BTS have become a global force that, many believe, no longer needs an award-winning body to affirm their place in music history and their hold on tens of millions of fans the world over. That “hold”— to put it more accurately—means inhabiting special daily moments in the lives of countless numbers of fans who have used their music, and the boys themselves, as their 24/7 happy pill in this pandemic. BTS don’t need a Grammy to define BTS and their place in music history and in our personal histories.
You have to be really in airtight seclusion and in disavowal of social media not to know who BTS (short for Bangtan Sonyeondan) are, they who fired up the mainstream and social media this week (like they’ve done in recent years) upon their nomination in the Grammy’s (a first for South Korea) for the Best Duo and Group Performance award that eventually went to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.
What an emotional engagement for a slice of the world population. Music is a subjective experience, and quite rarely does one see such prolonged impassioned engagement with music and music icons—in this lifetime, you have Elvis Presley, the Beatles (that’s so mine), Michael Jackson, Madonna, and so on, and now BTS (plus other K-Pop icons with strong fan bases). The BTS Armys (as their fandom is called) can’t quite get over the fact—and rightly so—that the recording academy maxed out the drawing power of BTS in this digital age to lasso their fan base and to get millions of views. Of course BTS were not the only celebrities whose appearance and performance have been used by an awards event. However, what makes their case notable is how solid, active, proactive, and swift to act their fans are. In current times, their 24/7 vigilance and devotion are arguably unmatched in global community size.
BTS’ solid popularity was a golden opportunity the recording academy didn’t pass up. (Why do people keep forgetting that the US is the mecca of marketing and advertising?)
The fans’ uproar comes on the heels of the universal impact—indeed empathy—BTS have created, most especially the past two years, through their music, in social media, on the digital platform, even in foreign affairs. And the pandemic, which left people confined to their monitors and to their homes, feeling cooped-up, scared and helpless, only turned BTS into your 24/7 digital companion—a companion with not only the charisma, but also the message that resonates. No less than the United Nations General Assembly and Unicef recognized BTS’ gravitas when they invited the boys to speak on their behalf, to tell the youth to Love Yourself/Speak Yourself, and to tell the people not to lose hope in the face of this contagion. (The Unicef livestream drew hundreds of thousands in a few minutes, overwhelming the site.) It was there that a South Korean official quoted a foreign diplomat who said that in the past decades, SK has had two “achievements”: its democratic and economic development—and BTS.
Mainstream media have covered the BTS phenomenon and subsequently drew sizeable readership, if not salvaged sagging circulation
If that’s exaggerating it, at the very least you can’t discount the fact that in 2020 and 2021, global mainstream media—from news institutions to magazines and websites, except perhaps the New York Times and US Vogue—have covered the BTS phenomenon and subsequently drew sizeable readership, if not salvaged sagging circulation. It prompted a pundit to say that BTS could be single-handedly saving some dying print media.
You don’t have to agree with that. Perhaps it was just astute marketing by Big Hit Entertainment, the management firm of BTS that just had one of the most successful IPOs in this pandemic. (Big Hit has introduced its new, more encompassing organization, Hybe, this week.) But then the BTS success story isn’t a one-opportunity thing, and the distinct personalities of its members couldn’t have been crafted by a strategy book alone.
Thanks to the digital aquarium these boys have inhabited so unabashedly for years, people have been able to follow them for more than seven years since their debut as a boy band in 2013. People have seen them grow from boys to men—Kim Namjoon (RM), Kim Seokjin (Jin), Min Yoongi (Suga), Jung Hoseok (J-hope), Park Jimin (Jimin), Kim Taehyung (V), and Jeon Jungkook (JK, who was barely 15 during their debut)—long enough to know not only their personal histories but also their character strengths and quirks. To millions of followers (the number keeps growing enough to merit a global census taking), they’ve become more than performers, they’re creators of their music, and just as important, humans thriving before your very eyes, trying to live each day as it comes in this pandemic.
The happy pill at work—a friend’s message in IG: ‘I was inside the MRI and asked for BTS songs (to the delight of the St. Luke’s staff)’
Not only were these guys, whose ages range from 29 to 24 (Korean age), born to the digital age, they have also shown how to harness the digital platform for the better good—if by good you mean making you feel and think good about yourself and even about this crummy environment. In a world used to a music and entertainment industry spiked by bad-boy personas, sex and drugs, don’t be surprised if people see
BTS as a breath of fresh air—the non-celebrity celebrities who shatter the stereotype—such welcome news of the day. The happy pill at work—a friend’s message in IG: “I was inside the MRI and asked for BTS songs (to the delight of the St. Luke’s staff) and just imagined traipsing down art galleries outside Seoul, Paris or Madrid…”
Their variety and reality shows, apart from their concerts, are raw and candid enough to lay bare their personalities, their high and low moments, their thrills and quirks, and to make you laugh at the end of a hard day, make you escape the here and now.
And beyond the laughter are the old-fashioned values you pick up from their no-filter actions and chats—values such as respect of hierarchy and the elderly (even if V sometimes tries not to follow instructions—with hilarious results), strong work ethic at a young age (hard work that’s matched by an insatiable appetite—they’re always getting hungry and their chats almost always wind down to food, and they can cook), love of family (filial piety is like a vaccine you’d want for your kids), pursuit of perfectionism (they’re never satisfied, it seems, with their performances), team spirit (even as they compete and try to outsmart each other, they affirm each other’s worth in the group), gratitude and humility (after the Grammy’s, a visibly dejected Jimin even tried to console the millions watching their VLive: “We started from nothing and came this far….”), and their love of country.
That’s their off-stage persona.
Onstage, the BTS music and performance are so assiduously documented even by fans, leaving us only one thing to add— a reminder that their art, like the rest of K-Pop genre, wasn’t born overnight. Thanks to the worldwide K-Pop wave of recent decades, by now consumers and spectators know the rigor of the training and of the institution that is K-Pop, including its cut-throat competition. The previous K-Pop generations (e.g. Rain, Psy, Girls Generation, Highlight) have paved the way for BTS. And given the dynamic K-Pop ecosystem, BTS didn’t stop evolving, just like the rest of the industry; they didn’t sit idle on their growing popularity. BTS grew their music beyond the conventional K-Pop and mined other genres (from traditional Korean music, African beats to EDM). Their music videos and concert productions, like the rest of K-Pop, are comparable, if not better, than those of the West. It is human artistry being given the full play of technology.
If West-centric institutions are in denial of this, it is their loss
So—if West-centric institutions are in denial of this, it is their loss. Audiences, markets, creative innovations are growing by leaps and bounds across the pond. It doesn’t hurt that this side of the pond has very young spending markets.
Noting the charts BTS broke, Forbes’ Bryan Rolli was spot-on writing last March 15: “And they released a lot of top-tier work in 2020: two No. 1 albums, Map of the Soul:7 and BE, and their accompanying singles, including the haunting emo-trap opus Black Swan, the multi-layered arena-rap anthem ON and the uplifting pandemic ballad Life Goes On. BTS’ staggering 2020 output saw the group at the peak of their creative powers and commercial dominance, and they would have made legitimate contenders for any of the major Grammy categories, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year or Best Pop Vocal Album. Instead, the Recording Academy nominated BTS’ least adventurous song in a relatively minor category, as if to say to their fans, ‘Fine, we’ve heard your complaints and we’ll give you what you want, now will you please shut up about BTS?’”
If the ‘60s saw the British Youthquake, this new millennium is seeing yet another shift, tectonic or not. Today’s ecosystem for pop culture isn’t only vibrant, it is also democratic, if not liberating. And the audience or the market is just as free. Thanks to the internet, people can express their Likes and Dislikes, and click Shares freely and in a blink—without needing validation from mainstream or traditional institutions, be it media or in this case, an award-giving body that people hadn’t talked about much for some time until BTS came along this year.
We live in an era when the vote or award from institutions is no longer the only yardstick that matters. Through sheer number, people who inhabit cyberspace can pass a swift verdict on any creative work. It should be interesting, in the years to come, how award-giving bodies like the Oscars or the Grammys measure up against the number of likes, dislikes and views of streaming apps—how they keep or lose their clout or prestige vis-à-vis these apps.
In the meantime, life goes on better with BTS (Grammy or no Grammy).