After BTS’s Love Yourself World Tour sold out across the globe, it wasn’t uncommon to see American media comparing their tour to the Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. and the British Invasion of the 1960s as a whole, as BTS has left in their wake a long trail of sold-out stadiums filled with screaming fans. The comparison came as BTS stormed through two massive venues — Citi Field in New York and the O2 Arena in London — invoking the image of the English band’s historic performance at Shea Stadium.
Being the world’s biggest boy-band is no small feat. Just a few years ago, it was difficult to imagine that a K-pop act would inherit the throne previously held by the likes of New Kids on the Block, N’SYNC, and One Direction — all from Anglophonic countries, and almost all of them white. But a closer look at BTS’s music and message shows that even calling BTS a “boy band” may be an understatement.
The term “boy band” is a product of Anglophonic pop music history, and carries with it a certain set of assumptions. Beginning with the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds and culminating with New Kids on the Block, the term was used to denote a pop act made up of good-looking young men, performing music created by an imperious producer. Their target audience was teenage girls, toward whom the boy band’s music and messaging would be directed. The lyrics were usually saccharine, and the songs were about entering into, or exiting from, a romantic relationship with a young woman. Typically, music from boy bands was rarely adventurous, and consisted of easy and predictable bubblegum pop tunes.
In one sense, it is not wrong to call BTS a “boy band.” K-pop’s idol production system is directly traceable to the boy band production in the U.S. and U.K. The boy bands of the Anglophonic pop world enjoyed huge popularity in South Korea as well, so much so that when New Kids on the Block held a concert in Seoul in 1992, the ensuing stampede killed a fan and hospitalized 50 others. Korea’s producers sought to emulate the system that created the Jackson 5 and New Kids on the Block. This eventually resulted in the infamous “trainee system” of K-pop, which also created BTS under the auspices of BigHit Entertainment. Like other boy bands and K-pop idol acts, BTS is a group made up of good-looking young men performing music that leans heavily on visual aesthetics.
But that is where the similarities end, as many of the historical assumptions about boy bands are inapplicable to BTS. Underneath the surface similarities, BTS operates on a different model that allows them to reach a larger range of audience than the previous reigns of boy bands.
At this point, K-pop’s idol bands are musically in a different place. While there are K-pop groups that do indulge in bubblegum pop, the leading K-pop acts frequently introduce daring and innovative sounds. In its song “Rum Pum Pum Pum”, f(x) pushed boundaries by making unusually structured electronic dance pop and NCT’s “The 7th Sense” works because it’s built on a minimalist and hypnotic sound. These songs are adventurous to the point that they do not even have much in common with other K-pop music.
Anglophonic boy bands of the ’90s also experimented with forward-thinking sounds and genres other than pop music, but K-pop idol bands have taken it a step further. In this sense, they’re musical heirs of Michael Jackson, whose music left an indelible imprint in the Korean pop scene of the 1990s. (Seo Taiji and Boys, the fountainhead of modern K-pop, were obsessed with Jackson’s music.) It is worth remembering that Jackson also began his music career with the Jackson 5, a proto-idol band that emerged before the term “boy band” came to be used widely. Yet Michael Jackson took his music to an unprecedented level by visually and aurally mesmerizing the fans. Taking Jackson’s cue, K-pop idol bands consistently sought to present a total package of daring sonic experience, excellent choreography, and charismatic stage presence. This aspect of K-pop has been crucial in reviving the “boy band” genre that has been petering out in the States and the U.K. BTS has been successful because they were the best in presenting this total package. They’re a multi-faceted group composed of three rappers and four singers, in contrast to the U.S./U.K. boy bands that are usually all singers with one or two lead roles.
For U.S. and U.K. boy bands, the producer is inseparable from the product. It is difficult to envision New Kids on the Block without Maurice Starr, Backstreet Boys without Lou Pearlman, or One Direction without Simon Cowell. The same model was imported into K-pop, and most K-pop idol bands are closely associated with their production companies — usually SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, or YG Entertainment, all bearing the initials of their founders. But it is less so with BigHit Entertainment and its founder Bang Si-hyuk, who emphasized artistic freedom over a specific house style. With the help of a small number of in-house producers, BTS members participated in the music-making process from the beginning, composing their own songs and writing their own lyrics.
Although the influence of Bang Si-hyuk and BigHit’s in-house producers is clearly present in BTS’s music, such influence is less pronounced compared to, say, Starr’s fingerprints on New Kids on the Block or Max Martin’s sonic imprint on the Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC. BTS’s music comes across as organic because it is a natural output of the members’ own minds. It is not a coincidence that BTS began their musical journey with hip-hop, the genre that perhaps has the highest bar for authenticity. In the beginning, BTS was closer to being a hip-hop group in a boy band format, rather than a boy band trying out hip-hop.
BTS’s artistic authenticity shines even brighter in its lyrics and messaging. While BTS do sing about love and dating, it is more often about self-reflection and observations about the people and the world around them. They look inward, instead of singing outward at someone else. BTS are honest about their struggles; and they’re critical and defiant about the challenges imposed by their adversaries and society at large. Their message — which ultimately boils down to loving yourself — is positive and optimistic, as it springs naturally from their youthful energy. This hopeful note — which echoes Michael Jackson’s Heal the World message — put BTS at places rarely reached by pop stars, such as the UNICEF anti-violence campaign and a speech given during the U.N. General Assembly.
What sets apart BTS from the previous biggest boy bands in the world is also what allows BTS to reach a greater range of fans than their predecessors. BTS’s fans are more diverse culturally, ethnically, and generationally than those of any other boy band that came before them. The ARMY fan base is truly a global force, with hundreds of millions of fans spread across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Notably, the Love Yourself World Tour attracted a huge number of middle-aged fans. For most boy bands, a throng of middle-aged fans would come only for the reunion tour, but at any given BTS concert, it was not uncommon to see three generations of ARMY in attendance, or a mother-daughter pair in which the mother was the BTS fan while the daughter was acting as the chaperone.
English-speaking media is still trying to process BTS’s sudden rise. Because BTS appeared to emerge completely out of the blue, there’s been a struggle to find a frame of reference, which is how we’ve landed on “boy band.” The descriptor is not wrong, but not completely correct either. While BTS’s arrival in the U.S. has been likened to the Beatles and the British Invasion, we may actually be seeing the heirs of Michael Jackson in the 21st century.