Behind the World’s Most Popular Band: The Rise of BTS in the Modern Age

Behind the World’s Most Popular Band: The Rise of BTS in the Modern Age

By Karen Wang

In 2013, BTS released a song titled “진격의 방탄,” roughly translated as “Attack on Bangtan” or “Rise of Bangtan.” In its lyrics, the song promised domination of the music industry and the world at large, with phrases such as “Who are we? The rising BTS” and “We will swallow you without fear.” 

But even with such lyrics, the rise of BTS to the top of the global entertainment industry is incredible and unprecedented. Often likened to the Beatles, Western audiences have struggled to comprehend and explain the profound success BTS has found on the world stage.

However, the fanbase of the band — named the ARMY — have been more hesitant to make such comparisons to Western bands such as the Beatles or One Direction. And they’re not wrong; BTS’s public image as a band contradicts virtually every stereotype held about popular boy bands and musical groups.

Following the release of their first EP “2 Cool 4 Skool” in 2013, the band has steadily built a massive audience, both in their home country of South Korea and around the world. They hold a host of world records under their belt, from “Most Viewed YouTube Video in 24 Hours” to “Most Twitter Engagements Overall” to “Highest Ranking Asian Artist to Debut in the Billboard 200 Top Ten.” They are also the first Asian band to make appearances at several major Western award shows, such as the Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards, and the Grammy’s.

So just how did BTS become so successful? There were three key ingredients: their music and messaging, their passionate fanbase, and their effective use of social media to globalize their audience and create a fan culture like no other.


The Music and the Message

BTS’s skyrocket to the top didn’t happen overnight, a stark contrast to their viral South Korean contemporary, Psy. Their success was cultivated over the course of several years and the release of several thematic albums.

Before they even began releasing official music as a band, BTS focused on the issues of young people, releasing socially conscious pre-debut singles such as “School of Tears” and “Adult Child.” 

The lyrics of “School of Tears” were centered around South Korea’s high-pressure educational system as well as its culture of bullying and poor mental health in students, while the lyrics of “Adult Child” discuss the anxieties of reaching adulthood and being drafted into compulsory military service, a reality for most South Korean men.

They continued pursuing socially conscious topics in their music, with their debut single “No More Dream” focusing on the pressures most students face of achieving success and having clearly outlined dreams and goals. Their second single, “N.O,” follows a similar message, criticizing the intense pressures placed on students by their parents and teachers and societal materialism with lyrics like “A good house, a good car, will these things bring happiness? …Would your parents be happy?” and “Don’t be captured in the dreams of others.”

Their message resonated with many people in South Korea and beyond, who found solace in a band telling them it was okay to defy the expectations of society and follow their own dreams. In 2014, BTS received a Rookie of the Year award at the Golden Disc Awards, a famous South Korean music award show.

But as their audience matured, BTS’s message and music matured too. Starting with the release of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 1 in 2015, BTS began to broaden their focus on youth issues, diving in deep to discuss mental health and the pressures of being a young adult. 

Following their Most Beautiful Moment in Life album series, BTS began their WINGS album series, releasing their album Wings in 2016 and its reissued version, You Never Walk Alone, in 2017. Their single from You Never Walk Alone, titled “Spring Day,” is the longest-charting song on Melon, South Korea’s equivalent of Spotify, in history, with its lyrics about missing loved ones and soft, dreamy sound earning them nationwide recognition and praise.

In late 2017, BTS released the first part of their Love Yourself album series. The albums, titled Love Yourself: Her, Love Yourself: Tear, and Love Yourself: Answer, follow an East Asian storytelling idiom called “起承轉合,” which roughly translates to “introduction, elucidation, transition, and conclusion.” 

The albums’ storyline follows a what can be perceived as a typical love story; Love Yourself: Her’s single, “DNA,” discusses falling in love, Love Yourself: Tear’s single, “Fake Love,” discusses realizing that a relationship is toxic and unhealthy, and Love Yourself: Answer’s single, “Idol,” acts as an anthem of self-love. 

Love Yourself: Answer, a compilation of tracks from Love Yourself: Her and Love Yourself: Tear with seven additional unique songs, acted as the magnum opus of the whole series, with its tracklist carefully following the storyline crafted by the band. 

With tracks like “Euphoria,” “Trivia 起: Just Dance,” “Serendipity,” and “Trivia 承: Love” highlighting the highs of love and songs like “Singularity” and “Trivia 轉: Seesaw” discussing the effects of a toxic and broken relationship, BTS uses their music to tell a story most of us are familiar with, before subverting expectations with the inclusion of self-love anthems such as “Epiphany” and “Answer: Love Myself,” ultimately demonstrating to their audience that they don’t need a significant other to be happy and that they should love themselves despite their flaws and mistakes.

BTS has also been quick to point out that the storyline of the Love Yourself albums doesn’t necessarily reference a romantic relationship between two people. When asked about the subject matter of the series, member RM answered that it “The love [in the series] could be person to person, it could also be between me and myself.”

This kind of profound messaging is what makes BTS so unique and so powerful. In a world where advertisements prey on the insecurities of common people and where most music focuses on love and relationships between men and women, BTS’s music offers a refreshing contrast. From their emphasis on self-love to their usage of gender-neutral pronouns in their lyrics, BTS has cultivated an audience that thrives on inclusion, authenticity, and introspection.

And it isn’t just their singles that include such messaging. Lesser-known tracks, such as “Am I Wrong,” “Silver Spoon,” and “Go Go,” focus on issues of political polarization, generational conflict, and materialism, respectively. 

Even more incredible is the BTS members’ intense involvement in every step of the creative process, from creating their own album concepts and themes to writing their own lyrics to even producing and arranging their own tracks. Credits for each album always have the members’ names spotted throughout alongside their in-house team and, in recent years, overseas artists they’ve collaborated with.

Additionally, members RM and SUGA hold 130 and 84 songwriting and composition credits each for their work with BTS and other artists, with the latter being one of the youngest full members of the Korea Music Copyright Association. Both of them rank in the top fifteen of K-pop stars with the most copyright credits.

In a landscape where the majority of pop musicians, both in the West and the East, have their songs gifted to them by a professional team of songwriters, producers, and composers, BTS’s level of dedication and involvement in their own sound and work is surprising, to say the least.

Another surprising thing to note is the sheer volume of music they have released. Since their debut just over six years ago, BTS have released six studio albums, four compilation albums, six extended plays, and three single albums, totaling in at over 200 songs. This total does not count any of the members’ solo work, which includes individual mixtapes, collaborations, covers, and singles. 

While in the West, it is customary for an artist to release an album every two to three years, BTS release several albums and singles every year that span across several languages, including Korean, Japanese, and English.

But even more astonishing than their impressive discography is how they demonstrate and spread their brand and their message through their actions. 

In recent years, BTS has become widely known for their charity work and for their activism. Each of the band members are known for giving large donations to charities on their birthdays. In the past, they have gifted rice to the Sewol Ferry Disaster victims as well as given money and supplies to local schools and orphanages.

However, all of their charity work has culminated in their Love Myself campaign, which they began in 2017 in partnership with UNICEF’s #ENDviolence campaign. UNICEF’s #ENDviolence campaign launched in 2013 to prevent violence against children and to create a safer environment for young people. 

BTS has supported and promoted the campaign by donating a portion of all profits from their album and tour sales and by working with UNICEF to release merchandise to raise money and spread awareness of #ENDviolence. As of April 2019, Love Myself campaign donations have topped 2.4 billion Korean won (about 2 million US dollars). Even more impressive, BTS became the first South Korean band invited to speak at the UN General Assembly in September 2018.

BTS’s full-name in Korean roughly translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” a name that sounds cliche until you hear the explanations for why that name was chosen. BTS exists to “protect youth from the ‘bullets’ of social pressure,” and this mission statement is present in all of their messaging and their work.

With such a powerful vision and driving purpose, it isn’t hard to see what makes BTS so appealing and well-loved by their global fanbase.


The Fans

The BTS ARMY has garnered a formidable reputation in recent years, with many journalists and outsiders alike marveling at how omnipresent the fandom is both online and in countries all around the world.

Mobilized across nearly every social media platform with fanbases in nearly every country, ARMY has been described as “hyper-organized” and “incredibly passionate,” with some even going as far to call the fandom “rabid” and “crazy.”

In truth, all ARMY seeks to do is to protect and support BTS the way BTS has protected and supported them through their music and their message. And although it is undeniable that BTS and ARMY share a relationship that is much closer than a typical celebrity-fandom relationship, that close relationship comes from a place of mutual love and understanding.

Deeply inspired by BTS’s own acts of generosity, ARMY has organized and executed thousands of fan projects, whether it be to adopt endangered animals, plant trees, clean up trash, open libraries, or collect donations for BTS’s Love Myself campaign and other non-profit charity organizations. 

BTS has had a profound and positive impact on their ARMY, and in turn, ARMY has made sure to leave a positive impact around the world in BTS’s name.

Often dismissed by Western media as a “hoard of rabid teenage girls,” ARMY is arguably the largest and most diverse fandom in the world, their members spanning across different continents, different languages, different gender identities, different sexual orientations, and different economic backgrounds. Some ARMYs may have nothing in common except their love of BTS, but that shared love is enough for ARMYs to feel a strong sense of belonging and companionship.

Speaking on the impact of ARMY, BTS member SUGA said, “For those that become fans of idols [Korean pop stars], they are often belittled for being idol fans, but they are actually extraordinary people. Honestly, it’s not easy to do such things [charity work] just because you like someone.”

Extremely organized and passionate about spreading BTS’s message, ARMY has, in some ways, been BTS’s best form of promotion and marketing abroad. In 2017, ARMY petitioned for BTS to be invited to the Billboard Music Awards. Then nominated for Top Social Artist and leading all fan voting polls for the award, ARMY argued that BTS was more than deserving of a seat at one of the biggest American music award shows. 

Within a few days, BTS received their invitation from BIllboard, and in 2017, they were the first non-Western artist to win Top Social Artist, breaking Justin Bieber’s 4-year streak. They have held that award for three straight years, and in 2019, they also received the Top Duo/Group award, edging out well-known Western artists like Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons, and Panic! at the Disco.

Highly protective of the band’s image and reputation, ARMY has also made sure to leave an impression on all that come into contact with them, often sending flowers and thank-you cards to interviewers and flooding the social media of those who have been kind to the band with words of gratitude and support. 

When asked about the ARMY, Halsey, who collaborated with BTS on their 2019 single “Boy with Luv,” said, “They’re the opposite [of crazy]; they’re like intelligent, they’re funny, they’re tasteful, they’re charitable.” Asked about a recent ARMY project to make charity donations in Halsey’s name to thank her for her work with BTS, Halsey was amazed. “Can you imagine if everyone’s fans thanked them by organizing charity in their name?”


The Social Media Presence and Fan Culture

In the past five years, BTS and the ARMY have built a formidable online presence, one that is virtually unparalleled by any musical artist and their fans. But what may seem surprising is that BTS doesn’t have Justin Bieber’s 106 million or Taylor Swift’s 84 million Twitter followers; they currently have 21.3 million Twitter followers, which may seem enormous to some, but is only about one-fifth or one-fourth of the social following that top Western artists have.

However, their social following isn’t truly reflective of their popularity. Unlike several major Western artists, BTS has an incredibly high and rapid engagement rate on everything they release. A tweet from their account usually accumulates over one million likes in just twelve hours. In contrast, a tweet by Justin Bieber accumulated 36.4 thousand likes in eight days while a tweet from Taylor Swift accumulated 56.7 thousand likes in sixteen hours.

But outside of mainstream social media sites, BTS has created a niche market of fan content that is incomparable to Western artists. From their hours of behind the scenes footage and vlog-style content on their personal YouTube channel, BangtanTV, to their weekly reality game show series, Run!BTS, hosted on Korean idol streaming platform V LIVE, to their tour movies and documentary series, to their joint adventures in creating webtoons, books, mobile games, and Korean dramas centered around the BTS Universe, a storyline BTS has created through their music videos and songs, BTS has created an arsenal of immersive fan content.

On top of fan content, BTS’s record label, Big Hit Entertainment, launched a unique social media platform specifically made to allow artists and their fans to interact exclusively in 2019, called WeVerse. This platform allows fans to access exclusive content, like pictures from BTS members or a documentary series for the behind the scenes of their Love Yourself World Tour, and also allows fans to interact with BTS in a much more intimate way. 

One of the platform’s first projects was having fans post and write letters to BTS, which were then printed and given to BTS. However, the platform is unique in the way it allows celebrities to interact with fans, with the BTS members frequently commenting on fan posts and creating posts asking about how the fans are doing. 

In conjunction with WeVerse, BTS have also utilized the streaming platform V LIVE to hold casual livestreams with fans, giving fans a deeper look into their daily lives while also creating a stronger bond with fans by answering questions and talking about topics such as their new favorite music and foods, their process behind creating songs, or their other hobbies, such as gaming, photography, and reading.

What is truly unique about BTS’s use of social media is that instead of focusing completely on marketing and promoting their music and products, BTS focus on connecting and interacting with fans, which has helped forge such a strong bond between the band and their ARMY. This incredible celebrity-fandom bond is what has largely driven the high and rapid engagement rates, the unceasing Twitter trends, and the endless amount of YouTube and streaming records the band holds. 

Through their social media and content creation, BTS has created an intense fan culture virtually unparalleled by any other musical artist, ultimately creating a microcosmos of people from all different backgrounds, from all around the world, all sharing the same love and passion for a band from South Korea.


Lingering Questions

Even after reading all of this, you may still be wondering “Why do so many people like them? How can a band from South Korea connect so profoundly with people from all around the world? What exactly is so appealing about them?”

BTS themselves seem to not have the answers to these questions, often expressing disbelief when confronted with their fame.

“I’m amazed by it, to receive all this love,” member J-Hope said when asked about the group’s rapid rise to stardom. It’s a sentiment echoed by the other members, who often give all the credit of their success to the ARMY.

But what exactly is the ultimate goal of the band? What do they hope to achieve through their music, their content, and their charity work?

To the members, it appears that their goals and purpose are rather simple.

In an ending speech at one of BTS’s concerts, member RM said, “If we helped your dream and your life a bit with our existence, our music, our performance, our pictures or videos, even if it’s not big, if we could reduce your pain from 100 to 99, 98, or 97 that makes our existence worthy.”

And to the millions of ARMYs watching over them, BTS’s existence has been more than worthy. 

Image Courtesy of BTS

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