Mega-hit sensation BTS, officially trademarked as “Bangtan Boys” in Korean and recently “Beyond the Scene” in English, debuted in 2013 with little to their name. Managed by a small entertainment company within an industry of towering conglomerates, their introduction went by without much fanfare.
Fast-forward four years later to witness their catapult to fame, from winning Billboard’s Top Social Artist Award, to performing their hit, “DNA,” on major American talk shows, to a sold-out Love Yourself world tour and their explosive 2019 follow-up, Speak Yourself. The group is busier than ever with solo pursuits, collaborations with brands and other artists, and unnamed projects currently under wraps. These underdogs broke numerous boundaries to reach where they are now and it begs the question: How did they do it?
Being Korean American myself has entailed a lifelong quest in navigating and understanding the racial diaspora and my personal identity in relation to a motherland that is, by definition, not mine to claim. The beginnings of the “Hallyu wave” that was part of my growing up is so different from the evolved, highly visible state of Korean pop culture today.
For me, BTS’ massive success can be attributed not only to their dedication and passion for their craft, but also their ingenious marketing of themselves to the masses. This is evident in their online presence, creative artistry, and willingness to utilize their platform to highlight topics about our social climate.
Since they were thrown into the public eye when other groups were dominating the entertainment world, BTS took to social media right from their trainee days to amass their digital following. Initial interactions with fans occurred over Twitter, their commentary carrying unabashed excitement and fear for what was to come post-debut.
Unofficial releases such as “Adult Child” and “School of Tears” were revealed on YouTube exhibiting an intimate and homemade quality. The official fancafe, where fans log in and can post messages for the members to see and vice versa, came about shortly after.
But it wasn’t until August 2015, when the V Live app first launched, that BTS undertook a more involved role in their idol-to-fan interactions. By hosting various themed sessions such as solo vlogs, updates during overseas promotions, and more, the live-streaming platform has since become a staple of their namesake.
Of course, BTS’ awareness of social issues has much to do with their still-growing legacy. More often than not, their lyrics openly describe issues and topics that matter to them, personally and at large.
Their debut track, “No More Dream,” and subsequent “N.O” single criticized the societal and academic pressures young people face to conform and succeed.
Another key era in their discography is The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, typically referred to as HYYH, where each member has his own coming-of-age story; Part 1 explores the struggles faced during their tumultuous adolescent years, while Part 2 sparks an adventurous tone.
Notable topics from both EP’s include friendship, domestic abuse, depression, and others of that nature. But their most recent promotional cycle, Love Yourself, is what set them on the main global stage.
This two-year-long theme dealt with changing the worst forms of self-hatred into the highest forms of self-love, whether that be healing from a bad relationship or learning how to overcome one’s personal reservations.
Many of their B-side tracks, including the member’s solo songs, highlight what it means to love your whole self unconditionally.
Their special appearance at the UN 73rd General Assembly commemorated the launch of “Youth 2030: The UN Youth Strategy” initiative and corresponding UNICEF “Generation Unlimited” campaign, both of which perfectly embodied the values presented during their speech about accepting and embracing diversity of all forms.
Most importantly, BTS has creative autonomy over their work and direction as individual artists and as a group. While their talents rightfully shine in their solo work, they also greatly enhance and complement each other when combined.
The rap line—RM, Suga, and J-Hope—have released their respective mixtapes during the past six years, while the vocal line—Jin, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—have uploaded song covers or their own compositions; unsurprisingly all of these releases were positively received and ranked high on digital charts.
Another important aspect of their artistry deals with the BTS Universe, an alternate universe (AU) storyline that interconnects their eras, from HYYH to present-day. Fans have been speculating its existence since “I Need U” in 2015, but the AU was not officially confirmed until the release of the “Save ME” webtoon, whose final edition coincides with their Map of the Soul: Persona album release.
Also forthcoming is The Notes 1 book release, a collection of diary entries that were originally used as literary teasers during these promotions.
Many other literary references have been made as well; the “Spring Day” music video pays tribute to Omelas from Ursula Le Guin’s famous short story, and novels such as Demian and Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart have both inspired their music and made appearances in live performances as text excerpts broadcasted on jumbotron screens.
Even now, many have assumed that the Map of the Soul comeback is based off of Carl Jung’s psychology theory about individuation. In it exists four distinct parts of a person’s soul—the persona, the shadow, the self, and the anima/animus—insinuating another multi-part promotional cycle. And yes, I’m one of the many, many fans who started reading Murray Stein’s book about it!
BTS continues to make their mark on the world in ways that were unfathomable to me years prior. Not only does their music touch the hearts of fans, their words and actions also come from a real, genuine place that’s understood across linguistic boundaries.
However, it is still important to remain critical of what lies ahead as their platform grows bigger than ever before. Their fame gained with Western audiences now puts into question what this means for K-Pop, the Korean and Asian American community, and the ever increasing cultural globalization of our society today.
Making Asian American media
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