The Triumph of BTS

We’re talking about utopian and dystopian futures, about how the boundary-smashing, hegemony-overturning global success of his group, the wildly talented seven-member South Korean juggernaut BTS, feels like a glimpse of a new and better world, of an interconnected 21st century actually living up to its promise.

BTS’ downright magical levels of charisma, their genre-defying, sleek-but-personal music, even their casually nontoxic, skin-care-intensive brand of masculinity — every bit of it feels like a visitation from some brighter, more hopeful timeline.

“We are outliers,” says RM, “and we came into the American music market and enjoyed this incredible success.” In 2020, seven years into their career, BTS’ first English-language single, the irresistible “Dynamite,” hit Number One, an achievement so singular it prompted a congratulatory statement from South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in.

The way we think is that everything that we do, and our existence itself, is contributing to the hope for leaving this xenophobia, these negative things, behind.

At the moment, RM is in an acoustically treated room at his label’s headquarters in Seoul, wearing a white medical mask to protect a nearby translator.

V’s jacket; Suga’s T-shirt; Jin’s top and necklace; Jungkook’s coat; RM’s jacket and necklace; Jimin and J-Hope’s shirts and jackets by Louis Vuitton.

Bang Si-hyuk, the cerebral, intense-yet-avuncular mogul-producer who founded BTS’ record company, Big Hit Entertainment , signed RM first, in 2010, and gradually formed BTS around the rapper’s talent and magnetism.

Now, thanks to BTS’ success, HYBE is a publicly traded corporation so large it just snapped up the American management company behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.

Jungkook, the youngest member, whose multiple talents include an extraordinarily soulful tenor, had offers to sign with multiple entertainment agencies, but chose Big Hit and BTS because of RM.

Suga and J-Hope were the first two members to join after RM, at a point when Si-hyuk imagined a pure hip-hop group.

J-Hope is a stunning dancer, and a surprisingly aggressive rapper, a skill he learned in his trainee days.

“I want to emphasize, for the record, that everybody went berserk about how good-looking I was,” he says of a recent appearance on a South Korean TV variety show.

V, a fan of jazz, classical music, and Elvis Presley, with a distinct baritone, ended up a Big Hit trainee by accident, after showing up to support an auditioning friend.

Jimin is a virtuosic, formally trained dancer who also hits some of the most impossibly high notes in BTS’ catalog.

“We argued a lot in the beginning, of course, but I think now, because we have spent so much time together, I began to like even the things about the other members I used to hate.

He drops quotes from Nietzsche and the abstract artist Kim Whan-ki in interviews, and celebrated his 26th birthday by donating nearly $85,000 to a museum foundation to support the reprinting of rare fine-art books.

The group as a whole shares a penchant for weighty themes, basing an album cycle on Jungian psychology, brilliantly using Pluto’s loss of full-planet status as a romantic metaphor on the song “134340,” lacing music videos with a labyrinthine ongoing storyline.

Along with their comfort with makeup and iridescent hair dye, it all plays into their instinctive rejection of rigid conceptions of masculinity.

RM: Jacket, shoes, necklace and ring by Givenchy; shoes by InstantFunk.

In their early days, with their singles “No More Dream” and “N.O.,” BTS wrote directly about the frustrations of South Korean youth, who faced relentless pressure and competition in school and the job market.

There were things we were able to say, from what we felt and from our experiences about the unreasonableness of school, or the uncertainties and the fears and anxieties that teens have.

BTS’ full name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” and the idea, roughly, was that they would be friends and protectors of youth, on an almost spiritual level.

hit with “Life Goes On,” a wistful ballad that stands as the definitive pop response to the pandemic year.

It’s a pure, swaggering dance-pop celebration in the retro vein of Bruno Mars, with layers of Jam and Lewis-style synths and boasts of being “smooth like butter” and having a “superstar glow.” “It’s very energetic,” says RM.

By taking a strong hand in the writing of their music, BTS have always stood apart from traditional K-pop methods, and, for that matter, much of songwriting-camp-dominated U.S.

Outside of the members’ contributions, most of the production and songwriting was long accomplished in-house at Big Hit, with Si-hyuk and a team of producers and songwriters collaborating.

“It’ll come back and they’ll say, ‘We love these two parts that you did,’ ” says August Rigo, a Filipino Canadian songwriter who worked on the 2020 singles “Black Swan” and “On.” “ ‘Then we have this verse, and we have this section that we’re not quite sure of.’ So it’s like piecing a puzzle together in collaboration with BTS.

“The next thing we knew there was an email, saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing this and we’re looking for this’ and ‘BTS is into your work,’” says Ivan Jackson, one half of Brasstracks, who previously worked with Mark Ronson and Chance the Rapper.

HYBE put out word that BTS were ready for an English-language single, and BTS and their label chose the song from multiple submissions.

Forming a Covid bubble, BTS kept busy in the studio last year, first with “Dynamite” and then November’s album Be, the mellowest and most mature work of their career, which includes “Life Goes On.” But 2020 still provided their most time off since they joined Big Hit as trainees.

The bond between BTS and their ARMY is real, and the guys have genuinely missed their fans, missed the road.

Fans have lived up to BTS’ faith in them again and again, assembling professional-level documentaries, embarking on ambitious research and translation projects, and collectively matching BTS’ million-dollar donation to Black Lives Matter in just 25 hours.

Over the course of the group’s existence, none of the members of BTS have acknowledged any romantic relationships, though several have alluded  to dating before they joined.

J-Hope’s coat and pants by Fendi; ring by FOTL; necklace by Wilhelmina Garcia.

Now Big Hit’s success is our success, and our success is Big Hit’s success.” It also meant a multimillion-dollar windfall for the group when HYBE went public last year.

There’s a pitfall waiting for BTS that every enduring male South Korean group has faced: In light of ongoing tensions with North Korea, men are typically required to start a 21-month term of military service by their 28th birthday.

“I think the country sort of told me, ‘You’re doing this well, and we will give you a little bit more time,’ ” says Jin.

Assuming that the law isn’t changed again, offering another extension, Jin understands it’s possible BTS could go on without him for a while.

At least one K-pop group, Shinhwa, got back together after their own time in the military, and are still a group after 23 years.

I think when I become older, and I grow my own beard” — he gestures to my facial hair and smiles — “I would like to think that at the end, when I’m too old to dance, I would just like to sit onstage with the other members and sing and engage with the fans.

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