BTS: Bringing Korean Pop to the West and Changing Perceptions

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Written by Music Industry Essentials student Lauren O’Donnell

The first time many Western listeners ever heard of the term “K-Pop,” was in 2012 when they came upon the catchy, dance driven hit “Gangnam Style” by South Korean singer Psy. This song got K-Pop’s foot in the door, but this one time hit failed to provide the momentum to boost K-Pop into the U.S. music scene.

K-Pop or Korean pop music is not technically a genre of music. It is more of a music style or culture. Its sound is characterized by a combination of pop, EDM, hip-hop, R&B and other genres. K-Pop singers or “Idols” as they are called in Korea, perform difficult choreography and are styled to fit particular concepts in their performances. “Gangnam Style” and its success was both a blessing and curse for K-Pop in the West. It was a hit song performed in the Korean language that brought an artist from that region fame in America. But its humorous nature led to misconceptions and caused Western critics and media to see K-Pop as “bubblegum” pop music that could not be taken seriously. For years K-Pop had virtually disappeared in the West until…BTS.

BTS (방탄소년단)
BTS is a seven member boy group formed in Seoul by Big Hit Entertainment. They debuted in 2013 with the song “No More Dream,” and since then have sold millions of albums, performed to sold-out stadiums worldwide and have changed perceptions surrounding K-Pop.

BTS Music Style and Message
BTS is comprised of three rappers (RM, J-Hope, SUGA) and four vocalists (Jin, V, Jimin, Jungkook). This combination allows for interesting song arrangements, musical styles and variations in vocal ranges. BTS has a very wide range when it comes to genres and sounds in their music. They have incorporated emo rap, latin pop, hip-hop, African drums, traditional Korean instruments, and are never afraid to experiment with genres or different elements in their music.

The messages in their music are very personal to young people and to BTS themselves. The members are involved in the concepts, songwriting and producing of their music. They have discussed topics like mental health, societal expectations, self-love and being true to yourself.

Success in the West
BTS has become successful in the Western market and around the world because they create great music, have a strong relationship with their fans known as the ARMY and they established their fan base before attempting to break into the market. Some K-Pop groups today make appearances in the U.S. before their fanbase is established organically and this does not typically work for the group’s long-term success.

BTS has achieved four #1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, three top ten hits on the Hot 100 and for the last few years has been one of the best selling artists in the world. With each new album release, they sell more copies and top charts in global markets. Their success has opened doors for other K-Pop artists in the U.S. BTS has also made appearances and performed on Carpool Karaoke, SNL, the BBMAs and The Tonight Show to name a few.

Changing Perceptions
BTS has begun to change K-Pop’s perception in the West and has proven that no language barrier, cultural difference or prejudice can prevent them from conquering the global music scene and being able to open doors for K-Pop artists and Korean/Asian artists in general. BTS has received critical praise for their music from respected critics and are now members of the Recording Academy. They have won awards at the BBMAs, AMAs and various Western award shows in addition to their Asian music award shows. Besides the emotional impact their music has on their fans, their sales and awards further prove that BTS and Korean music can be successful in America and the audience is here. BTS’s achievements do not guarantee the success of other Korean artists, but they have set a high standard for what Korean pop music can be and the world is listening.

BTS Impact and Love Myself Campaign
Along with their Love Yourself series of albums, BTS partnered with UNICEF for their Love Myself Campaign to work to end violence against children. To date, over two million dollars has been raised for this global campaign. BTS spoke at the United Nations to talk about their campaign and their message, and were featured on the cover of TIME Magazine’s Next Generation Leaders issue. Their impact on not just music, but the world is a testament to their message and their genuine desire to make the world a better place.

“No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color, your gender identity, just speak yourself.” – KIM NAMJOON (RM of BTS). Excerpt from United Nations Speech

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To experience BTS and other KPOP artists, click on the playlists below.

This program from NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, with contributions from insiders at Billboard and other leaders from across the industry provides a comprehensive overview of the inner workings of the music business and related career paths.

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