How boy group BTS defied the odds to break K-Pop’s borders
In just four short years the seven-piece band have amassed an obsessive fanbase, derailed Korea’s ‘Big 3’ record labels and become the country’s most prominent act to break the west
Since their legions of fans, known most simply as A.R.M.Y. (‘Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth’), propelled them to snatch Best Social Act from under the nose of Justin Bieber at the Billboard Awards in May, the seven members of South Korean group BTS – rappers Rap Monster, J-Hope, and Suga; vocalists Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, and V – have been covered slavishly by publications from Vogue to Allure, Forbes to People, making them easily the most prominent Korean act in the west since PSY broke through way back in the wilderness of 2012 with “Gangnam Style”.
They may still be regarded as an overnight phenomenon by an American media awed by the group’s social media muscle power, but even the tiniest peek behind the glittery curtain shows how ferociously BTS have dedicated themselves to nurturing a long-term symbiotic relationship between the group and their fandom. Those seven immensely likeable and robust personalities have been constantly channeled for over four years into a social media omnipresence via Twitter, a series of mini-shows (such as American Hustle, Bon Voyage, Run BTS!, and BTS GAYO) broadcast on a variety of online platforms, and hundreds of the behind-the-scenes YouTube videos known as Bangtan Bombs that capture the mundane side of stardom – endless dressing rooms, hotels, and travelling – and the mischief they make during that time.
It’s been an emotional journey during which they’ve created their own little online universe that’s a haven for the members and fans, dense with in-jokes and catchphrases (as well as a few trials and tribulations), a secret language that fans slowly pick up on the deeper they go into it. This intimacy has forged an unbreakable connection between BTS and A.R.M.Y. and translated into a steamroller of support that flattens other fandoms – but also prompted other groups to up their social game, from groups like Astro adopting BTS’s selfie-heavy approach to new boy group WannaOne aping the @BTS_twt Twitter account with @WannaOne_twt.
Of course, none of this would command people’s attention if it weren’t for BTS’s stellar creative output, which is just as personal as their off-stage presence. Their self-penned lyrics can be frank and raw, while their music both experiments with and merges genres from hip hop to rock, EDM to future bass, and the accompanying videos contain rich storytelling around social realism, which have helped establish a new standard for K-Pop visuals.
Everything about BTS’s immense impact is felt more keenly simply because they were never expected to succeed at all, let alone challenge K-Pop’s status quo, where groups from the big entertainment companies rule the roost and those from smaller companies, like BTS, fill in the gaps. Even up until as recently as last year, BTS were viewed by the industry as underdogs and outliers, something they appeared to embrace and make part of their identity – even if only to loudly smash that status against the platinum records they’re chalking up.
With 16 video singles to date, BTS’s catalogue is overflowing with memorable work that’s set them apart from their contemporaries. Here, we look at five major milestone videos that helped define the group’s singular, unstoppable rise to pop royalty.