With words he could have been singing to the fans who’ve made his K-pop group a worldwide sensation, Kim Nam-joon spoke on a very different kind of stage, to a different kind of audience.
“I’m starting to love myself gradually just little by little,” the BTS frontman also known as RM, said at the UN this week.
RM spoke yesterday (Sept. 24) in New York on behalf of the seven-member group at the launch of “Generation Unlimited,” a global initiative that focuses on youth education and empowerment. BTS is the first K-pop group in history to speak during the UN General Assembly, and their words were laced with the encouraging theme of self-love that have come to characterize their work. Still, “love yourself” wasn’t the only message BTS sent.
Speaking at UNGA helps cement the extent of BTS’ reach and was a show of South Korea’s increasing application of soft power through K-pop. It was another breakthrough for a group that has met with meteoric success overseas, especially in the US. BTS was the first K-pop group to take home a Billboard Music Award in 2017, the first to perform at the awards-show eremony in 2018, and the first Korean act to have a number-one album on the Billboard 200 chart. Next month, it will be the first to play a US stadium.
“What is your name? What excites you and makes your heart beat? Tell me your story,” RM asked at the UN. Expressions of this type of curiosity and emotional investment are exactly what has gained BTS such engaged fans—and an average of more than 250,000 retweets every time it posts.
“In the West, where we crave this authenticity from our musicians, BTS really is the epitome of that,” Jeff Benjamin, the K-pop columnist for Billboard, told Quartz. (BTS fans have come under fire for gaming Spotify to boost the group on the charts, in itself is a sign of intense loyalty.)
There is, however, a darker side: As unrelenting as BTS are in promoting self-love, they operate within an industry that scrutinizes appearances and performance to harmful degrees. Each member of BTS is aesthetically immaculate in a country where undergoing plastic surgery to resemble pop idols is not uncommon. The process to become a performer is grueling, and at its most extreme side involves “star factories” that start with clients as young as six. Last year, Kim Jong-hyun from the group SHINee left behind a suicide note that captured just how debilitating the pressures can be.
That context makes the UN message from BTS all the more poignant. “I have many faults, and I have many more fears, but I’m gonna embrace myself as hard as I can,” RM said to a room of international representatives—with the conviction of an idol who knows how to get people to listen.