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Friday, April 19, 2024

From hip-hop band to social justice warriors — a look back at BTS so far

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BTS debuted in 2013 as a hip-hop group under BigHit Entertainment (now BigHit Music under HYBE), which was a small firm at the time. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
BTS debuted in 2013 as a hip-hop group under BigHit Entertainment (now BigHit Music under HYBE), which was a small firm at the time. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The first chapter of BTS’s career as a group has officially come to a close. The K-pop sensation’s eldest member Jin is set to enroll in a front-line boot camp north of Seoul on Tuesday, as part of his mandatory military service. All able-bodied Korean men are obligated to serve 18 months or more in the military.

BTS won’t be back as a complete group of seven until 2025, according to its management HYBE, as other members will enlist for their mandatory services one by one. The band announced a hiatus on its group activities through a YouTube video in June, which caused a frenzy in the entertainment industry regarding BTS’s future and how K-pop as a whole will be impacted in the absence of one of the world’s biggest boy bands.

Despite the break as a group, members have each continued to make history on their own in the past six months. Some have established themselves as successful solo musicians and are pursuing a wide range of individual projects.

The Korea JoongAng Daily takes a look at the legacy created by BTS throughout the past nine years.

Making history

When BTS made its debut in 2013, most of the public viewed it as nothing more than another one of the countless K-pop groups coming from a small agency. But with self-produced hip-hop sounds and candid lyrics that youths could relate to, it slowly built a loyal domestic fan base.

"Love Yourself: Her" (2017) was BTS's first album to make it on the Billboard 200's top 10. [BIGHIT MUSIC]
“Love Yourself: Her” (2017) was BTS’s first album to make it on the Billboard 200’s top 10. [BIGHIT MUSIC]

BTS then started seeing recognition abroad, entering the Billboard 200 albums chart for the first time in 2015 with “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2,” which landed at No. 171. Positive recognition from the international market created a virtuous cycle of BTS attracting more domestic fans.

The band debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with its 2017 dance number “DNA” reaching No. 85 and continued to rise up the ranks with each new release. After first topping the Hot 100 in 2020 with a remix of “Savage Love,” a collaborative track with American pop star Jason Derulo, BTS went on to reach No. 1 twice more with its all-English hit “Dynamite” and Korean-language song “Life Goes On.” The latter was a moment in history as it marked the first-ever non-English song to debut at No. 1, and also the first-ever Korean-language song to do so.

 

Just when people thought BTS had reached its peak, the boy band dropped “Butter,” which became the longest-reigning No.1 song on the Hot 100, topping the chart for a total of 10 weeks. BTS has the most No. 1s by an Asian artist in Billboard history thanks to “Butter.”

BTS has the most No. 1 hits on the Hot 100 this decade, followed by Drake, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. It broke multiple records formerly set by the legendary British band The Beatles in terms of most No.1 albums in a year, most No. 1s on the Hot 100 in a year and the number of albums sold in the United States.

BTS also wrote history at global music award ceremonies, most notably the three big American events. BTS became the first K-pop group to win at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017 and at the American Music Awards (AMAs) in 2018. Since then, the band has taken home at least one award from both events every year. It became the first Asian act to receive the AMAs’ top honor — Artist of the Year — in 2021.

The Grammys still remains an unresolved dream for BTS, but it still reached the milestone of becoming the first K-pop group to be nominated for a Grammy — for “Dynamite” in 2020 and “Butter” in 2021.

“BTS wrote history as the first Korean singers to take over the world,” said music critic Kim Young-dae, known for his 2019 book “BTS The Review: A Comprehensive Look at the Music of BTS.”

“It holds historical significance that BTS broke barriers as an Asian artist and reached the level of being global pop icons,” he continued. “BTS has laid down the foundation for Asian and Korean music to continue garnering global popularity in the future. That is a great service BTS has done for K-pop as a whole.”

Speaking up

RM, the leader of BTS, speaks in the James S. Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, on May 31, 2022. BTS met with U.S. President Biden to discuss the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination. [JOINT PRESS CORP]
RM, the leader of BTS, speaks in the James S. Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, on May 31, 2022. BTS met with U.S. President Biden to discuss the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination. [JOINT PRESS CORP]

K-pop acts are known to refrain from commenting on political or social topics, in order to minimize any chance of backlash or division within their fandoms. While the same was true for BTS regarding domestic issues, the boy band has taken many stances on social topics that affect the international community.

One of the best-known cases of BTS speaking up on a politically sensitive subject was in June 2020, when the septet issued a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and donated $1 million to the cause. The band risked receiving negative feedback from those who opposed the decision, or fans who wished it would take the conventional K-pop route and distance itself from political matters.

However, the boy band went on to vocalize its stances on various issues. BTS drew attention to climate change and championed sustainable development during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021. The septet also visited the White House and met with U.S. President Joe Biden in May to raise awareness on the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination.

BTS drew attention to climate change and championed sustainable development during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021. [BIGHIT MUSIC]
BTS drew attention to climate change and championed sustainable development during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021. [BIGHIT MUSIC]

BTS members’ active donations, ranging from supporting children from low-income families to preserving Korean artifacts abroad, have resonated with fans of BTS dubbed ARMY. Taking after their idols, ARMY is known for its charitable efforts and has consequently impacted K-pop fandom culture overall.

“BTS’s stardom is not just about being popular singers, but having influence that can change society and culture,” critic Kim added. “The social influence held by BTS is incomparable to any other pop star in recent years.”

ARMY — formidable in both size and global dispersion — hopes to utilize its size and organization for good causes. Fans have organized widespread charity efforts to honor the members’ birthdays and other anniversaries. ARMY’s presence around the globe enables them to do charity work that best suits the local environment.

BTS's fandom ARMY is known for its wide range of charity efforts, making use out of its numbers and global dispersion. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
BTS’s fandom ARMY is known for its wide range of charity efforts, making use out of its numbers and global dispersion. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

ARMY’s campaigns have ranged from cash donations for the homeless to volunteer work for people with disabilities, a cause that especially resonates with fans since BTS incorporated American Sign Language into its choreography for “Permission to Dance” (2021).

Is BTS overrated?

Las Vegas landmarks turn purple in honor of BTS playing four concerts in the city in April. [HYBE]
Las Vegas landmarks turn purple in honor of BTS playing four concerts in the city in April. [HYBE]

There is little room for debate that BTS is currently the biggest boy band in the world — shown by chart performances, sales and influence.

Claims that BTS is overly hyped-up are usually met with rebuttals that the band is in fact underrated due to the fact that it is a non-Western act — an argument frequently seen after BTS did not receive a Grammy for “Butter” in April.

In the early stages of its career, BTS’s signature music style was self-produced hip-hop tracks; not quite the bubbly melodies that were trending at the time. Their less conventional music, by K-pop standards, saw positive reviews and garnered fans for its distinctiveness. So did their lyrics, which sang about worries that the younger generation could easily relate to.

BTS performs ″Dynamite″ on ″The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon″ in 2020. Originally a hip-hop group, the band pivoted to bubbly dance numbers with "Dynamite," which proved to be a megahit. [BIGHIT MUSIC]
BTS performs ″Dynamite″ on ″The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon″ in 2020. Originally a hip-hop group, the band pivoted to bubbly dance numbers with “Dynamite,” which proved to be a megahit. [BIGHIT MUSIC]

BTS initially showed dedication to its hip-hop sound, even heading to the United States to train with African-American rappers and learn about the genre’s roots as seen in its 2014 reality show “BTS American Hustle Life” (2014).

However, the band’s most recent, best-known hits like “Dynamite” and “Butter” are far from the musical style that BTS originally became popular. Aiming for a chart-topper in the U.S. market, BTS turned to melodious retro dance numbers. The pivot turned out to be a success, landing the band multiple No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts. But it has caused debates about the musical quality of its recent releases.

“BTS is underrated and overrated at the same time,” said music critic Jung Min-jae, a member of the annual Korean Music Awards’ selection committee. “In fact, Koreans tend to underrate its stardom, questioning if the domestic media is overly hyping it up. But there’s no question on how commercially successful and socially influential BTS is, second to no other global pop star.”

Jin dropped his first solo single "The Astronaut" in October. [BIGHIT MUSIC]
Jin dropped his first solo single “The Astronaut” in October. [BIGHIT MUSIC]

Jung added that BTS paved a path for success for self-producing boy bands by writing its own music in the early stages of its career. But whether BTS’s music itself is judged adequately, especially after the band’s pivot to bubbly tunes in 2020, is a more complex story.

“Because of K-pop’s popularity abroad and the strong support coming from fandoms, foreign media is highly interested in the genre,” he said. “Not only that, music critique publications tend to give very favorable reviews to BTS’s music and K-pop in general. But how original or unique are BTS’s recent hits or the members’ solo music? Musically, do they really deserve four to five stars from NME or Rolling Stone?”

“Winning the approval of K-pop fans, by fulfilling the desire for their favorite stars to be critically recognized, comes with a massive amount of clicks,” he continued. “It seems that many music critique outlets give overly generous reviews to K-pop releases in an attempt to jump on the fandoms’ bandwagon.”

J-Hope of BTS performs solo at the 2022 MAMA Awards on Nov. 30. [MNET]
J-Hope of BTS performs solo at the 2022 MAMA Awards on Nov. 30. [MNET]

Skepticism that BTS is “overrated” and its hype was subsiding further grew among the general public in June when the band’s anthology album “Proof” was released. The lead track “Yet To Come” failed to rank in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and fell out of the domestic music charts’ top 10 within two weeks.

Nonetheless, the album sold over 2.75 million copies in a week, and BTS’s sensational free concert in Busan in October showed that the band’s cultural significance is ongoing.

 

BY HALEY YANG [yang.hyunjoo@joongang.co.kr]