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.