BTS Embody K-Pop's Present and Future Crossover

K-pop lyrics tend to play it safe but BTS’ songs tackle themes of online harassment, suicide, alongside critiques of police brutality.

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Jun 7 2017, 8:27am

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

K-pop band BTS symbolise not only the globalisation of music but also the internet's impact on pop success at large. Last month they became the first K-pop act to win a Billboard Music Award, breaking Justin Bieber 's six-year streak of collecting the Top Social Artist award. The honour was well-earned; they topped the Billboard Social 50 for 31 weeks in the past year, and their fans tweeted the #BTSBBMAs hashtag more than 320 million times.

Since their BBMAs appearance, BTS' names have been splashed over major media outlets with primers about the group. The boyband's members include Jeon Jungkook, Jung "J-Hope" Hoseok, Kim "Jin" Seokjin, Kim "Rap Monster" Namjoon, Kim "V" Taehyung, Min "Suga" Yoongi and Park Jimin. BTS translates to Bulletproof Boy Scouts, and they are also known as Bangtan Boys. Not unlike other supremely popular K-pop outfits, their A.R.M.Y. fanbase is hugely responsible for their global recognition. It was all the fans' promotion of the group that earned them the Top Social Artist award, and they even rallied for them to be invited to attend the BBMAs. The fans' petition received over 100 000 signatures, and one tweet later their wishes were granted. BTS' first American award and the success of their Wings album on the Billboard charts signals new heights for the group.

For all the comparisons people make to other groups, there is no Western equivalent to BTS – they're an entirely new phenomenon. The septet's success is breaking not only records but stereotypes and boundaries, as well as finding success worldwide without embodying the Anglo-pop star ideal. While some Western listeners' ethnocentric attitudes lead them to regard K-pop stars as "random Asians in makeup and face masks", BTS' presence at the BBMAs exposed audiences to new faces. Their track "Not Today" blocked the likes of Harry Styles and Niall Horan from the top of the Billboard Twitter Top Tracks chart, claiming the #1 spot for the third consecutive week. They've had 43 hits in the World Digital Song Sales chart with four of them being #1s, tying them with PSY. They're also the only K-pop act to score a top 40 album on the Billboard 200. Currently, BTS are on the last leg of their international Live Trilogy Episode III: The Wings Tour in Japan – the tour's USA dates sold out in minutes.

K-pop seems to be a vacuum tight industry ruled by big players like YG and SM Entertainment, but BTS are the unlikely golden boys of a smaller independent record label and management company called BigHit Entertainment. They're shifting expectations in the K-pop industry with their unconventionally personal approach. They came together when producer Pdogg was discovered by Bang Si Hyuk (aka "Hitman" Bang), the CEO and Executive Producer of BigHit, and the producer later met a teenaged Rap Monster through Sleepy while he was still in the underground scene. Suga and J-Hope joined through nationwide auditions, and three remained out of 30 trainees with other members being added later. BigHit fully embraced the unpredictable world of social media; the guys directly communicate with their fans through logs, BANGTAN BOMB videos, and Twitter and Instagram updates from one group handle (they have no plans to make separate accounts).

BTS haven't had to pander to Western audiences to find success here. "I'm not a believer in releasing full English songs to the U.S. market, like many K-pop artists have," Bang told Billboard. The group's most popular songs may have easy to remember English titles, but their lyrics flow smoothly in Korean save for a few English phrases. Rap Monster taught himself English by watching Friends, so he covered the group's BBMAs Magenta Carpet interviews and delivered their acceptance speech (which he closed off in Korean) as fans screamed in support. In spite of an American award being seen as a quantifier of international success, BTS stay true to their Korean roots in a world where America is the centre of the global music market. This is not to discount their many awards in Korea and elsewhere, but it demonstrates the shifting requirement for English songs to be the only ones on Western charts.

BTS' sonic roots lie in hip hop music, and their lyrics lean heavily on the struggles and excitement of youth. Each member is involved with co-writing, composing, and producing their tracks, and their latest album Wings (re-released as You Never Walk Alone) includes solo songs that reflect their individual musical style. Rap Monster is influenced by Nas and Drake while Suga named Kendrick Lamar, and Jungkook's vocals are influenced by Charlie Puth and Justin Bieber. Jungkook has covered the former and latter's (1, 2, 3, 4) songs alongside fellow maknae line (youngest in the group) member Jimin. "N.O" targets the competitive education culture in Korea, and "Blood, Sweat, Tears" illustrates the pains of addictive love. In "Change", Rap Monster breaks down online harassment, South Korea's rigid hierarchies, and high suicide rate, alongside Wale's critiques of police brutality and the American government. Throughout his fierce Agust D mixtape, Suga openly reflects on his struggles with anxiety and depression. "We try, to be honest to ourselves and it helps us be more flexible in terms of censoring our music somehow. Music speaks for itself and we believe people would empathise with our music if we stay true to lyrics by writing how we think and feel," they explain. K-pop lyrics tend to play it safe because of conservative societal values, but BTS' songs follow themes of personal growth as they try to be as true to self as possible.

NOISEY: Congratulations on winning Top Social Artist. How are you feeling about all this new attention since the BBMAs?
Rap Monster: The official stats are in and it's reportedly 320 million votes, which is amazing. We're so grateful for all the attention we're getting since the BBMAs and trying to realise it is actually real! It's good to be noticed worldwide, and we feel honoured to be nominated and win the award.

Who were you most excited to meet or see at the BBMAs?
BTS: Drake and John Legend. But to be honest, literally, everyone on the stage and in the seats was our dream-list to meet or see anyway.

Suga, in " Agust D " you predicted, "next up is Billboard." What's your next prediction for BTS?
Suga: I must say our next stop is Billboard stage to perform a BTS song.

Because K-pop is so global, it's helped make both fans and artists more culturally aware. What are some lessons you've learned while visiting different countries and interacting with international fans?
Rap Monster: It is very important to learn the language of that specific country, and you need to speak the truth from your heart.

You've talked about "Spring Day" being a moment of recovery, using a seasonal metaphor. As a group, what do you feel you are recovering or moving on from at this point in your careers?
V: I do regret over missing opportunities of learning many things, but we move forward no matter what.
Jimin: I feel like I'm moving on from personal regret over my music since I want more.
Rap Monster: I'm kind of recovering from being disappointed in myself

What is your goal for your music to accomplish?
Jungkook: My goal is to write and sing a song I like on my own.
Jin: Making people listen to BTS music without prejudice.
Jimin: I want to have a voice I love.

What kind of rituals do you have while composing music?
J-Hope: I have to listen to really good music to start composing my own music.
Rap Monster: I always turn on a neon sign for my studio, 'Monstudio'
V: I got to see a whole movie of my choice.
Suga: I do it whenever I feel like it.

While your music videos incorporate elaborate choreography and styling, they are also heavy on metaphors and symbolic storylines. What works have you been into lately that might inspire your next project?
J-Hope: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.
Rap Monster: This movie called A Silent Voice.
Suga: Get Out.

What did you most enjoy about touring America?
BTS: Meeting so many different people around the country and visiting interesting places like museums and parks. And of course, you cannot leave out huge, juicy steaks.

What are your goals for next year?
BTS: Billboard stage and more, bigger shows worldwide.

You have a special connection with your fans, and your music is very inspirational to them. What would you like to say to them right now?
BTS: Our honours and delights at the BBMAs are 100 percent yours. We'll make you proud as much as you've made us proud for the last 4 years. Love Yourself, love myself!

Diyana Noory is a writer based in Ontario. Follow her on Twitter.