Who the hell are BTS? They’re THE music group of the moment. Whilst there’s been Beatlemania, the stand-out genius of Michael Jackson, the charm of Elvis, the YouTube-discovery Justin Bieber and the half-century run of The Rolling Stones, there’s never been anything quite like the South Korean band BTS. Here’s why.
Whilst difficult to compare musically, statistically BTS are up there with the greatest, and they are still on the rise. By the way, BTS is short for their full Korean name Bangtan Sonyeondan.
They sing mostly in Korean. Just consider that for a moment. They’ve crossed through the musical bamboo curtain to have #1 hits in the UK and the US (and plenty of other countries too). Indeed they’ve scored three number one albums in the US on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart, in one year – a feat only achieved once before by The Beatles, a situation that hasn’t been lost on the humble septet.
At their sellout concerts (their current Wembley Stadium dates sold out in less than 90 minutes each), the audience sings along with all their hits, in Korean. At their recent concert in Bangkok I witnessed 40,000 (mostly) Thais singing along in Korean whereas most Thais battle to speak much English, a language they’ve been partly taught at school and been exposed to for half a century. (By the way on one side of me at the concert was a 40-something husband and wife who had flown from Sydney to see the concert, on the other a mother and three kids (8 – 15ish) – I think the mother enjoyed it more than the kids.)
The group, comprised of Kim Tae-hyung (V), Jung Ho-seok (J-Hope), Kim Nam-joon (RM), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Park Ji-min (Jimin), Jeon Jung-kook (Jungkook), and Min Yoon-gi (Suga), are hardly ‘overnight successes’. They debuted six years ago in the cut-throat K-Pop scene and they were hardly an instant success. Working with an almost unknown production company (Big Hit), the seven members started crafting their sound with long nights and weekends, living in the one dorm room, using their managers cars and homes as props and sets and fitting in their schooling as well. They produced and wrote most of their material, and still do.
Eventually they clawed their way to a position of recognition in the K-Pop world, meanwhile garnering growing support in the west, well, everywhere around the world.
Whilst it’s difficult, probably not even appropriate, to measure their success against others, there are a few important keys to their success which has music executives scratching their heads.
Their big weapon is their ARMY, the name they’ve given to their loyal fanbase around the world. Whenever the group speaks they ALWAYS acknowledge their success to the legion of loyal fans. ARMY have meanwhile weaponised social media – you could say that BTS came along at the right time – reaching beyond Korea’s borders in a way that had been impossible even ten years ago.
Their YouTube music videos (there are hundreds) have broken several records on YouTube, their Twitter followers were the world’s most dedicated in 2018 and one member, J-Hope, had the most tweeted video last year. Their recent release Boy With Luv hit Number One in the US Chart (and was in the top 5 in 12 other countries).
The band members shared the minutiae of their lives with thousands of uploaded photos and videos and also relentlessly shared their core message – that life isn’t always easy as a teenager and young adulthood, you need to love yourself before you can love someone else and your mistakes will make you stronger in the long-run.
They shared videos showing themselves fighting, crying, arguing, laughing, eating, shopping and backstage – just being seven young men battling their way through the music industry labyrinth as underdogs.
The difficult-to-measure X Factor is also strong in these seven talented guys. There is a genuine bond of friendship between the Bangtan boys and it shines through whenever they appear in public, or video – it’s not fake. And, after working their act for six years, there’s a comfort and ease on the stage, some describe it as ‘swag’, where their performances appear effortless whilst pulling off breath-taking dance routines. This is a bit of run-through their earlier-to-later choreography and dance practices…
Within their six years of ensemble work there are also generous sprinklings of solo projects, fully supported by the rest of the team. Whilst ‘doing a solo project’ from within a group is usually code for ‘I’m leaving’, with BTS it’s been a core part of the band’s raison d’être. At every BTS concert, including the two Wemberly dates this weekend, each member have their solo moments to shine.
Another part of their strength is that they’re all remarkably talented – they sing, they dance, they write, they produce, they rap. They also have great hair and looks (or ‘visual’ in K-Pop speak) presenting an all-Asian look to a white-washed western pop industry. There are no weak members along for an easy ride.
They keep collecting legions of adoring fans and celebrity fanboys and fangirls and, in 2019, have launched on another sold-out stadium tour around the world. If their career was a porn movie, they’ve scarcely got their pants down.
Their music, whilst often sung with Korean lyrics, is immediately catchy, has plenty of pop influences yet shines through with something unique that continues to set them apart and keep amassing new fanbases around the world. In their concerts you’ll here pure pop, hip-hop, rap, power ballads and other songs that simply show-off their voices. Much of the music is accompanied by jaw-dropping dance routines and epic stages. That they keep it up, at full throttle, for their two and a half hour live concerts is one of the modern wonders of the music world.
Yet, amongst the hype, the YouTube records, the sell-out concerts and music sales, are seven young men who have allowed their true personalities to shine through.
RM, the mature group leader (the only member to speak fluent English) with an IQ of 148, V is the quirky one and unnaturally handsome, Jimin the ‘flirty’ one who shares his up & down journey with fans, Jungkook the supernaturally talented youngest member (or ‘maknae’ in K-Pop speak). J-Hope is hyper-energy and perennially cheerful, Suga the brooding musician with the sharp tongue, and Jin the ‘world-wide handsome one’ (a self-mocking moniker he gave himself after the media attention to his looks over the years) who loves cooking for the band and telling dad-jokes.
There are thousands of videos on YouTube recording the bands rise from very bottom of the K-Pop world to international stardom. Whilst you can check out any number of their music videos or live performances (there are thousands of videos!) I would urge BTS-newbies to start with this address by leader RM (Kim Namjoon) at the United Nations in September 2018. It provides an insight into the intellect and feeling behind the pop sensation and a small part of what sets BTS apart from just about every other musician in the world today.
Whilst they are obviously riding high on a wave of fame right now most music pundits think they’ve got plenty of room, musically, to extend their fandom and fame. Perhaps, even to become one of the greatest music bands of all time.
As a footnote, looming over BTS is the Korean government’s insistence that all it’s young men must enter two years of national army service by the time they reach the age of 28. The oldest member, Jin, is already 26 and the band members have already stated they are happy and proud to serve their time of conscription. In the meantime they have two years left before that moment arrives and they’re not wasting anytime as they continue to plunge head-long into a grilling schedule they’ve been keeping up now for six years.