Earlier this month, BTS, heralded as the biggest boyband on the planet, kicked off their global “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” stadium tour with an explosive night at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California to a crowd of 60,000 concertgoers, among which included the likes of Khalid and Nick Jonas. This was, of course, after they took home Top Social Artist for the third time in a row, as well as their first Top Duo/Group award at the Billboard Music Awards.
With a sold out tour, their recently unveiled ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’ album that reached number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, their single ‘Boy with Luv’ featuring Halsey that has reached nearly 300 million views since its release in April, and a fame that seems to see no signs of decreasing, one has to wonder: what makes these guys so special, anyway?
More than talent and hard work?
During their acceptance speech for Artist of the Year at the Mnet Asia Music Awards, one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment awards, Jin, the oldest member of BTS, revealed that they had considered disbandment earlier that year because of the mental toll that came with the radical growth of their fame. It’s a stark contrast to everyone’s expectations of this group, but when you’ve been thrust past the ceiling that no one has cracked before, it’s an intimidating notion, to say the least.
To say that their talent and hard work alone had brought them this far would diminish the efforts of those who have equally worked as hard. The K-Pop industry is filled with bright-eyed trainees, some as young as 12 years old, who work for years on end before they get a glimpse of the limelight, and it is a continuous battle to even stay in that spot, much less the arduous climb to the top.
But it is undeniable that BTS has risen above and beyond all of that — they’re selling out concerts worldwide, they’ve completed an era of their music, the Love Yourself series and began a new one with Map of the Soul: Persona in the span of less than three years. They’ve actively participated in the UNICEF campaign ‘Love Yourself’, dedicated to helping kids and teens who are exposed to violence, and made an empowering speech during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in September last year, as part of a launch for UNICEF’S Generation Unlimited.
They are beloved and adored by many; their fans, called ARMY, have only grown in unprecedented numbers, especially with their appearances on the Billboard Music Awards in the last couple of years, where they won Top Social Artist three years in a row and nabbed Top Duo/Group award this year, and on well-known American television shows such as Good Morning America, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Late Show with James Corden as well as their recent Saturday Night Live musical appearance.
I had the rare chance to catch BTS’ concert for the Love Yourself tour in Bangkok last April, where they sold out the Rajamangala National Stadium and performed to over 40,000 excited ARMYs in a fantastic show of blazing lights, knife-sharp choreography and catchy music — music largely in Korean that fans, both local and international, enthusiastically screamed-sang along to.
(That I screamed-sang along to!)
The atmosphere was undeniably electric, with a sea of purple across the masses thanks to the band’s official lightstick and fans from not just across the country, but the region itself (with myself as Exhibit A) congregated for a night to enjoy these performances live, the voices of 7 men ringing passionately over the crowd.
And yet, who are these 7 men that inspire so much fervour among millions, judging from their ever-increasing Twitter follower count?
Who is BTS, and what makes them stand out?
“I’m Kim Namjoon, RM of BTS. I’m a hip-hop idol and an artist from a small town in Korea.”
This is what RM said in his speech at the UN General Assembly. Months later, he would follow it up with another one, at the end of the second day of their Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour concert in Rose Bowl. “From 2013, in six years, we had many memories. We were RM, J-Hope, Jimin, Jungkook, Jin, V, Suga. K-Pop. We were seven boys from Korea. All just Koreans. Idols, artists.”
His words don’t seem to encapsulate the way they appear to the rest of the world.
BTS, which is an acronym for Bangtan Sonyeondan (방탄소년단) and in 2017, also took on the moniker Beyond The Scene, are made up of 7 members: RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook. Perhaps their Korean name, which roughly translates to Bulletproof Boy Scouts, is a foreshadowing for their resilience in the unforgivingly rough K-Pop industry, as their debut album 2 Cool 4 Skool and lead single ‘No More Dream’ achieved moderate success.
However, their roots are precisely one of the reasons why BTS doesn’t exactly conform to the narrative of previous K-Pop success stories — and evidently, they’ve definitely reached beyond those peaks today.
(1) Their roots
In 2013, BTS debuted with a then-small company, BigHit Entertainment, led by Bang Si-hyuk. Bang, who worked closely with Park Jin-young, was looking for young star power with an edge, beginning with RM, who was an underground rapper, along with Suga, who was then known as Gloss, also in the underground rap scene. J-Hope had built a name as a street dancer in his city, Gwangju and with the addition of singers Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook, the group was formed.
But they would go on to compete against numerous other K-Pop groups, some more established than them, others just as hungry for a taste of success. Among these groups are those from the Big Three, powerhouse music studios that churned out K-Pop idols that were for the most part, beloved by the masses. These include JYPE, along with SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, considered as the biggest companies in the industry.
Which is why BTS’ underdog story is made all the more compelling, as they steadily hustled and made their way through the ranks over the years. They were no overnight success.
(2) Their openness on social media
Once, Suga was trying to sit on a chair that RM had given him but fell off of it, and landed on his behind. He tweeted it on their Twitter profile, and that was how #MinButtFell trended worldwide.
— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) January 2, 2018
It’s instances like this that give BTS that human, relatable personality and endears them to ARMY. In addition, the group shares one dedicated social media account, with regular updates on their daily life. For example, RM has the #KimDaily tag, where he posts his looks of the day (a more personalised version of the #OOTD, if you will). J-Hope, as the main dancer of the group, shares snippets of his dancing adventures, whether on his own or with other choreographers with the #HopeOnTheStreet tag.
In an industry that takes pride in being squeaky clean and polished, the fact that BTS chooses to be upfront about their lives is something that fans really cherish and value.
And they brought this to another level with the release of their original YouTube Premium series, BTS: Burn The Stage and the subsequent movie, Burn The Stage: The Movie; a documentary of their lives during the international 2017 Wings Tour. One emotionally jarring scene in the YouTube series was when V and Jin had a disagreement … right before a concert. While the documentary was edited to showcase the ‘reality’ of being on the road and the stress it brings, there is no masking the raw emotions that came out of that clash.
Compare that to Jin’s adventure with cutting his own hair with a pair of kitchen scissors, and you’ve got a multifaceted personality that’s part celebrity, and part, well, young men just trying to live their best lives, really.
내 앞머리.. pic.twitter.com/qYXlPG07yP
— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) February 22, 2018
(3) Their music process and message
It wasn’t common for K-Pop idols to actively participate in the songwriting and production of their music, but from the get-go, BTS wasn’t about to be the ‘common’ K-Pop idol.
The three rappers of the group, RM, Suga and J-Hope have their own studios where they write and produce the band’s music, as well as their own solo projects, coming up with personalised names (RM’s is RKive, Suga’s is Genius Lab and J-Hope’s studio is named Hope World) for the space where they’d spent the bulk of their time, outside of the dance room.
— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) February 20, 2019
While there is nothing wrong with consuming music that wasn’t personally written by the artist in question, the fact that these men have a hand in the way they sound and the message they bring across lends that extra layer of authenticity that’s so rare in this industry. And one of the most authentic things about BTS is, perhaps, the themes they choose to integrate into their music.
BTS debuted with ‘No More Dream’, which spoke of the struggles young students encounter in the face of tough societal expectations and the choice to follow their dreams — appropriate then, as their youngest Jungkook was only 15 at that point. The group has continued to follow this path of incorporating social commentary in their music, with singles such as ‘Dope’ that rally against those who call out millennials for not working hard enough, and ‘Baepsae’ (translated as Crow-Tit), which uses the metaphors of the ‘spoon’ to describe people’s socio-economic status and generational plight.
While there have been other groups that have gone down this path recently (rookie group Stray Kids’ ‘Hellevator’ comes to mind), BTS stands out because they continue to evolve in their music’s message while still remaining relatable — and they explore this through their own solo projects as well.
RM’s second mixtape, Mono, touched upon the themes of sadness, inadequacy and even the questioning of existence through sincere, poetically introspective lyrics in songs like ‘Forever Rain’ and ‘Uhgood’. Suga, who took on the alter-ego Agust D and named his mixtape after it, was incredibly vocal on his issues about wrestling with his identity as artist and idol, as well as his own struggles with mental health in the viceral ‘The Last’. J-Hope’s Hope World feels like a representation of Jung Hoseok, the man behind the stage name J-Hope as well as his hopes, dreams and his coming to terms with his fame, notable in ‘Airplane’.
Sincerity and humility go hand in hand
Finally, one of the biggest reasons why BTS is adored by many is the fact that they unabashedly proclaim their own love for their fans every single time they possibly get the chance to. Award speeches, interviews, their tweets and video uploads — I am hard-pressed to pick just a couple of quotes that capture how eloquently they express their emotions for the ARMY that unfailingly stands behind them in support.
Perhaps one such situation would be the continuation of RM’s speech at the end of the second day of the Rose Bowl concerts, as he speaks to ARMYs in an emotional ment that tugged at everyone’s heartstrings, referencing their albums from the very beginning. “[…] We’re just BTS, and you’re ARMY. And at the same time, you guys are BTS and we’re your ARMY. Wherever you’re from, whatever you speak, however old you are, in this Rose Bowl, tonight we are one. We speak the same thing. We speak the same voice. We speak the same language. This is community, what we call community.”
And finally, yet another RM quote, from their Wings Tour, that speaks of this two-way street of support and admiration that comes from a place that is sincere and humbled by the fame and love they have been given. “If we helped your dream and your life a bit with our existence, our music, our performances, our pictures or videos, even if it’s not big, if we could reduce your pain from 100 to 99, 98 or 97, that makes our existence worthy.”
What are your thoughts?
Do you have a favourite BTS song? Do you think BTS will continue to grow, or have they peaked? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below or on any of our social media platforms -- Facebook or Instagram.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Bruneian writer who spends her already too-little time trying to catch up on anime, buying books she’ll never read, travelling on a budget and living her best ARMY life.