[Reporter’s notebook] What’s the secret behind BTS’ success?

Posted on : 2020-12-20 09:50 KST Modified on : 2020-12-20 09:50 KST
Despite a year of chaos and pessimism, BTS continues to offer messages of solace and hope
Time has named BTS Entertainer of the Year. (Time)
Time has named BTS Entertainer of the Year. (Time)

Last April, I was interviewing families of victims in the Sewol ferry sinking for the sixth anniversary of that tragedy, and I heard them mention an unexpected name. Here’s the story: about 200 days after the Sewol tragedy occurred in 2014, the victim’s families were apparently visited by some “young friends.” Extremely polite, they lit incense for the victims and consoled their loved ones before heading on their way. They also donated 100 million won (US$91,603) to the family members’ association. The visitors were the K-pop group BTS, who had made their debut less than two years earlier. Bang Si-hyuk, chair of their management agency Big Hit Entertainment, was also with them, the families told me.

The families said they felt “truly grateful” to BTS, who followed their convictions even at a time when the administration was drafting a “cultural blacklist” in connection with the Sewol tragedy and subjecting people to prejudicial treatment. For the same reason, the families continued to “support them and cheered for their success.” It may have been a natural outcome for them to hope that the artists who visited them and so earnestly comforted them amid their grief would end up becoming the most popular musical act out there.

Last summer, the Hankyoreh explored the factors behind the popularity of the supergroup SSAK3 (Lee Hyo-ri, Yu Jae-seok, and Rain). Today we’re discussing BTS.

It wouldn’t be overstating things to call 2020 the “year of BTS.” The number of “firsts,” “biggests,” and “longests” they’ve racked up is difficult to keep track of, even for an entertainment reporter. The hope of the Sewol families has come to pass. Quietly following their own path since their debut rather than focusing on what others were doing, the members have taken just seven years to rewrite the history of Korean popular music.

The members of BTS. (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)
The members of BTS. (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)

Perhaps the biggest of their recent feats has been to top the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Before them, no Korean popular music act had ever reached the summit of that chart. First, they reached No. 1 in September with “Dynamite,” a song with English lyrics. Then on Nov. 30, they topped the chart one more time with “Life Goes On,” a song with mostly Korean lyrics. It no longer seems to matter much what language they’re singing in. The Hot 100 is a chart that shows which songs are most popular in the US, the land of pop music. Never before in the 62-year history of the Hot 100 had a song sung in Korean gone to No. 1. “Life Goes On” is also the first song by an act from a non-English speaking country to debut at the top.

Another new achievement by BTS was to top both of the main Billboard Charts with their new album and their single. “BE,” the album for which “Life Goes On” was released as a lead single, also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. To date, the only musical acts to debut at No. 1 on both the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 simultaneously are BTS and Taylor Swift.

How did BTS manage this? There are a number of factors, including their unique musical style and performances, as well as the strength of their global fan base, the Army. But for me, I see it as being about the comfort and hope they’ve offered the world. It’s a value that they’ve embodied with their behavior since the earliest stages of their career. Both of their Hot 100-topping hits, “Dynamite” and “Life Goes On,” share messages of comfort to people living through the COVID-19 era. “Dynamite” is a bright and cheerful “healing song,” whereas “Life Goes On” adopts a more lyrical mood, sharing the message that the world keeps turning in spite of it all.

The US weekly Time came to more or less the same conclusion. As its reason for selecting BTS on Dec. 10 as its Entertainer of the Year, it explained, “In an era marked by so much anguish and cynicism, BTS has stayed true to their message of kindness, connection and self-acceptance.” It also noted that the group’s fans have been “extending the band’s message of positivity into the world.”

Now all eyes are on the Grammys, the most prestigious pop music awards in the US. BTS has been nominated in the category of Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Dynamite.” The nomination is yet another first achieved by BTS as a Korean act. Many experts are already predicting they will take home the honor at the ceremony on Jan. 31. There are of course others who say that they have their work cut out for them breaking through at the Grammys. It’s seen as a conservative establishment centering on older white men who are slow to change. One thing is clear, though: the Grammys are just the Grammys. And regardless of whether BTS takes home any award, they’re already the greatest stars around for the people who’ve taken comfort in their music.

By Kim Kyung-wook, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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