In January, the BBC News website ran a story about a 23-year-old called Stephanie Fairfield, who had uprooted her life in Scotland and moved 5,000 miles to Seoul in order to be closer to the K-pop boyband BTS. It was news that seemed to startle even BTS’s seven members, presumably no strangers to the attentions of obsessive fans: in South Korea, they’re so popular that their fan club apparently has a waiting list, prospective members being required to buy a certain amount of merchandise before they’re allowed to join.
Western audiences are traditionally resistant to K-pop, with its lyrics in Korean and Japanese, and its customs as mysterious as some of BTS’s translated song titles: Blanket Kick, Spine Breaker, Dimple and the thought-provoking War of Hormone.
Moreover, the traditional reaction of Western media to K-pop has been to recoil, muttering that there’s something faintly creepy about it: its antiseptic cuteness, the battery farming of young performers tied to “slave” contracts, with everything from their diets to their sex lives strictly controlled by companies so ruthlessly exploitative of artists and fans alike they make Simon Cowell’s Syco look like Crass’s anarchist commune in Epping Forest.
Not any more: Fairfield was an admittedly extreme example of how BTS have quietly broken into the affections of British and American fans. Their last album went gold in the US – unprecedented for a K-pop band – while their next London shows involve two nights at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena, which everyone expects to sell out, even with the cheapest tickets at £62 (US$83) a pop. Europe’s biggest venue will be packed with fans singing along phonetically to songs in a language they largely don’t understand.
The question of how this has happened is easily answered. No other genre has so successfully harnessed the power of fans on social media to spread the word. BTS were the most tweeted-about celebrities in 2017. No aspect of their career is too minor for fans to vlog about: on YouTube, there are people posting reaction videos to the fact that BTS changed their logo. In the US, meanwhile, K-pop fans have repeatedly used their own money to take out adverts for artists on the electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square, at a cost of US$30,000 a go, which sounds less like something that would happen in real life than a particularly lurid dream had by a venal record company boss.
The question of why is more complex. The reasons traditionally given for BTS’s success back home – their lyrics are, by K-pop’s germ-free standards, pretty raffish and controversial – don’t hold here: you can’t imagine British teenagers are that desperate to hear youthful criticism of societal conventions in South Korea. So theories abound, ranging from the prosaic – they’re filling a vacuum in the market created by One Direction’s split – to the philosophical: if boyband fandom is all about projecting your fantasies on to the performers, then perhaps a group whose lyrics you don’t understand represents an appealingly blank screen.
Listening to BTS’s new album – 43 minutes of music available in five different CD editions, each priced between £20 and £25 – you do wonder how much it has to do with the music. At least part of K-pop’s appeal is that it seems different to British or American manufactured pop. It’s hard to imagine a UK boyband looking like BTS, with their hair styled in matching bushy bowl cuts and dyed neon colours, and it’s hard to think of a Western act that dances with the weirdly thrilling, millimetre-perfect synchronicity favoured by K-pop choreographers. There are conventions and customs surrounding K-pop that seem very alien to Western pop, from the special attention focused on the maknae , or youngest member of each band, to the bags of rice fans are encouraged to collect for charity.
But there’s nothing about Love Yourself: Tear that sounds particularly alien to British ears, beyond the fact that they’re singing in Korean, with the odd English phrase thrown in: “I still want you”; “So show me, I’ll show you”. It leans a little more heavily on rapping than a Western boyband would perhaps dare, but otherwise, with its auto-tuned vocals, its big EDM synths on Magic Shop and its appropriation of the post-Despacito trend for Latin-flavoured pop on Airplane Pt 2 (“We’re going from Mexico City to Paris!” they sing. “Mariachi! Mariachi! Mariachi!”), it sounds almost exactly like a mainstream British pop album would, with all the good and bad that entails.
On the plus side, they’re very good at ballads, performing them with a breathy intensity that’s genuinely affecting and powerful. There are some very well-turned songs here, not least So What, which offers a pretty flavoursome brand of bubblegum pop house: fizzy synthesizers, a hook that pounds its way into your brain. And there are also some lovely, intriguing production touches: the jazzy guitar and flute that snakes around 134340; the ghostly, reverb-drenched opening to Outro: Tear; the canny way Intro: Singularity, probably the best song here and blessed with a particularly haunting tune, pitches its sound somewhere between vintage 70s soul and a latter-day R&B slow jam.
But there is also stuff that you struggle to recall the second it finishes: in one ear and out the other it goes, leaving no recognisable trace. It’s not that it’s overly saccharine, which is the charge regularly levelled at K-pop; it’s just commonplace. Ampanman and Paradise are the kind of ho-hum pop-R&B tracks with which albums are padded out the world over.
So the phenomenon of BTS seems more interesting than the music at its centre, although Love Yourself: Tear is certainly good enough to keep the phenomenon moving smoothly. Indeed, the phenomenon is currently moving at such a pace, it feels pretty redundant reviewing it: a month before it was released, Love Yourself: Tear had already amassed advanced orders of 1.4 million copies. The fans have already decided it’s a masterpiece and a must-have. Its actual contents are almost beside the point.