The commercial success of BTS in the United States realizes the Korean pop industry’s most fervent dream. Korean record labels have gradually slithered their way into global prominence over the past decade, but with the exception of Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” a comedic novelty song and hence a fluke, the American market has proven difficult to crack. Since the failure of BoA’s self-titled English-language BoA (2009) to establish its creator as a pop icon as ubiquitous as Britney Spears, Korean crossover attempts have often fizzled; while there was talk of Girls’ Generation recording in English a few years ago, no such album has materialized.

BTS, also known as Bangtan Boys, Bulletproof Boy Scouts, and Beyond the Scene, have broken through. Three consecutive BTS albums peaked higher on the Billboard 200 than any Korean artist ever had. Love Yourself: Tear, out since May, debuted at #1, as did the compilation Love Yourself: Answer, which repackages songs from last year’s Love Yourself: Her and the aforementioned Tear into a sprawling two-disc set. For albums mostly in a language other than English, this is a historical turning point, and a delight.

As Korean pop stars whose recent material has been specifically calculated to sound at home on the American pop charts, while still sounding like K-pop and themselves, BTS perform a delicate balancing act. Committed to preserving their reputation, and K-pop’s in general, for sonic innovation, they’ve crammed their songs full of explosively busy, conflicting elements. “I Need U,” their first big single, rattles with propulsive snare drums, irritatingly high-pitched synthesizers, squeaky whistles, maximalist keyboard roar, a chorus that combines several familiar melodies into a giant yearning monster — behold a song that’s streamlined but also sprung, as if the many little crunchy parts are straining to burst through the polished surface.

But because songs as dense as “I Need U” don’t often chart nowadays, their recent work, like American pop in the past few years, has gotten sparer and slower. . Without narrowing their stylistic net, they’ve accommodated the streaming-fueled market preference for hypnotic midtempo electro-R&B softcore, with rhythms that shimmer in the background, bouncing and echoing through wide expanses of empty space. Their gawky, playful range of voices and personalities, as will naturally arise in any boy band with seven members, saves them from dilution, as do their buzzy beats, anthemic choruses, and synchronized dance moves.

They’re caught in the artist’s familiar bind of having to represent and stay true to a community that nurtured them while making pop compromises for a mass audience that is just now paying attention, except in their case the original community is South Korea, whose globe-conquering soft-imperialist project they advance, and the mass audience is America, the final frontier. Their aesthetic is not dissimilar to that of the Chainsmokers, with whom they collaborated on the gleaming EDM-lite ballad “Best of Me,” yet with their poise and their willingness to chase the weird hook, they prove that music that superficially sounds like the Chainsmokers can be exciting, even experimental. This is their selling point.

“Fake Love” Love Yourself: Tear’s lead single, typifies their approach, stacking plucked guitar chords, crinkly electronic bass, and multiple layers of synth flutter into a glistening motion machine, set to a melody that builds like a rock anthem with the streamlined grace of a dancefloor banger. The boys sound alternately gruff and yearning, snarling the rapped verses while crooning the chorus through vocal filters as aqueous as the keyboards themselves. Although the song is mostly in Korean, the title, grandly ascending chorus (“I’m so sick of this fake love”), and briskly descending postchorus (“Love you so bad”) make the point in isolated English phrases.

Riding an echoey, muscular, vaguely Latin trap-groove, “Airplane Pt. 2” plays similar tricks; as the camp violins, simulated steel drums, and rattly percussion effects wriggle, the boys pepper their Korean raps with English slogans (“I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know”), and the chorus includes Spanish too (“El mariachi”).

Mixing other languages into mostly Korean songs is a standard practice in the Korean pop industry, especially in lead singles. BTS are exceptionally canny about where to incorporate the English phrases, as they all appear at crucial melodic intervals — the bliss points, as industry songwriters call them, the perfectly condensed three-second moments that stick in your head. If you hum these songs — and you will, they’re catchy! — you hum in English, even while under the impression that the songs you’re humming are in Korean. Thus are the heads of pop fans crosslinguistically infiltrated.

Although Love Yourself: Answer, the compilation, is exactly the career-topping extravaganza they wanted, it’s also a mess; erratically sequenced, dotted with redundant remixes, it omits delectable songs from both albums (“Pied Piper”!). Remarkably, Love Yourself: Tear clicks as an album. Superficially spare, it’s a densely knotty compendium of hooks underneath, in all shapes and sizes.

These songs are nothing but hooks mashed together, whether fully developed pop melodies or chintzy little textural snippets: the breathy flutes and funk rhythm guitar snaking through “134340”; the chirpy guitar riff and bubblegum chorus on “Love Maze”; the way the boys’ voices come together beneath sparkly gauze and the most delicate of drops in “Magic Shop”; the percussive bleeps morphing into a new wave synthesizer on “Anpanman.” Their habit of singing full choruses over drops, which usually function as instrumental breaks, illustrates their treatment of extravagance as an end in itself. Even the ballads have hooks, as when the sodden piano weeper “The Truth Untold” erupts into a flurry of power drums at the end.

Too often, Korean pop albums that cram diverse styles into the same musical space fail to jell, a tendency that has befallen BTS in the past. Last year’s Love Yourself: Her was split straight down the middle between an EDM half and a rap half, as if it were making a joke about genre dabbling. Thanks to the imposed electro-R&B template, Love Yourself: Tear plays seamlessly; it may be the one coherent album I’ve heard in the EDM-softcore Chainsmokers style. The equivalent American music remains placid, empty, less hybridized. BTS have crafted an album whose clean electronic surface doesn’t mask the crunchier pleasures so much as tie them together. Squawks and metallic jolts abound, balanced by gloss. The album glides exquisitely, and bangs aggressively. Soothing music, inexplicably turned exciting — this is what it means to construct a pop thrill.

Lacking the need to crossmarket, American pop artists won’t replicate this music, and neither will other Korean groups — BTS’s collaborative boy band spirit, their fondness for strange noises and textures to listen to, and their combination of detachment and energy set them apart. They triumph in their perhaps old-fashioned belief that loudness is fun. They make a streamlined racket.

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure dregs...

3 replies on “How to Construct a K-Pop Thrill”

  1. You seem to be laboring under VAST misconceptions about the US music market. Almost half of what you said was borderline slander.
    BTS has for the last several albums sold especially well in the states,during an era where physical sales are seen as going obsolete, bts is one of the very few artists who can sell an album in the US in the physical thousands. This is a landmark achievement that many US based artists cannot achiveve. Furthermore, bts have a slew of songs that went gold on rria, along with an entire album. At every new bts cb, older albums and songs chart alongside new releases. This is clearly not fans. More and more causal listeners here are purchasing bts albums. Anything and EVERYTHING they do here is a hit, whether it be a store selling plush dolls or having a box office breaking film. As we do not have a steady radio stream behind us it is harder to draw in the genral public, hence the dropping in charts after the first week. To claim our efforts as chart manipulation is defamation so i would be careful as both bts and army are trademarked affiliates of big hit.
    I suggest you focus on whatever artist you like and leave your utterly incorrect opinions about bts out of your mouth. If you can’t critique accurately with facts then your ‘criticisms’ are well served as recycling material.

  2. You make a lot of bold (yet false) claims. I hope you know some of the things you said could be classified as slander and BigHit is now suing people. I’d delete this if I were you. Just focus on wtv kpop group you like and leave BTS to do their thing.
    The albums topping the charts for weeks do that due to huge streaming numbers. BTS sold more physical copies than Ariana in the US this year. And they were the 2nd most streamed group on Spotify, right after Imagine Dragons. You don’t seem to know half of what you’re talking about.
    I could go on but you don’t seem to know a lot about how charts work and I’m not about to waste my time educating you. Stick to your favourite groups and leave ours alone.

    PS – Most Armys didn’t hype the Super Bowl thing. We know they’d be subjected to a lot of prejudiced and racist comments. Also Suga said it as a ‘there’s no limits to what we can dream of’ kind of thing. Doesn’t mean it’s something he wants desperately nor in the near future.

  3. You are a kpop stan judging from your anger and bitterness, what a surprise! Here educate yourself: In the US BTS can fill a stadium, 4 successive nights in Staple center and countless other arenas across the country, they just broke 1 Direction’s Event cinema box office record, had one of the highest first week sales this year and entered the Pop radio top 40 several times, 2 RIAA gold certifications, 1 platinum song, and one gold album. 18th most streamed artist on Spotify, 2nd most streamed group…… (the list really goes on but I’m sure – judging from your closeted fan behavior – that you already know all there is to know about their achievements)

    You seem to underestimate the intellectual ability of the writer of this piece if you think that moving from criticizing BTS’ vocals and their dance to blatantly slandering them and their label without any proof will make your arguments any more credible or coherent in their eyes, do not delude yourself.

    If you want to be a keyboard warrior at least do it properly, look up the facts and get some minimal knowledge about how the industry works: bulk buying does not count for billboard, only a handful of US artists can actually cross the 200k line for pure sales let alone physical sales because that market is simply dead. Youtube filter span views that come from one IP address and so does Spotify and apple music. And in case you are tempted to bring up VPN, know that Nielsen have shown time and time again that they filter VPN sales an streams as it was shown when a certain foreign artist ranked high for days with crazy sales on Itunes only to end up very low on the charts after the Nielsen filter.

    Your level of obsession is worrisome as you seem to be keeping tabs on their every move, I suggest you seek help from a parent or any trustworthy adult because this isn’t very healthy. I hope you can find peace with yourself.

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