BTS Has Taken Over the World
The most popular band in the world performed their hit song at the iconic Ed Sullivan Theater to loud, passionate cheers from the audience. The young men in sharp suits gyrated to the beat and put on an amazing performance for the folks back at home, watching through their black and white screens. It was like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan all over again — but this time the band stirring all the frenzy did not hail from England, but South Korea. And they weren’t singing a word of English. Oh, and it was 2019.
BTS reenacted the Fab Four’s iconic 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in May 2019 when they were in the middle of the U.S. leg of their worldwide stadium tour. Shot in black and white, the septet performed their platinum certified hit “Boy with Luv” — all in celebration of the band hitting a milestone that hadn’t been conquered since John, Paul, George and Ringo. Not bad for a band who released their debut full album, Dark & Wild, just five years ago.
BTS are a modern-day Fab Four — plus three. With the release of their most recent album, Map of the Soul: Persona, BTS became the first “traditional” musical ensemble to have three consecutive albums debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in only 11 months; it’s a feat that’s gone unmatched since the Beatles owned the charts after releasing the archival Anthology 1, Anthology 2 and Anthology 3 in the mid ‘90s. That’s pretty impressive for any group — let alone one from South Korea that doesn’t sing in English and didn’t actively start promoting in the U.S. or the West until a few years ago.
But before the multiple no. 1 records, the sold-out stadiums, their speech before the U.N. at the forum for youth and their inclusion on Time’s 100 list this year, Bangtan Sonyeondan (Romanization of their name in Korean) was simply a boy group from the small Korean entertainment agency Big Hit Entertainment. Their debut singles album from 2013, 2 Cool 4 Skool, only sold 24,441 units that year in their native South Korea. In contrast, pre-orders alone of their latest album surpassed 2.6 million within five days of going on sale.
With the members all in their mid-teens to early twenties, BTS set themselves up as advocates for youth from the get-go — a platform they’ve continued on until this day. That’s why so many people have connected with them throughout the years. Beginning with 2 Cool 4 Skool and wrapping it up with Dark & Wild, BTS’ school series expressed their defiance against South Korea’s grueling education system.
RM (Kim Nam-Joon), Jin (Kim Seok-jin), Suga (Min Yoon-gi), J-Hope (Jung Ho-seok), Park Jimin, V (Kim Tae-hyung) and Jungkook (Jeon Jeong-guk) began their careers as BTS during the summer of 2013. A season typically dominated by summery anthems by girl groups, SISTAR’s “Give it to Me” and Girls’ Day “Female President” dominated the airwaves. Although 2 Cool 4 Skool debuted at a commendable no. 19 on the Gaon chart (South Korea’s equivalent to Billboard charts) and peaked at no. 5 on their seventh week, at the time it failed to gain real traction.
The group was introduced to the public as a “hip-hop idol” group, something not entirely atypical for the K-pop world, but not exactly popular at the time, either. Groups would feature rappers in their lineups, but they weren’t usually the main attraction. BTS, however, highlighted the rap prowess of RM, Suga and J-Hope, who wrote militant lyrics that weren’t commonplace at that point in K-pop. The songs were more reminiscent of early K-pop and Korean hip-hop acts like Seo Taiji and Boys, H.O.T. and Epik High.
On their debut single, “No More Dream,” BTS criticized South Korea’s study-based culture and encouraged students to develop their own dreams, a theme they continued with O!RUL8,2?’s “N.O,” where they furthered defied the social system that oppresses young people. Being idols, the septet talked about the prejudices that come with that title on “We Are Bulletproof, Pt. 2.” It also served as a kind of warning of what they were capable of; they would work tirelessly to achieve success.
On the school series, BTS strove for authenticity: writing and producing their own songs, incorporating traditional hip-hop elements like skits and cyphers, and boasting a ‘90s boom bap sound. The 14-track debut full album Dark & Wild released on August 19, 2014 served as a bridge between the school series and the next chapter in their discography, the Youth series. It marked their transition from student troublemakers to socially conscious young adults.
Thematically, they explored their different anxieties and coming into their masculinity, albeit presenting some problematic lyrics regarding relationships with women, which they later apologized for. Skill-wise, the album showcased the members’ individual growth as artists: they were better rappers and better vocalists.
Signaling the end of the strong emphasis on “hip-hop idols,” BTS mixed elements of hip-hop with an edgier rock sound on singles “Danger” and “War of Hormone.” Although many of the songs on the album talk about romantic relationships (“Embarrassed,” “24/7=heaven”), they also broaden the concept of love with “Hip Hop Phile,” professing their passion for the genre and their personal experiences with it.
“Let Me Know” introduced listeners to Suga’s producing skills — an album highlight — a woozy, mournful breakup song. On the jazzy, sorrowful “Rain,” BTS use that metaphor to talk about the loneliness of idol life.
BTS’ first few records might not have brought them the success they worked for, but they were a strong introduction to the public. Audiences in Korea might have taken a bit longer to embrace them, but international fans were building a powerful fan base by the time Dark & Wild was released. Both “Danger” and “War of Hormone” debuted at no. 7 and no. 11, respectively, on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart. Dark & Wild, for its part, debuted and peaked at no. 3 on the World Albums chart.
Once they left behind their rebellious image with the conclusion of the school trilogy, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1 EP birthed a much more experimental and alternative BTS. Although hip-hop had gone mainstream in South Korea in 2015, BTS switched up their sound. The bars in their tracks became a device to complement the overall mood of a song, pushing for more eclectic melodies, ethereal vocals and artistic visuals.
Still, you can hear their roots in newer releases like “Mic Drop” and “Ddaeng,” and even their solo works. They were still all about being young; their sound just grew up with them as they explored deeper and darker topics and storylines in their songs and music videos.
This shift turned out to be one of the best decisions of their career. The first single on The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1, “I Need U,” became BTS’ first hit in Korea. It also scored them their first music show win (promotional Korean music shows with a competition element at the end), and sold 93,790 digital units in its first week.
The following single, “Dope,” became the group’s first music video to surpass 100 million views on YouTube, something that had previously only been achieved by groups from the top three most prominent entertainment companies in Korea.
It was all up from there. “Run” from The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2 became the group’s first single to debut at no. 1 in one of Korea’s most prominent real-time digital charts. The EP also marked their first entry into the Billboard 200 chart at no. 171. “Fire,” from The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever, landed at the no. 1 spot on all of South Korea’s numerous music charts simultaneously.
Then came the aforementioned no. 1 albums. 2018’s Love Yourself: Tear debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart, their first of three consecutive wins. The follow-up, Love Yourself: Answer, became the first Korean album to ever receive an RIAA album certification. “Boy with Luv” from this year’s Map of the Soul: Persona debuted at no. 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100, their highest position on said chart to date. And although they recently announced a brief break in promotions to rest up, it is believed that the group will release a follow-up album by the end of the year, which can easily be expected to break even more records and elevate their platform even further.
Like the Beatles, BTS is a cultural phenomenon. The group pretty much single-handedly broke through the glass ceiling, bringing a whole new wave of music to the U.S and making history on their own terms.
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