The recent stateside success of Spanish-speaking acts like Bad Bunny and J. Balvin flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about songs in English being the key to reaching American audiences. K-pop juggernaut BTS has topped the Billboard 200 album chart four times now, once with this spring’s Map of the Soul: 7 and also with 2018’s Love Yourself: Tear, which made history as the first Korean-language album to hit No. 1 in the States, plus with 2018’s Love Yourself: Tear and 2019’s Map of the Soul: Persona. BTS has made inroads with American listeners on songs like “Idol,” in collaboration with Nicki Minaj, and “Boy With Luv,” the platinum-certified Halsey team-up from last year’s EP Map of the Soul: Persona, but with the group’s new single “Dynamite,” BTS attempts something it never has before — a song performed completely in English.
How’d that go? “Dynamite” follows “Idol” and “Boy With Luv” in breaking the record for the most views in the first 24 hours, this time pulling in over 100 million pairs of eyes between midnight Friday and midnight Saturday. The clip, directed by Yongseok Choi and Jihye Yoon of Lumpens — the team behind dozens of MVs for BTS and other South Korean acts like Lee Hyori and Sistar — takes after recent BTS videos (see: “Spring Day” and “Euphoria” in addition to “Boy With Luv” and “Idol”) in the sense that it is somehow both strikingly vivid and also profoundly empty. The Bangtan Boys are frolicking around what looks like a dream Los Angeles, dancing in- and outside of vivid storefronts that recall the cartoonish set pieces from the visual for “Boy With Luv.” They’re the only sign of life, barring the trickle of cars that occasionally creeps into frame, suspiciously matching the color scheme at center stage. The group’s visual aesthetic is perfectly suited to a time where directors are having to find ways to make television pop without the use of big crowds. The sights are vibrant; the audience is absent. One hopes American artists are taking notes.
Musically, “Dynamite” is the same brand of cute, catchy, unassuming mass entertainment as, say, Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” or the singles from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. (Really, “Dynamite” sounds like what might happen if Teenage Dream–era Katy Perry made music for anime. The horns in the chorus sort of favor “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” the theme song from Neon Genesis: Evangelion. The BTS guys are avowed anime fans. Big coincidence or nah?) “Dynamite” is an interesting crossover gesture from BTS because it correctly identifies breezy disco-pop as the path to a hit single in a year where Harry Styles’s “Watermelon Sugar,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” and Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me” took the sound to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 but also because it eschews the high-minded ideas of past outings like Map of the Soul: Persona, which was sort of a meditation on Jungian psychology. This one is just about having fun outside with your friends.
Is BTS oversimplifying things for American audiences, toying around with popular phrasings favored by American pop songs, cruising through cities and setting nights on fire, or are they acknowledging the pang of grief a lot of us feel when we think back on carefree nights out on the town with our besties? Whatever the case, as explosives go, “Dynamite” is more like a rocket, a vehicle expressly designed to break through the stratosphere.