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Explained: Studying the global success of K-pop group BTS

In the seven years since their K-pop debut in 2013, BTS has achieved the prominence and recognition that artistes in the Korean entertainment industry aspire to but seldom attain.

BTS became the first South Korean group to perform at the Grammys in January 2020.

When it became clear that coronavirus concerns and rising infection numbers around the world would bring a stop to large gatherings, among other things, it meant that students would be unable to attend conventional graduation ceremonies. To counter this, in May, YouTube announced that it would be hosting a virtual graduation ceremony for students around the world, despite the unusual and challenging circumstances that were brought on due to the pandemic. The commencement speakers for this virtual ‘Dear Class of 2020’ event include former US President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Malala Yousafzai and Korean pop group BTS.

In 2020, BTS’s addition to this list is no surprise. On the contrary, it would have come as a surprise to many, especially their global fandom, had the group not been included. In the seven years since their K-pop debut in 2013, BTS has achieved the prominence and recognition that artistes in the Korean entertainment industry aspire to but seldom attain.

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The K-pop group’s achievements are many, from forging new world records because of their music to winning multiple music and entertainment awards in South Korea and elsewhere. To cap this rather long list, they became the first South Korean group to perform at the Grammys in January 2020.

Photo caption: BTS at the 62nd Grammys awards ceremony in Los Angeles in January 2020. (Reuters)

The origins of K-pop

Although Korean pop-music as it exists in its present form emerged in the 1990s, its origins can be traced to the Second World War when foreign troops stationed in the Korean Peninsula, particularly American soldiers, brought pop music from their home countries and introduced it to their Korean counterparts. Radio broadcasts also helped in popularising and in the spread of the works of American singers like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, as well as international groups like The Beatles. By the 1990s, Korean pop music began taking its own unique form and shape, and was heavily influenced by American and European pop music styles, especially, hip hop, rap, rock and jazz.

K-pop was revolutionised by Seo Taiji & Boys. In 1992, the trio of Yang Hyun-suk, Lee Juno and Seo Taiji took South Korea by storm with their hit song ‘Nan Arayo’. Yang Hyun-suk went on to establish YG Entertainment, one of the biggest Korean pop music companies. For close to two decades, YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment were the biggest players in the K-pop industry, producing the most prominent K-pop stars and chart-topping numbers. So much so, they came to be called the ‘Big Three’ of the Korean entertainment industry.

In the seven years since their K-pop debut in 2013, BTS has achieved the prominence and recognition that artistes in the Korean entertainment industry aspire to but seldom attain.

In 2005, Bang Si-hyuk established Big Hit Entertainment Co., Ltd, which launched BTS, a seven-man group comprising Jungkook, V, Jimin, Suga, Jin, Nam-joon (RM) and J-Hope in 2013. The success and popularity was also because Big Hit was different from the Big Three. “Big Hit is an IT company producing K-pop. This is where Bang Si-hyuk comes in,” says Byung Kee-suh, a writer based in Seoul who has written extensively about K-pop for over 30 years. According to Byung, who has spent years researching BTS’s successes and has written an entire book on the subject, Bang has been trying to combine the world of BTS’s K-pop and the 13 trillion won (approximately $11.7 billion) Korean gaming industry. Over the years, several BTS-themed online games have been developed by Netmarble, a company said to be owned by Bang’s cousin.

Bang’s attempts to diversify K-pop and the ways in which it is consumed have paid off. “The value of SM Entertainment is a fraction of BTS’s entire market,” says Byung.

According to Byung, Bang’s focus has always been different from the other big entertainment companies in K-pop, with a goal to capture the international market. That has in part, contributed to the successes of BTS. “The domestic market in Korea is very small, so the desperation is driving them abroad,” explains Bang. After the US, South Korean entertainment companies target Japan the most. But there is China too, though increasing geo-political challenges make the business complicated.

ARMY: a spontaneous fandom

It is not just clever planning and marketing by the parent company and good music that has contributed to the group’s meteoric rise. It is also the group’s worldwide fandom that calls itself BTS’s ‘ARMY’ — an acronym for ‘Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth’, though the longer version is rarely used.

Byung recalls an incident that occurred when BTS was scheduled to appear on the US talk show ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’. “The first plan was to hold a live broadcast with BTS for four to five minutes. The staff asked which of the members spoke English and they decided that RM would answer one or two questions.” Kim Nam-joon, 25, also known as RM, is the leader of the group, although the members have emphasised that they are equal in the group. “The plans of the broadcast changed a day before and the broadcast time was extended to 11 to 12 minutes. That happened because ARMYs had gathered outside the studio and the lines were so long, that it was in the news. Some fans had pitched tents to wait outside the studio. The staff of The Ellen Show were so surprised because this had never happened with American artistes. So they were stupefied by this mysterious boy group. So ARMYs have made BTS famous,” explains Byung.

In Korean pop music, every artist or group has their own fandom, along with unique colours and symbols used for various kinds of merchandise. Each fandom has their own unique characteristics, with one factor in common — they will fiercely fight for their idols. “This is called ‘spontaneous fandom’. Nobody paid you to do it. Can you wait in line in a tent if you don’t like them?” asks Byung.

BTS’s influence over young people around the world has only grown, especially post 2015, and international organisations like UNICEF began to take notice. In 2018, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the group traded their stage costumes for formal wear to address a UN session titled “Youth 2030” to launch Generation Unlimited, an initiative by UNICEF. If you have heard the speech that RM, Kim Nam-joon, made at this event, representing all BTS members, it will perhaps be easier to understand why the group resonates with so many young people around the world today.

“In an intro to one of our early albums, there is a line that says, ‘My heart stopped when I was maybe 9 or 10.’ Looking back, I think that’s when I began to worry about what other people thought of me and started seeing myself through their eyes,” said Kim Nam-joon in his speech at the UN event. “I stopped looking up at the night sky, the stars. I stopped daydreaming.” Kim added: “Instead, I tried to jam myself into the other molds that other people made. Soon, I began to shut out my own voice and started to listen to the voices of others. No one called out my name and neither did I.”

Like Kim’s speech on the sidelines of the UNGA, the group’s songs also focus on similar themes that adolescents and young adults are able to relate to.

Building on Hallyu

Researchers of Korean pop music whom indianexpress.com spoke to said many BTS fans tend to be very young or young adults transitioning to and discovering the vagaries of adulthood. “One thing I’ve noticed often with BTS fans is that they can be so BTS-centric, and relatively unaware of what other artistes either present or in the past have done that they consume BTS as some sort of mythic event—like a virgin birth. BTS is amazing, but BTS is a product of their context—Korean culture, Korean society, Korean history, and deeply influenced by other Korean artistes, both contemporary hit-makers and artists from 50 years ago that their grandparents may have still been listening to when they grew up,” explains CedarBough T. Saeji, Visiting Assistant Professor in Asian Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington, who has conducted extensive research on K-pop.

According to Saeji, over the years, BTS members have “at different points in their career and due to different qualities demonstrated they have attracted fans for diverse reasons.” The group speaks about and shares concerns of young people, as demonstrated in Kim’s speech on the sidelines of the UNGA, not only through their music, but also during events in which they participate. “They have been approachable and humble through their career, and have not positioned themselves as somehow above their fans. Through their constant mediatisation, fans feel they enter into a parasocial relationship with the septet. In particular, among the issues they have spoken about, their emphasis by BTS on mental health and self-love struck a powerful chord with young people,” adds Saeji.

But BTS has also been exceptionally fortunate, and some part of their successes can also be chalked down to simply great timing and the solid foundation and working models their predecessors in Korean pop music had established over more than two decades. Many of today’s most popular K-pop acts have capitalised on the popularity of Hallyu, the Korean Wave, a cultural phenomenon that involved the rising popularity of Korean pop music and entertainment that surfaced in the late 1990s in East Asia, and slowly spread around the world.

In Korean pop music, every artist or group has their own fandom, along with unique colours and symbols used for various kinds of merchandise.

Saeji points to Korean pop groups like Girls’ Generation (SNSD) and Big Bang, that were among the first K-pop groups that gained popularity outside East Asia. “BTS has a David/Goliath story vis-a-vis the Korean entertainment industry, and many young people also feel disempowered and disadvantaged from the start. Therefore supporting BTS, because they were handicapped by the lack of funds and power of Big Hit, was very attractive to early fans,” she explains. “Even fans who discover them today are encouraged by the story of success despite the difficulties that BTS represents.”

BTS: Redeveloping blueprints in K-pop

It hasn’t been very long since Anasuya Thomas, 17, and her twin sister Gayatri discovered BTS. “Their songs helped me. They are really honest and true about the hardships that they went through,” says Anasuya. Since the twins discovered the group in January, they have been sucked into the fandom in ways they themselves never expected.

Like many other fans, the Thomas sisters in New Delhi soon discovered how much BTS’s songs resonated with them and the One Direction fans soon found themselves become members of a new fandom, a revelation that occurred just months prior to their Class XII examinations. “In our teens, do we love ourselves?” asks Anasuya, referencing the group’s 2018 album ‘Love Yourself’. “It is really helpful to hear about someone else going through the same things.”

For observers of socio-cultural trends, BTS’s development and outreach has made for an interesting watch. For many upcoming artistes and entertainment companies in South Korea, it has also laid down a new and redeveloped blueprint on how Korean pop groups and stars can aim for international success. In many ways, the success is largely dependent on the group or star’s relationship with fans. “BTS has done an amazing job speaking directly to fans. Unlike major acts with most other Korean agencies, they really reached out to fans through social media, and that is part of the reason their fans are so engaged– they don’t just interact with other fans, they actually feel they are interacting with the members,” says Saeji.

BTS fans, inspired by the messages the group gives out through their music and speeches, have also gotten together to make charitable contributions for various causes in their idols’ names and have also used social media platforms to further these initiatives. Although BTS has spoken on several causes over the years, most recently, the group used their social media platforms to highlight the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement following the death of George Floyd, an African-African who was recently killed in an incident of police brutality.

On any given day, one may see various terms in Korean or terms associated with K-pop trending on social media platforms. A decade ago, it was challenging for fans to connect with others around the world to discuss their favourite groups, new releases by artistes, K-pop concerts etc. in the way it is now possible. These social media platforms have impacted the large universe of Korean pop music in some interesting ways. On the flipside of this is online behaviour in the extended K-pop universe.

K-pop’s complex online culture

While groups and celebrities can have die-hard fans or ‘stans’ who will go to excessive lengths to defend their idols, there are other online users who are not necessarily well-meaning. Last October, Sulli, one of the biggest K-pop stars, was found dead in her home near Seoul with local police suggesting the star may have taken her own life.

Sulli was one of the few Korean pop stars who had found the courage to break out from the confines of traditional roles for female artistes in Korean pop music and had actively spoken on issues she felt strongly about, especially feminism and women’s rights and equality. For her courage, Sulli faced online abuse, often touching on her personal life. The harassment got so severe that Sulli went on hiatus in 2014-15. She was openly critical of cyberbullying in South Korea and faced a barrage of abuse online for her stand.

Celebrities in the Korean entertainment industry are scrutinised for every action, their looks and their conduct in public and private. Some fans, called ‘stalker fans’, go to extreme lengths to follow, harass, cyberstalk and physically stalk artistes in a bid to know every detail about their lives, including intruding into their personal lives. Social media users routinely gang up on celebrities and even bloggers, critics, writers and journalists with whom they do not agree. Online platforms are used to urge and recruit other social media users to engage in similar behaviour, that involve directing a wave of abuse against their targets.

Byung links this behaviour to the easy access to cell phones, computers and internet connectivity in the country. “We have an immature online culture (in South Korea) and it is based on smartphones, computers and social networking sites.”

This toxicity is hardly new. “It is not just BTS fans. This culture existed long before BTS, like in the 90s,” says one Seoul-based entertainment journalist.

Last November, British journalist Chris Stokel-Walker’s article for UK’s The Telegraph newspaper, titled ‘BTS star Jungkook has been in a car accident – why are his fans trying to cover it up?’, led to a flood of abuse directed towards the writer and the publication. The fans were unhappy with the article that implied that BTS fans were attempting to clear social media searches concerning a news report that they interpreted to be critical and “inaccurate”. The writer declined to be interviewed for this article.

But this online behaviour is hardly limited to one specific K-pop group; most fandoms react in similar ways. According to ‘V’, an 18-year-old Indian-Canadian fan of BTS, who requested anonymity, BTS fans react the way they do due to criticism or news reports that they perceive to be critical of their idols, because of the admiration they have for the group. “The reason why some BTS fans tend to attack those who they think are being critical to BTS is because that band has helped all of us in some way or the other. BTS’s main motto is to love yourself and when many people weren’t able to, BTS helped them,” explains V. She adds: “BTS was there for people when they had no one beside them. The fans cried with them, laughed with them and were with them every step of the way. Even when BTS went through tough times, many fans stayed by their side. Overall BTS became their source of happiness.”

BTS has also been exceptionally fortunate, and some part of their successes can also be chalked down to simply great timing and the solid foundation and working models their predecessors in Korean pop music had established over more than two decades.

“Sadly this sort of extreme fan behavior is designed to protect the artistes, but I think it fuels negative and sensational social media posts, v-logs, and even news stories more than it helps the artistes. At this point there are many people willing to endure some fan backlash to get the “clout” that massive interactions and response can bring them,” explains Saeji.

But fans are not entirely at fault. From an international perspective, as Korean pop music became more mainstream over the past five years, it has forced people to take notice. Some people criticise K-pop artistes to draw more attention to themselves.

According to Saeji, this kind of fan behaviour is not limited to the world of K-pop. “When it happens with some other artistes the negative response is, by comparison, so much smaller, and probably closer to the sort of response seen for writing a story on controversial topics of any type,” she explains. “I think with BTS there are small subsections of the fandom that have legitimised and celebrated mass actions “against” anyone who “dares” say something unacceptable about BTS. The rise of “cancel culture” more generally has combined with the irresponsible leadership of some larger accounts, and the desire to protect the artists they love to create a real embarrassing mess.”

Gayatri Thomas agrees this kind of online behaviour does give the fandom a bad name and some fans can be unreasonable. “A fan once commented on a live video where V (BTS member) was texting someone. The fan took a screenshot of the video and jokingly posted on the Instagram account that V was texting her. The account admin immediately threatened to block her for saying that V was texting this Instagram user, even though it was clear it was a joke.”

Thomas believes the fandom reacts in these extreme ways in part due to the struggles that BTS went through to establish themselves. “They don’t deserve the hate they get. BTS dedicates everything to fans and fans justify their behaviour by saying that they are defending the people whom they love, care and respect.”

Inevitability of military conscription

For some BTS fans, the prospect of the group having to enroll in South Korea’s compulsory military conscription is a difficult subject of discussion. According to South Korea’s laws, all able-bodied men are required to enroll in compulsory military service by the age of 28 . Over the past few years, fans have called for special treatment to be afforded to the group that would allow them to avoid enrolling in this compulsory service, owing to the group’s contributions to and achievements in music. In November last year however, the South Korean government announced that the group would have to enroll as required. “In the case of BTS, I personally wish I could allow exemptions for them under certain conditions,” South Korea’s culture minister Park Yang-woo, had said.

Many long term researchers and writers of K-pop believe military conscription will not have any major effect on the group’s international popularity. But according to some, it is impossible that a two-year break will have no impact. “I think it will have a dampening effect because new fans cannot be drawn in and some current fans will lose passion, but I am equally sure military service will not be able to kill the BTS movement,” says Saeji.

Celebrities in the Korean entertainment industry are scrutinised for every action, their looks and their conduct in public and private.

“I am fairly sure that someone like RM will figure out how to relate military service to the fans in a way that lets them see the parallels with their own lives, how they also have to put their lives on hold to take care of responsibilities to others, or practical concerns.” Relatability with people around the world and translating those feelings into their music, has been one of the many reasons for BTS’s many successes.

“I am sure the members have their own struggles. I’m sure that happens. But (the members) speak the same language,” says Kim Nam-joon, attributing this understanding among members as one factor that has helped them come this far, in the group’s docu-series, “Break The Silence: Speak Yourself”.

‘Break The Silence’

In one episode of this docu-series, that gives a behind-the-scenes look of the group at the peak of their careers, touring the world, filmed in April last year, Jimin, 24, the lead vocalist of group is seen preparing for a concert in Los Angeles. “Am I nervous? I am more anxious than nervous,” he laughs. “We have to do a good job but we haven’t had much time to rehearse. I am a little worried,” he says in the documentary.

Just before the members walk out onto the stage in Los Angeles, the screams of fans can be heard backstage, surprising the BTS members despite the years of success that they have seen. It is this earnestness and humility that fans and K-pop researchers say endears the group to their fans around the world.

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