No sound on the planet inspires as obsessive a fandom as K-pop. The “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” of BTS have (finally, for real) imported that mania to America -- all in Korean, as they rally dissatisfied millennials around the globe.
Built in 1957 as a reception hall for South Korea’s fledgling postwar government to entertain foreign dignitaries, the Korea House is a quiet oasis amid the tumult of Seoul, with a photogenic courtyard and collection of old-school Korean houses known as hanoks. Normally it’s the setting for historical TV dramas or weddings, but on this bright, cold mid-January morning, it’s a hideaway for the seven-man Korean pop group BTS, whose celebrity has expanded past K-pop’s traditional sphere of influence and, especially during the last six months, moved into the United States as well.
When I arrive, the band is sequestered in a room within a room, behind paper doors manned by a security detail. In the outer room, over 20 groomers, publicists and other handlers from the group’s management agency, BigHit Entertainment, mill about, grazing on the provided snacks and drinks. Everyone speaks in low tones. The members of BTS need an extra 15 minutes before the scheduled photo shoot, I’m told. They are, understandably, exhausted: Their schedule has been packed since New Year’s Eve with performances, TV appearances, commercials and meet-and-greets. I flew into Seoul expressly to meet them for this rare opening in their calendar.
The first to emerge from the room is J-Hope, 23, the former street dancer from the city of Gwangju, who capers down the steps, then doubles back to get RM, also 23, the group’s leader and English-speaking ambassador. The rest soon file out wearing similarly dark Saint Laurent-heavy outfits: Suga, 24, the idealistic and soulful rapper; Jimin, 22, the baby-faced modern dancer; V, 22, the master impressionist; Jungkook, 20, the golden maknae (youngest member, a sort of privileged position in K-pop) who’s good at everything; and Jin, 25, who’s known as “Worldwide Handsome.” They form a semicircle of multicolored bowl cuts, and RM comments on how tall I am (6 feet) and that I can speak Korean (like a 10-year-old). They’re photo-ready but groggy enough that I wish they’d taken another 15 minutes to rest. But time is money, and these guys are worth a lot.
It’s reasonable that BigHit would handle the members like prized jewels. They’re among the biggest stars in K-pop -- their last album, 2017’s Love Yourself: Her, has sold 1.58 million physical copies around the globe, according to BigHit. And while it may not be a household name in the United States, BTS -- which stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan and roughly translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” -- is pulling unprecedented numbers for a group that mainly sings in Korean to an American populace that has long resisted K-pop’s charms. Love Yourself: Her debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 in September 2017, and BTS claims the two highest-charting songs for a K-pop group ever, “DNA” (which peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100) and the Steve Aoki remix of “Mic Drop,” featuring Desiigner (No. 28). In the States alone, BTS has sold 1.6 million song downloads and clocked 1.5 billion-with-a-“B” on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music.
BTS has connected with millennials around the globe even though -- or really, because -- the act seems to challenge boy-band and K-pop orthodoxies. Sure, it’s got love songs and dance moves. But BTS’ music, which the members have helped write since the beginning, has regularly leveled criticism against a myopic educational system, materialism and the media, venting about a structure seemingly gamed against the younger generation. “Honestly, from our standpoint, every day is stressful for our generation. It’s hard to get a job, it’s harder to attend college now more than ever,” says RM, until recently known as Rap Monster. “Adults need to create policies that can facilitate that overall social change. Right now, the privileged class, the upper class needs to change the way they think.” Suga jumps in: “And this isn't just Korea, but the rest of the world. The reason why our music resonates with people around the world who are in their teens, 20s and 30s is because of these issues.”
The shoot’s done, and we’re sitting on couches in a small living room-like space amid the production studios at the BigHit offices, the members changed into cozy but still-stylish jackets and knitwear. Here at home, speaking in Korean, they’re calmer and less eager to impress than they were on their recent, occasionally awkward American press tour, where they did the rounds on The Late Late Show With James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where RM gamely evaded questions about dating. Today, their voices are noticeably deeper, more sonorous. RM does, as usual, a lot of the talking, sometimes throwing questions out to the quieter members. But Suga is a surprise: garrulous and thoughtful, seemingly primed for a socially conscious rap battle.
Rabid K-pop fandom is, by now, a pop-culture cliche. Even in a world where supporters of American stars engineer efforts to goose chart positions and feud with rival fandoms -- Beatlemania multiplied by the internet, basically -- K-pop stans are legendarily devoted and influential. The BTS ARMY (that’s short for “Adorable Representative M.C for Youth”) is the engine powering the phenomenon: It translates lyrics and Korean media appearances; rallies clicks, views, likes and retweets to get BTS trending on Twitter and YouTube; and overwhelms online polls and competitions. BigHit says that it makes sure to disseminate news and updates about the band on the fan cafe, so as not to arouse the wrath of the ARMY.
The global fan base is why a group you may never have heard of is attaining the upper ranks of the U.S. charts; playing late-night slots; appearing at the Billboard Music Awards, where it picked up the fan-voted top social artist trophy in 2017; and performing on the American Music Awards. (“The AMAs were the biggest gift we could have gotten from our fans,” says Suga.) Purely in terms of social media, they’re just about the biggest thing going, driving BTS to 58 weeks at No. 1 on the Social 50 chart, a total that’s second only to Justin Bieber’s, and more than doubles the number of weeks scored by the third-place act -- none other than Taylor Swift.
The ARMY doesn't merely idolize the members of BTS, it identifies with them. When the group debuted in 2013 with 2 Kool 4 Skool, the members talked about the pressures familiar to any Korean student: the need to study hard, get into college and find a stable job. Their first singles, “No More Dream” and “N.O.,” castigated peers who attended classes like zombies without a sense of purpose. What was all this education for, they asked -- to become “the No. 1 government worker?” The tracks were a throwback to Korean pop acts like H.O.T. and Seo Taiji & Boys, only updated for a generation saddled with debt in an increasingly competitive economy.
“I was talking about my past self,” says RM, confessing that he was one of those drones. “There was nothing I wanted to do; just that I wanted to make a lot of money. I started the song by thinking about it as a letter written to friends who were like me in the past.”
“College is presented like some sort of cure-all,” says Suga. “They say that if you go, your life will be set. They even say you’ll lose weight, get taller...”
RM: “That you’ll get a girlfriend...”
Jin: “That you’ll become better-looking...”
Suga: “But this isn't the reality, and they realize that was all a lie. No one else can take responsibility for you at that point.
“If we don’t talk about these issues, who will?” continues Suga. “Our parents? Adults? So isn't it up to us? That’s the kind of conversations we have [in the band]: Who knows best and can talk about the difficulty our generation faces? It’s us.”