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How BTS Became The Undisputed Kings Of K-Pop

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By now, there’s little chance you haven’t heard or seen the name ‘BTS’, the undisputed kings of K-pop. And should the world’s course not have been changed by the current pandemic, BTS rappers RM, J-hopeand Suga, and vocalists Jin, V, Jimin and Jungkook would currently be on their 37-date world tour to support their fourth Korean album, Map of the Soul: 7.

On 18 and 19 April (the dates they were due to play Seoul Olympic Stadium), their label Big Hit Entertainment aired Bang Bang Con, a free two-day live stream of archival footage from previous concerts and tours. More than two million fans (known as Army) watched simultaneously, with the total views toppling 50 million.

This weekend, on 14 June at 10am BST, BTS will perform a 90-minute pay-to-watch online concert — Bang Bang Con: The Live — that’s bound to pull an audience of record-breaking numbers. The social engagement is consistently unsurpassed; earlier this year, Jungkook broke his own record by amassing over two million likes on five different tweets, breaking the previous record set by Barack Obama. He is also the most searched for K-pop Idol on Google and YouTube while in 2019, BTS were the most Googled boy band in the world.

As they’ve grown to become multimillion-selling, stadium-filling superstars, there has never been a singular answer as to how and why a non-English language pop group managed to break into the upper echelons of the western record industry. Multiple factors have been woven together to form an irresistible and, more importantly, unduplicatable recipe that’s seen BTS achieve four US number-one records in under two years and cumulatively sell over 20 million albums.

Whether it’s your first time with BTS or your thousandth, Vogue looks at how they became one of the greatest pop groups of all time.

Prolific in that they release new material every year, BTS have given their extensive catalogue a narrative by creating album trilogies or series to fully explore their subject, rather than race wildly from concept to concept. From criticising socio-political systems on tracks such as No More Dream (on which J-hopesays to “Rebel against this hell-like society, give your dream a special pardon”) to expressing their fear of no longer being able to perform on Black Swan, their depth of thought, constant creative exploration and lyrical candidness is a source of inspiration and comfort to their millions of fans.

Where they endeavour to stand out amongst their pop peers is through a propensity to integrate so-called high culture with popular culture. Take, for example, 2016’s Blood Sweat & Tears; the song combines trap, moombahton and tropical house while the video takes lavish inspiration from Hermann Hesse’s 1919 coming-of-age novel Demian, whose Jungian psychology would also form the basis of their 2019/2020 Map of the Soul series.

BTS refuse to be confined by genre, shifting from epic ballads (Spring Day) and moody emo anthems (Fake Love) to crowd-shaking bangers (Fire) and turbo pop like Boy With Luv (featuring Halsey) and DNA. The latter is a major milestone for BTS — it’s their first video to reach one billion YouTube views, their first entry on the US and UK singles charts, their second US gold single, and marks their US TV debut with a much-lauded performance at the American Music Awards.

Known as ‘the golden maknae’ (the youngest member who is good at everything he does), Jeon Jung-kook is the most Googled idol of 2019 and, with his cover of Lauv’s Never Not last month, set a world record for the most commented-upon tweet and fastest Twitter video to reach a million views (it took just 10 minutes!). Jungkook is one of the least active members on social media, making his appearances something of an event, but his bandmates aren’t far behind, regularly racking up a staggering two million likes per post. Over the years, BTS have constantly updated Army with their passing thoughts, holiday snaps, jokes and selfies — using their Twitter account just as a close friend would, becoming part of their fans’ lives in much the same way.

In the face of a western industry unwilling to make room for a foreign-language boy band, BTS’s global growth was never through traditional means, such as radio play. Instead, their social media nous and content strategies via video platforms including YouTube and V Live became their springboard, helped exponentially by hundreds of fan translators who tirelessly translated lyrics, social posts and much of the group’s video content, allowing for non-Korean speakers to fully connect with the members.

Since 2017, US television has become a powerful friend in pushing them deeper into the general public’s consciousness. Whether morning news or late-night talk shows, BTS’s camaraderie turns even the most sedate interview into beguiling, entertaining chaos. Despite having only one fluent English-speaking member, BTS are adept at hooking in viewers, smoothing out cultural and language barriers with an instinctive charm and earthy humour, comfortably taking a spot in millions of western households where previously Asian artists had rarely been seen.

The Late Late Show’s James Corden was the first host to give the band the spotlight. “I’m constantly impressed by their work ethic,” Corden tells us via email. “They’re always so full of respect, not only for the environment they’re working in at that moment in time but also, and most importantly, for each other. Watching them grow from their first appearance on our show to where they are now has been jaw-dropping. As a group, they remain so dignified, so full of joy, that it drips down to everyone around them. Particularly their fans, who are the most incredible collection of young people. It’s clear that they are only about doing something good, being good people, keeping the whole thing in this bubble of positivity. And that in itself is the rarest of experiences in today’s day and age.”

Much has been written about South Korea’s male pop stars’ love of flamboyant costuming and elaborate makeup. BTS, in particular, are seen as major figures in positively changing western attitudes towards Asian men as sex symbols and steering masculinity away from toxic norms.

Yet, like so many male artists, BTS had to reach this point through learning and did so by first acknowledging the sexism and objectification in some of their early lyrics and videos. Their growth over the years can be seen in their lyrics, which now focus more on self-realisation and shared experiences, the embracing of powerful female collaborators (Halsey, Sia, Nicki Minaj, and South Korean pop queens IU and Suran), their openness when dealing with emotional issues both personal and within the group, and their wearing of pink, pastels, sequins, frills, skirts, purses, chokers or corsets without reservation.

This appreciation for the power of clothes and their unrivalled influence has endeared them to the fashion world. BTS, however, have very few official fashion endorsements, preferring to buy only what appeals to them. So when they decide to wear a particular item, not only does it promptly sell out globally, it makes headlines for doing so, cannily furthering their name beyond the fandom.

One rare partnership was with Dior, who created the stage outfits for last year’s Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour. Dior’s creative director, Kim Jones, said at the time: “I love BTS because they are really great guys and also super into fashion. They all have their personal taste and style and it works so well together. Everyone I know is kind of crazy about them!”

There were many who hadn’t taken BTS seriously as new cultural icons, but that changed in 2018 when the group were invited to speak at the UN, where BTS’s message of self-love was heard loud and clear in an eloquent, moving speech for Unicef’s Generation Unlimited campaign. “Like most people, I made many mistakes in my life,” RM said. “I have many faults and I have many fears, but I am going to embrace myself as hard as I can, and I’m starting to love myself, little by little. What is your name? Speak Yourself!”

This wasn’t the first time they’d used their huge platform to raise awareness. For years, the members have individually donated to varying causes including animal welfare, scholarship funds, cancer charities and food drives. Their partnership with Unicef was created, says Gmin Seo, of Unicef Korea’s corporate partnership and philanthropy team, “from a shared ambition for a world where children and young people are free from violence and bullying. [BTS has] raised awareness of Unicef’s #ENDviolence campaign […] all over the world. Both in person and through their music and social media channels, [BTS] have helped young people open up about their own experiences of violence, bullying, encouraged love and kindness.”

Their work is global. The group recently contributed $1 million (£806,000) to Black Lives Matter, which was immediately matched by Army, frequent fundraisers themselves, who rallied around the #MatchAMillion campaign set up by One in an Army, raising $1,026,531 within 24 hours.

BTS also spoke to those graduating in isolation or lockdown as part of Dear Class of 2020, alongside Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. “If any of you feel lost in the face of doubt or uncertainty, or the pressure of starting anew, don’t rush,” said Jin, his words poignant amid the world’s current social changes. “Allow yourself to take it easy. Take it one step at a time.”

A major factor in BTS’s success is in their relatability and emotional transparency, which has remained steadfast even while occupying the superstar bubble. It’s been captured from the get-go, through vlogging from their tiny studio space in the early years, lighthearted variety shows such as Run BTS!, and behind-the-scenes clips, known as Bangtan Bombs. A more polished version of the latter became the 2018 YouTube docuseries Burn the Stage, followed by a movie adaptation that eventually broke the US box office event-cinema record previously held by One Direction.

A second docuseries, Break the Silence, which began in May this year, once more let us into their lives on the road, peeling back the curtain on their dazzling live show but also the members’ uncertainties and the head-spinning enormity of their fame. Here, they question who they are, how they’ve changed as people and what the future may hold. As fans, what we expect from artists has changed — rather than mystery and eccentricity, we ask for authenticity and accountability, demanding it even when their celebrity and wealth has cut them off from the everyperson.

Even as the accolades pour in, BTS use their fanbase and the constant documentation as sounding boards and grounding mediums. In Break the Silence, RM, ushered into an upscale restaurant and agog at a towering wall of expensive wine, admits incredulously, “Even when I go to the Grammys, I still think, ‘What am I doing here?!’” It’s hard not to warm to the biggest pop group on Earth when they’re laughing at, rather than being sucked into, the absurdity and surrealness of fame.

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