wings” tour, she mentioned, “there was a moment that really stuck out.”

    “There’s a music the three rappers do referred to as Cypher 4. The chorus is, ‘I love, I love, I love myself / I know, I know, I know myself.’

    “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.’”

    The BTS ARMY is actual, and it’s mighty

    BTS’s followers — who collectively gained the nickname ARMY for their well-organized and loyal following of the group — responded to that confessional technique so effectively that by 2015, tickets for the band’s sold-out restricted US tour have been reportedly being scalped for greater than $10,000. Since then, the band has offered out all of its 4 subsequent world excursions, together with a record-breaking 2019 tour that included a landmark live performance at the Rose Bowl, and a 2020 tour that finally needed to be canceled as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Stephen advised me that it took some time for the hosts of This Week in Ok-Pop to comprehend how huge BTS had gotten. “We always thought the next big group to cross over would be a girl group, somebody like Twice,” he advised me. “I don’t think it really hit me how big they were until I moved to Korea in 2014 and talked to the children. Every single person in my school system, from teachers to high school students to middle school students to elementary — everybody knew who BTS was.”

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    BTS’s worldwide fandom was additionally onerous at work ensuring the band had an opportunity to interrupt by means of. Throughout 2017, followers systematically bombarded North American retailers like Walmart, Target, and Amazon with pleas to inventory BTS’s new albums — and then promptly pushed the albums up the gross sales charts. The ARMY was so mighty that by the time BTS made their US tv debut at the American Music Awards in 2017, the viewers was handled to a time-honored K-pop spectacle: an auditorium ringing with fan chants.

    The worldwide BTS fandom has labored to mainstream K-pop as few different elements have. On Tumblr, the web’s unofficial residence for fandom communities, BTS and its members reign supreme, recalling the huge attain of One Direction in its heyday. In April 2018, Tumblr determined to cease breaking out K-pop as a separate class in its standard weekly Fandom Metrics, an official Tumblr product that measures the reputation of fandoms and associated subtopics throughout the web site. By merging K-pop with English-language teams, the account might extra precisely mirror the relative reputation of K-pop bands to their Western counterparts.

    The first week the classes merged, BTS debuted at No. 1 on the platform, forward of Beyoncé and Harry Styles.

    So who’re these guys, anyway?

    Bang’s preliminary thought for BTS was to construct not a boy band, however relatively a supporting crew round one proficient teen: Kim Nam-joon, a.okay.a. RM. He shortly opted to go the idol group route as a substitute, and it took practically three years of making an attempt out totally different mixtures of members and types for the boy band to lastly emerge.

    Most K-pop teams have band members who occupy fastened, noticeable positions inside the band: the chief, the public “face” of the group; the “visual,” whose predominant position is to be fairly; and so forth. Not each group has set roles, and most roles change over time. And as a result of BTS is making an attempt to be much less staged than different teams, its roles are lots blurrier than different teams. Still, there are a number of constants.

    The chief and lead rapper: RM

    Born Kim Nam-joon, RM is a 26-year-old rapper and the first member recruited to BTS. It’s not exaggerating to say that the whole band was constructed round him.

    RM first made his title as an underground rapper; nonetheless in his teenagers, he was continuously noticed spitting verses alongside his buddy Zico, who would go on to turn out to be the chief of the K-pop group Block B. After a buddy advised Bang about the rapping teen, Bang recruited him into his studio, the place followers gave him the pre-debut nickname “Rap Monster.” From there, the thought to type a complete idol group quickly took form, and the Monster shortened his stage title to RM.

    The dancer/rapper: J-Hope

    Jung Hoseok, a.okay.a. J-Hope, generally referred to as Hobi, is most continuously described by followers as a ray of sunshine, due to his candy character. The 27-year-old is one in every of the group’s predominant songwriters in addition to a frequent choreographer, its lead dancer, and one in every of its three predominant rappers. (He sings effectively, too!) Since becoming a member of the group, he’s had a notable solo debut that landed him in the prime 40 on the Billboard 200. And have I discussed his chin might lower glass?

    The vocalist/dancer: Jimin

    No single member of BTS is its “face,” however the highlight usually belongs to 25-year-old singer and dancer Park Jimin. Jimin is continuously positioned as the group’s lead vocalist. He’s additionally part of the group’s dance line, for good motive, together with J-Hope, Jungkook, and Taehyung.

    The mentor vocalist: Jin

    The 28-year-old Kim Seokjin, a.okay.a. Jin, is the group’s oldest member, and as such he continuously occupies a mentorship position inside the group (full with dad jokes). He’s one in every of the group’s predominant vocalists, and although he’s not formally the group’s “visual,” he appears to have a behavior of unintentionally going viral for being lovely.

    The prodigy: Jungkook

    Depending on when and whom you ask, Jeon Jungkook is both the designated “face” of the group, the designated magnificence, the designated predominant singer, the group’s centerpiece member, or all of the above. But there’s one position that by no means adjustments: At 23, he’s the youngest. The group usually calls him the “golden maknae,” a.okay.a. the golden little one, as a result of he’s a little bit of a wunderkind by way of expertise. In truth, he was in excessive demand earlier than he settled on becoming a member of Big Hit as a result of he seemed as much as RM. But he’s unquestionably the child of the group — and arguably its hottest member.

    The rapper: Suga

    Min Yoongi, stage title Suga, is one in every of the group’s three rappers — although it ought to be famous he, like fellow rappers J-Hope and RM, can be an honest singer. At 28, he’s additionally one in every of the oldest members, which makes him one thing of a bunch dad. His title comes from his most popular basketball place of capturing guard, however legend has it that Bang selected the title for him as a result of it displays his “sugary” character — refined, but candy and beneficiant.

    The vocalist/dancer: V

    The 25-year-old Kim Taehyung selected the stage title “V” for victory — but it surely might simply as simply stand for “versatile”: He’s one in every of the vocalists, he labored his method onto the dance line, and he’s even tried his hand at rapping. His playful, quirky character (let’s name it “singular”) and penchant for stealing the highlight have made him one in every of the group’s hottest members. It additionally in all probability doesn’t damage that he has chemistry with all the things that strikes.

    Each of the members of BTS has been hands-on concerning their personal careers from the begin. As the group has gained extra and extra energy in the leisure trade, they’ve additionally every developed their inventive and skilled sides. By this level in their lengthy careers, each band member has produced, written, or co-written a number of tracks on the group’s albums, and most of them have additionally labored on impartial productions and songs exterior of BTS.

    For instance, rapper Suga has additionally launched two bestselling mixtapes beneath his alter ego rap deal with, Agust D. And vocalist Taehyung co-produced and co-wrote the hit 2020 single “Sweet Night,” launched as a part of the soundtrack to the standard Korean drama Itaewon Class.

    On prime of all this, the band members all play quite a lot of musical devices, along with routinely splitting the duties of dancing, singing, and rapping. They’re an immensely proficient group of artists.

    But maybe their greatest asset is their shared means to straight talk their love and affection to followers. When the band appeared in the annual Time 100 in 2019, entertainer Halsey wrote their profile, making a degree of highlighting BTS’s authenticity:

    Stephen advised me there’s an actual core enchantment in what BTS is doing. “A lot of their ballads really do sound like they’re talking to you and confessing to you, more so than a lot of pop standards,” he mentioned.

    BTS has pulled off this confessional, one-on-one intimacy all whereas constructing a world fanbase, regardless of appreciable language and cultural limitations. And in that respect, BTS has actually turn out to be a world revelation.

    BTS has made main inroads for different K-pop bands and changed the method we take into consideration worldwide fandom

    Understanding BTS’s rise to the prime additionally means acknowledging that they’re not alone in their class: They’ve succeeded and grown alongside different bands which have additionally been innovating and reaching new ranges of worldwide success — like Blackpink, which in 2019 turned the first K-pop woman group to carry out at Coachella. Collectively, this K-pop era is quickly altering the dialog and pushing the limits of what K-pop is allowed to be.

    But BTS has additionally achieved greater than arguably another band to increase K-pop’s worldwide attain — in addition to the method worldwide media and the music trade are compelled to deal with K-pop. After all, as the lyrics to “Butter” be aware, the band’s “got Army right behind us when we say so” — a serious brag, however one which’s clearly correct. And BTS followers aren’t simply making themselves seen to the music trade. They have been additionally at the forefront of the 2020 push to drown out racist hashtags on social media, and each followers and the band itself have condemned anti-Asian racism.

    As BTS and their fandom acquire extra consideration, they’re diversifying mainstream music in America at a second when artists like The Weeknd have referred to as out the recording trade for its gatekeeping. Between the band’s simple expertise and diligent work ethic and the fandom’s immense affect over charts, gross sales, and media protection, the BTS phenomenon is basically unstoppable.

    Moreover, no matter groundbreaking adjustments come subsequent for K-pop will probably be a direct results of BTS’s affect. Already, American manufacturing corporations are transferring to convey much more facets of K-pop to the US. For occasion, MGM lately partnered with K-pop studio SM Entertainment to convey the K-pop actuality competitors format to Hollywood.

    Even extra intriguing: On the again of BTS’s large success, its mother or father studio BigHit lately renamed to HYBE Entertainment and, in a billion-dollar deal, acquired heavy-hitting supervisor Scooter Braun’s whole portfolio of shoppers. That means BTS’s studio now oversees artists like Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande. With that potential trade energy, and that a lot fan assist at its again, HYBE and BTS might effectively be poised to form the music trade in methods hitherto unseen.

    And no matter they do subsequent? Will probably be Dynamite.

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