BTS, the seven-member, all-male South Korean pop supergroup, forged a new path to being an international musical sensation long before Lil Nas X crashed the Billboard charts off the basis of his TikTok following for “Old Town Road.” A worldwide contingent of primarily Gen Z fans propelled the band into superstardom through discovering them and sharing their music on social media, reducing the influence of the omnipresent gatekeepers, particularly in the United States, that previously determined older generations’ listening habits.
And now they’ve done it again, with a new album recorded entirely during a global pandemic.
RM, Jungkook, Jimin, V, SUGA, Jin and J-Hope officially formed BTS in 2012 — around the same time that One Direction began to redefine the “boy band” aesthetic away from its previous asexual tween-pop roots. BTS’ first Korean studio album (following three single albums or EPs in 2013 and 2014), “Dark & Wild,” dropped in 2014, and showcased a heavier rap sound on songs like “힙합성애자 (Hip Hop Phile)” that has carried through the rest of their later work; their first Japanese studio album dropped later that same year.
Despite never recording a song entirely in English until August of 2020, their 2015 shift in musical style away from straight hip hop into pop, combined with a world tour with stops in the United States and growing influence on YouTube, helped them break into the U.S. market; in 2016, their Korean compilation album cracked the Billboard top 200, and their second Korean studio album received effusive praise from American critics after it debuted at number 26 on the same chart.
The following year, they attended the Billboard Music Awards, winning “Top Social Artist” because of their devoted American fan base (despite the fact that they had garnered little or no air play in the U.S.); their EP release in September 2017 debuted at number five on Billboard’s top 200 albums, while the two main singles off it, “DNA” and “Mic Drop Remix,” peaked on Billboard’s Hot 100 at 67 and 28, respectively. That garnered them a performance slot at the American Music Awards and on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” in 2017.
BTS has continued to rack up massive commercial success around the world and on American award show stages over the following three years; eventually their work included collaborations with Western artists like 2019’s “Boy With Luv (feat. Halsey)” and “Dream Glow (feat. Charli XCX).” But a 2019 Washington Post article critiqued the decision by MTV’s Video Music Awards to create a new category for “Best K-Pop” instead of including BTS and other increasingly popular South Korean groups in the regular categories with their English language peers.
And it wasn’t until 2020, when they released their catchy new disco-influenced single “Dynamite” — the band’s first song performed entirely in English — that they made number 1 on Billboard’s top 100.
Still, BTS’s popularity despite the America music industry’s xenophobic gatekeeping speaks only to the corporate gatekeepers’ inability to welcome the world in, even as the band’s fervent fan base — dubbed the “ARMY” — refuses to do the same.
BTS’s popularity despite the America music industry’s xenophobic gatekeeping speaks only to the corporate gatekeepers’ inability to welcome the world in.
Unlike the fanbases predecessor groups One Direction, NSYNC and The Beatles — who were, at least originally, predominately teenage girls — one of the BTS ARMY’s most appealing aspects as fans is their welcoming nature, no matter how old or where you’re from. Music is a universal concept and its representation as such, especially within the United States, has been a long time coming.
Before the pandemic hit, BTS released a 20-song album “Map of the Soul: 7,” symbolizing the band’s journey from past to present: seven friends and number of years since their first single. They had also originally planned a global tour that was set to start back in April. To the dismay of fans, the tour was indefinitely postponed — leading BTS to adapt and find new ways to connect the ARMY from home.
“Dynamite,” their first English song, was clearly one way; performing live (in Korean) on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk (Home)” series in September (introducing their musicianship to an older audience that might’ve written them off) was another; and, crafted throughout the pandemic and quarantine, BTS’s ninth studio album “BE,” which came out on Friday, is yet a third.
It consists of eight songs, designed to showcase their strengths as individual vocalists and the range of emotions they and their fans have been experiencing.
The album’s opener “Life Goes On,” for instance, attempts to imbue listeners with a positive message through rap verses that feature all seven members. “Blue & Grey” and “Fly to My Room” are more vulnerable songs, exploring the darker side of loneliness and confinement. Lines like, “Oh this ground feels so heavier / I am singing by myself / I just wanna be happier” from “Blue & Grey,” is the band’s way to show millions of fans worldwide that everyone has been having negative thoughts, too.
“BE” is separated in the middle by “Skit” — a traditional spoken word interlude for most BTS albums that showcases the band outside of their music. This “Skit,” however, was recorded as they celebrated becoming the first Korean act to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in August. "For this skit, we turned on the mic and we put in our emotions, our reaction when we heard we hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 Billboard chart... live, unedited,” band member RM said.
In the back half, songs like “Telepathy” and “Dis-ease” boost the tempo back up and continue showcasing the influence of older music on the band. (They were also the ones that I personally loved dancing around to on first listen.)
Despite some unnecessary criticisms intended to detract from their abilities as musicians and performers, BTS still strives to encourage positivity in their fans through the music they create. At a time during which happiness seems hard to come by and live concerts are as yet nonexistent, BTS’ “BE” shines through as their brightest and most unifying album yet. We all needed that.
CORRECTION (Nov. 23, 2020, 9:07 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the language that the BTS album "Wings" was recorded in. It was recorded in Korean, not Japanese.