The Triumph of BTS
T his is a very serious and deep question,” says RM, the 26-year-old leader of the world’s biggest band. He pauses to think. We’re talking about utopian and dystopian futures, about how the boundary-smashing, hegemony-overturning global success of his group, the wildly talented seven-member South Korean juggernaut BTS, feels like a glimpse of a new and better world, of an interconnected 21st century actually living up to its promise.
BTS’ downright magical levels of charisma, their genre-defying, sleek-but-personal music, even their casually nontoxic, skin-care-intensive brand of masculinity — every bit of it feels like a visitation from some brighter, more hopeful timeline. What RM is currently pondering, however, is how all of it contrasts with a darker landscape all around them, particularly the horrifying recent wave of anti-Asian violence and discrimination across a global diaspora.
“We are outliers,” says RM, “and we came into the American music market and enjoyed this incredible success.” In 2020, seven years into their career, BTS’ first English-language single, the irresistible “Dynamite,” hit Number One, an achievement so singular it prompted a congratulatory statement from South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in. The nation has long been deeply invested in its outsize cultural success beyond its borders, known as the Korean Wave.
“Now, of course, there is no utopia,” RM continues. “There’s a light side; there’s always going to be a dark side. The way we think is that everything that we do, and our existence itself, is contributing to the hope for leaving this xenophobia, these negative things, behind. It’s our hope, too, that people in the minority will draw some energy and strength from our existence. Yes, there’s xenophobia, but there are also a lot of people who are very accepting. . . . The fact that we have faced success in the United States is very meaningful in and of itself.”
At the moment, RM is in an acoustically treated room at his label’s headquarters in Seoul, wearing a white medical mask to protect a nearby translator, a black bucket hat, and a black hoodie from the Los Angeles luxury label Fear of God. As RM has had to explain too many times on U.S. talk shows, he taught himself his fluent English via bingeing Friends DVDs. Still, he makes understandable use of the interpreter when the conversation gets complex.
RM is a fan of complexity. He was on a path toward an elite university education before a love of hip-hop, first sparked by a Korean group, Epik High, detoured him into superstardom. Bang Si-hyuk, the cerebral, intense-yet-avuncular mogul-producer who founded BTS’ record company, Big Hit Entertainment (now HYBE), signed RM first, in 2010, and gradually formed BTS around the rapper’s talent and magnetism. “When I first met RM,” says Bang, “I felt a sense of duty that I must help him grow to become a great artist after acknowledging his musical talents and ways of thinking.”
When BTS debuted in 2013, Big Hit was an underdog startup in a South Korean music business then dominated by three huge firms (Bang had been a producer for one of them, JYP). Now, thanks to BTS’ success, HYBE is a publicly traded corporation so large it just snapped up the American management company behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. “We always set goals and standards that may seem ideal, and try our best to get there as close as possible,” Bang says. “It’s still the same.”
A lengthy recruitment and audition process brought RM his six bandmates: fellow rappers Suga and J-Hope, and singers Jung Kook, V, Jimin, and Jin. Jung Kook, the youngest member, whose multiple talents include an extraordinarily soulful tenor, had offers to sign with multiple entertainment agencies, but chose Big Hit and BTS because of RM. “I just simply thought RM was really cool,” Jung Kook says. “I really didn’t know a lot about being a singer. But when I saw him rap, I just thought he was really, really awesome. And I believe maybe it was fate that drew me to him.”
Suga and J-Hope were the first two members to join after RM, at a point when Bang imagined a pure hip-hop group. (There were a bunch of other rapper trainees on board with them, all ultimately jettisoned in favor of the singers as BTS became more of a pop hybrid.) Suga, also a fan of Epik High, as well as American rappers like T.I., was already a skilled rapper when he joined, much to his parents’ displeasure. “They didn’t understand rap music,” says Suga. “It’s natural that they were against what I was doing. I think that helped me work harder because there was something that I had to prove.” On the intense 2016 solo track “The Last” (recorded under the alias Agust D), Suga revealed battles with OCD, social anxiety, and depression. “I’m comfortable now and feeling good,” he says. “But those sort of negative emotions come and go. For anybody, these emotions are not things that need to be hidden. They need to be discussed and expressed. Whatever emotions I may be feeling, I’m always ready to express them.”
With the group’s sunniest personality, J-Hope is beloved by his fellow members. (“I think J-Hope can run for president of the world,” says V; “There will be at least six votes from us,” RM adds.) J-Hope is a stunning dancer, and a surprisingly aggressive rapper, a skill he learned in his trainee days. “When I first started training, all the members were rappers,” he says. “So when you went into the house, beats were dropping. Everyone was just rapping in freestyle. It was kind of not easy to adapt at first.”
Jin, whose background was in acting, was recruited on the street by a Big Hit scout on the basis of sheer handsomeness. He’s developed formidable musical skills, but enjoys joking about the attention to his looks. “I want to emphasize, for the record, that everybody went berserk about how good-looking I was,” he says of a recent appearance on a South Korean TV variety show. At the same time, he can be touchingly insecure. “I lack in many areas,” he says. “Other members will learn a dance once and they’ll be able to dance right away to the music, but I can’t. So I try to work harder so I don’t hold the other members back or be a burden.”
V, a fan of jazz, classical music, and Elvis Presley, with a distinct baritone, ended up a Big Hit trainee by accident, after showing up to support an auditioning friend. He was a “hidden member,” who didn’t appear on camera in the endless vlogs and other ingenious online promotion that preceded BTS’ debut in June 2013. “I actually can’t understand it whatsoever,” he says now, with a laugh. “Why did they do that? Why was that the concept? I really had no idea!” (Bang belatedly offers an answer: “We needed momentum to announce that the team called BTS was finally complete. V had great charms in terms of appearance and personality, so I thought it would be impactful when he was revealed last. It was an effective strategy in forming the team’s overall image, as well as leaving an impression of each member.”)
Jimin is a virtuosic, formally trained dancer who also hits some of the most impossibly high notes in BTS’ catalog. He has a strong perfectionist streak. “Dancing was my own world and my own space,” says Jimin, who feels he owes BTS’ fans flawless performances. “For their sake and for their devotion, I shouldn’t make mistakes.”
He’s also deeply attached to his team. “We were very different people that came together,” Jimin says. “We argued a lot in the beginning, of course, but I think now, because we have spent so much time together, I began to like even the things about the other members I used to hate. The time we spent together really made us close, like a family. No matter where I go, there is someplace that I can come back to. I’ve come to feel that way about our group.”
RM carries himself with a level of gravitas that was perhaps incongruent with his initial stage name of Rap Monster, officially shortened in 2017. He drops quotes from Nietzsche and the abstract artist Kim Whan-ki in interviews, and celebrated his 26th birthday by donating nearly $85,000 to a museum foundation to support the reprinting of rare fine-art books. He and Suga fill their rhymes with double- and triple-entendres that would impress U.S. hip-hop heads who’ve never thought much about BTS.
The group as a whole shares a penchant for weighty themes, basing an album cycle on Jungian psychology, brilliantly using Pluto’s loss of full-planet status as a romantic metaphor on the song “134340,” lacing music videos with a labyrinthine ongoing storyline. Even their between-song banter is full of uncommon depth. “We all have galaxies in our hearts,” RM once told an arena full of fans. “Even my dad, who works every day. And my mom, who’s a realtor. And my little sister, too. Even the stray dogs and stray cats on the street. Even the rocks on the ground. . . . But there are people who will never know this until they die.” (Later, he’d co-write the 2019 BTS track “Mikrokosmos,” which draws on a similar theme.)
It’s not uncommon for the members of BTS to shed a tear or two while they’re addressing fans onstage. Along with their comfort with makeup and iridescent hair dye, it all plays into their instinctive rejection of rigid conceptions of masculinity. “The labels of what being masculine is, is an outdated concept,” says RM. “It is not our intention to break it down. But if we are making a positive impact, we are very thankful. We live in an age where we shouldn’t have those labels or have those restrictions.”
In their early days, with their singles “No More Dream” and “N.O.,” BTS wrote directly about the frustrations of South Korean youth, who faced relentless pressure and competition in school and the job market. (BTS were carrying on a tradition: K-pop progenitors Seo Taiji and Boys hit similar thematic notes in the early 1990s, while drawing on then-current American hip-hop and R&B, just as BTS would — the first single from Taiji’s group prominently samples Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise.”) BTS has since learned that their initial message, along with later lyrics that grapple with identity, self-love, mental health, and much more, had enough wider currency to make them spokesmen for a global generation — literally: They’ve addressed the United Nations General Assembly, twice.
“When we wrote those songs, and those messages, of course, it wasn’t from some knowledge or awareness of the education system in the United States or anywhere else,” says RM. “We were teenagers at that time. There were things we were able to say, from what we felt and from our experiences about the unreasonableness of school, or the uncertainties and the fears and anxieties that teens have. And a common thought and a common emotion resonated with youth, not just in Korea, but in the United States, and the West.”
BTS’ full name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” and the idea, roughly, was that they would be friends and protectors of youth, on an almost spiritual level. (Later, they declared that BTS also stood for “Beyond the Scene.”) “I didn’t want them to be false idols,” Bang once said. “I wanted to create a BTS that could become a close friend.”
In December, BTS had another Number One U.S. hit with “Life Goes On,” a wistful ballad that stands as the definitive pop response to the pandemic year. But because the lyrics are almost entirely in Korean, the song received virtually no play on U.S. radio; its chart position came from streaming and purchases, and the obvious demand wasn’t enough for radio to reconsider. RM, for one, is still hopeful that particular wall will shatter. “If they feel it, I think they will change,” he says. “The barriers are still breaking down. It keeps going on and on.”
In the meantime, BTS is following up “Dynamite” with another English-language single, “Butter,” due May 21st. Like the lighthearted “Dynamite,” “Butter” has no heavy message. It’s a pure, swaggering dance-pop celebration in the retro vein of Bruno Mars, with layers of Jam and Lewis-style synths and boasts of being “smooth like butter” and having a “superstar glow.” “It’s very energetic,” says RM. “And very summery. It has a very dynamic performance.” There’s clearly more music coming as well — several Western songwriters who’ve worked with the group in the past say they’re currently in touch with BTS’ team about new songs.
By taking a strong hand in the writing of their music, BTS have always stood apart from traditional K-pop methods, and, for that matter, much of songwriting-camp-dominated U.S. pop, too. (Whether BTS are actually part of K-pop at this point is a hotly debated topic among their fans, known as ARMY — many believe the group has transcended the label.) “They feel organic and unique,” says Late Late Show host James Corden, a fan who’s had them on several times since 2017. “It never feels like they’re in the machine. They are the machine.”
RM and Suga have both been producing for years, and Suga has numerous songwriting credits for other artists. Outside of the members’ contributions, most of the production and songwriting was long accomplished in-house at Big Hit, with Bang and a team of producers and songwriters collaborating. Starting circa 2017, Western songwriters and producers joined the process, but their contributions were part of a group effort.
Head producer Pdogg tends to select the best melodies and sections from various creators, who could be anywhere in the world. “It’ll come back and they’ll say, ‘We love these two parts that you did,’ ” says August Rigo, a Filipino Canadian songwriter who worked on the 2020 singles “Black Swan” and “On.” “ ‘Then we have this verse, and we have this section that we’re not quite sure of.’ So it’s like piecing a puzzle together in collaboration with BTS. . . . It wasn’t like, two days and it was done. No, it was two, three months, maybe six or seven revisions.”
In at least one case, BTS ended up scouting collaborators on their own. After the Brooklyn production duo Brasstracks noticed one of their songs playing in the background of a behind-the-scenes BTS video, they tweeted about it, and soon heard from Big Hit. “The next thing we knew there was an email, saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing this and we’re looking for this’ and ‘BTS is into your work,’” says Ivan Jackson, one half of Brasstracks, who previously worked with Mark Ronson and Chance the Rapper. “I just think they have their ears to the ground in a way they don’t get their flowers for. Because we’re not huge producers. They didn’t get Timbaland.” Brasstracks sent a beat that ended up as the track “Dis-ease,” with a bridge section added by Pdogg and another producer, Ghstloop. “It was a really awesome case of collaboration,” says Jackson.
“Dynamite,” produced by U.K.-based pro David Stewart (not the Eurythmics guy) and written by Stewart and songwriting partner Jessica Agombar, another Brit, was an exception. HYBE put out word that BTS were ready for an English-language single, and BTS and their label chose the song from multiple submissions. “ ‘Dynamite’ would not have been released if BTS had been on tour as scheduled,” says Bang. “The project was chosen to shift the mood as a response to the pandemic situation. I thought it matched BTS, and that the song’s trendy vibes would be better expressed if sung in English.”
Forming a Covid bubble, BTS kept busy in the studio last year, first with “Dynamite” and then November’s album Be, the mellowest and most mature work of their career, which includes “Life Goes On.” But 2020 still provided their most time off since they joined Big Hit as trainees. For years they’d cheerfully mention how behind on sleep they were. Last year, they finally got some rest, and all of them speak of months of reflection and self-discovery. For Suga, who had been quietly struggling for years with a shoulder injury sustained while moonlighting as a delivery boy during his trainee days, it was a chance to finally have surgery. “There were times,” says Suga, now feeling better, “when I couldn’t lift my arms in a full range of motion during a concert.”
The bond between BTS and their ARMY is real, and the guys have genuinely missed their fans, missed the road. “When we couldn’t go on tour, everybody felt a sense of loss, a sense of powerlessness,” says Jin. “And we’re all sad. And it actually took us a while to get over those feelings.”
“The roar of the crowds and ARMY is something we loved,” says Jung Kook. “We miss that more and more. And we long for that more and more.”
BTS are as passionate in their advocacy for their ARMY as the fans are for them. “The ARMY is a lot more levelheaded than even we are,” says RM. Fans have lived up to BTS’ faith in them again and again, assembling professional-level documentaries, embarking on ambitious research and translation projects, and collectively matching BTS’ million-dollar donation to Black Lives Matter in just 25 hours.
Over the course of the group’s existence, none of the members of BTS have acknowledged any romantic relationships, though several have alluded to dating before they joined. The official line is they’re too busy. The usual pop-group thinking might suggest BTS worry about fan reaction on this subject, but Suga, at least, rejects that idea. “I have a hard time understanding this question,” he says. “The ARMY is a diverse group. In this hypothetical situation, some may accept it, some may not. Whether it’s dating, or something else, they’re all individuals, and they will understand things differently.”
In 2018, BTS negotiated a renewal of their contract with Bang’s company, committing to another seven years as a band. Two years later, they were given a financial stake in HYBE. “It’s very meaningful,” says RM, “for us and also the company, that we admit and recognize each other as true partners. Now Big Hit’s success is our success, and our success is Big Hit’s success.” It also meant a multimillion-dollar windfall for the group when HYBE went public last year. “That’s very important,” RM says with a grin.
There’s a pitfall waiting for BTS that every enduring male South Korean group has faced: In light of ongoing tensions with North Korea, men are typically required to start a 21-month term of military service by their 28th birthday. Jin turned 28 on December 4th, but that month, the government passed a law offering him a direct reprieve: “A pop-culture artist who was recommended by the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism to have greatly enhanced the image of Korea both within the nation and throughout the world” would now be able to wait until he’s 30 to serve.
“I think the country sort of told me, ‘You’re doing this well, and we will give you a little bit more time,’ ” says Jin. Military service, he adds, “is an important duty for our country. So I feel that I will try to work as hard as I can and do the most I can until I am called.”
Assuming that the law isn’t changed again, offering another extension, Jin understands it’s possible BTS could go on without him for a while. “I have no doubt that the other members will make a good decision because, you know, this is not something that I can tell them what to do,” he says. If they do spend time as a six-piece, “I’ll be sad, but I’ll be watching them on the internet and cheering them on.”
Suga is 28, J-Hope is 27, and RM turns 27 this year, so their service looms as well. At least one K-pop group, Shinhwa, got back together after their own time in the military, and are still a group after 23 years. BTS may well aspire to that kind of longevity. “So, yes, we will want to see ARMY as we do now,” says V. “I’m sure it will work out so that we can continue to see ARMY. About military service, or what will happen, we haven’t discussed it in the specifics amongst ourselves, but I’m sure it’ll work out eventually.”
For Jimin, at least, BTS is eternal. “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of being not a part of this group,” he says. “I can’t imagine what I would do on my own. I think when I become older, and I grow my own beard” — he gestures to my facial hair and smiles — “I would like to think that at the end, when I’m too old to dance, I would just like to sit onstage with the other members and sing and engage with the fans. I think that would be great, too. So I’d like to keep this going as long as I possibly can.”