The Rise of BTS and K-Pop in Western Media

The sun was beating down hard on the red carpet when sisters Kimberly and Taylor McGuire arrived at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to take their places as seat fillers at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards. After buying last-minute plane tickets the day before, the 19 and 23-year-old sisters scrambled onto a line of around 200 people trying to get into one of the biggest music awards ceremonies in America. The McGuire sisters did not care much for other celebrities – they were there to see their favorite group, BTS.

“We got to the end of the line, and they tell us they can’t put us anywhere, because we have bags,” chimes Taylor. After stripping off her heels and running into the MGM Grand hotel, Taylor begged for the woman at the front desk to keep their bags for the day. “I’m standing there, crying in front of MGM. All the celebs are walking past me – I had a mental breakdown,” Kimberly adds.

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BTS fans Taylor and Kimberly McGuire

BTS is the hot K-Pop boy group that announced it would be attending the Billboard Music Awards for a second time in 2018. Once the McGuire sisters found out, their minds were set on attending right along with them – even if it meant flying nearly 3,000 miles to get there.

Once inside, it was evident that the McGuire sisters were not the only members of the BTS ARMY to attend the BBMAs. According to BuzzAngle’s 2018 Year-End Report on U.S. music industry consumption, 2018 was the year of BTS. Both of BTS’ albums released in 2018 – Love Yourself: Tear and Love Yourself: Answer, hit the top of the Billboard 200. On the Top Artist By Album Sales chart, BTS’ 603,307 cumulative album sales in the U.S. were second to Eminem.

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BTS Presenting “Best R&B Album” at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

BTS have been the leaders of the Korean invasion, otherwise known as the Hallyu, since the release of their 2016 album Wings, which peaked at #26 on the Billboard hot 100. Since then, BTS and other K-Pop groups such as boy groups NCT 127 and EXO, along with girl groups BLACKPINK and Red Velvet have made their way onto the Western hemisphere’s premier music chart. “K-Pop is making a difference. It’s breaking boundaries by letting more Asians into the Western music scene” says Korean-American student Juliana Kim.

 

BTS, however, has proved to be the most successful worldwide. As of March 2019, the boy group sold out their first ever worldwide stadium tour, which hit famous venues like New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, California’s Rose Bowl, and London’s Wembley Stadium. The group sold out their initial dates so fast that each city was given a second show.

The defining factor in BTS’ success? To their fans, otherwise known as ARMY (an acronym for “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth”), it’s the music. BTS is one of very few K-Pop groups that write and produce many of their own songs. The group consists of seven members – four singers and three rappers. Each member is influenced by different genres of music, but as BTS they come together to produce music anywhere from R&B and Hip-Hop to EDM. Nearly every member of the group has released some type of solo project – with each member of BTS’s rap line releasing a mixtape, and two of four vocalists releasing solo songs on SoundCloud. BTS is also the first K-Pop group to feature solo songs on an album – in fact, their first attempt at this was with Wings in 2016, their first album on the Billboard Hot 100.

“This is pretty singular to BTS… The Korean music industry runs like a giant machine. Most artists don’t really like their songs, but they’re made for them so that’s what they sing,” Says Kim.  In the Korean music industry, there are three music labels known for producing some of K-Pop’s most successful artists; SM, JYP, and YG entertainment – commonly known as the Big Three. BTS, on the other hand, is from a small label called BigHit Entertainment. BTS was the company’s first boy group when it debuted in 2013.

While BTS is the best-known group, K-Pop groups have been popular in America since the early 2000s, when solo artist Rain held his first-ever sold-out show at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Since then, hundreds of K-Pop artists have performed in the U.S. on tour or at Korean music festivals like K-CON, which has been held annually in New York and Los Angeles since 2012. K-CON lasts two days and nearly always sells out. Festival activities include performances from up to 20 artists as well as a Korean culture convention, where vendors sell street food and K-Pop merchandise.

Despite K-Pop and BTS’ growing popularity, however, there is a date growing ever-closer that ARMYs and K-Pop fans dread.

“Enlistment is probably the worst time for any K-Pop fan, and pretty much when a boy group’s popularity begins to decline.”

In accordance with South Korean law, all men are required to enlist in the military at some point between the ages of 18 and 28, as long as they pass physical and mental eligibility tests. In boy groups with nearly 20 members, this can bench important members of a group for what to many fans seems like forever. And with BTS’ eldest member Jin turning 27 at the end of this year, enlistment is bound to happen soon.

“With BigBang and Super Junior, these groups were the biggest stars in all of Korea – they probably could have gotten to BTS’ level had they not needed to enlist. Fans grow up and get jobs and families while their favorite groups are on hiatus.”

Despite this, ARMYs are hopeful that BTS will come back from enlistment more popular than ever. Its members have already signed an eight-year extension on their contracts with BigHit Entertainment, so the group is bound to remain together until all seven members are discharged from the military.

But a contract isn’t everything. In the case of big Western boy groups like One Direction, its extended hiatus was announced in 2015, leaving fans expecting the quartet to return to the stage in 2017. It did not.

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British-Irish boyband One Direction

“Groups fade out every five or six years. It’s inevitable,” says Taylor, who ran a One Direction update account for nearly six years. “[BTS] is different because One Direction didn’t make their own stuff… The only reason why everyone else faded out was because they felt boxed inside their own career. [BTS] already figured out how to be a group without being trapped.”

Hunter College Music Professor Mark Spicer believes that BTS’ ability to expand its music stylistically will make the group last. “Artists get stale. Groups with staying power tend to be more eclectic.” Spicer draws the example of Taylor Swift, who was able to almost seamlessly transition from country music to pop.

Spicer also believes that the power of the internet will ensure K-Pop and BTS’ future. “Pop music has become more global. As long as there is an audience and Korea is making music, [K-Pop] will stay relevant.”

Another challenge is that fans feel Korean artists are not being popularized in western media because of their music, but rather because their popularity is an anomaly. At both the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards, BTS won awards not for their music, but rather for their popularity. At the Grammy Awards, they were nominated for Best Recording Package, which is for their albums art director instead of the group themselves.

“From what I have observed, being Asian-American – it’s like, ‘We’re inviting the cute Asians! Let’s pretend to nominate them so we can get better ratings,” says Alexa Yang, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology

Yang is not the only person to notice the way Western media has treated K-Pop acts like BTS. “I don’t see reviews saying ‘You should listen to this new K-Pop album.’ The mainstream is not recognizing Korean music to be good or anything. It’s just – this is popular, we need to be relevant,” says Kim.

Regardless of what lies in BTS’ future, the McGuire sisters still have a packed BTS-related travel itinerary for the month of May. They plan on attending the Billboard Awards again in Las Vegas, then flying out to Los Angeles and Chicago for four concerts before returning to New York for BTS’ Metlife Stadium shows.

“At the end of the day, I love them. If I had the money, we’d be going to Wembley,” says Kimberly.

 

 

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