Prior to this year’s American Music Awards, you might be forgiven for not knowing who BTS are. But after the Korean boy band’s performance at the show (which drew adulation from stars like Ansel Elgort and the Chainsmokers) and their push into American late-night TV, they’re impossible to miss.
The genre of K-pop—Korean pop music—has been around for almost three decades now (it’s even one of the 22 genres offered in iTunes), but this is the first time that it’s so successfully punctured the American pop culture bubble. Besides being the first K-pop group to perform at the American Music Awards, BTS cracked the Billboard 200 with the highest chart ranking for an Asian artist with their 2017 album Love Yourself: Her, and the highest ranked song by a Korean group on American music charts with “DNA,” just the second Korean-language single to make the list after “Gangnam Style” in 2012. BTS is even on this year’s Time list of the 25 Most Influential People on the internet thanks to their fan base, known as the “BTS Army.”
BTS, also known as Bangtan Boys or Beyond The Scene, is made up of seven members: RM (Rap Monster), Jin, J-Hope, Suga, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. They debuted in 2013 with the album 2 Cool 4 Skool, and have been working steadily since, with their four most recent albums all entering the Billboard 200. Other K-pop groups have achieved some international success—notably the boy band Big Bang and the girl group Girls’ Generation, both credited with bringing K-pop into international consciousness, with the latter being the first K-pop group to perform on syndicated television in the U.S.—but none have managed to replicate the blitz that BTS is going on now.
The group has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, performing a mini-concert of six songs, as well as The Ellen Degeneres Show and The Late Late Show with James Corden. Their appearances on each are heralded by the kind of screaming and crying that have accompanied boy bands from the Beatles (to whom Ellen draws a comparison when describing BTS’s arrival at LAX) to One Direction. They’ve also been heavily promoted, not just by the band but by the shows themselves. Their Late Late Show appearance was particularly hyped, with Corden posting segments of the taping to social media in the days leading up to the actual airing.
Part of their success is definitely attributable to their fans. It’s also worth noting that BTS is something of an anomaly in a landscape that’s made up of specifically groomed and trained boy bands and girl groups. K-pop is a behemoth and a machine, and most—if not all—of the biggest groups come out of a trio of agencies known as ‘The Big Three’: S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. These agencies offer contracts to potential artists, often at very young ages (BoA, the “Queen of Korean Pop,” was discovered at 11), and spend millions of dollars keeping their trainees in facilities that amount to dormitories, where they learn how to sing, dance, and speak foreign languages in order to become marketable.
BTS, on the other hand, was formed by Big Hit Entertainment, which currently manages only one other act. The group is also atypical in that its members not only perform (they have a reputation for being particularly strong dancers and rappers), but collaborate in writing their songs as well, producing songs about unusually frank subject matter including the K-pop idol system and mental health issues. Speaking of their output, Suga noted that, “We’ve tried hard to tell the stories of our generation and our age group in present-day society.” This isn't always an easy task when it comes to more stigmatized issues such as mental illness, which lends to how powerfully BTS’s work connects.
This sense of individuality seems to have carried over into their American appearances, as their performances haven’t been altered—they still sing predominantly in Korean—and they’ve kept that distinct Korean boy band look. On top of making them an unmistakable presence, it’s also made them unique in that they haven’t been made objects of ridicule or exoticism.
In an interview about their AMAs set, RM said, “The AMAs didn’t treat us as a curious novelty from Asia, but showed us respect and treated us as an important part of the show.” He pointed out that they’d been given the second-to-last slot in the show, right before Diana Ross closed the ceremony. This is a definite shift from the reception—warm though it was—that “Gangnam Style” received when it broke onto the scene. The song’s satirical meaning was completely lost in translation as people took its dance moves and addictive refrain at face value, and made it into the subject of numerous parodies and memes, i.e., a novelty. Granted, BTS’s oeuvre is inherently less silly on a surface level, but it’s a heartening change nevertheless.
Since their performance at the AMAs, the BTS Army has been steadily growing. Sales and streaming of the group’s songs have shot up in the last week, and they’ve also released a remix of one their songs in collaboration with Steve Aoki and Desiigner. They’re already ubiquitous in Korea—they’ve partnered with the Korean Committee for UNICEF as well as being tourism ambassadors for Seoul and the new brand models for the Lotte Duty Free Shop—and by all appearances, they’re poised to be just as popular on a global level. If their American tour wasn’t enough proof of that fact, they’ll next be seen in Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2018 for a tremendous end to a truly meteoric year.