Calling BTS a boy band is a little like calling a computer a typewriter with a screen. Yes, they sing. Yes, they dance. Yes, they have cool haircuts and their outfits always match in an interesting way. But they also represent the power of pop music—simple, catchy pop music—as a force for social transformation, touching on subjects—mental health, LGBTQ identity, class inequity—taboo not just in their native South Korea but in the sunshine-and-rainbows world of mass-market culture generally. The official name of their fans (the ARMY), is an acronym for “Adorable Representative MC for Youth.” But the subtext is clear: These are people willing to fight for what they believe.
Formed in 2010 by K-pop impresario Bang Si-hyuk, the group—V, j-hope, RM, Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, and SUGA—swiftly became not only one of the biggest groups in South Korea (and eventually the best-selling artists in the country’s history), but an emblem for K-pop’s migration into mainstream global pop—a feat made even more impressive by the fact that the band sings almost entirely in Korean. More than just developing a brand, BTS crafted a rich, reference-heavy alternate universe that invoked things like Jungian psychoanalysis and Nietzschean philosophy—not your most bankable teen-pop references. (The video to their 2016 track “Blood Sweat & Tears” is, if not the only music video in history to feature both a coordinated dance routine and a quote from the Hermann Hesse novel Demian, certainly the only one to have been watched more than half a billion times.)
But for as dense as the band’s mythology can get, their presence remains simple, clear, and uplifting. In 2017, they partnered with UNICEF in a campaign to protect young people from violence; the next year, their fans raised over $1 million in an effort to alleviate childhood malnutrition. SUGA once promised that if he got rich, he would buy his fans beef—a luxury in Korea. On his 25th birthday, he donated nearly $20,000 of it to orphanages. And he did it in ARMY’s name.
ORIGINSeoul, South Korea