Their first all-English single “Dynamite,” meant as pandemic-mood-lifter (disco!), got 10 million YouTube views in 20 minutes upon its release on Aug. 21, or 100 million views in a little more than 24 hours—breaking YouTube records and becoming the fastest song in history to reach that mark (more than 200 million views as of this writing).
Their seventh anniversary virtual concert “Bang Bang Con” last June 14 drew an online global audience of over 700,000, raising $24 million in ticket sales (Rolling Stone) for an hour-and-40-minute show.
Strange as it may be, BTS went from prepandemic strength to pandemic strength.
The other day, author Paulo Coelho tweeted: “To all those who are always criticizing @BTS_twt, the most important band in the world: Please watch a few videos: I am sure you gonna change your mind.”
They have broken perhaps all music records to be broken, including that of the Beatles (more than three top-of-the-charts in Billboard in a year).
This year, Harvard Business academics published a case study about the BTS phenomenon—“Big Hit Entertainment and Blockbuster Band BTS: K-Pop Goes Global.”
Their agency, Big Hit Entertainment (BH), once the underdog of K-pop, is expected to do its IPO (initial public offering), and according to digital publication Fast Company, has surpassed Apple in the 2020 Top 50 list of Innovative Companies, landing No.4 (after Snap, Microsoft, Tesla), after it released its apps, Weverse and Weverse shop, in effect jumping over Twitter, YouTube and other streaming apps.
In truth, BTS have gone beyond K-pop to becoming a global force, thanks to their digital rule over tens of millions of fans worldwide. Their songs’ English subtitles apparently were no barrier at all. “I can’t believe my twins are singing in Korean,” a Filipino businessman told me. “And they buy merch in Weverse, no fake merchandise for them.”
Even nonfans watch BTS on YouTube making the rounds of—and shaking up—talk shows in the United States and London, from James Corden to Jimmy Fallon, with an unprecedented performance at New York’s Grand Central Station (stopping city commute briefly).
One funny behind-the-scene clip caught Jungkook (JK)—BTS’ multitalented youngest member with the ravenous appetite who enjoys American burgers and hotdogs— telling the other members which talk show served the best hot dog sandwich backstage.
BTS also addressed the United Nations about their generation’s need to “love yourself, speak yourself” (lifted from their 2018 world tour title). With the Obamas, who are said to be fans, BTS became the finale of this year’s virtual graduation, Dear Class 2020, on YouTube.
Their fandom, aptly called the Army, numbers tens of millions (@BTS_twt alone has 28.2 million followers on Twitter), from here to Estonia, across age demographics—a K-pop base whose unity was shown when it contributed $1 million dollars to Black Lives Matter to match the $1-million BTS donation, and its collective brawn made evident when, reports claimed, it spooked Trump’s rally in Atlanta (they bought online tickets and didn’t show up).
They have filled Olympic-size stadiums in America, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Seoul, the crowds numbering as big as 80,000 a night—for three-night performances sometimes. It is said that when they performed at Citi Field in New York, the subway system had to extend its hours to accommodate after-concert commuters.
Yet it’s not their success in music and entertainment alone that made us sit up. It’s how these boys have taught us about the perplexing world of digital and how to use its limitless possibilities. And thanks to COVID-19, there seems hardly any other world now.
I tell friends in marketing and communication that if they want to crack the digital world, they should study BTS, the hands-down rulers of the digital era, and how they can command a global digital audience—beyond their music.
To me, that is what makes the BTS narrative interesting and phenomenal. Theirs is the zeitgeist of the era, before and through the pandemic.
For the past seven years, since their debut in 2013, BTS have been living in the digital aquarium, not only in concert and music videos, but also in their unpredictable behind-the-scene clips, reality show series (“Bon Voyage,” “Run,” and “In the Soop”) which are entertainingly real because they show the irrepressible uniqueness of each member.
Not only are they funny, BTS also engage the Army to a degree perhaps no celebrity has done.
For instance, in a livestream of their brainstorming on the concept of their upcoming album cover, BTS’ V, in charge of the discussion, was asked by BTS leader RM why he wasn’t jotting down notes for their report to management. V just pointed at the camera and said the Army were taking down notes for him and would submit to him on Weverse later. You mean they’d do a PowerPoint with Gothic typeface, an amused RM asked. Online assignment for fans—you can’t get more interactive than that—that was so funny.
During their 2013 debut, it is said that BTS were so inconsequential in the cutthroat K-pop world that they couldn’t even land slots in Korean TV shows. This motivated BH to use the digital platforms as early as then, putting BTS on social media, YouTube, setting up Bangtan TV to stream videos that have become innumerable by now and which continue to be sustained by fans who come up with all kinds of video content on the boys, round the clock.
What was born out of necessity has become a 24/7 digital diet for millions of fans worldwide, among them our contributor Nikko Dizon, who brought us to the digital habit that is BTS.
All this brings me and my friends back to the question— are these boys for real?
How can a global force—which they are now—seem so grounded, be regular guys like your sons: hyper, “pasaway” and “makulit” (no exact English terms), simple yet unpredictable, caring yet rebellious when least expected, remembering their moms at the drop of a hat (when forced to do house chores), loving travel (but losing travel documents), and—they always get hungry.
They have something every mom would want of their sons: in a heartbeat, before Olympic-size stadium audiences, they thank their parents and tell them how much they love them—“My parents are now proud of their son, thanks to you,” BTS’ Jin, in tears, told the Army audience. V’s grandmother, who raised him, died as BTS were performing at SM Arena in Metro Manila in 2017, and V recounted this before a tearful stadium some time later.
How can seven young men on top of the world not be wrapped up in celebrity hubris? How do they keep their old-fashioned values, like love of parents, a strong work ethic, a solid brotherly bond perhaps unparalleled in celebrity circles—the eldest used to drive the youngest, then 15, to school in the early BTS years (they’ve lived together for seven years, or 10, initially in the dorm in their pre-debut training)?
Good marketing/branding, we said initially, but for seven years or more? That’s pretty hard to sustain if you’re under the digital microscope (not even for a Kennedy—sorry, that’s my generation’s point of reference). It’s a rawness that didn’t get covered up by the gloss of time or the glitz of fame.
In our Lifestyle staff is a K-Pop authority whose stock knowledge of this pop culture is incomparable. Another could easily post in our staff chat a line from “Euphoria.” The others put up Super K.
So BTS is no stranger to Lifestyle. But I stumbled on BTS only when Park Bo-gum danced an excerpt from “Boy with Luv” during his fan meet here in 2019. “Boy with Luv,” an award-winning icon by now, led us to the heart-stoppers “Idol,””Fire,””DNA” and now to the group’s individual compositions on SoundCloud (JK’s “Still With You”).
It was their hyper-energy concerts, jaw-dropping choreography, visually appetizing videos, memorable music that drew you at first.
But what really roped me and my friends in were “Bon Voyage,” their reality travel series from 2016 taking them to Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Malta over the years, their 2017 Summer Package of Coron, Palawan, and their hilarious “Run” series.
“Bon Voyage” (“Bon Vo-ya-jey,” in their new-to-English-and-French tongues) takes you to and with BTS on trips, keeping you amused by their sense of wonder and insecurities (taking Sweden’s bus transit). Why are they not jaded?
The series is relatively more raw than other reality shows, perhaps because BTS are young, with hardly any inhibitions, and are used to living on-cam. And the camera doesn’t cut off their quirks.
Their ages ranging now from 28 to 23 (the youngest was 15 when they debuted), they are digital natives. Like your sons, they grew up with gadgets, on hip-hop and rap. But unlike other boys, not only could they live on-cam (at least before the pandemic) for the most part of their careers, but they also don’t get self-conscious (kissing the camera lens is their reflex or use it as a mirror upon waking up). They use it to connect with fans. (I copied J-hope’s stretching exercises and his use of face sheets at night.)
“Bon Voyage,” “Run” and “In the Soop” (forest), which premiered Aug. 19, brought them to your quarantine homes—and that’s where they stay in your self-isolation.
They’re a happy pill for these uncertain times, so I recommended BTS-watching to a friend prone to depression. She’s been on that BTS antidepressant: “Seven very cute Korean guys singing catchy songs and dancing up a storm—how can you possibly still feel low after watching that?”
So if you’re a communicator/brand marketer who wants to succeed in the mad scramble that is now the digital platform, you can learn a thing or two from BTS.
BTS use technology to capture what is human. How?
They are funny just by being themselves—a youth that has no need for manufactured visuals or scripts.
Language is no barrier because digital has subtitles. There’s Google-translate. Or fans do the translations.
In this era of fake influencers, BTS come across as refreshingly raw, you end up in stitches just eavesdropping on them. You define each member’s character not so much through a production script as good, snappy video editing.
In 2017, interviewed about their stay in Coron, Palawan, Suga, the group’s introspective composer, says that he’s happy he’s been able to do a lot of self-reflection on the island, rather than work his gadgets, because there was poor network. He says it as a matter of fact, without knowing that to us Filipinos, the humor lies in the irony because that (“cannot be reached”) is so true.
They wear mics that capture their every word, whine, laugh, tears, discomfort, insecurities (they try to learn English—“What’s sesame in English?” J-Hope asks in the supermarket; watch V order “McFlurry” at McDonald’s), and record even non-sequitur questions.
During a New Zealand long mountain trek, obviously they’re getting tired and bored: “I wonder if the black hole feels like the toilet,” Jin asks and answers his own question: “I mean if you fall in it, is it all dark in the black hole?”
Is such Gen Z soliloquy serious, or just lost in subtitle translations? You don’t care; you’re amused, period.
Or, looking up the Milky Way, one of them utters in awe, “I’m glad I live.”
The editor obviously doesn’t interfere with the moment—a lesson for brand designers who overstyle the simple into the elaborate.
Authenticity. The pandemic pushed the world to pivot—from what is superfluous to what is essential, from what is artificial to what is truthful, especially when one faces the threat of illness and death.
Angelina Legazpi, a luxury brand executive who is an Army, says, “BTS are allowed their freedom and artistry so that they maintain a sense of self in a sea of manufactured idols. Their lives are so well documented, we feel like we’re part of them.”
It’s as if you knew them like they lived with you (they do, if you keep the apps on). BTS’ use of the digital platform to bare the character of each member works because it is relatively unfiltered (sometimes even when they overlook sponsors).
Kim Nam-joon (RM), the rapper, is the leader who’s most articulate in English, having learned it watching the sitcom series “Friends” as he was growing up. A guy with a high IQ, he obviously likes to read books and learn—but who’s not dexterous so that he breaks almost anything he gets his hands on, even onstage.
Kim Seok-jin (Worldwide Handsome Jin) is the eldest at 28 who’s a ham before the camera, tells corny jokes (“dad jokes”), he loves to cook and he is the group’s “visual.” His dry wit makes you laugh. In an early video, he explains with a poker face why he was recruited into BTS—they needed his “looks” to complete the group, as the camera zoomed in for the close-ups of the members, each looking at him aghast.
Min Yoon-gi (Suga) is the composer/lyricist/lead rapper who’s given to retrospection and whose deadpan expression in whatever circumstance amuses us. He is most unfiltered. “Not all learning comes from books” or school isn’t really that important—he said before students, recalls a fan, Alya Honasan, who calls it Suga’s #Yodavibe or #sugaism.
Jung Ho-seok (J-hope) is the dancer/rapper/vocalist who is the optimist—especially when the members are squabbling.
Park Ji-min (Jimin) is the main dancer and vocalist, the gentle soul who hugs them through their saddest moments.
Kim Tae-hyung (V) is the lead dancer, subvocalist, the “visual,” the latter because of his actor looks, which he is. He was with Park Seo-joon in “Hwarang” and is known as the good friend of Park Bo-gum. This individualist-artist can wander off on his own. Watch him land in Sweden and throw the crew into anxiety.
Jeon Jung-kook (JK) is the main vocalist, lead dancer, rapper—the center of their acts. He’s the youngest who was raised by BTS, the one with an uninhibited appetite (watch him be magnetized by the churros in front of him as the US show host talks)—to feed his multi talents.
“I am the manifestation of all their characters,” JK famously describes how he’s molded by BTS.
Their quirks and unpredictability keep you entertained at the end of a day spent fearing COVID-19.
However, watching them eat can leave you hungry late at night. “Rice noodles is diet food,” Jin tells the others as he slurps. “It’s low calories. Anything tasty is low calories.”
Empathy. What the pandemic era needs most now was what BTS discovered some time ago—in their lyrics, videos, interactions with fans. They’re one with their base, in their fears, hopes and dreams. In a concert, when V couldn’t sing his lines because he was sick, the fans sang them for him.
BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan) means Bulletproof Boy Scouts. Their signature hit “We Are Bulletproof” narrates their early suffering and sad history: “Our first fight against the world … so much pain … We’re only 7 but we have you all now … we are forever bulletproof …we have no fear.”
They always talk about values. After their sell-out concert in Chicago, Suga talks about “the loss of the ordinary. That’s been the biggest change. What others find special I now find ordinary; what others find ordinary I now find special. Before you know it, the set of values changes—that’s when the most ordinary becomes significant.”
RM tells a packed stadium at concert’s end: “Please use BTS to love yourself.” A fan’s statement after the concert says it all: “They’re just like me.”
Intimacy and bonding. Their videos actually make good models for corporate team building. The digital platforms perfectly capture the group dynamics. You intimately watch them perform, play and live together. They squabble, but it’s touching when they prop up each other, sometimes literally onstage, and inspire each other to learn songwriting, dancing, singing—they mentor each other, apparently.
Apart from solid teamwork, it’s their emotional dependence on each other that leaves you in disbelief because theirs is hard to find, even in families. “Just having them by my side motivates me,” says Jimin in a video.
Jin says, “They’re like my wallet or cell phone. I feel nervous without them.” Actually we’ve never seen boys touch and kiss each other as much as they do, and tussle.
Thriving BTS ecosystem. BTS content is in all accessible platforms—videos, livestreaming apps, movies, animation, video games, books, of course, merchandising and brick-and-mortar store.
What is impressive is how the fans themselves are now creating the content—as translators, artists, writers, video editors, name it—which they feed into the ecosystem. There’s even literature and fiction.
Engagement. What any communicator and marketer would give to have something like the BTS interaction with their digital audience. Their livestreaming on V Live or Weverse is so awaited that it can have tens of millions of views in minutes—V plays music, J-hope beads bracelets, Jin eats—because they interact with fans, replying to messages scrolling up their screens.
J-hope is beading bracelets: “It’s traffic going home?” he asks a fan. “Your dog is pinning you down on your back?” he replies to another, obviously a little girl.
Suffering for their art. A huge digital content is a very graphic portrayal of their work ethic. Some friends tear up watching them nearly collapse from exhaustion backstage after a killer set onstage, sucking in oxygen from a canister, or wrapping their strained knees in ice.
Yet such drama pales alongside the hardship years of training—oddly, they weren’t dancers when they were recruited, except for two. Now they’re not only performers, they are creators working in their studios.
Proud of Korea. It is noteworthy how, even as they bask in global attention, they remain proudly Korean. On trips, Korean food is the first thing they look for. They bring their Korean-ness to the global feast of celebrityhood.
A US talk show host was left speechless after he asked them where they got their nice clothes, and Jin casually replied in halting English, “Korean department store.”
This is inspiring for Filipinos who continue to promote our talent and identity to the world, no matter our national misfortunes. In time, we will also master the use of technology to project our rich talents.
At one Festa (birthday dinner celebrating their debut anniversary every year), they asked themselves what BTS has meant to each one. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance from God,” says one. Then another butts in, “But do you believe in God?” No filter.
At another dinner, RM the leader talks, as he usually does, about how this (fame) can’t go on forever. We can’t be together forever, he says, and this fame will go, he adds. Then he talks about “letting go”—that they should learn how. In their 20s!
I take my cue from these 20somethings as I finish this, my last issue as Lifestyle editor—a retiree who will continue to listen to and learn from BTS.