K-pop group BTS’ perpetual rise in popularity has been staggering, and the success of their latest release, English-language single ‘Dynamite’, comes as no surprise. Perfectly timed and formulated to bolster the fame of this seven-member group who have become emblematic of K-pop’s global image, ‘Dynamite’ is a fun, simple pop track – but tells us much about the place BTS now find themselves in.
Over the course of their seven-year career, BTS’ global popularity has come relatively recently. Having debuted with then-small company Big Hit Entertainment in June 2013, BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan) were known amongst K-pop fans, and modestly well-regarded. Yet it would not be until 2015 that the group achieved their first Korean music show ‘win’ with angsty dance single ‘I Need U’, and it would take until over three years into their career, in 2016, that BTS would be awarded their first Daesang– one of the biggest Korean award show prizes – for second full-length album Wings, winning Album of the Year to the visible shock of the group’s members.
This rise to K-pop prestige in their home country first is what enabled BTS’ era of colossal worldwide fame, perhaps best marked by the release of ‘DNA’, title track from EP Love Yourself: Her, in 2017. Now, as a group known for their hugely dedicated fans, every release is greeted by record-breaking YouTube views, streams and #1 singles: the music video for ‘Dynamite’ broke the record for the most views in 24 hours, at 101.1 million. Sweeping Daesang awardsevery winter, their elite status in the K-pop industry now seems an irrelevancy. While many BTS fans will still call themselves fans of K-pop, for many, BTS is the only Korean group they listen to – and they view them as transcending this fascinating genre, arguing they should not be bound to the fact they sing in Korean.
‘Dynamite’ exemplifies the group’s confusing place on the boundary between the Asian and Western music industries. BTS remains very much K-pop in the formula of their songs, in the way the group and company operate, and in their fusion of musical influences, however much they transcend what was achieved by those who came before them. Seven years after debut, the group are still releasing music at lightning speed; this single, a pre-release to begin the build up to their next album, comes after their fourth Korean-language LP Map of the Soul: 7 in February, and after member Min Yoongi’s second mixtape D-2 (released under solo stage name Agust D), in May. K-pop fans are no stranger to complicated career moves – some groups will dart between releases from the full group and subunit or solo releases, and many release music in different languages, such as Japanese, Mandarin and English. While BTS has been marketed more and more towards an English-speaking – specifically American – audience in the last three years, the members have expressed a desire to continue to make music mainly in Korean, and have already released four Japanese-language LPs since 2014. As such, English-language single ‘Dynamite’ does not mark a significant departure from the norm.
Rather, this release has been timed to garner as much popularity as possible. Having already built a career in the US, releasing a fun, catchy song such as ‘Dynamite’ is a perfect way to cement their popularity, allowing them to tap into an existing dedicated fanbase, and to reach a wider audience via radio, or indeed YouTube. As an ‘extra’ release, which will not be included in their next (self-produced) album, it’s intended to build hype. And it’s even well-timed in terms of world-events, providing a simple, yet enjoyable comfort in the middle of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: in a press conference, Yoongi (SUGA) said that releasing the track “all began with a thought of giving energy to everyone amid the tough times”.
Perhaps, then, we should only take ‘Dynamite’ at face value. The nostalgic disco vibe, both sonically and visually, fulfil the aim of making you want to get up and dance; the lyrics invite the listener to party with the group, an escapism as many of us remain largely shut in our rooms, with lines such as ‘Life is sweet as honey, yeah, this beat cha-ching like money’ and ‘Day or night, the sky’s alight, so we dance to the break of dawn’. Moreover, the ‘rap’ verses – a staple of the K-pop formula – are more sung than ‘rapped’, and blend unusually seamlessly into the vocals which make up the bulk of the song. The production is crisp, the words somewhat empty and incoherent, but bright and aesthetically pleasing.
‘Dynamite’ is a decent, straightforward pop track. But it’s not characteristically ‘BTS’. In fact, what is characteristically ‘BTS’ seems increasingly difficult to pin down. At debut, the group was hip-hop focused, inspired by the very origins of K-pop with Seo Taiji and Boys, who borrowed heavily from the American hip-hop of the late eighties and early nineties. As early as 2014, though, BTS’ lead singles started to shift towards something more definitively ‘pop’, accompanied by more love-centred subject matter. Yet what fostered some coherency amidst BTS’ shifting themes, as well as K-pop’s genre-bending nature, was a focus on the experience of youth.
Now, BTS are older and wealthier; it no longer makes sense for them to continue with their focus at their conception. They have also tried to pursue some pretty well-defined themes – Love Yourself was pretty much done to death. Still, their artistic direction is confusing, and being thrust into the US spotlight does not help. In the eyes of many Western listeners, they remain the K-pop group: they sing well, they dance well, and some of them rap. This in itself, however, does little to set them apart from any other K-pop group.
BTS, then, must hold onto what drew fans of K-pop to them in the beginning: their authenticity. As much as Big Hit consciously sells it, the members do seem genuinely very close, and this dichotomy is exemplified by the ‘Dynamite’ music videos themselves: the main music video sells a perfectly-polished, cute but scripted, image of BTS, while the ‘B-side’ (better understood as B-roll) video showcases the members’ individual personalities and natural charm. The members also have more artistic freedom than most, with Namjoon (RM), Yoongi (SUGA), and Hoseok (J-Hope) having participated in songwriting and production from the beginning, and other members having become involved since.
Yet while the group’s authenticity remains, it has increasingly become awkwardly balanced with the demands not only of the K-pop industry, but also the American music industry, recently signalled by odd collaborations with an assortment of US artists (Nicki Minaj, Halsey, and Charlie Puth, to name a few), and the handing over of production to Western producers rather than the members. Crucially, this seems to counter the depth and quality of some of the members’ solo pursuits, both in BTS albums (Jimin’s ‘Serendipity’, V’s ‘Singularity’) and in their own right (see D-2). The reality is that, as a group, BTS have become fundamentally uninteresting, their singles more and more detached, and their discography less and less coherent.
Perhaps their next album will show ‘Dynamite’, and some of the other confusing releases which have come before it in the past few years, have been a minor diversion, an era marking a group struggling to find a focus or identity as, paradoxically, their fame continues to exponentially grow. They certainly have the talent and drive for it.
Image: TenAsia. Background altered from original