Just about a year ago, BTS became the first K-pop band to win a Billboard Music Award, edging out Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes (who is “obsessed” with watching the band’s dance videos), and Justin Bieber for the prize for Top Social Artist at the 2017 BBMAs. At the time, for many American observers, the band was relatively unknown (prompting some unabashedly racist reactions to their victory), but from there, their meteoric rise continued unremitting: The seven-piece outfit (three rappers, four vocalists) embarked on an American tour; there were rumors they would play the Super Bowl; they did play the American Music Awards; and they released an album, Love Yourself: Her, which peaked in the seventh position on the Billboard 200, which at the time set a record for the highest-charting K-pop album in America. And this week, with the release of Love Yourself: Tear, the group’s well-reviewed follow-up, BTS smashed their own record, becoming the first K-pop band with an album claiming the top spot on the Billboard charts. (It’s also the first non-English-language record to top the chart since 2006, when Il Divo’s Ancora took No. 1.)
It might seem as though BTS emerged out of the ether in the past year, but they have been quietly positioning themselves for world domination since their debut in 2013. Charlie Puth is a fan; so are Ansel Elgort and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who expressed his support for the group in a Facebook post on Monday. “This magical power turns grief into hope and differences into similarity,” Moon wrote, referring to the band’s alternate name, Bangtan Boys. “Bangtan, which literally means ‘bulletproof‘ in Korean, was born out of the will to protect teenagers from prejudice and oppression.” (Millie Bobby Brown, however, is not familiar.) They’ve cultivated an avid fan base—the A.R.M.Y., not to be confused with the Navy—whose mania Ellen DeGeneres compared, perhaps hyperbolically, to that surrounding the Beatles in the ’60s and who, as a recent post in The Ringer pointed out, have helped catalyze the group’s success. (Recall, Top Social Artist.) “Having a huge, highly engaged social media following is a globally recognized currency,” it wrote.
As big as BTS are in the United States—as now evidenced in their recent Billboard success—they’re probably even bigger back home. This year alone, the group stole the grand prize at the Seoul Music Awards from fellow K-pop stars Exo, ending that band’s four-year winning streak, and BTS also won six Soompi awards, setting a new record. They’ve distinguished themselves with their self-written songs (still relatively uncommon in the notoriously controlling Korean music industry) and their gender-nonconforming style (their coordinating looks have run the gamut from pussy-bow blouses to black suits with chokers; they're also Gucci fans and supporters of local Korean brands). Their music, for the most part, is written and performed in Korean, though the band’s members (of whom leader Rap Monster is the only English speaker) have considered rerecording some of their hits in English.
BTS’s major success with the release of Love Yourself: Tear is also the product of the steady rise in popularity of K-pop acts internationally since the genre emerged in the early ’00s. When TVXQ, the godfathers of K-pop, debuted in 2003, they quickly found major success in Japan; former 2NE1 frontwoman CL has become a darling of American fashion, regularly attending Jeremy Scott and Alexander Wang shows, as well as a collaborator of Diplo, Skrillex, and Justin Bieber; and Wonder Girls, the girl group that disbanded in 2017, toured with the Jonas Brothers in 2009 and became the first K-pop band to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. (BTS then became the first K-pop band to enter the Top 40 of the Hot 100.) As the restrictions governing K-pop have slowly loosened their hold, it’s increasingly become the fans (and, alarmingly, the “anti-fans”) who are running the show. And when it comes to BTS, they’ve got an A.R.M.Y. at their back, streaming their songs and tweeting their support.