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So how’s your Monday going?
Mine was made immensely better by watching the United Nations General Assembly at 8 a.m. Admittedly, I pay zero attention to the UN, other than if I am in New York City and the body meeting blocks traffic.
But here I was, appointment viewing of the UN armed with a cup of coffee, waiting for one thing: the Korean delegation to take the podium.
And by the Korean delegation, I mean the President of Korea, Moon Jae-in, and his new special diplomatic Envoys, BTS. The guys talked about finding hope during this lost time of COVID for youth, discussed their own vaccinations (THANK YOU), and ended their presentation by dropping a performance video they shot on Sunday inside the UN main chamber.
Why not, flex on.
Yes, that’s BTS. Bangtan Sonyeondan, aka “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”, the K-pop boy band that’s morphed into men who are a global brand and force.
The inside joke of “Do you know BTS?”, once uttered by the guys to poke at a world that had previously not embraced K-pop, is now meta.
The world knows BTS. They’ve taken over with or without your permission. And I stan all of it. I’m old enough to be their mom, or at least the coolest Noona they know. I’m not here to marry them, baby them like they are still 15, or worship them through stalking. I truly appreciate how hard they work, their thoughtfulness and creativity, and genuineness in an industry built on fleeting illusion and harsh transition.
They’re seven guys from Korea, ranging from 24 to 28 (that’s international age, in Korean age, they’re all one year older. Korea makes you 1 at birth, counting time in womb as the clock running.) They’ve have had the most Billboard No. 1 hits over the last 2 years of anybody and have gone farther into international music success than any other K-pop group. Their songs play overhead at Target, ads for Samsung and McDonald’s run during NFL games and the Emmy’s, merchandise collabs with Louis Vuitton and Fila sell out in seconds, and their videos get more than a billion views on YouTube. They have killer social media traffic, were nominated for a Grammy, and their Seoul-based record label (Hybe, also known as Big Hit) is becoming one of the most powerful companies in Korea and a true global player in music.
BTS is more than just a group that makes me smile with their music, videos, reality shows (Run BTS, In the Soop, Bon Voyage) and all the other stuff they do. I see how they are changing many games, from how musical artists will get treated by fighting for more rights; having the conversation on hip hop, toxic masculinity, and identity; openly discussing mental health and their fears; pioneering successful, high-level online concerts during the pandemic; breaking barriers in Asian men being the faces of Western/European beauty and fashion; to their absolute mastery of social media to connect with their fans.
They’re minority shareholders in Hybe, meaning they have a seat at the table. They’re not here to be played by the machine. They’ve become the machine, and its rolling 24/7 globally right now.
BTS has been around since 2010, officially debuting in 2013, and really crept into the U.S. around 2016. Their videos and dancing strike a fascinating visual. Their concerts sell out quickly and pack stadiums like Soldier Field and Stade de France. I first heard their stuff around 2016, with Blood, Sweat and Tears, and really got intrigued through listening to Yoongi’s Agust D solo mixtape that same year. (Because I am a lovely person, I made you a Spotify with my BTS picks. Enjoy.)
They’ve been climbing globally since, with their trajectory going Beyonce-level sky high in 2020, with Dynamite – their first all-English single - taking over the COVID-gripped world.
Their last three singles have been all in English, with is a controversial subject for their fanbase (called ARMY). BTS has always mixed majority Korean with some English in their lyrics and themes, previously maintaining they saw no need to change to all-English. Then 2020 came, canceled their global tour, and they chose to try something new while anxiously chilling at home in Korea.
I can see the NFL booking BTS for a Super Bowl halftime show, because they would tear it up for 10 minutes. They are electric in concert, and that comes through the screen.
The burn on Americans is that we do not embrace music in other languages. Which I call bullshit on, because we seem to do quite well with JLo, Bad Bunny, Pitbull, Linda Ronstadt, Ricky Martin/Menudo, and many others rapping and singing in Spanish for the English-speaking mainstream.
Do I know Korean? Nope, but I can look up the translations, and appreciate the beats and performance. Good stuff is good stuff. Right Psy?
I fell deep into the BTS vortex during the pandemic, getting hooked on their reality shows and fan edits on Instagram and YouTube. I discovered who they were as people - and it brought me joy during the isolating times. Run BTS makes me laugh so hard I cannot breathe at times. Every Tuesday morning at 8, when it comes on live online from Korea (GOD BLESS THE SUBTITLE EDITORS), is a must-see appointment on their app for me. I’ve learned about modern Hanbok, ramen recipes, the Joseon dynasty, and about a dozen useful words in Korean (Hajima! Thanks Yoongi. Aigoo! Thanks Jin. Bak bak! Thanks Tae and Jimin.)
Who are these guys? My dossier:
(Before ARMY comes for me, I KNOW THEY ALL WRITE MUSIC/LYRICS. Just pointing out who does the most by credits for explanation. And I am not going into their titles. Doesn’t matter as much to me anymore. They’re all doing everything. Gomawo.)
- Kim Seokjin (aka Jin): the oldest (will be 29 in Dec.), vocalist, model-worthy looks, king of clownery and deep wisdom. He is an extroverted introvert, known for cracking jokes and making as much fun of himself as others. Don’t believe the self-owns; he is one of the most well-rounded members, as a trained serious actor, strong singer, and a good dancer.
- Min Yoongi (aka Suga, aka solo alter ego Agust D): 28, rapper, composer/lyricist, driest sense of humor in the room. He is on par with Eminem in his ability to spit fast, complex word play, the burn you dead raps. His stuff comes from a raw place, as deals with his mental health struggles in song. He is also a brilliant composer, coming up with a lot of BTS’s best tunes. He’s in demand for producing.
- Jung Hoseok (aka J-Hope, Hobi): 27, rapper, singer, lead dancer, composer/lyricist. He is the quiet MVP of BTS, as he can do everything. His elite street-dancing background is his claim to fame, but if you take BTS’ songs apart, he is everywhere. Background vocals, sound effects, you name it. His personality is electric and makes people notice him immediately.
- Kim Namjoon (aka RM, Rap Monster): 27, leader of BTS, rapper, composer/lyricist. For American audiences, he is the tall guy who does the speaking as he is the most fluent in English. (But don’t be fooled, it’s clear that Yoongi, Hobi, JK and the others understand a lot and could hold their own. The best interviews are when Yoongi or Hobi get going in English.) He’s an intellectual rapper, with complex lyrics with layered meanings in English and Korean. Namjoon is a brilliant dork who loses things and consistently destroys stuff.
- Park Jimin (aka Jimin. He was spared the alias.): 25, a trained contemporary dancer with the highest voice in the group. Jimin oozes charm, and the truism is everybody falls in love with him. If you’ve watched the James Corden car karaoke, he’s the Baby Mochi to Corden’s Papa Mochi. Jimin is the empath of BTS, trying to take care of everybody. He also has elite skills in falling off chairs. Seriously.
- Kim Taehyung (aka V, Tae): 25, vocalist and a seriously good dancer. He is the wildcard of BTS, able to model and act, the deepest singing voice of the group, and a slick dancer. Tae is also quite quirky, with brainwaves from another creative planet. Some of the best moments in BTS reality shows/videos come from Tae’s brain pushing things into another realm or his burning desire to join the rappers.
- Jeon JungKook (aka Jungkook, JK): 24, the “golden maknae”, or the chosen one. He’s the Justin Timberlake of BTS. He was picked for BTS when he was 14, and the oldest members made sure he got to school, was fed, and handled the pressure. He can sing, dance, rap at the highest level, and is everywhere in runs and background vocals. Depending on the day and the stylist, JK goes from the innocent kid next door to the dangerous sexy guy.
They all could be successful on their own, but together, their talents and chemistry form a powerful team. They’re together, multiplying the star power. Sometimes you don’t know who to watch, because they all do their own thing so well.
They survived living in a one-bedroom apartment, broke and hungry, worried they’d fail, and essentially grew together into adults. They’re surviving the stress of stalkers, expectations to top themselves, tabloids, Wattpad fanfiction, and the grinding machine of K-pop. They’ve survived working at a nearly bankrupt start-up record label. They’ve survived growing up before our eyes, especially JK, Tae and Jimin, with thousands of YouTube videos showing them in all their awkward teenage glory. (Note for the record: I am grateful I was not recorded every minute of my life since 14. I am glad they can laugh at themselves. I would hide under the nearest couch.)
They’re surviving death threats and slurs for being Asian and about their officially undeclared sexual orientations. (And whomever they choose to love, good for them. Case closed.)
The idea of BTS being very rich and influential, and speaking at the UN today (for the second time), would have cracked them up in 2013. They just wanted respect as a hip hop-centered K-pop group. They had big dreams, but nothing resembled this high orbit. They’ve flipped the script to drive their own narrative. Big house, big cars, and big rings indeed.
Boy bands have been around forever, and the rush to worship idols is nothing new. But what makes BTS different is their longevity. A group being together, and successful, for eight years is remarkable. It’s even more notable to have a group that still says they are hungry to keep going, despite the extremes they are now facing. BTS nearly ended things in 2018, as they admitted during an awards show that they were all stressed out. BigHit has kept them on a brutal schedule, with often only a day or two per month off.
A mandatory stint in the Korean military looms for all of them, and they have said they will serve their country if called in. The other K-pop record labels would love to see BTS go away for a little bit, as they are the giant player.
Very few things last in pop music. It is a game with few winners with longevity. That’s why I am rooting for BTS to get whatever they can right now. Make the money. Take the honors. Move the needle socially. Build the influence machine. Give us the music to enjoy and make us think. Get political and take some stands.
Because they have it. And if I get the chance to drop some bars behind the UN podium, I will take it too.