How did Korean K-Pop group BTS beat Trump on Twitter?
BTS fandom has swept across America over the past two years. Xin Song, a visiting scholar at the Center, explores how social media helped the group become a household name.
By Xin Song
BTS, the Korean boy band, has become big in America. By one measure, BTS is even bigger than the president: according to CrowdTangle, from November 17, 2018 to February 17, 2019, the K-pop band topped the Twitter charts with 407 million interactions, while President Donald Trump as runner-up only got 104 million. Given that BTS had already achieved status as the most tweeted-about celebrity/celebrity group in the preceding two years, maybe this ranking should have been no surprise.
BTS has become a global phenomenon. Time magazine named the group the “biggest boy band in the world.” Forbes magazine featured an article on BTS mania entitled “The K-Pop Group That Finally Won America Over.” In May, BTS won the Billboard Music Award’s Top Duo/Group title for the first time, while claiming the Top Social Artist Award for the third year in a row. Three BTS albums landed No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart in less than a year; the last group to accomplish this feat was the Beatles.
All of this has occurred even though BTS has never released an English-language album. Most of their songs are in Korean, and only one of the seven boys speaks fluent English. How did this K-pop act become so popular? And how did they manage to break into the American mainstream market? One thing is for certain: social media played a critical role.
A “Beatles” mania in a social media era
BTS is a seven-member band formed by Big Hit Entertainment in South Korea. The name stands for “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” and “Behind the Scene.” The band debuted in 2013, but it was not until 2017 that it began to have a real impact in the American market. In that year, the group first won the Top Social Artist Award at the Billboard Music Awards, beating out Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, and Shawn Mendes.
The award marked a turning point for both BTS and K-pop in America. The band’s public attention snowballed as it performed at the American Music Awards and appeared on various television talk shows. In April 2019, the band became the first South Korean group of artists to perform on Saturday Night Live. Its albums and stadium shows sold out quickly. As The Washington Post reported, “the group is usually greeted with a frenzied energy not seen since Beatlemania.”
To some critics, it seems ridiculous to compare BTS with one of the top groups in music history. However, in terms of global fandom in the digital realm, what BTS has achieved is more than impressive. It has a long list of records under its belt, including the Guinness World Record for the most Twitter engagements, with each tweet generating an average of 422,288 replies, retweets, likes, or other interactions.
BTS now has more than 20 million Twitter followers – more than Beyoncé or Ed Sheeran. Its videos have been viewed more than 2.5 billion times on YouTube. Social media has become the primary tool for BTS to cultivate fans’ engagement, gain media exposure, and ultimately open the door to the Western mainstream market.
BTS is not the first K-pop group or artist trying to capture Western attention, nor is it the only one to jump on the social media bandwagon. But why has it stood out among the rest? The answer may have something to do with timing.
Big Hit Entertainment, which manages BTS, was not prominent or well established in South Korea’s media world when BTS debuted. Lacking resources, Big Hit had to promote BTS in new and creative ways. Instead of using the traditional promotional methods, such as using Korean television channels, the company turned to social platforms on social media that were just taking off.
BTS has become a global phenomenon. Time magazine named the group the “biggest boy band in the world.” In May, BTS won the Billboard Music Award’s Top Duo/Group title for the first time, while claiming the Top Social Artist Award for the third year in a row. Three BTS albums landed No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart in less than a year. All of this occurred even though BTS has never released an English-language album.
Before BTS debuted, its social media accounts had already been set up, which was relatively new in the K-pop world. Its Twitter account was created in 2011 and YouTube channel in 2012.
“It was so lucky for us that social media got bigger,” said RM, group leader of BTS. “Uploading photos, videos, songs—now everyone does, but I think we started a little earlier, and very naturally.”
Apart from timing, how BTS managed the social platforms also contributed to its global fandom. Rather than establishing different accounts for each group member (as is done by groups such as One Direction), the seven boys share the same group account on each platform. Moreover, it has provided different and fresh images of the Korean artists by posting all kinds of casual and behind-the-scene content, including video diaries, post-concert chats, and constant live streaming.
These types of portrayals may seem old hat now, but a few years ago it was rare for Korean groups to use such an informal approach. Since most Korean groups are products of a highly regimented training system, they have not been seen as especially authentic, genuine, or relatable. BTS was different – the more authentic and down-to-earth the band behaved in the digital world, the more connected it became with its increasingly loyal fans, who have taken to calling themselves the Army.
In almost every public interview, the members of BTS showed appreciation for the support that they received from the Army. They could not thank their devotees enough, acknowledging that their followers were the main cause of the band’s social media domination. The Army members would translate the band’s videos and other posts in real time (most BTS posts are in Korean) so that fans from other parts of the world could enjoy them as well.
The fierce engagement of the band’s global fans led directly to BTS’s winning of Billboard’s Top Social Artist Award and subsequent success in the American market. “The Twitter followers,” said Michelle Cho, professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, “brought them a lot of media attention, which helped them become a household name.”
Game-changer for K-pop
K-pop is not new to America. Before BTS, many Korean artists tried to impress the Western audience by catering to their likes. They released English albums, and some even tried adding hip-hop elements to their music. Others changed their makeup style to match Western tastes. However, for the most part, these efforts were not successful. There was one exception: the viral spread of the song, “Gangnam Style” by PSY in 2012, although the song itself was hardly representative of K-pop.
Now BTS has changed the game. Thanks to the band, Americans are taking K-pop seriously.
No adjustment for Western tastes
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this is that BTS did not attempt to cater to the Western audience. The group does not have a single entire English-lyric song, nor has it published albums in English as its predecessors did. As frequent guests on morning and late-night talk shows, the band members have stayed true to their original K-pop style in terms of performance, dress, and even makeup. Moreover, most of BTS’ social media posts are still in Korean.
Critics have yet to formulate a theory to explain the success of the group. Jung-Bong Choi, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies the globalization of South Korean pop culture, argues that K-pop itself is a growing phenomenon around the world, in part, because, “Lots of ethnic minorities who feel alienated from the European mainstream cultures tend to gravitate toward K-pop.”
Choi also emphasizes that social media makes it easier to establish a loyal fan community, which is the foundation of K-pop’s success. It does seem clear that among various factors social media must be big part of the explanation for the popularity of both K-pop in general and BTS in particular.
As a report on CNN put it, the global appeal of K-pop “isn’t just coming, it’s crashing upon US shores.” As a true music trendsetter, and in large measure because of social media, BTS has set an example for other Asian artists who want to open the door to the West. BTS has also proved that bridging cultural gaps does not require giving up or changing what and who you really are.
(Xin Song, senior TV director of China Central Television, is a visiting scholar at the Center for the Digital Future. Contact Xin at [email protected].)
See all columns from the Center.
September 4, 2019