K-pop’s BTS become crossover music stars without selling out – and don’t plan on changing their identity
K-pop giants have become one of the biggest bands in the world without having to compromise – and don’t believe their fans would want them to ditch Korean lyrics, even as they play to ever bigger audiences
Clearly, some members of BTS were more interested in the puppies than others.
In a fifth-floor meeting room at the sleek InterContinental hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the seven young men who make up this South Korean boy band – RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, Jin and Jungkook, each as handsome and stylishly dressed as the next – were gathered on a recent afternoon to shoot a video for Buzzfeed’s meant-to-go-viral “plays with puppies” series, in which an entertainer answers questions submitted by fans as he or she … well, you can put it together.
RM, the group’s unofficial frontman, knelt eagerly to scoop up one of the fuzzy creatures, while J-Hope showed his excitement by singing the chorus from Justin Bieber’s Baby, albeit with a key lyrical adjustment: “Puppy, puppy, puppy / Oh!”
Yet Suga, glued to his phone during a break near the end of a long day of interviews, appeared less smitten – at least until Buzzfeed’s cameras started rolling. Then he put down the phone and cranked up the enthusiasm required of an international pop group determined to break America.
Fortunately for Suga and his band mates, work like this is paying off. BTS’ latest album, Love Yourself: Tear, entered the Billboard albums 200 chart at No 1 – a first for an act from the busy K-pop scene brought to the attention of many American listeners when Psy’s song Gangnam Style took off on YouTube in 2012.
The group’s elaborately choreographed performance on last month’s Billboard Music Awards (where BTS won the prize for top social artist for the second year in a row) was among the show’s most discussed moments online.
And tickets for the outfit’s autumn tour – including four sold-out concerts in September in Los Angeles – are going for more than US$1,000 each on the secondary market.
BTS have become so popular in the US that journalists at the InterContinental were asked not to reveal their whereabouts on social media for fear that word might spread and lead fans to descend on the hotel.
What’s remarkable about this crossover success is that it hasn’t come at a creative price; there’s no feeling of compromise to the vivid Love Yourself: Tear, BTS’ sixth full-length release since emerging in 2013 from the highly industrialised K-pop scene based in Seoul.
Sung mostly in Korean, the album emphasises the precise and adventurous production that K-pop listeners expect as it jumps from swinging R&B to surging club music to rowdy hip-hop to the dramatic rap-rock balladry of the disc’s first single, Fake Love, which as a non-English-language tune just followed Despacito into the upper reaches of the Hot 100.
Curious fans – and with BTS, there’s really no other kind – will discover in the Love Yourself liner notes that the group sought help from Stateside hitmakers such as Ali Tamposi, who’s written for Bieber and Cardi B, and the superstar DJ Steve Aoki.
As with Despacito, the embrace of the music in the US seems to say more about a broadening of American taste than it does about BTS’ willingness to dilute its message (even as the group doggedly courts an audience stateside).
Seated around a large table after the puppies had been taken away, the members were quick to acknowledge the influence that American boy bands such as the Backstreet Boys had on BTS’ catchy songs about romance and heartbreak.
Now, though, they see themselves as “re-exporting” their distinct sound, as RM put it through an interpreter, “to the rest of the world where we had initially drawn much of our inspiration”.
Asked if they ever felt pressured to sing in English, Suga said he’d tried it on a recent solo mixtape and found that it made a “better conduit” for certain “emotions or sensibilities”.
Yet RM, who switches in conversation between Korean and English, said he suspects that most BTS fans “won’t like that much if we sing in other languages”. Korean lyrics, he added, are a core feature of the group’s music, which its ultra-devoted fans have, in turn, “made as part of their identity”.
You get a sense from sitting in a room with BTS – not to mention its dozen or so handlers – of how carefully the band manages that connection with their base.
As the members spoke, several people with cameras roved around, apparently documenting the interview for potential content to serve up later; another woman seemed to be transcribing everything the group said, perhaps in case somebody said something worth tweeting to BTS’ 15 million followers.
That digital engagement is necessary, of course, for an act that so far hasn’t scored much US radio play.
But it’s also in keeping with a super-strategic K-pop scene that overall can make the American music business look haphazard.
When asked whether the knowledge that BTS would be playing to a bigger audience this time had affected the design of the new album, the members nodded in seeming recognition of the idea that Love Yourself: Tear would introduce many listeners to the band.
Still, “we want to show ourselves in increments”, Jungkook said through the interpreter. “There are a lot of things that we want to show people, and if you try to show everything about us in a single album, it’s a burden for us – and it’s a lot for people to handle and accept.”
RM said he wanted the album to reflect “the current condition of us – how we feel right now – because, you know, things have really changed from 2013”.
Does that seem like an eternity ago?
Everyone answered yes at the same time, although Jin said he hadn’t forgotten anything from the band’s early days, when they lived together in one house – “one room, basically” – and ate the same food every day “because we didn’t have any money back then”.
Things are definitely better now, they all agreed, even if more and more of their days are filled with encounters with people who want a piece of BTS.
The endless promotion can be tiring, RM admitted. “But I think the fact that we are making our fans happy removes a lot of that fatigue for us.”
The fans “made all this possible”, he went on. “When we forget that, it all ends.”