How BTS Became the K-Pop Band That Took Over the World

In honor of their highly-anticipated MTV Unplugged special on Feb. 23, a look back at how BTS so thoroughly conquered the globe.

By Billy Nilles Feb 24, 2021 3:00 AMTags
Watch: BTS' Suga Gives Update on His Shoulder Recovery

K-pop is nothing new.

The modern era of South Korea's popular music scene began taking root in the early '90s after decades of influence from the Western world, and it slowly became something of an industrial complex, with agencies popping up to take underdeveloped talent and morph them into stars—or idols, as they're referred to in Korea. But there has never been anything quite like BTS, the seven-member boy band formed in 2010 who, if you haven't heard, have taken over the freaking world.

Now, the idea of a boy band taking over pop culture is nothing new, either. From The Beatles and The Jackson 5 to NSYNC and One Direction, they've been doing it for years. But for one to do so while singing almost exclusively in a language foreign to the whole of the Western world? That doesn't just feel revolutionary. It is. Period, end of story.

Since their inception—but especially in the last few years—the boys-turned-men of BTS have been breaking boundaries with each and every step, challenging not only what it means to be an idol in their native Korea, but also the limits of what a non-English-speaking group can achieve on the international level.

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When South Korean producer Bang Si-hyuk, who'd written for successful K-pop groups like g.o.d. and Wonder Girls as a part of JYP Entertainment, struck out on his own in 2005 to form Big Hit Entertainment, he wanted to do things a bit differently from the studio culture that was de rigueur at the time. Rather than exerting the customary massive amount of control over his signees—not only in the songs they sing, but how they express themselves and live their lives—the visionary nicknamed "Hitman" began to cook up a group that would eschew the industry's rigid grooming and blank slate presentation in favor of sincerity, personality and freedom.

In 2010, he began assembling a group of teens for a group called the Bulletproof Boy Scouts (or Bangtan Sonyeondan in Korean)—BTS for short. First to join was RM (born Kim Nam Joon, originally known as Rap Monster), the group's de facto leader and spokesman, who met with Bang that year. "I was an underground rapper and only 16 years old, a freshman at high school," BTS' lone fluent English speaker told TIME in 2017. "Bang thought I had potential as a rapper and lyricist, and we went from there."

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Soon Suga (Min Yoon Gi), J-Hope (Jung Ho Seok), Jung Kook (Jeon Jung Kook), Jin (Kim Seok Jin), Jimin (Park Ji Min), and V (Kim Tae Hyung) were added to the mix, each with their different strengths, though all incredible vocalists and dancers. "I recently came across a company document from [2012,] the year before BTS debuted, in which we were debating what kind of idol group to create," Bang said in a 2018 interview with South Korean newspaper JoongAng. "It said, 'What kind of hero is the youth of today looking for? Not someone who dogmatically preaches from above. Rather, it seems like they need a hero who can lend them a shoulder to lean on, even without speaking a single word."

To do so, he spared them from the strict contracts and curfews of their predecessors and allowed them to talk openly about the stresses of stardom and pressures being a teen in Korea. 

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"When we were forming BTS, we resolved to make a group that had a positive influence," Bang continued. "After all, idols are idols. An idol that has a negative influence is a false idol. We thought that there shouldn't be any glorification of delinquent behavior or tolerance of social injustice in their songs, even if it's only implied. We resolved not to do anything like that, even if it might look cool at the time."

As RM explained to TIME, "We're just a normal group of boys from humble backgrounds who had a lot of passion and a dream to be famous...We came together with a common dream to write, dance and produce music that reflects our musical backgrounds as well as our life values of acceptance, vulnerability and being successful."

And it's worked. Their distinct brand—a mixture of that honest vulnerability, overflowing personality and undeniable craftsmanship—set them on a course to superstardom if not immediately following their 2013 debut, then pretty soon thereafter. By 2015, they'd made their first appearance on the Billboard 200 chart and, a year later, their album Wings would peak at No. 26, the highest ranking ever for a K-pop album. They'd also become the first artists not from one of the "Big Three" entertainment companies in Korea to win Artist of the Year at the 2016 Mnet Asian Music Awards.

STAPLES Center/Adam Pantozzi

Since then, the group has had many more firsts. They'd become the record-holder for most viewed K-pop group music video on YouTube, became the first to perform at the American Music Awards, were the first Korean artists to take home a Billboard Music Award (beating out the likes of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez in 2017 to take home the trophy for Top Social Artist of the Year) and earned two No. 1 Billboard 200 debut albums in the same year (2018).

They spoke at the United Nations General Assembly (to talk mental health and self-love as a part of their Love Myself campaign), sold out New York City's Citi Field in minutes for the first performance by a Korean act at as U.S. stadium, presented at the 2019 Grammys and performed a year later, teamed with Mattel for an official line of dolls and landed themselves in the Guinness Book of Records for their incredibly energized fanbase known as the ARMY.

They became the first K-pop act to perform on Saturday Night Live and when Map of the Soul: Persona debuted No. 1 on the Billboard 200, their third album to do so in the span of roughly 11 months, they became the first band to pull off that achievement since The Beatles.

With all their successes, life has changed for the septet. They're rarely able to escape outside "just to get some fresh air" unless they split into smaller groups," Jimin told Entertainment Weekly (via translator) in April 2019. "I mean, look at us, "RM added, laughing. "Seven boys with dyed hair! It's really too much." If they want to sneak out to see a movie, it's "always the latest or earliest show," he told the magazine. 

BTS' Debut on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

Since their inception, they've been living together in group housing—a commonality for K-pop stars—which wasn't without its own set of challenges at the start. "We've been living together for a while now, almost eight, nine years," Jimin told EW. "So in the beginning we had a lot of arguments and conflicts. But we've reached the point where we can communicate wordlessly, basically just by watching each other and reading the expressions."

The sort of uproar they're causing across the globe has seen them compared to the boy band that started it all. And despite that being a huge compliment, it's not always a comfortable one. "Sometimes it feels really embarrassing when someone calls us a 21st-century Beatles or something like that," RM admitted to the publication. "But if they want to call us a boy band, then we're a boy band. If they want to call us a boy group, we're a group. If they want to call us K-pop, then we're cool with K-pop."

John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Through all the success, though, one thing had remained elusive for the record-breakers. And that was topping the Hot 100 singles chart. They'd cracked the top 10 in 2018 with their song "Fake Love" and watched "Boy with Luv" peak at No. 8, but they'd seemed unable to climb any higher because mainstream radio airplay, which is a major component in deciding that ranking, had continued to elude them here in America. 

"It will have to be a great song, but there's also a whole strategy that's associated with getting all the way up," Suga told EW. "And then there has to be a measure of luck, obviously. So what's important for us is just to make good music and good performances and have those elements come together."

And while Spanish-language hits like 2017's "Despacito" have been able to hit No. 1, BTS wasn't entirely convinced that it meant they might also one day. "You know, Latin pop has its own Grammys in America, and it's quite different," RM said. "I don't want to compare, but I think it's even harder as an Asian group."

"A Hot 100 and a Grammy nomination, these are our goals," he continued. "But they're just goals—we don't want to change our identity or our genuineness to get the number one. Like if we suddenly sing in full English, and change all these other things, then that's not BTS. We'll do everything, we'll try. But if we couldn't get number one or number five, that's OK."

OK? Maybe. Unlikely? Definitely. 

"We have to consider ourselves not just better [than other K-pop acts], but the best," RM told The Hollywood Reporter when the band graced the cover in October 2019. "When we're out there on that stage, we're there to conquer. We think we're the ones."

With K-pop's popularity only further surging Stateside—girl group BLACKPINK achieved a first of their own with a Coachella set in 2019—and album Map of the Soul: 7 earning more than 3 million preorders within the first week it was announced in January 2020, the sky seemed to be the limit for the group at the forefront of this recent leg of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave.

So a Hot 100 No. 1? It was only a matter of time.

And when the group dropped "Dynamite"—a standalone single preceding their most recent album, Be, and their first sung entirely in English—in August, they got their wish. The track debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 where it stayed for a total of three weeks, making them the first South Korean to top the chart. 

By the time Be dropped in November, debuting as their fifth No. 1 album and delivering them another No. 1 hit single ("Life Goes On"), BTS crossed another achievement off their list when "Dynamite" was nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2021 Grammys. The nod made them the first Korean pop act to be recognized by the Recording Academy.

As RM said in an interview with Esquire released a day before the nominations were announced, "I think the Grammys are the last part, like the final part of the whole American journey."

With all eyes on the March 14 ceremony to see if they come out victorious, there's no denying that they're already winners many times over. As for where they go next, well, we can't wait to find out.

(This story was originally published on April 12, 2019 at 3 a.m. PT.)