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Stray Kids: The next BTS, or just another boy band?

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Members of Stray Kids — from left, Lee Know, Han, I.N, Felix, Bang Chan, Hyunjin, Seungmin and Changbin — pose during the online press conference for its latest EP "Maxident" (2022) on Oct. 7. [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
Members of Stray Kids — from left, Lee Know, Han, I.N, Felix, Bang Chan, Hyunjin, Seungmin and Changbin — pose during the online press conference for its latest EP “Maxident” (2022) on Oct. 7. [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

“Who will be the next BTS?”

This question has haunted the K-pop industry for years since the boy band rose to global superstardom around 2018. Although BTS’s management HYBE had ambitious plans as it launched boy bands TXT and Enhypen, dubbed “BTS’s younger brothers,” the answer to the question is just as unclear as when the discussion first started, as no K-pop act has yet come close to reaching BTS’s level of commercial success.

The discussion gained still more heat after BTS announced it would be taking a hiatus for group activities in June, and reached a peak when HYBE said last week that the band will enlist for mandatory military service, starting with the eldest member Jin as early as this year.

BTS won’t come together as a complete group of seven until 2025, and there is no guarantee that the band will see the same level of success years later. Many are left wondering whether there will ever be another boy band that lives up to the title of “the next BTS.”

"Maxident" recently topped the Billboard 200 albums chart and sold over 2 million copies in a week. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
“Maxident” recently topped the Billboard 200 albums chart and sold over 2 million copies in a week. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

But recently, one K-pop group has put itself on the mainstream media’s radar as a potential candidate for that title. Boy band Stray Kids, an eight-member boy band, topped the Billboard 200 albums chart on Oct. 16 with its EP “Maxident.” The feat was especially impressive considering that Stray Kids topped the same chart just six months and three weeks ago in March with its previous EP “Oddinary.”

Among Korean artists, only boy bands BTS and SuperM had topped the Billboard 200 prior to Stray Kids, and only BTS had produced two No. 1 albums, in 2018 and 2020. SuperM has been inactive since last spring.

In total, “Maxident” sold over 2 million copies in the first week, the fourth-highest record ever for a K-pop artist following three BTS albums. Perhaps more notable is the fact that its sales grew by 2.5 times compared to its previous release, suggesting that the band is continuing to gain new fans even years after its debut in 2018.

The numbers are impressive, and Stray Kids has definitely proved itself as a successful, growing artist. Does this mean Stray Kids will be the post-BTS sensation, at least during the latter’s military-induced hiatus?

Stray Kids in 2021 [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
Stray Kids in 2021 [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

Experts and industry insiders say “the next BTS” itself is a rather complex term, considering that BTS’s success comes with many implications: the popularity of its songs, high CD sales, the ability to gather large audiences at concerts, a positive public image with numerous advertisement deals and many more.

At first glance, Stray Kids seems to have had a very different start from BTS. After forming through a 2017 audition show of the same name, Stray Kids debuted in March 2018 under JYP Entertainment — one of Korea’s largest entertainment firms that were already known for numerous successful groups. On the other hand, BTS debuted from then-Big Hit Entertainment (now BigHit Music under HYBE), which was a newly-founded small firm at the time.

Nonetheless, Stray Kids shares many similarities with BTS’s early career. BTS originally started as a hip-hop group, and the members were heavily involved in the production process from the start. The ability of its members to produce their own music was a great source of pride and bonding for BTS’s fans, known as ARMY. Similarly, Stray Kids’ music is also based on hip-hop, and the band has a “producing subunit” called 3Racha — consisting of members Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han, which predates the boy band. 3Racha has written every lead track in Stray Kids’ career; a key factor behind the group’s steady growth in popularity.

Stray Kids in March 2022 during the online press conference for its EP "Oddinary." [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
Stray Kids in March 2022 during the online press conference for its EP “Oddinary.” [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

“That is one of the main factors that makes them unique and special; They participate in all of their songs,” said Daniela, a Colombian STAY, which is the term for a Stray Kids fan. “When I introduce Stray Kids to someone, I always mention how they self-produce their songs, and people are always amazed by it. I think the general public and the industry is recognizing this as well, and I do believe it affects their popularity.”

Another similarity is that Stray Kids was initially more popular in the international market, especially in North America, before more of the Korean public started to take notice. Despite debuting from JYP, Stray Kids did not see commercial success from the beginning like many of the agency’s artists do. Korea is usually not even among the top 10 countries that watch Stray Kids’ content on YouTube.

One photo that went viral among fans, taken during the band’s Seoul concert in 2019, shows that only a small fraction of ticket purchases were made under Korean names; suggesting that even at a domestic concert, most of the attendees were non-Korean. Although Stray Kids has quickly gained Korean fans since its 2020 hit song “God’s Menu,” it is still frequently described as being more popular abroad. Two members — Bang Chan and Felix — being Australian also helps Stray Kids connect well with international audiences.

One photo that went viral among fans, taken during the band’s Seoul concert in 2019, shows that only a small fraction of ticket purchases were made under Korean names; suggesting that even at a domestic concert, most of the attendees were non-Korean. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
One photo that went viral among fans, taken during the band’s Seoul concert in 2019, shows that only a small fraction of ticket purchases were made under Korean names; suggesting that even at a domestic concert, most of the attendees were non-Korean. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Comparing career milestones, BTS won its first No. 1 spot on a television music program about two years after its debut, while it took just over a year for Stray Kids. BTS topped the Billboard 200 for the first time in 2018, five years after debuting, and Stray Kids’ first No. 1 on the chart in March came four years after its debut. BTS produced its first Billboard Hot 100-topping song “Dynamite” in 2020, while Stray Kids has yet to enter the Hot 100. The Hot 100 tends to represent the widespread popularity of a song, while the Billboard 200 mostly takes CD sales into account.

Considering Stray Kids’ steadily growing track record, it is clear that the band is a top K-pop act with plenty of room for growth, similar to how BTS grew its career. Does that mean it is “the next BTS” that the Korean media is desperate to find?

Experts and industry insiders say the K-pop industry’s incessant search for a post-BTS success story may be anachronistic in today’s shifted K-pop scene.

Most hit songs in K-pop this year have been released by girl groups. As of Oct. 25, the highest-ranking song by a boy band on Melon Chart is BTS's ″Butter″ (2021) at No. 58. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Most hit songs in K-pop this year have been released by girl groups. As of Oct. 25, the highest-ranking song by a boy band on Melon Chart is BTS’s ″Butter″ (2021) at No. 58. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“A lot of people think BTS going away will somehow be a career boost opportunity for other acts, especially boy bands,” said an insider at a Korean entertainment agency. “But the slice of the pie [in the K-pop market] for boy bands has become too small. So it doesn’t matter if BTS is there or not. The top spots on domestic music charts are all girl groups, who are widely loved by the public. Until the mid-2010s, it was the golden age of boy bands and a dark age for girl groups. Now it’s the complete opposite, other than [boy bands’] bizarrely high CD sales.”

If anything, they suggest that the industry thinks outside the box and not presume that “the next BTS” will necessarily be another male artist.

“The phrase ‘BTS’s level of popularity’ includes so many aspects,” said pop music critic Jung Min-jae, who also serves on the annual Korean Music Awards’ selection committee. “So I’m skeptical that there will be ‘the next BTS’ in the near future, at least among current boy bands. If I had to choose, the closest thing we have right now is Blackpink. It’s more likely to be a girl group in the future.

“Seventeen, NCT, and Stray Kids are often brought up as potential candidates, but their musical styles aren’t exactly what appeals to the general public. They’re rather convoluted, which many boy bands today are criticized for. Remember that BTS, which started as a hip-hop group, shifted to bubbly pop tunes for a wider audience and to get that Billboard spot. Without changes to their music, I don’t see any of the current male K-pop idols reaching BTS’s level of success.”

Stray Kids during the online press conference for "Maxident" [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
Stray Kids during the online press conference for “Maxident” [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

Jung added that although BTS has become synonymous with international superstardom, a qualifier for a potential “post-BTS” is a large and strong domestic fandom.

“It’s just that BTS also became very popular abroad; it doesn’t mean their domestic fandom was weak before that by any means,” he said. “There was a rivalry between BTS and Exo, so the domestic ARMY was already quite formidable before BTS’s global success. In 2013, there weren’t nearly as many idol groups as today, so each boy band could secure a sizeable fandom. Nowadays, the market is too saturated for that.”

“Topping the Billboard 200 is a remarkable achievement, but CD sales are almost entirely driven by fans,” Jung continued. “If another boy band produces a high-ranking, long-running hit song on domestic charts and the Billboard Hot 100, like ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Butter,’ then maybe we can start talking about the next BTS.”

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