The screaming begins just beyond baggage claim, when the first bob of purple-gray hair peeks up over the security wall separating the biggest Korean pop band in the world, in history, from its fans. Amid shrill hysteria, the seven soft-faced men of BTS stride through Los Angeles International Airport flanked by human trains of burly people in yellow “Event Staff” shirts. The boys smile, wave and, with the efficiency of British royals, slip past a few hundred young women and teen girls into black Escalades, their portal to the heart of the American mainstream.
It’s mid-November and BTS have flown here from South Korea, propelled by the fervor of their admirers, a diverse group that calls itself ARMY (short for “Adorable Representative M.C for Youth”). The band is here for a string of high-profile TV appearances: They go from the airport to James Corden; Jimmy Kimmel the next day; then they’ll meet Ellen Degeneres, who’ll compare their U.S. arrival to that of the Beatles in 1964. But BTS are mainly in town to perform their hit song “DNA” at the American Music Awards – a performance that will make them Google’s top trending topic and set a Guinness record for Twitter engagement.
Group leader RM (short for “Rap Monster”), 23 and palpably ambitious, compares the whirlwind trip to being “like surfers on a big wave.” But at 9 a.m. the day after BTS land, the vibe is more like “showing up for work.” We’re at a rehearsal studio when AMA reps arrive to shoot promo photos in the parking lot. Bubbly ham J-Hope, 23, an MC and onetime street-dance champ, walks out with his arms up, shouting, “Hello! AMA! Whoa!” The others trickle out with less ado and take turns getting primped, on the asphalt, by a team of stylists also in from Seoul.
There’s Jimin, 22, the prettiest yet most puckish, a former top modern-dance student who’s currently shaving his chin while a woman holds a mirror. The perpetually wide-eyed singer V, 21, another art-school kid, who made his screen debut in a Korean historical drama last year, gets his purple-gray bob brushed and parted. A man uses a pick to dislodge something from the teeth of Suga, who like RM started his career as an underground rapper. Lead singer Jungkook, 20, a devout Belieber who joined BTS at 15, gets a streak of eyeliner. Meanwhile, singer Jin, 25, an aspiring actor so handsome he was recruited by a boy-band casting agent while walking down the street, shuffles quietly through the flurry. Their entourage is massive; I lose count in the mid-thirties. There are managers, publicists, a choreographer, a masseur, the interpreter, groomers, folks with cameras, unsmiling guards and several drivers with earpieces.
Back home, BTS are pretty much only breaking their own records at this point – for video views, album pre-sales and chart placement – and it’s spilling over to other countries. Their recent EP, Love Yourself: Her, which features a song written with Andrew Taggart of the Chainsmokers, topped iTunes’ album chart in 73 countries, and BTS have become the first Korean-pop group to crack the American mainstream, with a Steve Aoki remix of their “MIC Drop” recently crashing the Top 40.
”We are so lucky that we’re living in this time, in 2017,” says RM, the only one who can carry on a conversation in English. “When we post a tweet, it becomes translated to more than 30 languages.” The group’s lyrics – which are almost entirely Korean but close-captioned on YouTube and translated for sites like Genius – are a big part of its international success. BTS songs tackle issues like depression and anxiety. They promote progressive social ideals like female empowerment and accepting people from different backgrounds. They even address the internal unease of ditching less commercial career paths to become “idols,” as K-pop stars are called.
BTS fans appreciate the band’s empathy, honesty, and independence—themes that are particularly in-demand amongst Western pop audiences these days. Plus, BTS set their message to canny hyper-modern production (frequently done by the members themselves) that devours all manner of EDM- rap- and R&B-leaning pop – think Major Lazer, Justin Bieber, DNCE, Logic, the Chainsmokers, Nick Jonas – and spits out a deeply catchy, slightly askew pastiche.
After the photoshoot, the guys go in to practice their AMAs routine. From the opening whistle of “DNA,” they are a single-minded, many-limbed organism. Jin, who normally seems like he’s brooding, deploys pouty looks and precise hand jives. They goof around a bit – Jimin grabs Jungkook’s ass after the latter executes a balletic twirl – but are in the zone. An hour later, at 10:40 a.m., they’re chugging water and getting cooled off by women who use their entire bodies to swing paper fans emblazoned with the boys’ own faces. Jin quickly nods off in a rolling chair but is soon awoken by the masseur, who wants to jam an elbow into his shoulder; Jin winces as he does. Minutes later, V is yowling in pain, mouth wide as a handler treats a canker sore inside his cheek. Later, RM will dance with a bloody tissue in his nose – the wages of jet lag and constant hustle add up. An early lunch of cold burgers and fries seems meager compensation, but they eat with abandon.
BTS, an acronym for Bangtan Boys (“Bulletproof Boy Scouts” in Korean), was built around RM and finalized via auditions. The group was assembled by a small company – Big Hit, run by songwriter “Hitman” Bang Si Hyuk, who co-founded one of the so-called Big Three agencies, JYP, before leaving it behind – which gives them underdog appeal. And while BTS came through the famously rigorous K-pop system, living in dorms together and training constantly, RM says Big Hit offers relative artistic freedom. To wit, in a unique spin on K-pop fan service, BTS build mythologies around their albums, like last year’s Wings, whose theme comes from Hermann Hesse’s 1919 bildungsroman Demian. The concept appears in the lyrics, art and videos. Exactly how these subplots take shape is unclear, but it’s feasible that RM, who reads heady authors like Haruki Murakami and Albert Camus, is involved.
“We try to make our own BTS context,” he says. “Maybe it’s risky to bring some inspiration from novels from so long ago, but I think it paid off more. It comes through like a gift box for our fans. That’s something you can’t find easily from American artists.” Instead, he likens it to Star Wars.
“The big thing about creating our universe is expandability,” adds Suga, the most contemplative of the group, via interpreter. “Because it draws from our personal lives and interests, we can expand it as much as we want and it’s not alien for us. Having that allows us more diversity in the stories we can tell and the music we can make.”
Do they feel free enough to write about Korean politics? RM says they’re working on a song that does so subtly, but Suga cautions that the subject “is fraught with danger, not in a literal way, but because of the risk of being misunderstood by young people who may not have fully developed sensibilities.” He’d rather focus on fostering understanding than “inciting conflict.” The rest of the group stays silent for our midday interview except to shout out ARMY and admit they’re eager for more crossover opportunities. As J-Hope puts it, “It’d be an honor for us to work with anyone.”
RM says that, instead of breaking more records, the band’s mission is to promote individuality, which isn’t always encouraged back home. “Especially in Korea, there are all these standards: Get married, go to a nice university.” How will they spread that message? He smiles. “Better music and doper performances.”
After selling out arenas in California, Chicago and New Jersey, BTS are planning a bigger U.S. run in 2018. They’re in unprecedented territory. Unlike PSY, their success here didn’t spring from a novelty hit – their rise up American charts was gradual and shows no sign of slowing. While they’ve brushed off the idea of an English-language album in the past, RM dropped English verses on a Fall Out Boy remix and Wale collab this year.
At 1:30 p.m., it’s time to get ready for Kimmel. I follow BTS from the dance studio into the hall near their dressing room. There’s a folding table covered with silver rings, flashy necklaces and dangly earrings for the choosing. On the floor is an outsize ziplock full of identical Puma slides. After hair is redone and outfits adjusted, they load into the four Escalades with no fuss at all.
As our caravan passes Hollywood Boulevard and turns onto the small street leading to Kimmel‘s backlot and outdoor stage, we see them: more than a thousand BTS zealots who explode when they see us. They’d been waiting for hours. Kimmel music producer Mac Burrus later tells me a group of five teens spent two nights out there, on the street, in sleeping bags.
In the green room, there is finally downtime. Suga and RM eat bananas. Jin plays his Nintendo Switch. Jungkook and J-Hope sleepily lean into one another on the couch. V lays on the floor to get his neck adjusted by the masseur’s bone-crunching assassin-twist before settling into a sofa to stream “Carpool Karaoke.” Around 4 p.m., producers bring in a couple ARMY moms for a skit where they taunt their girls, who are still in the line, via FaceTime from BTS’ inner sanctum. The daughters eventually come back and I steal them for a chat. Both discovered BTS on YouTube. Adriana, 24, is teaching herself Korean “slowly but surely” so she can hear the boys in their own tongue. Rosa, 18, insists, “Language isn’t a barrier when it comes to music.”
At 6:20 p.m., BTS head to the stage. From the back, it sounds like there’s a roller coaster full of shrieking riders on the other side. A grizzled staffer walks by with a kooky grin, muttering, “This is nuts.” From the wings I watch the band rip into a six-song set that inspires face-clutching and tears. For “Save Me,” a “Where Are Ü Now” soundalike, the crowd deploys a coordinated K-pop “fanchant,” roaring each member’s birth name in perfect rhythmic succession. I can barely hear the music, so it doesn’t occur to me until the end that BTS don’t seem to be using vocal backing tracks, as a U.S. or U.K. group might – they rap and sing every last part while doing constant choreography.
When it ends just after 7 p.m., an exhausted J-Hope flops onto the asphalt out of view of the crowd and his team, chest heaving, eyes wide. After 30 seconds, he picks himself up and rushes to join the other members of BTS disappearing into the hall leading to the green room. As he turns the last corner, a voice squeals, “Oh, my God! J-Hope looked back at me!”