Who Are BTS? A Crash Course on the World’s Biggest K-Pop Phenoms

Two months ago, I would have asked the same question – “Who are BTS?” And yet a short while later, I am a huge fan, and well down the rabbit-hole of listening to, viewing, reading about, and absorbing the many, many facets of this powerhouse group – from music; to music videos with complex choreographies; to live vlogs, interviews, and fan videos; to fictional universe storylines and the connected webcomic; to reality TV shows; to solo projects; to unique cultural aspects; to live performances; to merchandise; to social media interactions and the online presence of their devoted fans, affectionately known as A.R.M.Y. 

What. The Heck. Happened??

 Simply put, I saw videos of their live performances on Saturday Night Live, and that was all it took. On April 13, 2019, BTS made history as SNL’s first K-pop musical guest. They performed two of their songs live: “Boy with Luv (feat. Halsey)”

[the peppy-sweet pop single from their latest album, Map of the Soul: Persona; and “MIC Drop”

 a more driven and aggressive hip-hop number that came out in 2017. For both acts, while singing they danced in crisply coordinated and charismatic choreographies. The performances exuded a mesmerizing group energy and yet also showcased individual talent strengths and personalities of each member, a magnetic combination that (along with their stunning K-pop idol good looks) is one of the many reasons this group has an insanely large and dedicated fan group.

Immediately after seeing SNL, I found myself seeking out and listening to their music, and somehow discovering that they were going to be doing a live performance very soon and conveniently close to my childhood home in New Jersey, a reasonable distance to travel from D.C. – and one of only three U.S. appearance locations on a limited six-date U.S. tour. Of course, I recognized that this opportunity might not come around so easily again and curiosity got the better of me – were there any tickets left? Oh look, there were – and they were hella expensive; but not quite expensive enough to deter me from purchasing – which I did. But hey – if I spend that much money to attend a concert, let me tell you, when I get there I want to know the music and what to expect well enough to enjoy it. 

Thus, with just three weeks until concert-time, I purposely sought out and repeat-listened to their extensive discography, which is mostly available to stream for Amazon Prime members; bought Persona, the newest album; watched numerous music videos, fan videos, and reaction videos ; and otherwise immersed myself as fully as possible in the world of BTS before the historic May 18 MetLife Stadium concert. (Those who know me shouldn’t be surprised – after all, intense and rapid immersion in fandoms is how I ended up co-founding a convention for the works of Sir Terry Pratchett.)

Because BTS has many facets, it can be hard to quickly get the full picture of what makes this group unique. But conveniently, I’ve already done most of the hard work there – so let me break it all down for you.

Quick Facts About K-Pop

  • K-pop (Korean pop music) is a major portion of the Hallyu, or Korean Wave – the increase in global popularity of South Korean culture since the 1990s. K-pop began with boy band Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992  (a few years after U.S. boy band New Kids on the Block came out with their first album in 1986 and then won two American Music Awards in 1990) and grew from there. The rise of social media aided the spread of K-pop outside of South Korea, particularly through YouTube (founded in 2005) and Twitter (founded in 2006). It’s no coincidence that starting in 2006, K-pop artists began being popular enough in North America to sell out large concert venues, paving the way for the phenomenon to further spread. In 2012 Psy’s hilarious “Gagnam Style” music video

    , which makes fun of the flashy, wealthy Gangnam-gu area of Seoul, South Korea, was the first video to hit 1 billion views on YouTube. The video currently has over 3.3 billion hits, and the “Gangnam Style” dance has been parodied numerous times.

  • Stylistically, K-pop can be seen as modern pop music with traditional Korean music roots, but overlaid with other influences such as experimental, rock, jazz, gospel, hip hop, R&B, reggae, electronic dance, folk, country, and classical. Lyrics are predominantly Korean but English phrases are commonly interwoven. K-pop group performances incorporate complex dance routines, and the group members cycle through distinctive fashion looks (often including many accessories and different hair colors) pretty regularly. K-pop groups consist of anywhere between two to twenty-plus members, some of whom are split into smaller sub-units of performers. The splits can be due to group size, or due to some members of the group being absent because of the mandatory enlistment of “able-bodied men” in the Korean military before the age of 28 (which will begin to affect BTS in 2020).
  • K-pop group members often sign restrictive multi-year contracts with management companies, begin as trainees, and are generally housed together in a strict training environment requiring many hours of music, dance, foreign language, and other instruction each day. Trainees who succeed in “debuting” (often after three or more years as trainees) with a group name, concept, and marketing, are generally referred to as “idols. The 1996 group H.O.T. is considered to be the first of the “idol” model K-pop groups. Interestingly, most currently active K-pop idols, due to their age, have never experienced a world before K-pop existed.
  • K-pop and idol fandoms can be intense and devoted as well as fairly organized, with a specific name for each group’s fandom, themed “lightsticks” (BTS has one that looks like a globe and can be synced via Bluetooth to concert seats to create coordinated effects at shows

    ), and fan chants performed by concert audiences. Fandoms can be a positive and supportive way befriend others with similar interests, to appreciate the art created by artists, and to share and experience the excitement with others. However, the fandom is also often said to have a “parasocial” relationship with idols, in which fans feel like they know idols well or believe they would be or are friends, whereas the idols, of course, do not personally know most fans. While this is common with celebrity interactions and there are mixed opinions as to the positives or negatives of such interactions, K-pop idols have had numerous problems with obsessive sasaeng fans successfully invading their privacy (including home invasions) or even endangering them (including by causing car accidents while stalking via car). Idols also commonly (by agency policy) have to refrain from dating or do so secretly, presumably because knowing an idol is dating takes away from the ability of fans to fantasize that perhaps, someday, they will meet their idol and be the one to become their romantic interest.

Quick Facts About BTS

  • BTS are a seven-member male K-pop group based in Seoul, South Korea. They debuted in 2013 with Big Hit Entertainment, after their lineup was finalized in 2012. Big Hit’s CEO, Bang Si-hyuk (“Hitman” Bang) originally intended for BTS to be a hip-hop group, but then decided their concept should be “a hero who can lend [contemporary youth] a shoulder to lean on, even without speaking a single word” and crafted the group to that purpose. (Prior to the 2012 final lineup, there were actually several other performers who had the potential to become a part of BTS, a number of whom have gone on to other successful music careers.) When BTS trained and debuted, Big Hit was a small company compared to other K-pop entertainment moguls, and BTS members (referred to as dirt-poor idols at their debut) began their career all living together in a small, crowded dormitory. (They still choose to live together now, but in much more luxurious and spacious digs.)
  • Their name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” and (according to member J-Hope) stands for BTS’s desire “to block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that are aimed at adolescents like bullets.” More recently BTS has also stood for Beyond The Scene, which the group said symbolizes “going beyond the realities they are facing, and going forward.”
  • BTS music, though rooted in hip-hop, covers a wide range of other genres as well, including rap, R&B, pop, ballads, and EDM. Their popularity grew exponentially when BTS began embracing more complex takes on multiple different genres from 2015 onward.
  • Unusually for K-pop groups, BTS co-creates much of their music. BTS member RM is songwriter or composer of over 130 songs; and member Suga writes, composes, arranges, mixes, and masters various BTS and solo material, as well as work for other artists. Suga is a full member of the Korea Music Copyright Association, with over84 registered songs. Member J-Hope has written over80 songs, and the other four members have all contributed to the music of BTS as well. Members also have composed solo songs that are performed under the BTS name, and some members have solo “mixtapes” of their own work. From the start BTS also has had more independence than other idol groups in how they function, adjusting their own schedules and practice sessions.
  • BTS lyrics differ from those of other K-pop groups. Although their discography does include typical songs about love and break-ups, many songs have more substance and focus on personal and social commentary. The throughline of less frothy material began with explorations of teen struggles and the pressures and expectations of society on young people. It has grown since to also explore themes of mental health, self-love, individualism, and loss. The songs include numerous references to classic literature and psychological concepts. RM has said that “when we first started out, [Big Hit’s CEO] always emphasized that we should sing about our own experiences, our own thoughts, our own feelings. So, that has always been at the center of the music that we made.”
  • BTS’s progression of music videos mixes storytelling with pop music on a grand scale by including an “alternate universe” storyline

     

    for the seven members, that is also told in a connected webcomic from LINE Webtoon, entitled “Save Me.” The AU begins with the song “I Need U” and spans to the present time. It is much darker than might be expected from a K-pop group with candy-colored hair and videos, and embraces serious concrete life problems (from psychological and medical issues to child abuse and familial murder) as well as their anxieties and uncertainties while reaching maturity.

  • Even before their debut, BTS began to gain popularity on social media. Since then, they’ve skillfully managed their social presence to the point where they won Top Social Artist three years in a row (2017-2019) and Top Duo/Group at the 26th Billboard Music Awards. Time magazine also named the group one of the 25 most influential people on the internet, featured them on their international cover as “Next Generation Leaders,” and named them one of Time 100’s most influential people of 2019. Forbes Korea Power Celebrity named BTS the most influential celebrities of Korea in 2018; and they hold the record for the Most Twitter engagements in the Guinness World Records. (They’ve also, deservedly, won a metric ton  of awards for their creative output and hard work.)
  • BTS named their fandom A.R.M.Y. (“Adorable Representative MC for Youth”), which is also intended as a play on their connection to BTS, due to its association with the military and body armor; the statement being that since those things are always together, the fans will always be together with BTS. 
  • BTS further interacts with ARMY through various vlogs and talk and reality shows – one of the most prominent shows being Run BTS! , which can be watched for free on website and app VLive. The show shares another, more playful and silly side of BTS, as the members go on adventures, play games, and compete with each other or in teams to win small prizes (often, e.g., snacks, but sometimes, e.g., a gift card for $500) and avoid punishments (often, e.g., cleaning up after dinner, but sometimes, e.g., hiking up a mountain). The English subtitles are done in a manner intended to appeal to ARMYs, injecting the viewer’s affectionate observations on what members are thinking or feeling (e.g. “Jimin: is nervous about reading his poem to the group”) and commenting fondly on their quirks, cuteness, awesomeness, talent, and the times when they admire each other.
  • BTS have their own line of cute-character merchandise, called BT21, which was created as a collaboration with LINE FRIENDS, a global character group based on “stickers” from the messaging app LINE (these are both owned by the Korean equivalent of Google, Naver, which also owns LINE Webtoon). Each member designed a unique character and backstory, and then the members designed an eighth character to represent ARMY. The BT21 merchandise is very popular with fans, and concert-goers especially will notice the proliferation of fans wearing character headbands.
  • The BTS ARMY boasts a number of famous fans including Shawn Mendes, Steve Aoki, Tyra Banks, James Corden, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, Halsey, Charli XCX, Ansel Elgort, Camila Cabello, Ed Sheeran, Matthew McConaughey, and Emma Stone (who introduced them on SNL). My favorite is wrestler and actor John Cena, who, when RM asked the hypothetical question during a talk show interview, “John Cena, are you ARMY?” responded by posting a video of himself saying “I am ARMY” in Korean.                                                                                                                                                 
  • BTS has also collaborated with several American or Western artists, including Steve Aoki/Desiigner (“MIC Drop” remix); Halsey (“Boy With Luv”); Warren G (“P.D.D.” featuring RM); Mandy Ventrice (“Fantastic” featuring RM); Wale (“Change”); The Chainsmokers (“Best of Me”); Fall Out Boy (“Champion” Remix featuring RM); Nicki Minaj (“IDOL”); and Ed Sheeran (“Make It Right”). They recently confirmed they will be collaborating with Khalid, and have also expressed interest in collaborating someday with Drake, Shawn Mendes, Dolly Parton, Troye Sivan, and Billie Eilish.
  • BTS has a reputation as a socially conscious group. Members have spoken out in support of embracing all races, genders, sexualities, etc. They also founded the “Love Myself” anti-violence campaign in partnership with UNICEF, and have spoken about empowerment and love at the United Nations. There are also numerous other examples of times they’ve helped others or donated to charity that show that they’re pretty good guys.

Why Are BTS So Successful?

As a friend who recently returned from living and working in Korea observed, there are many K-pop groups, and the genre has been around for years. Why are BTS such a success story? I’m not an expert on all things K-pop, although I’ve learned a lot since April 13. But I’ll hazard a guess that a combination of factors has led to the success level that BTS are currently enjoying.

One, of course, is (and should be) the music. I’m not big into pop overall, preferring more rock, alternative, hip-hop, rap, club, and even folk music. But that’s actually why BTS appeals to me. While foundationally there’s a lot of pop to the music, making it catchy and addictive, the albums don’t contain the usual samey-samey sounds throughout, with maybe one breakout radio-play song, that I would expect from the pop realm. Instead, BTS albums move through complex sounds of EDM and club music, R&B, New York and Southern-style hip-hop, rap, cabaret and Latin sounds, harmonious ballads, and even some touches of hard rock. Although other K-pop artists have explored some of the same musical ground, BTS’s music as a collection defies genre. In addition, Western audiences (myself included) tend to value authenticity and individual expression in music. While the idol system can be a deterrent to that, BTS’s choice of lyrics, as well as their heavy involvement in producing their own music, show their authenticity and individualism, and make them stand out from the rest. Plus, it can’t hurt that BTS has collaborated with at least ten American or Western artists to date.

On the subject of image, while the choreographies and many varied “idol” looks of the group are not unusual for the K-pop realm, they are well-done, eye-catching, and (when it comes to the dancing) precise, energetic, and personable. But even more than that, BTS has succeeded in strongly defining each member’s individual talents and personality, making it easy for fans to appreciate them as individuals rather than simply watch the whole. Choreographies that consistently highlight which member is singing each part, solo numbers for each member, and songs such as Outro: Tear which showcase only the rap line, or The Truth Untold,” which showcase only the vocal line, also help to define the members’ performing strengths and give the audience ways to appreciate them as individuals – which can lead to fans developing their “bias” (favorite) and becoming very loyal to a particular member as well as the overall group.

Fans also feel attached to the members due to the group’s willingness to put themselves out there online and share the details and the hardships of their lives. There’s a reason they’ve won a number of top social media awards. Their multitudinous postings of messages to fans

, video clips of themselves and their lives behind the scenes, and personal vlogs about everything under the sun, when combined with the reality shows that give fans reams of video of BTS having fun together, hanging out, and just being people (often, let’s be honest, endearingly hyperactive goofball weirdo people), allow fans to feel like they really know the members and have “spent time” with the real people behind the music and spectacle. The vlogs in particular are valuable in this regard, as no matter how manufactured a group is, there’s no way the company could regularly or rigidly script material like these two goofballs hanging in their hotel room for over an hour, doing everything from playing with video filters to discussing why they like to visit art museums or how the song-writing process goes; or Suga responding to live video chat comments while he eats. These interactions reinforce the experience of authenticity and individual expression by showing fans different facets of BTS – as performers; as a family who foster an atmosphere of perseverance, hard work, and support and good faith cooperation rather than competition but also fight sometimes; and as young men who are still learning and growing as people (for instance, in Run BTS! the members often learn new skills such as cooking, pottery, sports, etc., and the show doesn’t hide that there are occasionally things these men don’t excel at). Fans seeing the members in these different situations, including when they are more vulnerable or “soft” – which in this instance means sweet and caring – feel more connected to them.

The fluidity of K-pop idol identities may also be part of the appeal for Western audiences and especially women – these young men can be aggressive and fierce in their performances, but are also not afraid to be playful and sweet or act Aegyo (a Korean term for cute and affectionate). BTS seems particularly adept at showing multiple facets of their members, and their music videos, live performances, and album “concepts” play with multiple “looks” and moods for the group – from old-school Victorian romantic to street tough to candy-coated prettiness. For instance, compare this pretty, preppy, romantic style

 from their latest album’s “concept” photos (which are included as a photo book in albums) with their look and attitude while performing “Outro: Tear” live.

The relative innocence, humility, and friendliness of K-pop culture is likely also part of the appeal to Westerners. In a culture rife with toxic masculinity [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxic_masculinity], it’s refreshing to see men who can be masculine but aren’t afraid to show other, softer sides of themselves, or to just be respectful, nice, non-aggressive human beings.

This fluidity of identity doesn’t even count the mysterious “AU” storyline, in which members play darker versions of themselves in a multi-piece drama that provides a mystery for fans to solve. The internet is rife with fan theories regarding what is happening in the layered music videos, which are more complex than those of other K-pop groups – and the alternate story is another way in which BTS keeps fans invested, and waiting for the next piece of the puzzle to drop. Attempting to parse out what members are trying to say with this story, or waiting to see its resolution, keeps some fans intrigued and busy examining yet another unique side to BTS.

This dimensionality is also reflected in the concepts and messages of BTS, which have grown and changed as the members have grown, moving from songs like Baepsae which express frustration at trying to live up to a previous generation’s expectations; to the “Cypher” songs, which express anger at those who judge members’ artistic choices; to Mikrokosmos from the latest album, which celebrates the idea that each of us is our own unique star (personality) and that together, our wide variety of stars creates the bright and beautiful light of the universe – a message that is both self-affirming and inclusive. Over time, BTS’s homegrown message has become more strongly positive and encouraging; and this easily resonates, especially with those striving to find their place in the world. It’s also easy to look back at their roots and see that the current positive messages have come from a real place of growth (including growing away from at least one song from 2014 that they’ve since apologized for due to its objectification of women).

Despite their positivity, BTS has not shied away from becoming more aggressive when needed, which also appeals to the sense that this group is less “manufactured” and more real. RM and Suga, in particular, received harsh criticism the year they debuted for leaving the underground rap world to become idols.

Idols in Korea are not always respected as real musical “artists” due to the way they are selected, trained, and groomed by agencies to have a certain audience-friendly look and feel. The linked video shows some of the disrespect received by these two members from underground rappers due to their becoming part of a K-pop group, and the members’ response. (Note particularly at 5:45 where Suga has finally had enough of the questioning and fires back). The response doesn’t stop there, however – at least five of BTS’s albums include impressive diss tracks aimed at their haters – “Cypher Pt. 1,” “Cypher Pt. 2,” “Cypher Pt. 3,” “Cypher Pt. 4,” and finally “MIC Drop,” which, based on the lyrics, may be intended as their last response to their critics. The intensity of these tracks shows that BTS are not afraid of going beyond a K-pop idol image to be real about their anger at being attacked for who they are and their resolve in standing up for the choices they make.

The sincerity shown in this aggressive aspect also appears on the flip side, with the very real way in which BTS approaches their messages and appreciates their fandom. For instance, at each live concert, although the members certainly know how to play to the many cameras set around for close-ups being projected to the big screens, and to the audiences who are there to love them and (often) scream their devotion, there is also a point at the end of each show where each member takes the time

 to address and sincerely thank the audience for being there and to share what that means to them as performers (sometimes they even shed tears of emotion while doing so – or on the occasions when their parents have been in the audience

 to watch their sons perform). In interviews as well, BTS continuously attribute their success to ARMY and humbly recognize that their hard work isn’t all that’s needed. At the same time, the group’s willingness to openly discuss difficult topics (for instance, Suga’s sharing about his struggles with social anxiety and depression), and concerns about the pressures of becoming popular and remembering to love oneself, also evoke a sincerity that makes it easy for fans to feel a kinship with the members.

Of course, part of the reason BTS are so big now is that they’ve been able to conquer not only Asia, but also the Western world. The group sings primarily in Korean, but also includes snippets of English, making it possible for Western fans to at least sing along to some of the songs even before they inevitably decide they should learn some Korean (or read the English translations. I recommend Genius for that). However, other keys to their success are the leadership and fluent English skills of RM, who learned English from watching Friends (really). Not only is he an intellectual who enjoys reading classic literature and incorporating it into the BTS catalogue; but also, when the group is interviewed, he is skilled at both interpreting questions and answers back and forth between languages, and ensuring that other members get a chance to answer so that the audience can get to know each member. (This is not to say that the other members can’t speak at least some English; but they are not as fluent or perhaps confident in their skills.) The members’ ability to share who they are with the Western world via RM’s leadership and skill has garnered them even greater success by allowing Western fans to also feel a kinship with the group and with particular members, and to comprehend all of the above factors that make BTS unique.

Finally, there is one last, indescribable factor that I think has made BTS a success. Individually, of course, they are each talented, fun, mischievous, supportive, kind, and just goshdarned charming as heck. But as a whole? I dunno, bruh – they’re also just a little bit magic.

BTS Members: “Who’s Your Bias?”

Clearly, to understand BTS it also helps to know the members who comprise the group. Plus, one of the seemingly inescapable side effects of becoming a fan of BTS is the desire to learn more about each of its seven members. This will help you decide your answer when you inevitably join ARMY and other fans ask you, “Who’s your bias?” There’s a lot to know before making such an important decision – but relax, because I am here to help you learn. Ready? Let’s go!

RM

Name: Kim Nam-joon

Roles: Leader, rapper, songwriter, composer, producer

Nicknames: Real Me, RapMon, Rap Monster, President Joon, Joonie, Dance Prodigy, God of Destruction

History: RM started rapping (mostly) under the name “Runcha Randa” [https://www.reddit.com/r/bangtan/comments/b4p5ok/rm_predebut_history/ ] when he was in middle school in 2007. He started releasing and also collaborating on songs and eventually joined rap crew “DaeNamHyup” with other talented underground rappers. Based on his work, RM was invited to audition for an underground hip-hop agency. He didn’t make the cut, but one of the judges was so impressed with RM’s skills that he later recommended him to Big Hit CEO Bang Si-hyuk, who was also so taken with RM’s talent that he essentially started building BTS around him in 2010. At the time, Big Hit was still a small company, and RM was the first male trainee, so at first he didn’t even have a dorm to stay in. Apparently, at that time they also didn’t have a trainee program or vetting system for trainees, and worked on building that while RM began training there.

Style and personality: RM has a clear, quick, and forceful rap style with a hard edge, in the mid-to-lower range. In live performances he has a commanding presence and his dance style has a fierce, aggressive energy and plenty of swagger; but also occasionally shifts to a playful, mischievous, or sweet mood.

In interviews and the BTS skit and reality shows, RM comes off as an intellectual, introspective, thoughtful, caring, and conscientious leader, who serves as spokesperson for the group. He pays attention to the other members’ well-being and ensures they all get a chance in the spotlight, and encourages them to speak. He has expressed on numerous occasions his ongoing interest in exploring classical literary and philosophical concepts as well as themes of self-exploration, self-acceptance, and the acceptance of others through BTS’s music and messages. He frequently examines his own growth and past failings, and believes sincerely in the current “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” message of BTS, which encourages people to love themselves and to believe in their own convictions and voice them. However, his solo rap work also shows a darker side, full of anger and swagger that he may still be working on growing beyond.

At the same time, when hanging with the other members, he can be goofy and it’s clear he loves playing around, is irritated with himself when he isn’t excelling, doesn’t really have a mastery over everything he’d like to (e.g. he says he’s not a good cook, and he doesn’t have a driver’s license) and is, let’s say, a little bit clumsy (okay, understatement – his “God of Destruction” nickname comes from his tendency to break things in his immediate vicinity, including himself, his things, other members’ things, and even parts of the music video sets. Basically, he doesn’t always have a stellar grasp on either his own strength or basic spatial relations, and the compilation videos of this in practice are pretty hilarious

).

Solo song to try: “Trivia: Love”

RM’s Spotify list: RM’s Heavy Rotations

RM is my: intellectual bias.

Suga

Name: Min Yoon-gi

Roles: Rapper, songwriter, composer, producer

Nicknames: Min Suga, Motionless Min, Min Snail, Suga Genius, Swag Master, Savage Suga, Agust D (solo name)

History: Before joining BTS, Suga was active in the underground hip-hop scene in Daegu, Korea as a producer and rapper. With the stage name Gloss,” Suga began performing in high school while working part-time in a music studio and composing beats for local artists. He also joined a group called D-Town and worked with them. He then saw an audition for a Big Hit rap competition called “Hit It” that he thought would be a good fit for his goals. The Hit It audition required contestants to use the music from one of four songs (two from RM and two from a rapper named Iron) to create their own rap about school life or a societal issue. Suga’s video entry

used a version of the music from RM’s “Seventeen” that Suga modified. Suga’s video landed him in the finals, where he got second place during a live rap battle

. He joined Big Hit as a producer/trainee, and then, although his first intention was to only be a producer, was the second member to join BTS in 2010. Suga has joked that Hitman Bang tricked him into joining, stating, “He told me I’d be in a group like 1TYM. He said I wouldn’t have to dance, only groove a little. He said all I’d have to do is focus on rapping… [shouting] BTS has some of the hardest choreography done at music shows!” However, he’s also opined that if he’d ended up in the originally intended hip-hop group of six rappers, “I would have gotten better at rapping but the group would have failed.”

Style and personality: Suga is the fastest rapper and has a fierce and facile, slightly off-kilter, rhythmic, flowing, tough but also conversational rap style. He lands in the lower-to-mid range with both a slight lisp and a growl to his sound, and sometimes raps in an impressively deep voice (see, e.g., verse four of “Tear”). There’s an effortless coolness and swagger to his performance, and often also a darkness to it – which is more evident in his solo work as Agust D. That darker solo work also shows the anger and anxiety that underlie an often-quiet exterior, addresses his difficulties with depression and social anxiety, and results in some truly fierce and complex verses.

His dance style echoes his slightly off-balance rap style, and in live performances his presence contains the same effortless coolness and swagger that underlies his rap. At the same time, the occasional relief and satisfaction he shows after a strong performance indicates he cares deeply about performing up to expectations and satisfying audiences. 

In interviews and the BTS skit and reality shows, Suga is often a quieter member, sometimes because he’s tired (he’s famously known for falling asleep just about anywhere, which is attributed to his working in the studio until all hours. He has also said that in his next life, he’d like to be born as a rock and just stay still. Hence the Motionless Min nickname). But more often it’s because he’s paying careful attention to everything that’s happening around him, as is evidenced when he suddenly does interject with a useful point or sly joke, or with a show of concern for another member.

Suga is more introverted, and wants to succeed but isn’t always comfortable in the spotlight; however with members he’s more open and energetic. He’s clearly hardworking, intelligent, and multitalented – writing, composing, and producing as well as rapping. Suga is straightforward and blunt, and stubborn in the sense that he will say what he thinks and stick with it, even if it’s not the popular opinion and he knows that. He’s voiced concerns about living up to fan expectations set by the group’s current success, and is quietly nervous about succeeding and disappointed in himself when he doesn’t succeed (e.g., in the games the members play).

The other members often express respect for him and look up to him, however – they appreciate the way he silently looks after them from time to time; his integrity, serious intent, and hard work; and his broad knowledge, excellent cooking, and basketball skills. He’s also encouraging and supportive when addressing the fandom, and doesn’t take for granted how far BTS has come. He has appreciated the fans with gestures such as preparing hand-assembled and hand-written gifts

 for fans at a fan meeting that was held to celebrate his birthday; and also donated food to a charity on behalf of ARMY. He appears to be best balanced by the energetic J-Hope, who draws him out and makes him laugh. 

Solo songs to try: “Trivia: Seesaw;” Agust D – “Agust D”

Suga’s Spotify List: Suga’s Hip-Hop Replay

Suga is my: emotional bias.

J-Hope

Name: Jung Ho-seok

Roles: Dancer, rapper, sub-vocalist, songwriter, producer

Nicknames: Hope, Hobi, Scared Cat, Sunshine, Dance Machine

History: J-Hope started as a dancer with a dance group called “Neuron” in his hometown of Gwangju, Korea. He then auditioned as a dancer for JYP Entertainment, passing the first few rounds before getting cut. His next audition was for Big Hit, which by that point was looking for people who could sing, dance, and rap. He joined as a trainee, training in rap as well as dance, and was the next member to move into the BTS dorm. J-Hope revealed on documentary “Burn the Stage” that he almost left the BTS lineup, but RM convinced both him and Bang Si-hyuk that the group needed him to succeed, and he returned.

Style and personality: Although J-Hope is unquestionably an excellent rapper, his first love is dance, and he i

phenomenal. His dancing is energetic and joyful – you can tell he’s absolutely having a blast. It’s also amazingly precise, to the point where it looks like he’s invisibly connected to all planes of existence and has exact control over every bit of his body at all times, and can move and land wherever he wants in any direction at will. Frankly, it’s mesmerizing.

J-Hope’s rap style mirrors his dance style and deep understanding of rhythm. It is crisp and precise, in the mid-to-high range, with a sometimes-nasal sound. His voice has a bouncy energy where often you can almost hear his smile, and his joy in performing also shines from his expressive face.

When not performing, J-Hope retains his peppy and positive personality. He is not shy and seems to wear every emotion on his sleeve, which is always entertaining. He does everything expressively and with exuberance, whether it be laughing, screaming in fear (he is afraid of many things [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVPs6-wd0-I], and easily startled), or singing karaoke. He may not, in fact, have an off switch or a volume control. He’s also very sweet to fans and encouraging and complimentary to other members. He’s friendly and wants to be “ARMY’s hope,” and is legitimately a ray of sunshine. Despite his frothy personality, he is also extremely hard-working and dedicated to dance, and can be serious when it’s needed – he’s adaptable.

Solo song to try: “MAMA”

J-Hope’s Spotify List: J-Hope’s Jam

J-Hope is my: cheerful bias.

Jin

Name: Kim Seok-jin

Roles: Vocalist, visual

Nicknames: Worldwide Handsome, Car Door Guy , Third One From The Left, EatJin, Hyung, Prince, Shoulder Guy , Le’jin’dary

History: Jin was actually scouted twice on the streets for his looks – first by SM Entertainment; but he thought it was a scam and didn’t follow up. Then, when Jim was in college, a representative for Big Hit approached him as he was getting off a bus, and convinced him to audition. He originally auditioned to be an actor, and had no prior singing or dance experience.

Style and personality: Although Jin easily hits high notes, his vocals generally tend to fall in the mid-range, which is why sometimes they may not be as noticeable in group songs, instead serving as the foundation for the others’ ranged notes. But he’s a very strong singer with a pure and powerful tone, and in live performances he is passionate, emotional, and soulful.

While when he first trained to join BTS he did not have a background in singing or dance, he’s worked hard to succeed in both arenas. He’s now an amazing singer, and while not the strongest of the dancers, he’s greatly improved in that area. When dancing his gaze is intense and his style is precise on the beats where the choreography calls for an exact move to hit, but with more of a casual movement and attitude in between those beats.

On and off-stage, it seems like at one point his style was more angsty (e.g. in the music video for Danger

) but it seems like he’s grown out of that. In more recent interactions he’s been shown to be positive, sincere, responsible, conscientious, and a little dorky (e.g. he’s now become known for telling “dad jokes”). This feels more like the real Jin, who’s considerate and caring towards the other members, and as the oldest, looks after them a fair amount, including cooking (he’s reputedly a great cook) and cleaning.

Solo song to try: “Epiphany”

Jin’s Spotify list: Jin’s GA CHI DEUL EUL LAE?

Jin is my: conscientious bias.

Jimin

Name: Park Ji-min

Roles: Dancer, vocalist

Nicknames: Chim Chim, Jiminie, Lil Mochi

History: Jimin attended Busan High School of the Arts, where he was a top student in the Department of Dance as a contemporary dancer. One of his dance teachers urged him to audition for Big Hit, so he did, and passed the audition. His was the shortest training period (one year) in BTS prior to their debut.

Style and personality: Jimin is an emotional singer with an airy and angelic voice. He’s got a pretty wide range, a beautiful pure high register, and a slightly husky lower range. He’s also a great dancer, both graceful and dramatic. Of the group, he’s one of two who dances with the most obvious sensual movements, and the sex appeal is not missed by fans. Jimin loves the camera and wants the audience’s love, which makes him open and sweet when performing.

Off-stage, Jimin is sweet and caring and smiles and laughs easily. He’s friendly and talkative and willing to be cute for reactions. He also pays careful attention to the mood in the room and is affected by it, and is a good listener. He likes to tease the other members, but is also pretty thin-skinned and can get easily irritated when teased. His desire to be appreciated and accepted is present both on- and off-stage. He tends to be very self-critical and self-conscious (although he’s managed to become less so over time), but when he forgets that, he’s easygoing and likes to have fun with the other members.

Solo song to try: “Serendipity (Full Version)”

Jimin’s Spotify List: Jimin’s JOAH? JOAH!

Jimin is my: sweet bias.

V

Name: Kim Tae-hyung

Roles: Dancer, vocalist, visual

Nicknames: Tae Tae, Blank Tae, Gucci Boy, CGV

History: V’s childhood dream was to pursue music, so as part of that he learned the saxophone for three years growing up. One day he went to a Big Hit audition to support a friend; but was spotted by one of the Big Hit development team, who encouraged him to audition. He auditioned on the spot (having previously seen and liked the “Satoori Rap” song released by RM, Suga, and J-Hope), and was the only person to pass the audition in Daegu that day. V’s membership in the group was “hidden” prior to the debut of BTS.

Style and personality: V is the baritone of the vocal line. He has a husky, smooth, resonant voice and can hit beautiful highs as well. His singing is intense, serious, and passionate. V’s dance style is dramatic but controlled and contained. He has a grounded and forceful presence, and a slow-burn intensity.

In interviews or interacting with members, V is somewhat eccentric and can seem to live in his own world. When given a task, he will execute it in his own unique and sometimes (intentionally or unintentionally) humorous way (see the infamous “Squirrel Trapped in a Garden” plating

 in a cooking episode of Run BTS!). Yet he is very seriously artistic – including while being an actor who was one of the stars in historical drama Hwarang. He’s also shown his intensity in creating art during the pottery episode of Run BTS!, where he single-mindedly made a variety of beautiful pieces while other members joked around – which then, sadly, all fell down and got smushed before being fired. Despite clearly being disappointed, he met the new development with equanimity and good cheer, and seems overall to be somewhat unflappable.

V has a sometimes idiosyncratic speech syntax

 (maybe when he’s nervous?); and he appears to be sort of free-spirited and careless – but he does pay attention to the moods of his fellow members, and will do things to lighten the mood or make his friends feel better when they’re down. (He also loves his adorable dog, Yeontan

). The key to V might be that he is very self-contained and doesn’t instinctively rely on others for help – he keeps to himself until he can’t any more. This could be in part due to being betrayed by a friend when younger – he has recounted an instance where someone he thought was a close friend gave him the wrong address to a birthday party, leaving V waiting in the wrong place for several hours, hurt and unsure what to do next. Years later the friend revealed that he was jealous of V’s easy ability to make friends and be liked; but the incident still had a strong impact on him. V is certainly one-of-a-kind.

Solo song to try: “Singularity”

V’s Spotify List: V’s Join Me

V is my: contemplative bias.

Jungkook

Name: Jeon Jung-kook

Roles: Vocalist, dancer, sub-rapper, visual

Nicknames: Golden Maknae, Kookie, Muscle Kookie, Muscle Pig, Bunny

History: Jungkook auditioned for the third season of Superstar K in his hometown of Busan, Korea. He was eliminated, but then scouted by seven different agencies that saw him through the audition process. He chose the smaller Big Hit over larger agencies because he was so impressed with RM and his rap skills, and wanted to train with him. During his time as a trainee, he spent around a month in California for dance training.

Style and personality: Youngest member Jungkook is rapidly becoming a performing triple (or more) threat – he’s a fast learner who excels as a singer and dancer and is growing to be a strong rapper as well. As a vocalist he has a wide range, hitting both reasonably low lows, and very pure highs. He falls somewhere between Jin and Jimin in singing style – sometimes airy like Jimin, and sometimes more powerful and soulful like Jin. He even occasionally calls up a little bit of V’s husky sound. Mostly he has a pure sound throughout, and a natural feel for rhythm and groove.  Although primarily at this point he’s a vocalist and a dancer, when he raps his style is rapid, precise, and rhythmic. As a dancer, he is smooth, fluid and sensual (being up there with Jimin in dance-style sex appeal), but also precise and sometimes aggressive. Overall, Jungkook is pretty fearless, and does everything with attitude.

This isn’t surprising, considering Jungkook moved to Seoul to join BTS at the age of fifteen, and has essentially been raised by the other members of BTS since then, also imitating, learning, and adapting to their various performance styles. Thus, he’s pretty much able to do it all (and he’s good at sports, games, and art, too. I think we’d probably all hate him if we didn’t love him.) There’s a reason he’s referred to as the “Golden Maknae” (Golden Youngest).

Given this situation, it’s possible he’s a little bit spoiled, and that’s what spawned the attitude – but he’s also very sweet, and he looks up to the other members and clearly wants to be loved by them. One result of being multi-talented is that he’s perhaps a bit scattershot, having many areas where he excels but not one area where he concentrates the most energy. However, he does enjoy video filming and editing, and seems to be pouring some of his passion into that (as well as into keeping fit à la Jimin, which clearly the fans appreciate). Overall, Jungkook is pretty happy-go-lucky and cheerful, but also strives to succeed and impress his hyungs (older “brothers”).

Solo song to try: “Euphoria”

Jungkook’s Spotify List: Jungkook: I am Listening to it Right Now

Jungkook is my: carefree bias.

 

Wow, I Now Know Literally Everything About BTS. So What Was It Like To See Them Live?

The whole experience was a trip, for real. We got to the stadium hours early because I’d been warned that the lines for merchandise and interactive experiences would be insane. The place was swarming with fans wearing and carrying various BTS and BT21 gear. The merch lines actually weren’t too bad, and along with my official lightstick (a.k.a. “ARMY b0mb”) I got a light-up ARMY b0mb ring, and a “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself Tour” keychain (Suga) and desk flag (RM) for reasonable prices. We then tried to wait for one of the two photo experiences (one where you could take a picture with a hologram of your favorite member, and one where you could take one with a backdrop of the whole group) but those lines were insane and we didn’t manage to get either of them. While waiting in line, however, we had some nice chats with fans, were given fan-made photo cards of members, got free face masks from Korean company Mediheal (which just put out a BTS face mask set that immediately sold out), and checked out the upcoming BTS Mattel dolls before listening from outside to the soundcheck for “IDOL and other songs.

Once we got into the stadium we found our seats, which were on the “floor” level, relatively close to the second stage (the seventh pic here shows our location), and waited for the show to begin. Prior to opening, the giant side screens played various BTS videos, which elicited much excited screaming from fans (as did the artsy “mood” videos played during the show set changes); and then finally, BTS came out, opened with “Dionysus,” and proceeded to rock the stage for the rest of the night.

The entire setlist ran:

“Dionysus,” “Not Today,” “Outro: Wings,” “Trivia: Just Dance,” “Euphoria,” “Best of Me,” “Serendipity,” “Trivia: Love,” “Boy With Luv,” “Dope,” “Baepsae,” “Fire,” “IDOL,” “Singularity,” “Fake Love,” “Trivia: Seesaw,” “Epiphany,” “The Truth Untold,” “Outro: Tear,” “MIC Drop.”

Encore: “Anpanman,” “So What,” “Make It Right,” “Mikrokosmos.”

This was cool, because the set included solo songs for all seven members, plus the songs that separately showcase the rap line and the vocal line. All of the songs were fun to see and hear live, and the members had great energy. Highlights for me included “Not Today” (fierce choreography, and all danced on the closer stage), “Euphoria” (Jungkook soared above the crowd on an impressively minimalistic platform), “Epiphany” (Jin slayed live – while all performances met my expectations, “Euphoria” floored me and exceeded them with Jin’s powerful and passionate singing – it was a bias-wrecker, for sure), “The Truth Untold” (absolutely beautiful performances from the whole vocal line of V, Jungkook, Jimin, and Jin), Outro: Tear (a powerful performance of a fierce song by the rap line of RM, Suga, and J-Hope), “Anpanman” (they just looked like they were all having so much fun), and “Mikrokosmos” (it’s simply a perfect song and mood with which to end the concert, and RM also asked for everyone to turn on their cell phone flashes for it, which turned the stadium into a lovely shining field of “stars”).

Despite having a blast, I would say there were a couple of downsides to the show. I’m sure my comments here won’t be popular with ARMY, but hey – I’m gonna take a page from RM right now and “speak myself.” One issue was, quite simply, the screaming. Honestly, I get the excitement. I really do. But when the continuous excited high-pitched hyperventilating screaming of fans is the reason I wish I’d brought earplugs (rather than the music, which was appropriately-leveled and thus occasionally actually hard to hear over the screaming), maybe it’s time for the screamers to take a deep, calming breath, and then simply let it out quietly instead. I really actually like and want to hear the live singing, okay, frenetic screamers? Just, you know…keep that in mind.

Another was the excited lightstick waving and also filming that tended to block my view. Granted, I took a few short video clips and photos – but there were some folks who had their phone cameras up the whole time, or never stopped waving their lightsticks as high as they could get them (I kept mine around shoulder-level for this very reason). If we had been in the sloped stands instead of all on one level, this might not have been an issue; but on the floor I spent the entire night on my toes and moving back and forth in my spot just to see the choreography, and it actually made the closer view probably less enjoyable than the stands. (Plus, the person next to me had some sort of autographed flag that she clearly hoped the members would see, because she consistently waved it excitedly at the stage and in front of my face until I finally politely told her it was blocking my view, which she did not take kindly. Seriously, though, from up on that stage, as far away as we were, with the members concentrating on performing in all the lights and chaos – they ain’t never gonna see that, honey. Put it away.)

This is not to say I didn’t also enjoy the fans – particularly in this moment, when the whole stadium did the lightstick wave. But basically what I’m saying here is, the performance was awesome but maybe some fans need to up their chill factor until they’re a lot more like Suga. Stop constantly screaming and filming, and instead just watch, listen, and enjoy with some consideration for others, eh? It is, as Suga called it, a “hot tip” on a cool way to experience the actual performance.

 

Well, You’ve Convinced Me. I’m 110% ARMY Now. Where Do I Get Even More BTS?

Big Hit’s BTS website [https://bts.ibighit.com/eng/] conveniently has links to all of their social media at the bottom left, so that’s a good place to start. You can follow up with my YouTube playlist of energetic BTS songs,

which all have either the music videos or the color-coded lyrics so you can get to know who’s singing; and my YouTube playlist of BTS solo songs. You can check out the multitudes of BTS vlog and reality show videos on their VLive page. You can watch the videos with English subtitles:

You can go through their complete song and album list, or listen to their SoundCloud. And you can check out the new content just released for BTS Festa 2019. You can even download the new Weply app for a fresh and easy way to get BTS merch; or puzzle over what is going on with Smeraldo Books, which ties into the AU and is teasing further releases to come.

The other hot new BTS thing that you can check out is the interactive mobile game BTS World, coming June 26. BTS World will have story-based simulations that will let players interact with band members as they help launch BTS into stardom from back at their start in 2012. So far, in advance of the game, two OST songs – “Dream Glow,”  featuring Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, and Charlie XCX, and “A Brand New Day,”  featuring V, J-Hope, and Zara Larsson, have been released. An RM and Suga collaboration was released on June 21 (yesterday!).

Finally, you can win my BTS giveaway, with two limited items! One winner will get the BTS “Speak Yourself” rubber slap bracelet I picked up at the NYC BTS pop-up store

that was open only from May 14-20, 2019. The other winner will get the extra J-Hope photo card

I got in my Persona album. To enter, follow both @popculturesquad and @theemilyesse on Twitter and Instagram (you can enter once on each) and then comment with your BTS bias and the hashtag #BTSxPCS on one of my (@theemilyesse) BTS tweets or Instagram posts.

Good luck! And thanks for reading my accidental treatise on BTS. I purple you all.

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