By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Dec. 18 (Yonhap) -- In 2013, seven fledgling young men, who mostly grew up in towns outside of South Korea's megacity Seoul, made their debut as a hip-hop group. They called themselves Bangtan Sonyeondan, or bulletproof boys.
Unlike mainstream K-pop acts backed by polished producing and intricate marketing schemes, the septet made a hard landing on the K-pop industry with its debut single "No More Dream." It questioned peers about whether their dream is to really become a "public servant" and urged them to "rebel against a hell-like society."
Seven years later, the young men from a small, little-known agency have beaten the odds to become the world's biggest pop group. Apart from establishing themselves as a chart-breaking sensation, they have emerged as socially conscious artists telling the world to love one another and speak up against racism.
They are BTS -- the seven-piece band consisting of rappers RM, Suga and J-hope and vocals Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook.
Like for many around the world, 2020 probably did not go as planned for BTS. Its global tour was called off amid the pandemic, and the band's members confessed feeling depressed as they were not being able to do what they are best at: performing onstage for fans.
But despite the substantial setback, it has certainly turned out to be one of the band's most prolific and monumental years, culminating in three Billboard No. 1s, a phenomenal online concert, a speech at the United Nations and even a Grammy nomination.
"ON," the lead single for the album "Map of the Soul:7" which debuted at No. 4 on Billboard's Hot 100, was a drum roll for the year ahead. In August, BTS released the cheerful pop-disco track "Dynamite" that became the first song by an all-Korean act to top Billboard's Hot 100. The song has stayed on the chart for 16 weeks.
CedarBough Saeji, a visiting assistant professor in East Asian languages and cultures at Indiana University Bloomington, said the act's music was like a "dose of positivity" for people exhausted by the unprecedented pandemic.
"Realistically we've just been through a really difficult year. BTS creates a lot of thoughtful music, but much of their content, especially on social media, is cheerful and uplifting," Saeji told Yonhap News Agency via email.
"For people feeling lonely and stressed, BTS provided moments of levity and relief. I saw many fans really relying on BTS for their dose of positivity," she said.
Boosted by the band's global popularity and bright business prospects, Big Hit Entertainment went public on the South Korean main stock bourse in October, building a valuation higher than the country's next three largest entertainment companies combined.
While the band's worldwide tour was canceled amid the pandemic, Big Hit devised a mass online concert. Nearly 1 million fans from more than 190 countries gathered virtually, waving their Army bomb light sticks to illuminate a no-audience stadium in purple.
In another landmark feat, the septet was nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance in the Grammy awards in the first nod for an all-Korean pop music act. The Grammys are seen as one of the most conservative music awards toward non-Western acts and songs.
When everybody was expecting BTS to return with another powerful, upbeat track, the band instead picked "Life Goes On" for its next lead single. The poetic ballad reflects on how much the world has changed and reminds listeners that life will go on no matter what.
The shift was a huge success. Despite having weaker airplay than its all-English language track "Dynamite," "Life Goes On" went to become the first song mostly sung in Korean to top the Billboard main singles chart.
Lee Gyu-tag, assistant professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea, said this kind of trajectory is what has helped forge and cement the group's authenticity.
"Fans and critics thought BTS would aim for another No. 1 with a jaunty and upbeat song. But by releasing a slow-beat song, they showed that they are not singing for success but to tell stories they want to tell. Fans empathized with this," Lee said.
"Compared with other groups, BTS is really great in showing that they are genuine. They've accumulated this for many years, which makes their authenticity shine through," he added.
Despite its worldwide success, the septet has not been shy about opening up on its feelings and flaws. Suga, for instance, shared his guitar-learning quest with fans while Jin recently unveiled the personal song "Abyss" after suffering a burnout.
Confessing there was a "big burnout" accompanied by consultation sessions, Jin wrote he wondered if it was OK for him to enjoy the excitement of winning a Billboard No. 1 when there are people who are more talented than him.
"Following a lot of conversations, I put my current feelings into a track at the scene, and when I jotted down the story I wanted to tell with it, 'Abyss' had become complete," he recently wrote.
But more than the group's musical achievements, K-pop gurus like Saeji and Lee say what really sets BTS apart from other acts this year is its growing influence as a socially conscious musician with a global reach.
BTS and its fans have made numerous donations -- such as supporting LGBTQ youths in South Korea where same-sex marriage is still illegal and helping victims of the tragic Sewol ferry sinking. In September, the septet appeared at the U.N. General Assembly where it reminded youths to "live on" since "life goes on."
"It's a year that BTS presented itself as a heavyweight that can wield political and social power and use that good influence in a way that's beneficial for the world," said Lee, stressing that the band's feats go beyond its commercial success.
Both Lee and Saeji suggested the septet's donation to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States was the band's most significant feat of 2020.
At the height of the anti-racism and anti-violence initiative, BTS voiced support by tweeting "We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together."
The band also donated US$1 million, which triggered One in an ARMY, a fan-led charity collective, to tweet a link to offer donations. In less than 24 hours, over 34,000 fans joined the #MatchAMillion campaign to raise over $1 million.
"The sorts of social issues that BTS has tackled demonstrate that they care about their fans. Even if a fan can never meet them, there is a feeling that they care ... Other K-pop groups also have issues they're working on, but BTS' messaging has been more consistent and strong," Saeji commented, calling the BLM case one of "mind-blowing" social impact.
The seven young men who used to sing about grades, social prejudice and following their dreams seem intent on extending their clout as a beacon of hope.
"If there's something I can do, if our voices can give strength to people, then that's what we want and that's what we'll keep doing," Jungkook said during the September U.N. speech.
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