Can the South Korean boy band propel K-pop to the top?
In 2012, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” took the world by storm, shattering YouTube records left and right while mesmerising those around the world with its catchy beats and “horse-riding” dance moves.
Psy’s success, however, failed to spill over to spark interest in other K-pop groups, as the song’s popularity centered mostly on the hilarious music video and comic dance moves. It earned the artist’s followup song “Gentleman” a spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and over a billion views on YouTube, but that was it. The Psy sensation was no more – a one-hit wonder, at least on the international stage.
Five years later, another Korea-born sensation has risen to the top, this time in the form of boy band BTS. The group has had a formidable 2017, winning the top social artist award at Billboard Music Awards, and becoming the first K-pop group to perform at American Music Awards, with its song “Mic Drop” cracking the Billboard Hot 100.
But will it last?
Pundits attribute much of BTS’ success to its performances. The complicated, high-energy choreography is something rarely seen in today’s pop music.
“There are a lot of groups with quality dance skills, but BTS’ moves are truly powerful. You can feel the passion in their performances, coupled with natural talent,” says culture critic Lim Jinmo.
K-pop idols are known to go through years of hard training. In the book “Being a Girl Group in Korea”, journalist Lee Hakjun shows that idol singers are trained so that even when they are woken up in the middle of a night and told to dance, they are expected to do it flawlessly.
Whether such harsh training is ideal is up for debate, but the effect cannot be doubted. The sight of seven men dancing in perfect harmony with machine-like precision is truly a sight to behold.
In addition to the dances, BTS is known to deliver thought-provoking messages with which youngsters around the world can empathise.
“Korea and US, we have our different languages but we all share similar thoughts. ... We may talk in different tongues, but we’re thankful that you (the fans) identify themselves with us,” member Suga said on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in November.
Kim Yohan, a student at Kyung Hee University’s department of performing arts, wrote in his paper that BTS’ popularity with young fans comes from its songwriting that represents the struggling youth.
“Even before its debut, BTS ran a blog to upload their freestyle rap, songs, mix tapes and work logs to establish their own musical world. BTS then released three albums with the concept of ‘Story of teens by teens.’... BTS wrote their own stories into their albums, which young fans were able to follow,” he wrote in his paper “Competence of idol groups based on their songwriting abilities”.
But the biggest factor of all perhaps, is how BTS used social media. From very early on in their careers, each member of the BTS sought to communicate and establish a wholesome and familiar image for the fans.
BTS’ active use of social media allowed it to become an online powerhouse. The loyal fan base, known as ARMY, played a great part in the process as well, promoting the band throughout the internet both locally and internationally.
Culture critic Kwon Sanghee says the online communication with the fans played a huge part in building such a solid fan base.
“Through SNS, [ARMY] fans reached beyond borders to expand the fan base. They were not only consumers, but producers of BTS as well,” she wrote.
“There was also the underlying efforts put in by BTS. Their method of sharing each and every detail of their personal lives – from their meals, practice sessions to backstage clips)– ‘disarms’ the fans with intimacy, instead of approaching them as ‘idols’.”
BTS’ success looks a lot like Psy’s, in that it is heavily based on Billboard and happened within a very short span of time. But evidence suggests that the group will outlast its novelty factor.
While “Gangnam Style” was wildly popular, not many of the millions of followers worldwide were transformed to Psy fans. The K-pop artist was looked upon as the funny guy doing funny moves in a funny music video, and was often eclipsed by the popularity of his own song.
BTS, however, has managed to build a sizeable fan base in the Western world as well as back home in Korea. The popularity of “Mic Drop,” which peaked at No 28 in the Billboard Hot 100 in November, attest to that. It was released after BTS had already been invited to perform in the AMA and BBMA.
The song – which remains the most popular BTS song in the West to date – did not fuel BTS’ popularity; it was the other way around.
Experts say that BTS’ popularity is likely to have a carryover effect on other K-pop groups as well. This is because unlike Psy, who was an oddity in the K-pop scene, BTS is a “typical” K-pop group, armed with fancy looks, flashy choreography and fluent attitude.
“Psy’s popularity really depended on the funny, cheesy kind of feeling the fans got,” says critic Lim. “BTS is not like that. It takes its music seriously, represents a generation. Not only that, it is very typical of a K-pop group; an idol dance group.
“In a way, BTS represents what K-pop is really like. When people look at BTS, they get a pretty good idea of what K-pop is like. ... I think the success of BTS can at least have some positive impact on other K-pop groups. K-pop, along with BTS, now has a chance to rise to the top.”