The most surprising thing about the recent BTS album is that it was successful

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Bangtan Sonyeondan — better known to western audiences as BTS — made a record-setting splash on the Billboard charts last month. With a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and a top-10 single to boot, the band’s success marks a new chapter in the history of Asian music in America, a chapter radically distinct from previous novelty acts such as “Gangnam Style” phenom Psy.

Not even a high roller would have gambled on its success. When K-pop first tried to breach the American music market, it used the success of Shakira as its model. Early attempts such as BoA’s “Eat You Up” and Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys” aimed for radio success and strained to appeal to a wide audience through English lyrics and hook-laden songwriting.

BTS threw out that rulebook. The band members do not sing in English, aside from a phrase here and there. The band’s music cannot be defined as a crossover hit: the band barely has radio play, its Spotify streaming numbers are tepid, and your average American probably couldn’t name a single member, much less a song.

Instead, what BTS managed to pull off is even more impressive — it gathered a devoted fan base without the help of traditional American musical institutions, a fan base that is a large enough that the band no longer needs to appeal to the general public.

Pop musicians who can carry albums without hit singles to lure in the masses are a rarity — think Madonna, Beyoncé or Lorde — but not since M.I.A’s Maya has a pop act tried this hard to spurn success and stuck to its niche. BTS’ latest, Love Yourself ‘Tear,’ the last of a triptych of albums, is not what we would expect for its triumphant American breakthrough.

There is an established way to create music that crosses the language barrier — examples include Las Ketchup’s “Aserejé” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” — and Tear does not follow it.

Previous globetrotting K-pop hits, such as Girls’ Generation’s “Gee,” have choruses as distinct from their verses as cannon fire is from water gun squirts. In “Gee,” the vocals goose-step in time with the militant 4/4 of the bass. This is the perfect translinguistic hit, carefully constructed so that the theme — being suddenly struck by love — is apparent without the rather disposable lyrics.

This is the tradition that the Bangtan Boys, as the bandmates are sometimes called, are working against. There are four singers and three rappers — an unusually high number of the latter for a K-pop group. The Bangtan Boys’ song lengths are long for pop music, clocking in usually at about four minutes. Their choruses tend to come a full minute into the song. Their verses tend to be rap-heavy and, since each rapper has his own flow, are distinct from one another. This is not ideal pop music composition; this is not your momma’s radio-friendly K-pop.

The album is a return to the R&B and hip-hop sounds of the group’s 2014 record Dark & Wild, after a couple of years on an EDM-flavored detour. A strong R&B vibe in K-pop is unusual.

The linchpins of an R&B sound — a muffled transition from the verses to a chorus, slippery vocals that stray from the beat — work against catchiness, that cornerstone of pop music success.

In short, the band’s compositions tend to be loose, formless and, for K-pop songs, relatively hookless. BTS’ success, then, marks the maturity of K-pop listening tastes in America. No longer are Western K-pop fans charmed merely by just flashy music videos, perfectly coordinated dance sets and simple earworm tunes — they take K-pop seriously as an artistic medium and hunger for authenticity and experimentation within its confines.

What sets BTS apart from its boy band competitors is that it co-writes and sometimes co-produces its own material. If the tracks on Tear are somewhat clumsy in composition, so be it — it is merely a marker of the band’s self-made bona fides. On Tear, there are songs mourning the loneliness of Pluto and celebrating the life-changing magic of giving up — hardly typical boy band subjects. BTS’ fanbase aren’t just excited by the pretty boys — there are plenty of those in the K-pop scene already — but are genuinely excited by the unpredictableness of its music, its lyrics, its behavior.

The enormous success of BTS signals that K-pop has completed the transition from novelty to subculture to genre in America. This understates what is actually a major event in American musical history; there is now a big enough market in America for Korean pop music that bands such as BTS can bypass the mainstream entirely and still make good money.

Where is BTS then? It might be geographically Korean, but its fanbase really lives in the enormous undersea threads of the world wide web. BTS’ mysterious popularity in America, despite having little presence on the national stage, is because its fanbase has little to do with national boundaries. Its songs aren’t meant to dominate radio waves — they’re to win the adulation of BTS’ fans, to live on in Tweets and blogs, to become popular from the margins. These songs sneak up on the mainstream when it isn’t looking and take us all by surprise.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected]. Tweet him at @AdeshThapliyal.

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  • Katy

    This is really… I mean… I appreciate where the article was coming from but BTS didn’t ‘throw out any rulebook’ they were never aiming for a western market. They are a Korean group that sings in Korean and does things the way they want to.

    They are successful because they are talented and their music transcends borders. It is not ‘surprising’ the album did well in America.. they are the biggest boygroup in the entire world right now.

    idk this just could have been better researched and a little less of pining BTS against their sunbae groups would have been great.

  • Fabienne Sacy

    Thank you so much for this article! It was a treat to read and I wholeheartedly agree with it. I’m so grateful that you took the time to underline that BTS’ success stems from the fans’ sincere interest towards them, not only in terms of choreographies and looks, but also in terms of music and creativity. We ARMYs truly respect BTS as artists and the fact that you take the time to establish that means a lot to us.

    For other ARMYs, this article is written from an American perspective. So the whole “nobody would bet on BTS” is merely stating the truth: most Americans would never have predicted BTS’ success and keep getting surprised by it. What is evident to us isn’t to them and that’s something to keep in mind.

  • Twana Gilles

    They will continue to break boundaries. American music has become so lethargic, and continue to push music from the past in our faces. Force feeding us Janet Jackson, Salt and Peppa,and other artists who have the same gangsta rap crap that is so very tiresome. BTS is like a breath of fresh air, and has proven this time and agian. The old acts are not selling out arenas any longer. I would not cross the street for another tired GAGA concert,or Brittany Spears. Even Taylor Swift makes me yawn. The Army masses have spoken,and these 7 young men have worked hard and proven themselves to their loyal fan base. They actually CARE about ARMY!! They are not taking their fan base for granted and every performance is for their fans. American artist could care less. The fans make the artist. Without the public listening and buying and purchasing their products they are nothing!! I promise ARMY and BANGTAN are here to stay!!!

    • Melody Bostic

      Fellow army here. As much as I agree that BTS will continue to flourish, i Have to strongly point out how your inclusion of “gangsta rap” in your comment was not only wrong but also came across as semi racist. None of the artists you chose to mention are even vaguely close to making gangsta rap but they are all black which is why I suspect you chose that to describe their genre of music. Next time, please think through your comments before you post and note that you can praise BTS without mentioning others.

  • Ritu

    Thank you for this ! This was a really interesting read !

  • Darkness before the dawn

    “These songs sneak up on the mainstream when it isn’t looking and take us all by surprise.”

    One of the more insightful articles about bts. Thank you for doing your research

  • Beverly Elcock

    This was an extremely well done piece and overall look of who BTS is. Thank you for not relying on shallow assumptions and “social media” and “fangirl” explanations to explain BTS’ success. They are not following a formula, they are genuinely who they are. Which is why we love them! ^-^ – Sincerely 28 yr old ARMY

    • asanumba1

      “social media” and “fangirl” actually is the biggest reason and maybe you should wake the f up from this delusion and denial?

    • asanumba1

      “social media” and “fangirl” explanations to explain BTS’ success is exactly the biggest reason, but convince yourself otherwise with delusion if it makes you sleep better at night.

      • Amy Love

        and with success comes the haters who don’t know what they are talking about. BTS success is because of their MUSIC, talent, passion, and hard work!! Go listen and read the lyrics of ‘The Last’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Awakening’, check out some BTS Cyphers 2,3,&4 or RM’s ‘Joke’, ‘Agust D’ and Jhope’s mixtape to hear how they are not like any others and not your average ‘boyband’

        • asanumba1

          It’s ok. delusional teenygirls can believe whatever they want to believe. I really care!! LOL!!!

          • Tae

            It’s OK. Delusional morons with no personality can believe whatever they want to believe. We REALLY care!! LOL!!!

          • asanumba1

            Yup. That’s why only won fan voted award in BBMA because trumps over album of the year for recognition for their music, LOL!! Yup, delusional moron like you shouldn’t care, hahah!

          • Tae

            Wow, you really know a lot about them considering you’re not a fan.. Get a life, maybe then you can become successful yourself and you will not have to try to drag down awesome and talented people like BTS! I wouldn’t be surprised, if they weren’t the only ones… Since hating is all that you really do in your life. ‘LOL!!’

          • Tae

            You’re probably a fan of, .. Selena Gomez or something? It’s not bad to like her, it’s just that her music is like everyone else’s and that’s why she gets more recognition..

          • asanumba1

            LOL, you need to get life. You keep writing to me like I care but I know truth hurts, huh? Enjoy for the fact that BTS are only capable of winning social media award, because that has nothing to do with rabid fangirls are being the reason for their popularity. YUP, it’s all music, moron, LOL!!!!!

          • Tae

            If I recall, you were the one who replied to me about you being a moron with no life.. Yup, you really do look desperate, what was the point of hating in the first place?

          • asanumba1

            Wow, you are now a moron with gold fish memory huh? Delusion has no end for fat slob like you, LOL!!

          • Tae

            Omg, you actually replied….. Just now we can see, who is the desperate one with no life.. I don’t have time for this, kiddo… If you have problems with self confidence, you should talk with your parents about it, not “try” to insult someone who is clearly a lot older than you, and whose appearence you haven’t even seen in pictures… Anyway.. Bye girly!

  • Ella

    So many things about this article are wrong. One example is when it said that Lobe Yourself Tear was the last in a triptych of albums. 1) It’s not the last tin the series. 2) It’s the 2nd of 4 albums in the series, so triptych is not the right word. BTS also doesn’t just try to please ARMY, they still try to appeal to the general public. Those are just two of the things wrong. Please do more research before writing another article.

    • Beverly Elcock

      You read this wrong, dear. That’s not what they are saying in regards to appealing to GP. They are masking a statement that they don’t NEED to and can be successful without following a formula to win the GP.

    • NoctisNyx

      The writer probably meant to write latest in a triptych, but they’re not wrong since Love Yourself will only consists of 3 albums. Love Yourself: Answer should be the last in the series since BH confirmed that Wonder would only consist of the MV for Euphoria instead of an album.

    • Fabienne Sacy

      I think it was meant that it’s the latest FULL ALBUM? In which case it is indeed the third: the first one is Dark&Wild, the second one, Wings.

  • Chelsea

    This article gave off a sort of negative vibe, but the worrying thing to me is “Not even a high roller would have gambled on its success.” What? BTS has been charting on Billboard since the release of WINGS in 2016, I think even before that, rising up slowly but surely. The first album of the Love Yourself series was even more successful. Why would Love Yourself: Tear’s success be unexpected?

    • div is proud of bts

      lots of kpop albums have landed on the world albums and billboard 200 charts. i think the question was, why would bts break through when other groups don’t? and why would a group that has not by any means gone mainstream outside of their home country break through suddenly? people believe the stigma against kpop and foreign/asian music in general to be too great to surpass in america. bts did what no one expected; they’ve broken that stigma, or are in the process of doing so.

    • Beverly Elcock

      I seem to be saying this alot but you read this wrong, dear. They are not negative at all. They are comparing and contrasting the usual success formula and actually complementing BTS on their genuineness. They are actually saying they have risen up as a surprise to the general public that was not paying attention to them. As a writer myself, this was very well written to make a good point.

  • UGotNoJams

    I loved the article but it seemed to be a bit lacking. It seems as if this person just recently got into BTS and did brief research.

  • Grisell Jiménez

    Este es un increíble artículo!
    Simplemente genial y hermoso…

  • hamsa nur

    Reading this article made me smile big, I don’t know much about k-pop and how the music industry works but when I listen to Bangtan music I feel attached to the lyrics, beat, and the unexpected vibe it gives, every- time they release a song or an album, I’m willing to purchase because I know it different from previous album and has different vibe ( of course this is my opinion) and sometimes we as fans pre-order without even know the concept or any detail about the album because we already know they will surprise us with something new and refresh. I’m happy to see more people are actually digging into way BTS has dedicated fans, that are willing to chart them in any charts. I hope more people continue to join the fandom and appreciate BTS music.

  • Grand Master Sexay

    R&B vibe in kpop is unusual? Even the high roller wouldn’t have bet on their success? You can tell this writer just found out about BTS and kpop in general just recently and wrote this based on his recent (brief) research (lacking). LY:H success and their performance in AMA was a step toward greater things to come, but hey, journalism is dead in today’s bloggers world.

    • Jas

      The quote was “a strong R&B vibe in K-pop is unusual”. That is true. BTS has always had an unusually high fan retention rate. Mainstream shows like the AMAs only picked up on their american fanbase last year, but there has always been fans especially from 2015 onwards, increasing with each album.

      • asanumba1

        What a moron. If you don’t know what R&B really is, you should stop talking out of your rear end, idiot. EXO has multiple R&B songs including Love LOVE LOVE, overdose and moonlight. Red Velvet has ton of R&B songs in every track they release including bad boy recently. Not to mention 2ne1, big bang, Nct, Vixx, pristine, etc. OMG, the amount of morons here is so funny!! Should I list more Kpop R&B related songs, moron?

    • 120396

      I think you’re missing the point of the article. The author is trying to compare the meteoric rise BTS has experienced with the help of ARMY despite not following previously crafted ‘success’ formulas. There is obviously a lot to be read between the lines.

      • Grand Master Sexay

        No, I didn’t miss the point but you apparently did about their success in part due to their latest release tracks that by bloggers account, it offered something new and unusual that never done before in Kpop narrative which is also incorrect.

        “A strong R&B vibe in K-pop is unusual. The linchpins of an R&B sound — a muffled transition from the verses to a chorus, slippery vocals that stray from the beat — work against catchiness, that cornerstone of pop music success.”

        RIGHT, there is obviously a lot to be read between the lines.

        • 120396

          R&B is unusual in KPOP when we’re talking about KPOP groups. Yes, the ‘gayo’ singers, or singers not considered idols sing alot of R&B but that is not the same for KPOP, which leans more towards trendy and poppy sounds like EDM and the like. One rap verse that seems obligatory in every KPOP doesn’t make the songs hip-hop songs.
          Yes, it isn’t like it hasn’t been done before, but it’s a rarity, and BTS’ style certainly sets them apart either way.

          • Grand Master Sexay

            I’m not going to correct your ignorance but I’ve already addressed this with only spinets of examples below.

          • asanumba1

            Wow, why am I not surprised by stupidity and ignorance from dumbass I-fans? LOL!!

        • YannyTello

          There is R&B in Kpop but not most kpop is R&B, therefore it is unusual. Same as there are some other kpop idols that produce and write songs but most of them don’t and least of all in the same group.

          • asanumba1

            This idiot takes the cake as dumbest poster of the year!

          • asanumba1

            you win the cake with most idiotic post of the day.

    • Bangtan_Admiral

      Yes, it is unusual and rare. If you look at the latest releases this year, there are very few RnB releases.

    • Ariel Bangtan Style

      Actual R&B is highly very rare in K-Pop. If you are thinking of artist like Dean, Crush, Zion T. YES they do R&B extremely well but they aren’t classified as K-pop. The artist who have the distict K-pop sound or who do “idol music” as it’s called in Korea do not step into R&B often. BTS is one of the few groups. This article was actually very well written and was unflinchingly honest. BTS is not mainstream here.. they get way less radio play then artist who are doing worse on the BillBoard charts than BTS is. But like the article stated their fandom is large enough here in America and worldwide to sustain them. However I truly believe in time, with more “music” awards and exposure here in America they could become mainstream.

      • Grand Master Sexay

        First of all, KPOP is not a separate genre as you or other foreign fans are making it out to be. It’s like British rock and Beatles should be a genre of its own, instead of being just rock? It’s a POP music produced in KOREA. That’s all it is. Music is music. Only difference is language but to categorize music based on language and place it in its own genre is foolish IMO.

        SK actually has very deep root in R&B and vibe has been constant presence everywhere in Kpop since 1980’s from Seo Taiji’s influence over his multiple albums to rise of SM and YG’s artists to Yoon Mi Rae, Ra. D, SOLID, and even Lee Hyori. Fly to the sky is an R&B duo along with solo artist such as Wheesung, Lyn, Hwayobi, and Suran all incorporate heavy R&B in their music if not strictly R&B to name just a few in the last decades plus. I’m not even mentioning all of the current Idols or groups and even the underground scene as they are all very active in Korean music scene, and there are WAY too many to name all TBH. Just because people doesn’t recognize or aren’t familiar or educated in music, it doesn’t mean it certain music doesn’t exists. There are always multiple tracks in an album and if people base only on released track to formulate whether R&B “vibe” was incorporated in certain artists music in Kpop, then yes, there aren’t many. Just as many new Kpop fandom all of sudden finding out certain idols have and had multiple roles in music scene along with acting gigs that never knew they had.

        The blog is well written but there is nothing new here that I haven’t read about them 15+ articles before it, about how they obtained and garnered their fanbase to their meteoric rise to western market without radio play or with their unconventional way with Korean language only tracks. It doesn’t take rocket scientist to figure out how much bigger their latest album release was going to be just by watching their trajectory from their previous EP release that broke most of the Kpop records and the part of premise that this album is more successful because of “R&B vibe that’s rare in Kpop” is wrong wrong wrong narrative.

        • Ariel Bangtan Style

          I don’t even think K-pop is a genre..its just a catchall/catch phrase that people use to categorize idol groups. They are the ones exclusively always called K-pop. No one generally calls Yoon Mi Rae, or Hwayobi etc etc K-pop which is why I wasn’t considering them. I was speaking of the idol groups who largely do not use R&B in their albums or title tracks often.
          Also I agree, it was obvious their latest album was going to do even better on the charts, they have gained new fans and exposure from the western music awards, however I didn’t pick up on the author attributing Tear album being a success due to the R&B vibe.

          • Grand Master Sexay

            Big Bang, 2NE1, and most of YG idols incorporate lot of R&B in their tracks. Taeyang is all R&B. Red Velvet just released a song called “Bad Boy” which is an R&B track. SNSD’s Mr Mr is R&B with electro pop influence just to pick one out of many of theirs. Khan just released an R&B track called I’m your girl. Pristine V just released a R&B pop called Get It. Every Kpop album has at least one track that’s an R&B or multiple tracks with heavy influence. R&B is always present in Kpop. People just aren’t knowledge enough about them to recognize TBH.

          • Seaweed

            You know there’s more than 200 groups in kpop right? With maybe more than one album per group so more than a thousand songs in total. And the writer isn’t wrong to say that rnb is rare in kpop

          • asanumba1

            and u listen to all 200 groups to know which is which? being dense, clueless and pointless its not rewarding, last time I checked.

          • Seaweed

            Lmfao chill. Yall love to attack people everytime

          • asanumba1

            Fact that you clueless morons are even responding to something you have zero knowledge is funny in itself. I read postings and I laugh how dumb you fangirls are, WOW, LOL!!!

          • asanumba1

            “People just aren’t knowledgeable enough about them to recognize TBH.”

            I LOOOOVE that quote lol!!

        • peachleaf

          Many of the artists you mentioned aren’t idols, though, and Kpop is just as much a genre as it is an industry. It originally started off as an industry, not a genre, bc SK wanted to export it globally.

        • Jas

          “kpop” isn’t the same as “popular music in korea” though. They’re talking about “idol music”. The groups put out by companies etc. I don’t classify bigbang as kpop idols, but korean artists. When foreign fans, and even the korean general public thinks of kpop they are thinking about the manufactured groups of multiple members, who aren’t involved in the creation of their music. They may have strong fanbases, but they are largely ignored by the general public

        • asanumba1

          Props for writing well composed essay and trying to educate these clueless fangirls. I think it was a complete waste of time. reading couple of replies tell me how dumb and clueless these I-fans are, wow!!! I guarantee you most of them can’t tell a difference between r&b to edm, let alone recognize half of the genre out there. they are deleting all my responses so most likely this will get deleted as well, but one thing clear is how lacking of reading comprehension is here and big bang is not an kpop idol based on their own idiotic preference lol!!

    • Ritu

      RnB in kpop is very rare . Indie Korean artists have a lot of RnB tracks but kpop rarely steps into RnB

      • asanumba1

        What a moron. If you don’t know what R&B really is, you should stop talking out of your rear end, idiot. EXO has multiple R&B songs including Love LOVE LOVE, overdose and moonlight. Red Velvet has ton of R&B songs in every track they release including bad boy recently. OMG, the amount of morons here is so funny!! Should I list more Kpop R&B related songs, moron?

    • asanumba1

      problem here is none of these idiots really know what R&B really is let alone what music really is. LAWL!! Apparently they never heard of EXO, red velvet, big bang, 2ne1, monstax, vixx, etc etc etc
      when they say majority of I-fans are the dumbest ones, I believe it now!!