How South Korean boy band BTS became a K-pop hit by fighting for social rights

K-pop sensation, BTS. Katy Hutchinson/Shutterstock

How South Korean boy band BTS became a K-pop hit by fighting for social rights

Since bursting onto the music scene five years ago, South Korean boy band BTS (“Bangtan Sonyeondan”, “Bulletproof Boys Scouts”) has become an incredible force for good. This year alone, the collective – which consists of members RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook – has won several awards for their fan engagement, while tickets for their world tour sold out in minutes. Their third full length album, Love Yourself: Tear, became the first non-English language album to top the Billboard 200 in 12 years.

Though some global critics may still be baffled by the band – The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis has ignorantly called the “actual contents” of BTS’s third album “almost beside the point” while branding BTS fans as hollow minded saying that, “perhaps a group whose lyrics you don’t understand represent an appealingly blank screen” – BTS’s impact cannot be denied.

Love Yourself: Tear is a maximiser’s dream. The dreamy dark tunes dip into multiple genres, from neo-soul, through Latin to scream rap. But dig deeper into the messages of the song, and you will find precisely why the K-pop band is unparalleled. BTS has never obeyed social conventions or taboos. Every lyric strikes a chord with South Korean youth, and resonates all over the globe.

Support

In an interview at the start of 2018, band member Suga explained that BTS just said “the things that someone needed to say, but that no one did”. South Koreans currently in their 20s and 30s are sometimes referred to as the “2030 generation”. They face toweringly high standards in all areas of their competitive society, from looks to work ethic. Talking about pressure is a cultural taboo, sustained by a social pecking order based on age and loyalties. But BTS has made it their mission to replace this culture of silence with honesty. The generation gap, unemployment and overemphasis on achievement in school have all been tackled in their lyrics. Take 2015 song Silver Spoon, for example, where J-Hope raps: “At a part-time job, it’s passion pay / At school, it’s the teachers / The superiors’ violence / The number of generations in the media everyday.”

This disarming honesty is combined with eye-catching performances that are always preened to perfection. BTS is serious, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. They have danced while dressed up as Snow White and her dwarves and are renowned for their love of Gucci.

Trip to the top

The trip to the top is never an easy one, but even more so in the K-pop industry, which is notorious for its ruthless side. Musical successes are often overshadowed by legal battles over agencies controlling artists. Long working hours, low pay and limited privacy have ruined some musicians’ lives. BTS, by comparison, has a good relationship with its agency, Big Hit Entertainment, helped by the fact that CEO Bang Si-hyuk is a firm believer of self-motivation and self-management.

The CEO’s distinguishing attitude is one of the core reasons why BTS has been such a success. Where other modern day boy bands have stuck to singing about love and heartache, from the beginning he has encouraged BTS to tell personal stories, and insisted members retain the freedom to inject a heavy dose of social criticism and introspection into their lyrics.

The latest album is the most personal and dark yet. Suga – who has previously opened up about his struggles with depression – said of the album, “I am anxious, so are you, so let’s find the way and study the way together”. Songs refer to fighting mental health stigmas, as well as childhood traumas and fear of being judged for opening up about them. In other tunes, BTS reassures that it is OK to determine the size of your own dreams, however small they might be.

BTS is not infallible, but they deal with criticism as honestly and openly as any other issue in their music. After being called out for referring to traditional gender roles in older music and tweets, the band released the following statement:

Through self-review and discussion, we’ve learned that we can’t be free of societal prejudices and mistakes … things that are seen and learned in society … Please continue to watch BTS grow, and if you would continue to point out our shortcomings, we will continue to work hard.

Openly communicating about growth – their own, and their fans – has been central to the group’s work. After a song about girl power was included on the album Wings, RM recommended fans read Cho Nam Joo’s novel Kim Ji Young, Born 1982 which sheds light on the subtle discrimination that South Korean women have to deal with. The third album also comes up with some suggestions to deal with difficult times, encouraging listeners not to let worries and negative reactions influence their day and to use “psychodramatic techniques” – such as mindfulness and visualisation – to exchange fear for a positive attitude.

At a time when so many young people are struggling to find their place, it is almost no surprise that BTS has been such a big hit. Their impressive work goes to show that pop music can be about so much more than broken hearts or catchy lyrics – it can make a world of difference.