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The Birth of Cool
You might not have heard of them — yet — but Billboard has. BTS has had two songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100 singles list, are the highest-charting Asian artist ever on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and ruled Billboard's Social 50 chart for all but seven weeks in 2017 — and all of 2018 ... so far. They've also already graced Billboard magazine's cover (actually, seven of them — one cover for each of BTS's seven members). In June 2018, they became the first ever group who doesn't record primarily in English to hit No. 1 on the Artists 100 as the top-selling artist in the U.S. What's more, they have a devoted legion of fans who earned them the Top Social Artist award at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017 and 2018, besting the likes of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Shawn Mendes.
And while Billboard statistics are all fine and good, they don't tell anywhere near the full story of BTS. Already breaking the mold in the hugely successful genre of K-pop, BTS is a crossover success in the States. Why? Their unique brand of socially conscious pop/hip-hop music, slick choreography, and unprecedented fan engagement has set them apart from the rest of their contemporaries. Their self-dubbed "ARMY" of fans is a force to be reckoned with.
Formed in 2013, BTS (aka the Bangtan Boys, Bangtan Sonyeondan, the Bullet-proof Boy Scouts, and the more recent moniker Beyond the Scene) is a seven-man band consisting of rappers RM, Suga, and J-Hope and vocalists Jin, V, Jimin, and Jungkook. Together, the multitalented Bangtan Boys have seamlessly blended their talents to create a unique K-pop group. Focusing on issues beyond the typical dance-pop offerings, BTS struck a chord with fans.
Let's get one thing straight first: BTS is no fly-by-night operation. They are nothing less than international superstars. Since making their debut in 2013 they've been absolutely killing it in their native South Korea — they're the best-selling musical group in the country and have won Korea's top artist prize for the last two years running. (They've also hit No. 1 in 72 other countries, thank you very much.)
They're the face of several brands, including Puma, Gonsen (cosmetics), and LG Electronics. They're also representing another well-known brand — Coca-Cola, anyone? — at the 2018 World Cup, perhaps the world's biggest advertising stage. With Love Yourself: Tear reaching even greater heights, BTS is poised to take America by storm.
But first, a little history. To the outside observer, K-pop looks like a sugarcoated confection, a frenetic collection of beats, catchy hooks, super-sharp dancing, and kaleidoscopic visuals performed by impossibly attractive singers and entertainers. But to dismiss it as a cotton-candy version of pop music would be way off the mark. Not only is K-pop wide-ranging in its musical styles and onstage product, it's serious business. Big business.
In fact, it is nearly impossible to overestimate the power of K-pop. The multibillion-dollar industry (that's right, billion with a B) is one of South Korea's biggest exports, and a huge contributor to the country's bottom line. Those eye-popping numbers are pretty impressive for a country with a population of only 51 million. (Compare that to the U.S.'s 326 million.) In fact, South Korea "is the world's eighth-largest market for recorded music by revenue, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry," Bloomberg reports. What's more, that's bigger than India (whose own entertainment industry is well-known worldwide) and even China. (And for those of you doing the math, India and China are the two most populous countries in the world, with more than 1.3 billion citizens apiece.)
So how did Korean culture become so pervasive? Let's rewind to the mid-20 century. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the country's ruler, dictator Park Chung-hee, enforced strict cultural conservatism. (This included such "standards" as enforcing short haircuts on men and modest hemlines on women's clothing.) Additionally, the government controlled the media, so all radio and television programming was under its purview. The end result in music was an especially bland mixture of inoffensive, by-the-numbers pop music alongside traditional Korean music, known as trot (short for foxtrot).
When South Korea became a democracy in 1987, things started to relax a little bit. One of the most popular television formats in South Korea at that time (and today), is the musical competition show. Forebears to Western programs such as American Idol and The X Factor, Korea's weekly music shows — such as Inkigayo and Music Bank — were nothing less than appointment television. (And in a country where 99 percent of homes had a TV, that's saying something.) Audiences were (and remain) hugely invested in the outcomes.
Enter Seo Taiji and the Boys. On April 11, 1992, the trio performed on the MBC network's weekly talent show. Their song, "Nan Arayo" ("I Know") contained lots of elements that would have been familiar to Americans at that time but were wholly unfamiliar to local audiences. It was seemingly influenced by the new jack swing style popularized by groups Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown, among others, in the early 1990s. The unusual performance rocked the panel — but not in a good way. Seo Taiji and the Boys received the lowest possible rating from the judges. The band didn't win the competition, or even the day, but they did something far more lasting. They lit the spark that ignited the K-pop explosion. Their performance had a ripple effect on musicians who began to expand their sound beyond the predictable, staid formula popular in South Korea at the time. Unequivocally, this 1992 performance is considered to be the official beginning of K-pop as we know it today.
When the Asian financial crisis swept across the continent in 1997, South Korea appeared to be on the brink of bankruptcy. Then-president Kim Dae-jung made a bold move, investing heavily in South Korea's entertainment industry as a means of saving the country from collapse. The gambit worked.
Korean music became popular in China as soon as it hit the airwaves there. And when Korean shows landed on Japanese television screens, viewers couldn't get enough. International audiences' obsession with Korean entertainers had an enormous ripple effect, and the craze for all things Korean became all-encompassing.
They call it hallyu — the Korean wave — and it describes the influence of Korean culture on consumers. It encompasses not just music but television and movies, business, fashion, beauty, and even cuisine. (It sounds outlandish, but it's not inaccurate to say that the international rise in popularity of K-pop and Korean television (K-drama) has created opportunities for people around the world to buy Samsung phones and get kimchi at their local grocery stores.) The term was initially coined by Chinese journalists looking to describe the immense effect Korean culture was having on Chinese pop culture. The word was subsequently adopted by the South Korean government as a badge of honor and a tool for promoting both industry and tourism.
Today, the wave of hallyu is stronger than ever. But despite K-pop's giant popularity in Japan, China, and places as far-flung as Brazil, Australia, and Mexico, the music has still not seen a major breakthrough in the U.S. (Except for outlier Psy, whose 2012 smash "Gangnam Style" was a record-breaking commercial success but is now relegated to a footnote at best, a novelty song at worst.)
If any act seems poised to finally crack the U.S. market, it is BTS. Their fan base is young, energetic, and millions strong. What's more, the band has serious musical street cred and has already collaborated with hugely successful U.S. artists, from the Chainsmokers and Fall Out Boy to Steve Aoki and hip-hop OG Warren G. Though they have yet to release an all-English-language album, it was reported in November 2017 that BTS had signed with a subsidiary label of Sony Music, which will promote them in the States, a huge signal that a U.S. push is in the works.
Get ready, ARMY: the Korean invasion is coming to America, and BTS is leading the charge.
By the Numbers
According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, K-pop revenues in 2016, including marketing and licensing, earned more than $4.7 billion in total revenues. That's a pretty penny!
Great Moments in Hallyu
In just a short span of time, South Korea has become the entertainment capital of Asia. Here's a look back at how they got there.
1986: Censorship laws are repealed, allowing for greater artistic freedom across the entire entertainment industry.
1988: Foreign travel ban is lifted by the South Korean government, allowing tourism to flourish.
1999: Korea-set spy thriller Swiri is released.
2000: Autumn in My Heart is released.
2002: Winter Sonata premieres in Japan; a nation is riveted.
2012: Psy's "Gangnam Style" becomes the first video to eclipse 1 billion views on YouTube.
2012: The K-pop festival KCON begins, staging a first show in Irvine, California. That first concert draws 20,000 fans.
2012: Samsung becomes the best-selling mobile phone maker in the world.
2016: The Korean smash hit My Love from Another Star premieres in China after censors finally relax their restrictions on the K-drama.
2017: KCON plays to 85,000 at L.A.'s Staples Center, and more than 40,000 outside New York City — and those are just the U.S. shows!
2018: The world's attention turns to South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Many K-pop acts and other entertainers are featured throughout the festivities.
Coming Soon: Hooray for Hallyu-wood! The theme park will soon open to K-fanatics worldwide.
bang song (broadcast)
Meaning broadcast, it refers to the weekly music shows that are hugely influential in shaping the Korean musical landscape.
Q: What's considered the epicenter of hallyu culture?
A: That's right, it's the Gangnam district of Seoul, as Psy made popular in his 2012 song "Gangnam Style."CHAPTER 2
The K-Pop Machine
Seo Taiji and the Boys might not have received immediate acclaim for their innovation, but no one could say they didn't get attention. Their performance was something completely and utterly new, and it polarized audiences, who had never before seen a mash-up of Korean and American music. They were sharply criticized by some who objected to their use of hip-hop beats and rhythms (now the stock in trade of K-pop). They also committed such unforgivable sins as sporting dreadlocked hair and wearing bleached and ripped jeans.
Despite such trespasses, the song "Nan Arayo" ultimately became a huge hit at home — it reigned for 17 weeks as the No. 1 song in the country — and Seo Taiji and the Boys established themselves as a massive idol group. They rode a tidal wave of success in the following four years, all the while experimenting with a wide range of musical styles, from hip-hop and rap styles popular over the American airwaves at that time to the softer, sweeter R&B balladeering of U.S. artists such as K-Ci & JoJo and Babyface.
The reason why they are considered the first K-pop band is that they literally blew up the system. In general, fans don't really consider K-pop to be a genre of music because there's no one identifiable sound. Korean groups are extremely open to experimentation and changing their sound, mashing up different influences. It's all about the full experience: the music, the live performance, the videos, the variety/competition shows, and the physical packaging of the musical product. Before Seo Taiji and the Boys, music was ostensibly minted by the broadcasting companies who promoted their own on-air products. But this group wrote, produced, and choreographed everything on their own. And because of their success, they upended the status quo. A new studio production company system was born.
When the band broke up in 1996, one of the "Boys"— Yang Hyun-suk — joined the fray, founding YG Entertainment. (The YG comes from his nickname, Yang-gun.) The YG agency is one of the so-called "Big Three" entertainment companies in Korea. Along with JYP Entertainment and SM Entertainment (which were also founded by former musicians), they dominate the musical landscape in Korea. Together, they produce the lion's share of K-pop music, and their reach is enormous.
Ask any K-pop fan, and they could tell you about each label's hallmarks. Listeners are loyal to their chosen label, much as sports fans stay true to their team's colors. Since its inception in 1995, SM has been the leader of the pack. Home to hundreds of artists, it's known for its performance-oriented focus (big visuals, sharp choreography, and catchy, danceable tunes are its focus). JYP is known for its polished trainee program and diverse class of recruits, turning out some of the most well-rounded musicians of the bunch. YG, like its founder, produces artists who tend to push musical barriers and who possess an edgier look than their competitors.
Rather than focusing on grooming a select number of artists for long-term success, these companies churn out a multitude of acts, a seemingly revolving door for bands. The metrics for success are simply different in the K-pop system, where a band's shelf life may only be two years. This span is dictated by a couple things: First, the emphasis on youth. Since image is an essential component of the K-pop look, many artists age out of the system quickly. And for boy groups, things are also complicated by age. All male citizens in South Korea must serve two years in the military, entering a draft at age 18.
Performers start early, auditioning as young as 9 or 10 years old. Foreign language fluency is prized in trainees, and native English speakers are a sought-after commodity. Once individuals are recruited by an agency and signed to long-term contracts, their formal training begins. Children are schooled during the day — a curriculum that includes a heavy dose of foreign language training, particularly Chinese, Japanese, and English. Then, once the school day is over, students start their music training — singing, dancing, and even media training. This is not for the faint of heart; a typical day begins early in the morning and stretches until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., before students return to their dormitories to complete their day's homework.
The performers will spend years as trainees before they are finally brought to market, only premiering once they have mastered their performances down to every hand gesture and eye wink. No detail is overlooked. But the breakneck pace doesn't let up any after their debut. Groups tour extensively, promote exhaustively, and are often tabbed for endorsement deals that require appearances and other promotional efforts. As Tiffany Chan writes on Medium.com, "These South Korean stars represent much more than their latest album ... they uphold the image of an ideal in South Korean society, perfectly in-sync choreography, strong vocal talent, and exceptionally attractive visuals."
The companies also take charge of creating and distributing fan chants, which are another essential part of the live shows. Fans will have what amounts to a script. Instead of vocal backing tracks, live performances are enhanced by precisely crafted audience chants. Most songs have them, and it makes regular callbacks look like child's play. (Case in point: the stuff of BTS's fan chants are disseminated, discussed, and practiced exhaustively by ARMYs.)
Then there's the music. Groups are expected to release songs early and often. In contrast to the American record industry, groups announce their releases a few weeks in advance, drop the EP or album, then start the process all over again. Typically, a K-pop group will release music throughout the calendar year.
And that music is almost always accompanied by a music video, an integral part of the K-pop formula. These videos are invariably lavishly produced affairs that feature the requisite come-hither stares from idol group members but also showcase the groups' onstage prowess. The past two decades gave rise to countless idol groups, to whom BTS owes tribute.
The global shift in the music industry in the Information age has been a huge part of K-pop's modern-day success story, which is fueled in large part by the Internet. No artist saw greater proof of that than Psy, whose humorous video for "Gangnam Style" set seemingly unsurpassable records on the streaming site, reaching 1 billion views in record time to become the most-watched video by a huge margin. Six years later, with YouTube the undisputed platform for accessing music videos, it's still the fourth-most-watched video of all time.
Given the establishment in the K-pop industry, BTS's success has been shocking — they have long been considered an underdog group since they were recruited under the Big Hit Entertainment umbrella as opposed to by one of the Big Three. Undoubtedly, the Internet has played a central role in their ascent. Their online popularity is unprecedented, and that has everything to do with their fan base. As Dazed magazine put it, "They may still be regarded as an overnight phenomenon by an American media ... but even the tiniest peek behind the glittery curtain shows how ferociously BTS have dedicated themselves to nurturing a long-term symbiotic relationship between the group and their fandom."
Their wide-ranging talents, along with the fervency of their ARMY, have taken them to the top of the heap both in South Korea and abroad. And they show no signs of stopping.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "BTS: K-Pop's International Superstars"
Copyright © 2018 Katy Sprinkel.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Birth of Cool,
2. The K-Pop Machine,
3. An ARMY Rises,
4. Meet The Bangtan Boys,
5. Sick Beats and Deep Thoughts,
6. The ARMY Wants You — Basic Training,