BTS is the super group the world can’t stop talking about. The Korean pop group, made up of members V, J-Hope, RM, Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, and Suga, have had a string of worldwide hits and have been catapulted into international superstardom. However, while it is not uncommon for an Asian act to gain momentum internationally, BTS have been at the forefront of the K-Pop phenomenon. The genre sees groups perform mostly in Korean and today, acts like Blackpink, EXO and BTS have performed on world stages to millions of audiences who don’t necessarily understand the language – and smash records in the process.

Pop culture commentator, Michelle Govender, tells us that “The current exposure we see now around BTS happened to the Wonder Girls when they toured with the Jonas Brothers back in 2009. They had their own Nickelodeon made-for-TV movie and were the first South Korean group to enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart. What makes their success different to what we see now? Social media at the time was more in its infancy stage – we all were on it, but the power it yielded was incomparable to what we see today,” she says. “The Wonder Girls were a great success but the measurement of success differed greatly to what is seen as a success now.”

BTS’ latest single ‘Boy With Luv’, the lead off their sixth EP ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’, is a perfect example of how the world’s biggest K-Pop act has taken their newfound fame to the next level. While the music on the project still stays true to the sound the group has made famous, they’ve understood that their music transcends borders – and have therefore injected international influences into the music. This means a little more English lyrics and a collaboration with American songstress Halsey on the project’s lead single ‘Boy With Luv’.

Michelle adds that every aspect of the group’s musical releases are calculated – and it’s something that has helped BTS become an international phenomenon. “One of the most interesting areas related to K-pop is their marketing strategies. Nothing is done without an end result in mind. You know how we all marvel at Taylor Swift and her brand team through each of her musical eras? I don’t think it can compare to the tactics we see from the entertainment companies in South Korea such as YG Entertainment; Big Hit; SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment.” Michelle adds that “It boils down to ‘cultural technology’, a term coined by the founder of SM Entertainment Lee Soo-Man. Everything is carefully planned and crafted. I think the Western influence you see allows for a broader appeal too. Coupled with the adoption of digital media, it was a recipe for instant success.”

The strategy worked. ‘Boy With Luv’ became an instant phenomenon. The music video broke the record for the most views in a 24-hour period, garnering over 74 million views worldwide. However, this is not an isolated event for the group. In 2018, the group released ‘Idol’ to a similar response and now sits at number eight on the list of most viewed videos in a 24-hour period.

The band’s global impact is undeniable but BTS has a strong, solid fanbase in South Africa as well. Like international markets, BTS dominate the local iTunes and streaming charts whenever a new single is released and despite a language barrier, their music still identifies with many local audiences.

The group has achieved an incredible amount of success in South Africa and the country has, indirectly, been a major inspiration to the group. Their mixtapes, ‘Love Yourself: Her,’ ‘Love Yourself: Tear,’ ‘Love Yourself: Answer’ and ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’ all topped the local iTunes chart just hours after their release. Mixtapes by BTS members J-Hope and RM also topped the local iTunes charts despite being available for free download – showing just how supportive the local fanbase is. BTS has also revealed that their smash hit ‘IDOL’, off their ‘Love Yourself: Answer’ mixtape was inspired by the Gwara Gwara – a popular South African dance and the track incorporated elements of the Gqom sound born in South Africa. But, it’s ‘Boy With Luv’ which has really put the group on the map in South Africa. The track is currently charting on radio stations like 5FM, Heart FM and KFM and continues to reach a wider audience than any other BTS track to date in the country.

Naaz, Tag and Nicole, who run the @BTSArmyZA fan account on Twitter tell us that their connection to the group was almost instant. “Upon discovering them, our now adult selves were blown away – possibly because they were nothing like the boy bands that came before them. Yes, there are multiple members and they sing and dance, but that’s where the comparisons end,” they explain. “BTS can sing, rap and perform intricate feats of choreography that is mind boggling to watch. They also write and produce the vast majority of their own music. But, that’s only a part of makes them so special to us. Their music, sung almost entirely in Korean, speaks to multiple generations. Tackling often difficult subject matter like depression, anxiety, socio-political issues and the struggles of youth, they are connecting directly with millions of people around the world who are dealing with the same concerns. And they are saying, ‘We hear you. We understand you. We believe in you,’ because they’re dealing with the exact same struggles. And that feeling we experience as their fans – of solidarity, understanding, of shared experience – is powerful and unifying”

The fans add that it’s the group’s ability to identify with their audiences and make them feel seen is what has gained them such a staunch following around the world. “They have taught us, and so many around the world, that language is no barrier to good music and showed it’s astonishing power to bridge the gaps between age, gender, culture, religion, race and ethnicity to bring people together. Their culture and ethnicity have forced us to relook at any salient prejudice or subconscious biases we might have held and has challenged us to learn about a different culture and view the world through a different lens. It has enabled us to find commonalities between our African worldview and theirs, and it has had a unifying effect,” they tell us.

Echoing Michelle’s statement, Naaz, Tag and Nicole add that social media continues to play a big part in the group’s success. Fans are able to connect with others in any country around the world so easily and this is something that has also helped solidify BTS’ tight-knit fanbase – and they’re using their power in numbers to do good. “Through our love for them, we’ve connected with and forged friendships with the most amazing people, people we might never have known existed if not for our mutual appreciation of BTS’ music and message. Their incredible philanthropy and generosity has inspired us to be equally generous – in both mind, spirit and action. They have motivated us to donate towards saving our planet, protecting endangered and vulnerable animals and feeding the hungry within our communities. Why? Because that’s what being an ARMY (BTS’ fandom name) means. It means to think of others. To do for others. To care for others. But to do so in the name of BTS. Because they are the ones who have set the example that we try to emulate.”

They add “It might seem strange that seven men on the opposite end of the world can inspire such devotion. But in truth, it’s not strange at all. They share so much of themselves with their fans, far more than any artist we’ve ever come across, in the most sincere and authentic way. They tell us about how they’re feeling, their struggles, but also their greatest joy. It makes us feel connected, seen, appreciated and heard. So much so that while many of us may never have the opportunity to meet them, it’s almost irrelevant, because they’ve made us feel like friends. Their dedication to connecting with their fans and understanding what is important to us, is a huge part of what makes them so beloved. There is no BTS without ARMY, and similarly there is no us without them.”

Meanwhile, Michelle Govender adds that there is so much more to the appeal of K-Pop idol groups around the world. “Part of the intrigue around idols and idol groups revolves around the appeal. It’s rare to find these individuals wrapped up in a shocking scandal, their every move is documented and it’s no secret that they’re meant to shield many aspects of their personal lives (mainly dating which is often limited or forbidden while under contract),” she says. “I think at some point we all look at them and wish we were them as they’re portrayed in a light of perfection. You don’t simply become a K-pop star, you need to go through rigorous years of training as a trainee before you can debut. There’s no instant success in K-pop, you need to put in the work to earn your place in the spotlight.”

She adds that “Their music, performances and media activities become a true escape because you’re wondering what will happen next and await their next comeback eagerly. For most of K-Pop, it’s a happy space – you won’t find politics, social commentary and the like, so it becomes easily acceptable by everyone.”

It’s clear that K-Pop has become a massive phenomenon around the world and BTS has continuously, with each release, proven that they’re determined to make the best music and experiences for their fans. They put in the hard work and that’s something that fans around the world see and appreciate. It’s something that has drawn them to the genre despite the language barrier and we have a feeling that this new-found international success K-Pop has found will continue to change the landscape of the genre and the artists in the coming years.

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