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Growing up with BTS
What else is there to say about BTS’ global fame? International media have been rushing to cover the K-pop act’s coming-of-age saga and President Moon Jae-in sent a personal congratulatory message to the band on the septet becoming the first K-pop act ever to top the Billboard 200 chart with its “Love Yourself: Tear” album. Only a few days later, the group’s single “Fake Love” hit the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10.

BTS debuted in 2013 as a hip-hop heavy-act with “2 Cool 4 Skool” EP under Big Hit Entertainment, a minor agency in an industry dominated by entertainment S.M., JYP and YG Entertainment. 

BTS (Billboard)
BTS (Billboard)

Dubbed the Bangtan Sonyeondan in Korean and Bulletproof Boyscouts in English, the act consists of three rappers and four vocalists, all in their 20s and all hailing from provincial Korea. RM, formerly known as Rap Monster and the group leader, and Suga are main rappers who have produced and written many of BTS’ albums. J-Hope is another energetic rapper and the main dancer who was originally a street dancer from the city of Gwangju. Vocalists include Jimin, who hits the high notes and does modern dance, Jin, who jokingly introduces himself as “worldwide handsome,” Jungkook, the youngest of the group who also serves as a sub-rapper and V, a deep-voiced crooner. All seven members pitch in with writing credits on most of their songs, while RM, Suga and J-Hope have released their own mixtapes in 2015, 2016 and March this year, respectively. The act has released three full-length albums and five EPs so far.

Social commentary on Korean society

Despite its ambitious start, BTS’ early school-themed albums that touched on pressures familiar to any Korean student were often criticized for being old-fashioned and conventional. But the group’s desire to speak its own mind led it to tackle social issues such as the education system, materialism and mental health. And that social consciousness later turned even those who had previously shunned K-pop into dedicated BTS supporters.

“What is as important as BTS’ jaw-dropping performances is its songs that resonate with the younger generation. With songs like ‘Paradise’ and ‘No More Dream,’ BTS tells fan that it’s okay to live without dreams, and that really speaks to young listeners,” said Seoul-based pop music critic Im Jin-mo.

As the survivors of the highly competitive K-pop jungle, BTS gives sincere advice like “Live as you like, it’s your life anyway” in its anthem “Fire” and boldly asks “Who made us study machines?” and “Who will take responsibility (for us) living the lives of puppets?” in “N.O.” Bang Si-hyuk, producer and CEO of Big Hit, once said that what he stressed most to the members were talking about their inner thoughts and showing their artist-driven authenticity.

BTS didn’t stop there. It went onto socio-political territory, a taboo for K-pop, a highly-manufactured genre that usually sticks to safer subjects like romance, partying and daily life. Many of BTS’ loyal fans -- known collectively as ARMY or Adorable Representative MC of Youth -- have said that the band’s critical lyrics have inspired them: Songs like “Dope,” “Silver Spoon” and “Am I Wrong” are rife with condemnations of media and societal ills, lines concerning class divide and that have political implications.

“When Seo Tae-ji and Boys, an iconic K-pop band in the 90s, brought out songs that addressed social issues, older generation tilted their heads while 10- and 20-somethings showed fanatical reaction to its songs,” culture critic Kim Young-dae said,

“In the same context, by drawing out its own issues, BTS was able to communicate with fans directly.”

BTS performs at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20 in Las Vegas. (Yonhap)
BTS performs at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20 in Las Vegas. (Yonhap)

Social media and ARMY

BTS’ smart use of social media and its devoted world-wide fandom ARMY have played a major role in making the group a household name internationally. By sharing its most realistic and friendly sides on social media accounts, which all seven members hold onto even during their busiest world tour periods, and with the help of internationally spread translators, BTS has been able to capture the heart of fans from all over the globe. The band’s expansive social media influence has earned the group Billboard’s Top Social Artist Award for two consecutive years, beating out names like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Recently, BTS members’ joint Twitter account amassed 15 million followers, the first Korean account to do so.

“BTS members add their own stories into their social media posts, which help fans understand BTS better. Fans will think, ‘Ah-ha. That’s how the song was created,’” said music critic Moon Yong-min.

Moon also explained that BTS’ comparatively slow start – it took almost two years for the band to make its name known to the public – contributed to ARMY solidarity.

“At its early stage, BTS didn’t receive attention in Korea while it was also considered nonmainstream in the overseas market. That factor, I think, strengthened the ties between ARMY and BTS, as they’ve grown together from the bottom.”

Will BTS ever top the record Psy set with “Gangnam Style” that peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart in 2012?

“It may be hard,” Lim said, emphasizing that “Gangnam Style” was a world-class hit back then. But he said there’s a difference in that BTS, as an idol dance group, represents what K-pop is really like, while Psy was an oddity in the K-pop scene.

“There were fans who cried during the BTS’ performance at the Billboard Music Awards. Its live performances are amazing, incomparable to what we see on screens. That’s the true power of BTS,” he said.
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