The unlikely, meteoric rise of BTS, the biggest name in K-pop right now

No horsing around.
No horsing around.
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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K-pop hit another milestone yesterday (Nov. 19) when boy band BTS performed at the American Music Awards (AMA), becoming the first Korean group to perform at the awards.

At the show in Los Angeles, the seven-member group—the biggest name in K-pop right now—performed its single DNA, which was the highest-charting song by a Korean group in the Billboard Hot 100, surpassing the record set by Korean girl group Wonder Girls in 2009.

BTS made a breakthrough in the US this year when it won Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards in May, becoming the first K-pop group to win a Billboard award. The award reflects BTS’s formidable online fandom—their fans are known as the ARMY, which stands for “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth.” On the AMA red carpet, BTS member J-hope attributed the band’s success to the ARMY. BTS’s Twitter account hit 10 million followers in October.

Chelsea Proctor, managing editor of Seoulbeats, a website dedicated to K-pop, tells Quartz that BTS’s appearance at the AMA is a recognition of the massive international fan base they’ve achieved. “Essentially, Western media is using this K-pop boy band to lure both domestic and international viewers for the AMA, and that’s pretty cool.”

BTS made its debut in 2013, but got its big break in 2016 with the release of its The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series of albums and music videos, which appealed to both Korean and foreign fans, transcending cultural and language barriers with its themes of youth and growing up, explained Proctor. The group also had to work extra hard to achieve its current level of success because it was backed by the smaller label Big Hit Entertainment, compared with Korean entertainment behemoths like YG and SM.

However, the key to BTS’s success is really the way it deliberately used social media as a way to maximize its global reach from the get-go, a method of self-promotion similar to that employed by the likes of Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, wrote K-pop website Allkpop. Their efforts paved the way for their explosion worldwide in 2017, as circumstances thwarted the success of more established groups. For example, the group 2NE1 split, while members of Big Bang and Super Junior had to do their mandatory military service. Big Bang also faced another setback after a drug scandal.

Of course, K-pop artists have made huge splashes in the US before. Psy, for example, performed Gangnam Style at the AMA in 2012 and then at the Grammys in 2013. But K-pop has arguably come a long way since Psy.

“The horsey dance and stuff was all supposed to be funny, so there was a bit of a ‘hey look at this weird guy’ vibe to it,” says T.K. Park, who writes the blog Ask A Korean! “But not with BTS this time. They came out in their own style, this typical K-pop boy band style. So BTS felt bigger because they came out exactly as they are, in a way that defied stereotypes, rather than rolling with it like Psy did.”