For K-Pop Stars BTS, Mainstream Success Was a Long Time Coming
“My blood, sweat, and tears, my last dance, take it all,” sang Jimin Park in Korean, his opening verse on his group’s song “Blood Sweat Tears” before diving into the last choreographed number of their second sold out date at the Honda Center in Anaheim. After performing a set of over 20 songs, Suga (née Yoongi Min) followed up rapping, “My blood, sweat, and tears, and my body, mind, and soul, know well that I am yours,” embodying exactly what went down at BTS’ second sold-out concert in California on Sunday night.
The Honda Center is no stranger to K-pop concerts. It hosted Korean superstars Big Bang in 2012 and 2015, making them the first in the genre to hold more than one concert of that stature. Trailing closely behind, BTS, a seven member K-pop boy band consisting of three rappers (Suga, J-Hope, and Rap Monster) and four vocalists (Jin, Jungkook, V, and Jimin), reached that level of popularity only four years into their career, even though they have yet to reach the loftiest heights of mainstream success in their native South Korea.
“Today is our last concert [of the tour], but we still cannot really feel it’s real,” frontman Namjoon Kim, who goes by his stage name Rap Monster, told the Weekly prior to the show. “It’s like a miracle. [In our previous Los Angeles concert in 2015] we were at like 2,000 people, and now it’s like 15,000, 16,000 people, so we’re just thankful for it.” While close, the arena’s capacity is actually a bit over 18,000, which they managed to sell out for two consecutive nights. Named after their latest studio album, “The Wings Tour” had two previous stops in New Jersey, one in Chicago, plus the two in Anaheim. All were sold out.
Sunday night’s show began as a sheer white curtain dropped and revealed BTS standing on an on-stage platform, their latest single “Not Today” blasting throughout the arena. The song — an underdog anthem — talks about how hard they worked to get to where they are, while calling on supporters to join the fight. “For our group, it happened really gradually,” Rap Monster said. “We didn’t wake up one morning and have a number one [record].” He explained that BTS’ career has been a series of stairs they’ve had to climb step by step in order to reach success. “That’s what make us more humble and down to earth, cause we don’t believe in surprise hits and we don’t believe that success could be made out of not trying or struggling.”
The largest theme in BTS’ music — which is a heavily hip-hop influenced pop hybrid — is youth, as they’re all in their early 20’s. Wings b-side “Am I Wrong” states the obvious and says the world’s going crazy, while “Baepsae” addresses the hypocrisy of older generations criticizing the younger one despite it not having the same opportunities to prosper. The Struggle™ is also a big theme. In 2015’s single “Dope,” which the Anaheim audience took over singing Suga and Rap Monster’s Korean rap lines while they held their mics in the air, talks about “rotting their youth away” in the studio in pursuit of success.
This track also audaciously declares “I’m kinda dope,” and they truly are. Rap Monster and Suga write and produce most of their songs. Jimin is an emotive dancer. V (real name Taehyung Kim), as heard on his solo “Stigma,” can sing a full song in falsetto and not crack. Simply put, BTS is “not just like some other K-pop groups where [the music] is just made for them and they’re a robotic group that does what their company tells them. They have a lot of creative input in their entire [craft],” as the 23-year-old fan Ariana Scarpelli said.
And it has paid off. BTS entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 61 with their latest repackaged album (Wings plus four new songs) You Never Walk Alone this past February; Wings hit No. 26 last October. They’re the first K-pop group to enter said chart with four albums in a row since 2015. Moreover, one of their latest singles “Spring Day” became the first song by a K-pop group to break into the iTunes top 10 songs chart in the US, something no other Korean act aside from PSY had done before. Last summer, BTS headlined both KCON LA and New York.
“We always hoped we could be popular in America, but we thought it was all a dream,” said Rap Monster, the only member comfortable speaking in English. “Our lyrics are all Korean, so we just come to KCON and just hope that one day, maybe we could have popularity. Even after we heard about Billboard, we didn’t know that we could be a sold out artist for five nights. So it’s like, ‘Ok, what’s happening right now?’ And everyone [in the group] thinks that they should learn English now,” he added, laughing.
But the language barrier is no barrier at all for BTS fans, known as ARMY. “‘Spring Day,’ really hit me,” said 24-year-old fan Rico Ramirez. “It made me miss all my friends back home, people I haven’t contacted in a while. So ever since ‘Spring Day,’ I started connecting to all my friends.” “Home” is the Philippines for Ramirez, and even though he doesn’t speak Korean, the translations still moved him.
Rap Monster feels the same way; it’s reciprocal. “I listen to Nas and Jay Z, like what their lyrics mean, I always find translations [sic]. And [our] lyrics are all about the young people’s lives. There’s something similar, I believe, between all the young people in the world, so I think that’s why [our fans in the US connect to our songs]... “If our music and our words and our dance could affect at least one person to believe in our lyrics or believe in changes or believe the world should go in the right direction, then it’s a big success for us. And I think we’ll keep writing about some topics like that.”