Despite how far K-pop has come in making inroads in America, before BTS it was extremely tough to say that the music scene had truly found its footing in America. Korean artists had been making respectable efforts to make their stateside mark for more than a decade with different plans of attack and mixed successes. But BTS' impact on America has been undeniable and seems to lay the groundwork for more acts to breakthrough here. But most importantly they've done all that with a keen sense of pride over where they come from and who they are as artists and humans.
But before we get into the deeper representation behind BTS' success, let's take a look at what the septet managed to accomplish this year alone. You ready? Take a deep breath.
In early 2017, BTS released a deluxe repackaged version of their Wings album, You Never Walk Alone, which spawned the single "Spring Day" that nearly charted on the Billboard Hot 100—arguably, the best metric to see popular musicians in America. The guys embarked on their U.S. Wings tour, playing five stadium shows in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, before returning in May for the Billboard Music Awards where they won the Top Social Artist award and accepted the award on television. Fast forward to September, BTS dropped their Love Yourself: Her EP that broke all records for K-pop albums (after the band already broke them with Wings) with a Top 10 debut and two Hot 100 singles with "DNA" and eventually their first Top 40 single with their "Mic Drop (Remix)." The guys booked their live U.S. television debut on the 2017 American Music Awards, which preceded a huge U.S. promo run including performances and/or interviews on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Late Show With James Corden, E! News, and more. All the while the band continued to keep their social-media numbers super high, taking fans along for the experience the entire time on Twitter, Facebook, V Live and beyond.
“If you teach a K-pop artist English, that is basically Asians debuting in the American market. That is not K-pop.”
It's important to note that K-pop acts like PSY, Girls' Generation, 2NE1 and Wonder Girls had all booked major television performances, while the likes of EXO and BIGBANG have played U.S. arenas. But the combination of these elements, along with the chart success and media interest, made BTS take a giant leap among their fellow musicians.
And throughout it all, BTS and their team had an undeniable pride when it came to them being Korean artists who make K-pop music. Early in 2017 when BTS was in the midst of their Wings Tour, 'Hitman' Bang—the CEO of the band's Korean label Big Hit Entertainment—gave his first U.S. interview to Billboard where he was adamant that his artists stay making the music they are most comfortable making. "I'm not a believer in releasing full English songs to the U.S. market like many K-pop artists have," he said. "We must focus on what we do best as K-pop artists and producers and maybe add some special features to which international or U.S. music fans can feel attached. That is the best way for me to put K-pop into the mainstream U.S. music market."
The mindset was proven throughout the year in multiple ways when the band went onstage to accept their award at the BBMAs, speaking on American television in both English and Korean. While BTS leader RM speaks both Korean and English, it was clear in band interviews and media appearances that he was never going to overtake the conversations and allowed all his bandmates to speak openly, translating when necessary or even sometimes having a translator on hand (like they did during their hilarious Ellen appearance).
BTS never eschewed their "K-pop" label and instead seemed like they wanted to emphasize the Korean side of their genre tag.
For example, at the AMAs last month, the band was bombarded with questions from U.S. reporters about potentially making music in English. Instead of jump at the opportunity to say they would definitely do so, they focused on the success they've had with their Korean material and promised to keep making music that all their fans would love. Even when they seemingly had an ideal chance to get a full-English track when their "Mic Drop" song was remixed with Steve Aoki production and a new verse from Desiigner, the band only changed a few lyrics to English and made sure to keep the Korean intact.
Recently, BTS and 'Hitman' Bang have emphasized how there are no plans for BTS to release English songs with their CEO taking his ideology a step further, saying in a Korean interview how signing with an American label and singing in English is essentially just "an Asian singer's debut in the U.S. market," before adding, "It is not K-pop."
BTS and their team are clearly proud of their roots and proud of the K-pop scene, which includes all the aforementioned artists and more who helped lay the groundwork for their success today.
2017 was a humongous time for the BTS—with Billboard recently revealing that their album sales, song success and social activity made them the 10th biggest U.S. artist of the year—but there's a larger, deeper message in this success. This band and their surrounding team are connecting with more people than ever, landing media opportunities any celebrity dreams about and finding an unprecedented amount of success, all by emphasizing what makes them unique instead of trying to fit into to what's already proven successful...which, before this year, was not Korean music.
Regrettably, America doesn't have a certifiable Korean music star, or even an Asian pop star. But that's not a reason for any of them to hide or shy away from where they come from and what influences their art. BTS' 2017 is proof that embracing and honoring the elements that make an artist unique can lead to success beyond what was imaginable. And it only seems like things are getting bigger for both BTS—and for K-pop—in 2018.