K-pop sen­sa­tions

Meet boy­band BTS

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BTS ar­rive for their first ever UK shows by pri­vate jet. They have been us­ing it on the US leg of their world tour, which cul­mi­nated in a show to 40,000 peo­ple at New York’s Citi Field on 6 Oc­to­ber, three days be­fore play­ing to as many peo­ple again across two nights at the O2 Arena in Lon­don. They have racked up two US No 1 al­bums and bil­lions of global streams, and were re­cently in­vited to the UN as Unicef am­bas­sadors, where their charis­matic leader, RM, made a speech, in English, on self­ac­cep­tance. Mile­stones such as these are mon­u­men­tal for any artist, but in reach­ing them BTS – rap­pers Suga, RM and J-hope and vo­cal­ists Jimin, V, Jin and Jungkook – have changed the face of pop, as the first Korean group to reach the up­per ech­e­lons of the western mu­sic in­dus­try.

Ethe­real-look­ing Jimin broke down at the end of the Citi Field show. The band have played sim­i­lar­sized shows in other coun­tries, but the US has al­ways been the fi­nal fron­tier for K-pop – a mar­ket that has been at­tempted many times with only mi­nor suc­cesses by acts such as Big Bang, EXO, and 2NE1’s CL. “We feel it all the time,” says Jimin. “On this tour we played some very large venues, and it makes us see that peo­ple re­ally love us. Be­ing in­un­dated by all these emo­tions, it kind of got to me.”

In the Shangri-La ho­tel, Lon­don, ahead of the UK shows, se­cu­rity stake out the hall­ways. Burly men ac­com­pany band mem­bers to the toi­let. BTS have reached that dis­so­cia­tive level of star­dom where they are han­dled like china dolls. “We know that pop­u­lar­ity is not for ever,” RM says with a smile. “So we en­joy the ride, the roller­coaster, and when it ends, it just fin­ishes. We’re on the jets and in the sta­di­ums, but I don’t feel like it’s mine. It’s like we just bor­rowed it from some­body.”

BTS are the brain­child of vet­eran writer and pro­ducer Bang Shi Hyuk, who for­merly worked at the K-pop en­ter­tain­ment giant JYP, then formed Big Hit En­ter­tain­ment and de­buted BTS in 2013. The nor­mal prac­tice of K-pop is to over­see ev­ery el­e­ment of the life of young “idols”, as they are known in Korea. How­ever, Bang gave BTS au­ton­omy to run their own Twit­ter and vlog from their stu­dio, and for the rap­pers to write along­side Big Hit’s in-house pro­duc­tion team. Their lyrics are emo­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble and so­cially con­scious, some­times bor­der­ing on an­gry, and go against K-pop’s grain: Baep­sae, which trans­lates as “sil­ver spoon”, de­fends their “cursed” gen­er­a­tion.

Crit­ics have tried to un­ravel the se­cret of their US suc­cess: many credit so­cial me­dia with spread­ing their mes­sage, but BTS’s fans, known as Army, flag the mu­sic and lyrics as the rea­son they have con­nected so deeply. It’s this, plus the end of One Di­rec­tion, the grow­ing in­ter­est in K-pop in the US, and BTS’s end­less stream of vis­ual con­tent (from be­hind-the-scenes footage to re­al­ity shows) that reel in the cu­ri­ous and hook them with the force of the group’s per­son­al­i­ties. In time-hon­oured boy­band fash­ion, they of­fer some­thing for ev­ery­one.

Like all pop stars with gi­gan­tic, pow­er­ful fan bases, BTS tread a del­i­cate line be­tween cel­e­brat­ing their ad­mir­ers and po­ten­tially alien­at­ing them. “Fame is like a shadow,” says Suga, their most se­ri­ous mem­ber. “There’s light and there’s dark­ness; it’s some­thing that fol­lows you con­stantly and not some­thing you can run away from. But peo­ple tend to re­spect our pri­vacy. We go to art gal­leries a lot and peo­ple don’t re­ally bother us, then after we leave they’ll make a [so­cial me­dia] post.”

“If it gets too much and it crosses a line, then it can be a source of stress but for me, at least, it’s a sign of their love,” says J-hope, a for­mer street dancer. On a re­cent al­bum cut, Pied Piper, they play­fully ad­mon­ished the ob­ses­sives: “Stop watch­ing and start study­ing for your ex­ams, your par­ents and boss hate me … You al­ready have plenty of my pic­tures in your room.”

That sur­pris­ing hon­esty – in K-pop terms – un­der­pinned the con­cept of their re­cent Love Your­self al­bum tril­ogy (Her, Tear and An­swer), which charted a nar­ra­tive around, un­sur­pris­ingly, learn­ing to love one­self. RM’s speech at the UN echoed this theme: “No mat­ter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, your gen­der iden­tity, just speak your­self.” This rel­a­tively an­o­dyne state­ment res­onated in South Korea, where the pres­i­dent pub­licly op­poses ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

Dur­ing their ca­reer the band have used Haruki Mu­rakami, Ur­sula K Le Guin, Jung, Or­well, Ni­et­zsche and Hesse as in­spi­ra­tion. The lat­ter two fig­ure no­tably in the the­ory of fate that is wo­ven through Her, whereby love is des­tined and must there­fore be un­shak­able (only for it to fall apart on Tear). As 80s indie fans did, BTS’s Army now read these writ­ers in or­der to fully un­der­stand the band’s vi­sion, while spend­ing se­ri­ous money on Blue­tooth-pro­grammed light-up sticks for their con­certs.

For many, how­ever, BTS sym­bol­ise an in­dus­try that is lit­tle more than a high-func­tion­ing bub­blegum ma­chine. K-pop is per­ceived as cruel for its in­ten­sive train­ing sys­tem, which can start when artists are seven years old and last for 10 years with no guar­an­tee of a group de­but; and for its harsh ap­proach to idols who strug­gle with ex­haus­tion and their men­tal health. Many have fainted on­stage, while Su­per Ju­nior’s Lee­teuk qui­etly set up a now-de­funct peer group, Milk Club, for idols deal­ing with de­pres­sion. Mean­while, fans are por­trayed as mind­less teenage girls. “It’s point­less to ar­gue or fight about it,” Suga says, gruffly. “Frankly, I can’t un­der­stand peo­ple who want to put down a cer­tain type of mu­sic, what­ever that might be. Clas­si­cal mu­sic was pop mu­sic in its own age. It’s a mat­ter of taste and un­der­stand­ing – there’s no good or bad, there’s no high­brow or low­brow.”

BTS’s mu­sic be­gan as old-school R&B and hip-hop, but has since in­cor­po­rated a myr­iad of gen­res, from EDM to South African house. The lyrics, too, have be­come in­creas­ingly com­plex, closer to prose than sim­ple moon-June-soon pop. In many re­spects, BTS fit the mould of a clas­sic boy­band – they look and sound great – but they are also grown men who cry, em­brace and ex­pose their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and fail­ings even as a cul­ture of toxic mas­culin­ity thrives onand off­line. It strength­ens their mes­sages of strength, love, hope and ac­cep­tance be­yond what boy­bands have of­fered be­fore.

K-pop idols work in­ten­sively, in a world where a few ca­reers will last more than 10 years, but many are over in just 12 months. This year

The lyrics are emo­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble and so­cially con­scious, some­times bor­der­ing on an­gry

Suga has re­peat­edly stated that a Grammy win is his next goal – or play­ing the Su­per Bowl

BTS have re­leased three al­bums (two Korean and one Ja­panese), toured the world and pro­duced a third se­ries of their travel re­al­ity show, Bon Voy­age. Their sched­ule is planned down to the minute. “I think there were times we were pretty close to burn­ing out,” ad­mits Suga, “but it’s in­evitable and it’s the same for peo­ple in any pro­fes­sion.”

Cur­rent and for­mer idols have shifted to­wards act­ing, ap­pear­ing on South Korea’s va­ri­ety TV shows, and ex­plored solo ca­reers. Suga’s in­ter­ests in­clude ar­chi­tec­ture and light­ing. Jungkook, the youngest mem­ber at 21, has taken up doc­u­men­tary-style film-mak­ing, his most re­cent short cap­tur­ing the ex­tremes of his life – the in­ten­sity of the stage and the still­ness of the af­ter­math. He says he feels “a lot of hap­pi­ness when I think about things I can do in the fu­ture”. He has en­ergy to burn – he will later give him­self a mi­nor heel in­jury be­fore the first Lon­don show and spend it con­fined to a stool, tear­fully apol­o­gis­ing for not fully par­tic­i­pat­ing.

Dur­ing a re­cent live ses­sion on stream­ing plat­form VLive, V, whose slightly hoarse voice gives the group a soul­ful edge, played snippets of solo work to much buzz. BTS’s rap­pers have al­ready re­leased self­writ­ten and pro­duced solo mix­tapes, but the vo­cal­ists have yet to fol­low in their foot­steps. “I’m work­ing on it,” of­fers Jungkook, when J-hope be­gins laugh­ing.

RM weighs in, amused, “He’s get­ting ready for too many things! Films, box­ing – he’s plan­ning so much that no one knows when it’s com­ing out.”

“On all the songs I make,” V chips in, hav­ing sat back for most of the in­ter­view, “I feel there’s some­thing that’s just not there. I have a short­com­ing, I can’t fin­ish a song, I need some­one to help me. When I come up with some­thing I can put out, I will.”

Suga jabs back. “It’s go­ing to be about 20 years then.”

For their fans it’s this kind of play­ful teas­ing and nat­u­ral ca­ma­raderie that makes BTS so ap­peal­ing. For the band, their con­nec­tion helps sup­port their fre­netic work pace.

Openly am­bi­tious, Suga has re­peat­edly stated that a Grammy win is his next goal and re­cently added play­ing the Su­per Bowl half­time show (71,000 peo­ple in the arena; 120m watch­ing at home) to the list. Either could be the thing that ce­ments BTS’s sta­tus as house­hold names. Right now, nei­ther seems un­reach­able. “We want to show as much as we can,” says Jimin, his gaze un­wa­ver­ing. “We only want to be able to show our best.”

TheBTS Army in­LAand (be­low right)Seoul

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