In mid-April, BTS became the first South Korean musical guest to perform on “Saturday Night Live,” with its single “Boy With Luv” from its latest EP, “Map of the Soul: Persona.” The release topped the Billboard 200 chart in its opening week, marking the group’s third No. 1 after August’s “Love Yourself: Answer” and last May’s “Love Yourself: Tear.” Billboard reported that the last traditional group to land three No. 1 albums in under a year was the Beatles, who did so with the “Anthology” series in the mid-’90s. (The “Glee” cast did it with three soundtracks in a two-month period, but the cast members rotated.)
BTS performed “Boy With Luv” alongside featured artist Halsey on Wednesday night at the Billboard Music Awards, where a star-studded lineup also included Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Madonna and Mariah Carey. For those itching to know more about the K-pop sensation, here’s a brief guide to all things BTS.
BTS is made up of seven polished 20-somethings: rappers RM, J-Hope and Suga, as well as vocalists Jimin, Jin, Jungkook and V. They released their debut album “2 Cool 4 Skool” in 2013, but their journey began earlier: In 2010, BTS leader RM met with Bang Si-hyuk, the founder and CEO of the Seoul-based Big Hit Entertainment, who saw potential in his rapping. (The others came on board afterward.)
As with American boy bands, K-pop groups often have close creative ties to their production companies — generally, JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment or YG Entertainment. But Big Hit Entertainment, back then a much smaller company, has given BTS quite a bit of freedom. From "2 Cool 4 Skool” onward, BTS has explored new territory with lyrics that speak to the afflictions of younger generations. The album’s lead single, “No More Dream,” for instance, explored how societal expectations affect Korean youths.
“We started to tell the stories that other people wanted to hear and were ready to hear, stories that other people could not or would not tell,” Suga told Time magazine last year. “We said what other people were feeling — like pain, anxiety and worries.” (Time also noted that Suga once released a mix tape addressing his depression, while RM rapped about the importance of activism on a track with Wale.)
It stands for the Korean expression Bangtan Sonyeondan, which literally translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” (another nod to the group’s social awareness and efforts to combat oppressive expectations facing today’s youths). BTS is also referred to as the Bangtan Boys.
In 2017, BTS added a new English meaning to their name: Beyond the Scene.
ARMY stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth, an acronym BTS’s loyal fans use to describe themselves. Many ARMY members are young women, which SNL spoofed last month in a teaser video ahead of the group’s appearance on the show. In it, episode host Emma Stone, a K-pop fan in real life, joins a handful of female cast members in dressing like teenage girls at a sleepover. They fawn over the band together until Beck Bennett walks up and asks what’s going on. Stone yells, “Ew, Beck! What are you doing here? Get out! No boys allowed.”
The teaser attracted backlash on social media from ARMY, whose members noted that, however well intentioned, the video didn’t accurately portray the more diverse BTS fan base.
“ARMY is diverse, in age, gender identity, race, and geography,” reads a Refinery29 post about the backlash. “This comes from having a global fandom and music with universal themes that appeals to a wide range of people, including many who may not even speak the language."
Sweeping as that sounds, it’s almost an understatement — Forbes reported in March that BTS sold out its shows in North America and Europe for the “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” stadium tour.
Why is BTS just now becoming a household name in the United States?
The accuracy of this premise depends on your household, of course. But if we did try to pinpoint the first major sign of BTS becoming a phenomenon in this country, it probably would fall sometime in 2017, the year BTS beat Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes for the top social artist title at the Billboard Music Awards. (Bieber had been the reigning top social artist for six years.) BTS won again in 2018, the year Time magazine deemed them “Next Generation Leaders” and a year before the magazine would include them on the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.
Social media plays a major role in BTS picking up steam over the years, as the band — which also holds the Guinness world record for the most Twitter engagements, besting former One Directioner Harry Styles — presents a keen understanding of how to meaningfully connect with audiences beyond lyrics. They post video diaries and interact with fans on Twitter. ARMY members even translate BTS’s Korean-language television appearances for fans in other parts of the world to enjoy.
BTS’s inspiring messaging has risen to the literal world’s stage, too. In September, the band swung by the United Nations’ “Youth 2030” event in New York to launch Generation Unlimited, a UNICEF initiative that aims to “ensure that every young person is in education, learning, training or employment by 2030.” RM, the only BTS member fluent in English, spoke about the “sanctuary” music provides him.
What makes BTS’s music unique?
BTS’s music is undeniably pop, but it’s also a lot of other things: R&B, EDM, rap and even rock. (Genre lines continue to blur.) This variety matches that of the subject matter. As New York magazine’s Craig Jenkins wrote of BTS’s latest EP, “Rappers RM, Suga, and J-Hope, alongside vocalists Jungkook, Jimin, Jin, and V, are giving voice to the peaks and valleys of being young, smart, and self-aware. They can handle textbook boy-band material, as they did last year on the breakup tunes ‘Fake Love’ and ‘Tear,’ or they can get dark and existential, as they have on songs like 'Stigma’ and ‘Blood, Sweat, and Tears.’ "