Written By Kimberly Hill

In the year 2013, the Kpop that we now know and (may or may not) love didn’t exist. South Korea had just begun to push past the waves of EDM that had nearly engulfed the genre since 2010, and thanks to an expansive and bewildering moment brought into fruition by one of Kpop’s most forceful leaders, SM Entertainment’s Girls’ Generation, the public and its idols were looking to more colorful and unconventional horizons. In short, the Hip Hop, or more appropriately described Pop-Rap that South Korean male heartthrobs are championed for in 2018, was at best niche and at worst outright maligned by fans and critics. Though a sensation with the youth in Korea since the 1990s, Hip Hop and its musical brethren were still widely unrecognizable to the average citizen of South Korea, and in some ways, it still is. Regardless, Korean teenagers and 20-somethings held tightly to the brash, rebellious, and novel narratives amplified by the digital age they were born into that allowed them to find and connect with audible stories that the previous generations weren’t able to find in the first place. Adults of all ages, cultures, and societies naturally expect kids to support and idolize leaders of new and unorthodox movements or art forms and genres with a distinctly adolescent abandon that is unfairly expected to fade with time and maturation, but what we couldn’t have known was that seven of those kids would grow up to be the leaders of their own global movement


     On May 26th, 2013, record label Bighit released a 45-second teaser video featuring a sparse beat, the names of the members, and their upcoming single album “2 Cool 4 Skool”. Less than a month later, on June 12th, BTS or Bangtan Sonyeondan (“Bulletproof Boy Scouts” in English) officially debuted with lead single “No More Dreams”. The track, which showcased breakneck speed raps laced along a defiantly old school production, distinctly called to mind the crews that saturated the airwaves during Hip Hop’s heyday. Their first televised performance took place the next day on Mnet’s “M Countdown” and further highlighted the young band’s burgeoning presence and seemingly firm devotion, not just to the aesthetics or sound of Hip Hop, but its very notion.

Right away, Kpop fans began to take notice of the members‘ clean cut, boyish good looks and appealing personalities.

Namjoon Kim (“RM”), their leader and lead rapper, is their resident intellectual, who loves books and the more technical side of the creative process.

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Seokjin Kim (“Jin”), their elder statesmen and vocalist, is known for his caring, masculine nature and princely appearance.

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Yoongi Min (“Suga”) is their quiet but rugged rapper and producer, who approaches rap with an old-fashioned sensibility.

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Hoseok Jung (“J-Hope”) is part rapper, part showman extraordinaire, combining passionate lyricism with a fierce effervescence that guides and centers Bangtan’s live shows.

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Jimin Park is the group’s emerging sex symbol, whose mysterious aura is accentuated by light, inviting vocals.

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Taehyung Kim (“V”) is Bangtan’s colorful and eclectic fashionista, who hails from the countryside and often injects a lively and peculiar sense of humor into the glamorous world of Kpop idolatry.

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Jungkook Jeon is Bangtan’s youngest or “maknae” and lead singer, whose sensitive and wide-eyed disposition is widely regarded to be the very heart and soul of BTS.

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  Though “No More Dream” failed to chart above #124 on South Korea’s Gaon Chart, “2 Cool 4 Skool” sold well in excess of 130k copies, securing a guaranteed comeback. Over the next year and a half, Bangtan would promote a series of singles, each experiencing varying levels of success. By January of 2015, Bighit’s premier boyband had a full-length album (“Dark & Wild”), several Eps, and even reissues of said EPs under their belts but were still in search of their proverbial “breakout”. Unbeknownst to them, April would bring them the good fortune they were looking for. On April 29th, 2015, Bangtan unveiled the melancholy pop hit “I Need U” to a hungry public and fanbase (recently dubbed the “ARMY”), ultimately catapulting the song to #5 on Gaon. The attached EP entitled “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 1” offered a more careful glimpse into the inner world of Bangtan, revealing unnervingly tender and often despondent utterances and viewpoints versus the more boisterous and rowdy identity they had proudly claimed before. It also displayed a dramatically new and glossier image and sound for the septet, bringing in a bevy of fresh eyes and fans.


     The crossover from brusque, down-to-earth urban arrangements to immaculate Top 40 radio-ready pieces gave Bangtan the push into the Kpop stratosphere that Bighit needed. Quickly after “I Need U” and its follow-up “Dope” hit airwaves, Bangtan’s popularity skyrocketed. That summer, Bangtan launched their first headlining US Tour “BTS Live Trilogy Episode II: The Red Bullet“, which visited New York, California, Texas, Illinois, and Mexico in late July. Bangtan returned to the charts with the lovelorn “Run” from “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part II” in November of 2015.


     Fast forward to 2017 and the Bangtan brand was bigger than ever, with dual singles “Spring Day” and “Not Today” from the album reissue “You Never Walk Alone” having earned them a #1 and #6 position on the Gaon chart, respectively, and over 440 million views on YouTube combined. The explosive response from ARMY around the globe didn’t go unnoticed. On April 10th, 2017, Billboard announced that Bangtan had been nominated for the 2017 Billboard Music Awards’ Top Social Artist category against A-List celebrities, like Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, due to their massive footprint on the social media landscape. They took home the award on May 22nd in front of millions on ABC and set off a firestorm that paved the way for the even more incredible feats that were yet to come.


      By September of 2017, Bangtan mania had reached fever pitch. Publications from the New York Times to Vogue and CNN had caught wind of the band’s power on the web. Capitalizing on the momentum, Bangtan dropped perhaps their most well-known venture to date “DNA” from the mini-album “Love Yourself: Her” on September 18th to rave reviews. “DNA” went on to debut at #85 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and scored 21 million views in 24 hours, both accomplishments making Kpop history.  Bangtan’s long-awaited second chapter of the “Love Yourself” trilogy came on May 18th, 2018 and continued to break records left and right. Lead track “Fake Love” debuted at #10 on the Hot 100 and drove its matching mini-album “Love Yourself: Tear” to #1 on the Top 200 albums chart, with over 100k sales opening week.


     The Kpop terrain that the members of Bangtan debuted into in 2013 was, without a doubt, a different place. A place where both Hip Hop and its sub-genres becoming a viable commercial commodity and the idea of an idol group connecting with the masses both in the West and their own backyards was nearly unfathomable to the industry and its customers. 2018 and the triumph of Bighit and its boyband show that, with the right people and a clever framework (and a rather thorough polishing), certain barriers can always be broken through.


     Bangtan’s upward trajectory remains unfettered. “IDOL” from “Love Yourself: Answer”, their latest declaration (whose remix includes a fiery verse from Trinidadian megastar Nicki Minaj), seeks to blur long-held lines and beliefs for idol and idol-buff alike. In 3 minutes and 42 seconds exactly, Bangtan addresses and deconstructs critics, love from supporters, their own perceptions of the world, entertainment, industry politics, what it means to carve out your own identity and if that’s fully possible, given the hyper-specific rules and regulations in South Korean pop culture.


     Wherever the popularity and influence of Bangtan take them and perhaps the entire genre of Korean Pop and whatever that may mean for its future, two things are unquestionable: Kpop’s journey to intercontinental dominance has just begun (if all goes according to plan), and its sovereigns, Bangtan, are certifiably bulletproof. 

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