Lessons learned from BTS, the most unlikely international superstars
Kim Seok-jin, Min Yoon-gi, Jung Ho-seok, Kim Nam-joon, Park Ji-min, Kim Tae-hyung, and Jeon Jung-kook.
The names their parents gave and the stage-names associated with their superstardom roll effortlessly off the tongue of every second teenybopper. The architects of a public identity sculpted around exotic-sounding “Bangtan Sonyendoan” have ripped at gale force through the core of the teenage population, as country after country topples to their easy charm.
More familiar to us by the abbreviated combination of three letters “BTS” the English transcription of the “Bullet Proof Scouts” from the Korean language was an act of defiance by seven beautiful faces, their original name capturing the group’s desire to block out the stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that are aimed at the adolescent generation “like bullets by an over-demanding society.”
In July 2017, as a part of their new branding and positioning, the most famous septet of the Korean peninsula declared to an adoring world that “BTS” also stands for “Beyond the Scene,” again to reflect the optimism of a youth determined to go beyond the annoying realities and to ever persevere.
For over a decade now, the youthful BTS has held sway over screaming masses begging for just one more performance. The magnitude of the adulation, impossible to contain within the boundaries of the tiny motherland, has radiated out to overwhelm the mindspace of the adolescent fraternity of the world.
A new subculture has sprung up among the adoring legions as the urban myth of our poster boys is borne along, deliciously, on a river of treacle flowing into every home inhabited by the star-struck and susceptible. Winning smiles and winsome behaviour underpin the fame. They are Korean and, therefore, genteel and well-behaved. It is axiomatic.
What accounts for their stupendous global success and instant recall at such a tender age? Channeled anger, perhaps, a rallying point to question a hyper-successful society built on the foundations of a crushing educational system.
Is there space and will for an alternative way of life and expression? Yes, maybe, but within the culture of alert watchfulness that is woven into the national fabric of the southern half of the peninsula.
Is there also a healthy slice of luck that attaches itself to the phenomenon of BTS? The Dynamic Seven had the good fortune of being spotted, moulded, and nurtured by institutions who promoted them for the potential revealed and not just because of the agent’s proverbial ulterior motive.
And, yes, perhaps we can also credit their global reach and name to their effortless ability to invent and reinvent themselves, Madonna-like, to evolve into complete entertainers and social commentators aided by the invisible engines of digital technology and the ubiquitous internet.
The ingenuity of a parody radio station; the cumulative talent of rapping and singing and playing the occasional instrument; the in-step harmony of the dance numbers; the spontaneous theatre and charming tomfoolery on stage; and, at all times, the message of the day delivered in heavy staccato.
In the age of pandemic, BTS has not remained idle, and video after video records their antics and English-speaking prowess, or hilarious lack of it. Making the most of a bad situation, and mastering this ability, has distinguished them. How else can you account for a monstrous five billion hits, and still counting, on Spotify? Therein, you would agree, lies the key.
The internet and social media, its eldest child, have created Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Blackpink, a representative list of a pantheon of artists vastly successful and spawned in the digital age.
Look back on the last 40 years, and dwell on what the boy bands of their respective eras could have achieved. New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, Boyzone, Backstreet Boys, powered by the sedentary tools of communication and broadcast never at their disposal.
And what about The Beatles? The brat pack of all brat packs, two generations removed but strangely reminiscent of the favourite sons of Korea. Perfectly balanced between superstardom, beauty, and musical ability, their simple lyrics powered by simpler melody pierced the collective heart of the shrieking and swooning distaff population.
What would have been the magnitude of the tsunami had they access to the digital tools of the trade? Think of the further heights, if at all possible, that Michael Jackson, the pioneer of the music video could have attained. It boggles the mind.
The piggy bank is stuffed to bursting with 180 million dollars, and the “Bullet Proof Scouts” search for the next frontier of success. Competition snaps at the heels even at home, fertile ground for a science which combines entertainment and social media.
But their legacy is what they have achieved, and achieved in a language unfamiliar to the world. There is something to be said about communication transcending mere language.
Dear reader, go beyond the conventional commands of the keyboard. Expand the micro-universe that you occupy, experiment, test the tools of infinite possibility at your fingertips, enjoy pushing the boundaries. Who knows what might come of it?
Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India and is a freelance contributor.