If the 2019 Billboard Music Awards were judged by audience reaction alone, Korean pop group BTS should be considered the night's overall winner. Every mention drew tremendous applause, a fact host Kelly Clarkson took advantage of repeatedly. When Clarkson shouts "Let's do a selfie with BTS," thousands scream their approval.
But BTS did actually win in both categories it was nominated, becoming the first Korean pop group to win two awards at the event. Or South Korean, specifically. North Korea does have the Moranbong Band, but it's decidedly more militaristic in presentation and lacks the upbeat quality of say, BTS' "Boyz with Fun." BTS took home the award for top duo or group, which generated at least one shot of a young woman crying in the audience. The other win was for best social artist, an award it has won three years in a row going back to 2017, besting such household names as Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Shawn Mendes.
2019’s list of nominees for best social artist was different, however, since it included EXO and GOT7, two other Korean pop groups. The Billboard Awards may take place in America and feature (mostly) American artists, but BTS clearly has nothing to fear from the stateside music business machine. The biggest threat to BTS at this point may be K-pop itself.
Case in point, the fan-led top social award attracted some controversy this year due to the possible use of bots to manipulate the final tally. But bots don't fill up seats on stadium tours. And although they can be a problem when it comes to streaming services, BTS’ popularity on Spotify is far from manufactured. Indeed, the band recently became the first K-pop group to hit five billion streams on Spotify, an achievement mirrored by their massive digital fan community.The Chinese app TikTok, an popular global social media platform — especially with teens — is a haven for the group’s fans. The hashtag #bts had 5.7 billion views on the platform at the time of this writing.
If the mainstream industry was hoping K-pop was a trend, it has been proven wrong.
What does this all mean? Social media and streaming should be considered the two most important factors in an artist's career this decade. If the mainstream industry was hoping K-pop was a trend, it has been proven wrong. With its ambitious production values, and multi-disciplined approach to choreographed action, visuals and sound, K-pop is the perfect soundtrack for the social media era.
After all, K-pop says as much about American culture as it does about Korea. American pop radio and hip-hop has had an outsized influence on K-pop since its origins in the early 1990s. The rap cadence and backing tracks in '90s K-pop — from groups such as Seo Taiji and the Boys — is very similar to what was on American rap radio at the time. And yet, it is its own unique world — the choreography in particular sets K-pop artists apart from their American counterparts. BTS paid tribute to K-pop's founding fathers in 2017 by covering Seo Taiji and the Boys' "Come Back Home."
It's worth noting that the companies that release K-pop records are headed by former, or sometimes current, musicians. JYP Entertainment is headed by J.Y. Park, a singer/songwriter. SM Entertainment was founded by Lee Soo-Man, a former singer. Not all CEOs have this specific of a background related to their chosen industry, and as a result K-pop has a well-honed training process that prepares aspiring performers for a life in the music business. The K-pop industry has received ample criticism concerning its "boot camp" methodology that grooms future song-and-dance stars out of children. But is it terribly different than the farm system that Disney has been running for decades?
"Third number one in less than a year. The last group to do that: The Beatles," says a Billboard reporter backstage before the group breaks into an impromptu a cappella version of "Let it Be." When asked to sing a snippet from "Hey, Jude," group leader Kim Nam-joon — aka RM ("Rap Monster") — refuses because, as he says, "I'm a rapper."
While that may be true, he's a rapper who has addressed the United Nations, a space usually reserved for safe, mainstream actors. The talk was well-received, just like the band's appearance Wednesday night.
Ultimately, the 2019 Billboard Music Awards felt like the BTS show — everyone else was lucky to be invited. When the band finally performed in a collaboration with Halsey, the American singer was lost amid BTS’ flawless choreography — and Halsey is an incredible dancer. It's a K-pop world after all.