In 2017, if you asked most Americans to name just one Korean performing artist, odds are high the answer would have been a resounding “BTS.” Known as “Bangtan Sonyeondan” in their home of South Korea, this seven-member boy band has grown from a local pop sensation to a global phenomenon that’s made “K-pop” a household word in households that have probably never even looked at South Korea on a map.
How did they do the impossible, and crack the elusive and highly-competitive American market? Not just crack it; smashed it to the tune (no pun intended) of 1.6 million song downloads, over a billion online streams, and a veritable army — literally “ARMY” as their fanbase is known — of screaming admirers at each and every appearance on their recent U.S. circuit.
No matter that those fans, for the most part, don’t actually understand the Korean lyrics of major hits like “DNA” and “Mic Drop.” That hasn’t stopped BTS devotees from singing along in phonetic approximation, screaming the band members’ names in unison with their patented “fan chants,” and, perhaps most crucially, from buying their record. The group’s latest album, 2017’s Love Yourself: Her, sold nearly 1.5 million physical copies, according to South Korea’s Gaon chart.
That makes them, by a long shot, the bestselling K-pop album of 2017, and arguably the most successful K-pop act of all time — remarkable when you consider the demand they’ve been able to generate in English-speaking markets.
It’s so remarkable, in fact, that it’s earned members Jungkook, Jimin, Jin, J-Hope, V, Suga and RM, a well-deserved collective spot on the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, an accolade that BTS is happy to share with their supporters.
“We think so many people have helped us come this far,” the band said, in an emailed interview with Forbes. “We have seen the list in newspapers, sometime in the past. Being a part of it is [a] great honor.”
Formed in 2013 by little-known South Korea label Big Hit Entertainment, the band initially favored a more hip-hop bent before refining their sound. Their rise to fame wasn’t some overnight product of mass marketing and savvy pop packaging. BTS built their fame deliberately and unhurriedly, with slow burn albums like 2 Cool 4 Skool, O!RUL8,2?, and Skool Love Affair, which together comprised their “school trilogy” series and found moderate success in South Korea and Japan.
By 2016, BTS had started their hypersonic rise to international fame. Their second album, Wings, broke records as the highest debut of a K-pop album in the U.S., and just one short year later, they smashed that record when Love Yourself: Her peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200.
Those numbers aren’t just meaningless figures. The group’s on-the-ground support in the U.S. reflects the mania the band is capable of inducing, fans turning up en masse to appearances on major talk shows like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and of course, their historic performance at the American Music Awards, where they became the first Korean boy band ever to perform. Their popularity overseas seems to have come as a surprise to even BTS, but they see a positive opportunity in their high profile.
“Lately, we [have] begun to realize our influence on people, especially on our fans. We just hope that, with BTS, many people in the world will feel consolation and healing, and share their stories, whether it be grand or small. We really want to be a part of such a cool world!”
It makes sense that BTS would be somewhat taken aback by their influence on their fans. Their followers, known collectively as “Adorable Representative M.C for Youth” or acronymized as ARMY, are notoriously organized, and capable of mobilizing the band’s fanbase across social media platforms to impressive effect; it was coordinated campaigns by fans that have led to major industry awards like the Top Social Artist Award at last year’s Billboard Music Awards. So expansive is their influence online that BTS holds more sway than even the most addicted social media figures, beating out names like Justin Bieber and Twitter’s most infamous user, Donald Trump, as the most tweeted about celebrity in 2017.
Russian bots notwithstanding, BTS also managed to outdo the American president for a Guinness record for Twitter engagements, earning a mind-boggling 252,200 retweets per tweet on average (Donald Trump averages around 98,000 likes and retweets).
So despite what anyone might think…when it comes to Twitter, it’s actually BTS’ world. You’re just living in it, Donald.
See Forbes’ full 2018 30 Under 30 Asia list here.
See which other celebrities made this year’s list here.
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