SEOUL (AFP) – Popstars, diplomats, activists: South Korean megastars BTS are like modern day Renaissance men, dominating the charts even as they represent their country and campaign for causes close to their heart, analysts said.
The trailblazing boy band, who announced they would go on a break on Tuesday are credited with transforming the global music industry – the first all-Korean group to dominate the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) charts and build a truly global fanbase.
They’ve spoken at the United Nations and appeared at the White House to fight racism, while still remaining one of the most popular bands in the world on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.
There is “no one with greater global cultural power or soft power than BTS”, political scientist at Temple University Linda Hasunuma told AFP.
“They have more power to influence culture than any politician or celebrity,” she said, pointing to their record-breaking social following.
But at the height of their powers, the band said on Tuesday that they were “exhausted” and would take a break, telling their fans that they needed time apart.
“The problem with K-pop and the whole idol system is that they don’t give you time to mature,” member RM, 27, said, referring to South Korea’s notoriously hard-driving music business model.
Like almost all K-pop groups, BTS – or Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates as Bulletproof Boy Scouts – were formed by an entertainment agency.
Big Hit Entertainment assembled J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga and V through a combination of direct recruitment and auditions.
Local reports said the group – who are known to be relentlessly hardworking – went through intensive training ahead of their debut in 2013.
Leader RM was already known in the South’s underground hip hop scene for his rapping skills, while Jimin had been enrolled in an arts school in Busan, majoring in contemporary dance.
The group have since ascended to global superstardom, having been twice nominated for a Grammy and staging a string of sold-out shows in cities including London, Paris and Los Angeles.
Their lyrics are socially conscious and they consistently and candidly engage with fans at home and abroad through social media, accumulating some 86 million followers on Twitter alone.
The band has become “an icon of progressive globalism”, said Professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo Vladimir Tikhonov.
“They are part of the entrepreneurial world, being managed by a for-profit agency and earning astronomic sums… But at the same time, they and their fans supported anti-racist movements,” he said.
In 2020 they donated USD1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement, inspiring fans to contribute the same amount.
And they spoke in Korean at the White House on May 31 seeking to raise awareness of anti-Asian racism in America – a phenomenon many blame on fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Member Suga appealed for tolerance, saying that “it’s not wrong to be different. I think equality begins when we open up and embrace all of our differences”.
The group “has already exceeded the level of a famous pop star in some ways”, Research Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul Jiyoung Lee told AFP.
“The symbolic meaning of them is believed to embody to some extent the zeitgeist of the present era.”
Beneath its glitz and glamour, South Korea’s K-pop industry is known for cut-throat competition and relentless public pressure to maintain a wholesome image at all times and at any cost.
In Tuesday’s YouTube video the members of BTS, credited with generating billions of dollars for the South Korean economy, candidly shared their struggles within the industry.
“I don’t have time to grow because I have to keep filming and keep doing something,” RM said, referring to the team’s busy work schedule.
Although the group are currently at the “very peak” of their success, RM said he “didn’t know what kind of group we were any more”.
Member Suga confessed he’s not had much fun writing lyrics since their debut in 2013. “It was always painful, always hard, and I had to squeeze something out,” he said.
Local media said the band could be on hiatus for up to seven years, given the members’ upcoming mandatory military service in South Korea.
But experts said the group will not be forgotten.
“Beyond their music, they’ve woven a multi-faceted story… bringing their messaging and story beyond just the elements typically associated with K-pop,” author Tamar Herman said.
“BTS do it in a way that is immensely relatable and resonates on a personal level with many across the world,” Herman, who wrote BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears, told AFP.
NINE YEARS AT THE TOP: THE UNSTOPPABLE RISE OF BTS
At the peak of their success, K-pop megastars BTS made an emotional announcement to fans: they were taking a break from the supergroup to focus on their solo careers.
AFP takes a look back at the band’s record-setting run to global superstardom:
On June 13, 2013, BTS debuts as a seven-member boy band.
The members – J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga and V – are selected through a combination of recruitment and auditions, and undergo intensive training before the group’s launch.
Already stars in their native South Korea, the band sets their sights on the world’s largest music market: the US.
They become the first K-pop act to perform on the televised American Music Awards (AMA).
In a vivid illustration of the band’s growing appeal, BTS becomes the first K-pop group to top the US album charts.
In May 2018, the band led the Billboard 200 – which rank albums via sales, downloads and streams – with their album Love yourself: Tear.
As their cultural clout grows, BTS are invited to speak at the United Nations. They use the platform to tell young people to be themselves.
Addressing a packed hall at the launch of a UNICEF youth campaign, group leader RM urges youth to “just speak yourself” regardless of their race, gender or identity.
The band sets another record, becoming the first Korean act to top Britain’s album chart with Map of the soul: Persona.
The milestone comes ahead of the group’s two sold-out shows at London’s famed Wembley Stadium.
After topping charts in the US and Britain, BTS takes their first “long-term” break since their debut, citing a need to “recharge and refresh”.
But the band is back within weeks, with a tour that included a show in Saudi Arabia.
In September 2020, BTS becomes the first South Korean act to dominate the top US singles chart, with their English-language hit Dynamite going to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
The achievement comes hours after BTS beat American musical heavyweights including Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift to score the Best Pop award at MTV Video Music Awards.
The group goes on to top the US singles chart repeatedly with other songs including Butter and Permission to Dance.
BTS become the first Koreans to receive a Grammy nomination.
The group is nominated for Best Performance by a Pop Duo or Group for its English-language hit Dynamite, but fails to win.
BTS is nominated again in 2021, but after being disappointed, Suga said, “I’m thankful there are still barriers and challenges we can try to work to overcome.”
BTS becomes the first Asian group to win Artist of the Year at the AMA, the world’s largest fan-voted awards show. The septet also scoops awards for Favourite Pop Duo or Group and Favourite Pop Song for their hit Butter at the glitzy ceremony is Los Angeles. The win marks the band’s ninth AMA.
In December 2021, HYBE announces that BTS will take a “second official extended period of rest” in order to recharge and seek fresh inspiration.
The band are quickly performing again, with a sold-out series of concerts in Seoul in March 2022, their first post-pandemic performances in their native land.
In June 2022, BTS visits the White House for a meeting with US President Joe Biden. The group uses the trip to call out growing anti-Asian hate crimes in the US.
BTS announce they’re taking a break from the group to focus on their solo careers in an emotional video appearance.
Speaking to fans in a YouTube video marking the band’s ninth anniversary, the members said they are “exhausted” and need time apart.
Their label HYBE pushes back, saying BTS will be doing “team and individual projects simultaneously”.