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You’ve heard the name BTS so many times you’ve started to confuse it with “behind the scenes,” but you’re still not sure what they’re all about. They were on SNL, they sold out a world tour, their albums are in Targets across America, but… They’re a K-pop group? This is BTS’ history explained Listen, I was just as disoriented as you may be when my roommate forced me to listen to their music a few summers ago. Their infectious tunes combined with their truly precious group dynamic turned me into a full fan, and now I’m here to usher you, dear reader, into the wonderful world of BTS. Let’s begin.
Being a BTS fan has ruined my brain in that anytime I see “BTS” I automatically assume it is about my K-pop boys and not the term “behind the scenes.” Regardless, in the context of K-pop, BTS stands for Bulletproof Boy Scouts, or “bangtan sonyeondan (방탄소년단)” in Korean. They later tried to backronym BTS to mean beyond the scene, but that didn’t really take well with fans… I have honestly never heard someone who wasn’t a 70-year-old cable news reporter use this term. Sometimes they’re called Bangtan Boys, but we (the fanbase, aka “Army”) usually just call them BTS.
BTS is a seven-member group that debuted in 2013 under the management of BigHit Entertainment. We won’t get too in the weeds about specifics of the K-pop industry, but there are three massive entertainment companies (YG, SM, and JYP) that produce a lot of talented and prolific acts. BigHit is not one of them. In fact, BTS was the first group to debut entirely under BigHit’s management, and they currently manage just three acts. So the global success of BTS is pretty cool, especially considering that they were ~underdogs~ of the industry for so many years.
While a lot of K-pop distribution is the same as Western music (they… release music), some of the terminology and timelines are a bit different. Here are the main things you need to know about how K-pop differs from Western pop music. For starters, in the world of K-pop, groups base albums on “concepts,” which basically just means the vibe & lyrics of the music, as well as the visuals they use in music videos. Groups have different concepts for different eras, which are basically album cycles for the rest of the music world.
BTS debuted with a Hip Hop (and… school? There is a school bus in the video) concept with their video “No More Dream,” which drew some criticism, both from inside the industry and outside of it. They weren’t really embraced by the K-pop or the Hip Hop community, and there are clips of them defending their work on radio shows back in the day, but their debut concepts are honestly a bit cringe compared to their current work. People change! Sometimes for the better!
Their following few albums continued that loose school concept — filming in classrooms, wearing school uniforms. They wrote about high school love, but also talked about (and criticized!) the school system that they’d been brought up in. Their next-era begins with the Dark & Wild album when their sound and visuals shift to a bit more… rowdy. They’re not in school uniforms anymore (they almost look… punk!?), and they’re singing about danger and heartbreak. It was… Cheesy and maybe a bit lame, and not the most empowering to women (see: “War of Hormone” music video with translations).
Dark & Wild was a short era, one album, and it provided a bit of a ~transition~ period before their next era: “HYYH.” HYYH stands for “Hwa Yong Yeon Hwa” (Hangul: 화양연화), and it means the most beautiful or happiest time of one’s life. Their sound and image really started to shift around this time, and they became a lot less cringy, in my humble opinion. This era was a kind of a coming-of-age story, and the boys play characters of themselves in the music videos and their alternate universe. There are themes of growing up and maturing, both visually and within their music, and the vibe is more similar to where they’re at now, so if you’re fully new here, maybe start with one of these albums instead of right from the beginning. Come back to those once you’ve got love in your heart for the boys.
In 2016, BTS released their album WINGS, ushering in a new era that dealt with the themes of temptation, the fight between good and evil, and the discovery of one’s own beliefs. Dark! Brooding! Their most popular song during this era was “Blood Sweat & Tears,” which you should watch just because it’s quite nice to look at. And finally, in 2017, we arrived in the Love Yourself era, where we currently reside to a degree. After being rebellious, maturing, and figuring out their beliefs in the world, Bangtan’s current era is about love — for yourself and those around you (see: their most recent hit, “Boy With Luv“, in which everything is pink and it is cute). According to chart data, their second Love Yourself era album, Tear, was when they really began to explode on a global scale, and maybe when you started hearing about them all the time.
So that’s the music of BTS — fourteen albums in six years, not including singles and Japanese albums. And now: the boys. Ask any fan of BTS what they like about them and they’ll be quick to inform you of their bias (K-pop stan language meaning your Favorite Boy) and gush about how sweet the guys are. BTS puts out a lot of content, from behind the scenes videos, vlogs, a weekly variety show, to social media interaction. It’s much easier to feel like these boys are your friends, not international superstars after you’ve watched them cry to each other on a boat… And maybe cried along with them.
A note about names: many K-pop singers (“Idols,” as they’re called in the industry) go by stage names. For the sake of this piece, we’ll refer to them by their given names, but it doesn’t really matter all that much. Ok, onward to the boys! (FWIW, this album of photos they recently uploaded to Facebook is really cute.)
Kim Namjoon (RM, 24)
RM was the first to join the company and is the leader of the group. He is also the tallest, which means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it’s kind of nice. Leaders in K-pop are often spokespeople for the group, accepting awards and taking the lead in interviews, which works out well as Namjoon is bilingual! He taught himself English by watching the show Friends over and over and over. He goes by RM. He’s charismatic and brilliant (he has an IQ of 148!), and loves spending his time off going to parks and museums, and he’s known for being kind of clumsy, which we find charming. He often writes about how he balances the persona of “RM” and the person of Namjoon. He raps and helps produce, and leads the group with a quiet confidence.
Seokjin (Jin, 26)
Jin is the eldest, is the “visual” of the group — this just means he’s got a really handsome face. He was actually recruited at college one day solely because of his looks, but he’s also got a lovely voice and has become the mood maker of the group. He’s six years older than Jungkook, the youngest of the group, and for the first few years, he drove Jungkook to school every day, like some sort of fun mom figure, which I find incredibly heartwarming. He’s known for being goofy and a bit chaotic — he once cut his hair in the bathroom when the company told him not to, then posted a video of it on Twitter. He also cut a pair of $116 jeans into shorts once.
Yoongi (Suga, 26)
Next is Yoongi who is a rapper as well as a fantastic writer and producer. He goes by Suga. His fingerprints are on sooo many BTS songs, and he writes and produces for other artists, too. He entered the company second, right after Namjoon, and they used to argue all the time, but are now great friends (as they all are, obviously). He really wants to win a Grammy, which like, we get it. He almost left the group a few times throughout the years, as he felt like he was losing his freedom, but stuck around to pursue his dream — thank god he did.
Hoseok (J-Hope, 25)
Hoseok goes by J-Hope, is a rapper and one of the main dancers (he learned to rap after joining BigHit, since he started out as a street dancer). He picked the stage name “J-Hope” because he wants to bring hope and joy to people, and he’s known for being outgoing and bright, and he’s always dancing in the middle of interviews.
Ji-min (Jimin, 23)
Jimin is to K-pop what Naruto is to anime: even if you know nothing else about that world, you probably kind of know who he is. He is also one of the main dancers; he went to arts school and was classically trained. He’s part of the vocal line as well, and he shines when he gets to perform sweet and melodic songs. He’s known for being very caring and sweet, and sometimes a bit of a flirt… But maybe he’s just a Libra.
Taehyung (V, 23)
Taehyung is a member of the vocal line, and was the last member to join the group. He and Jimin went to school together, they weren’t that close at first but after a year or so they realized they were like, soulmates, and have been best friends ever since (that video of them crying on the boat? It was Taehyung reading a love letter to Jimin. Pls watch. It is heartwarming.). He loves art and beautiful things and often goes to museums when they have time off on tour. When BTS was in Texas last fall, Taehyung went to a small gallery and bought some art from a local artist! He’s a sweet boy.
Jung-kook (Jungkook, 21)
And finally, Jungkook is the main vocalist and one of the main dancers in BTS. The youngest is known as the “maknae,” and Jungkook is often called “golden maknae” because he is so incredibly good at everything. He was a wunderkind trainee and many companies wanted him, but he chose to go to BigHit because he thought Namjoon was really cool. He based his career off of a friend crush! We love that. He loves picking up hobbies (currently boxing, previously bowling, and is always learning about videography), and likes posting about his hobbies on Twitter, too, in what are thinly-veiled thirst traps. (lifting weights, swimming)
So that’s BTS. While it’s easy to make a joke using the classic lyric “started from the bottom now we’re here…” They started from the bottom, and now they are here, atop the global charts, international superstars. While you still might not get the rabid fandom that follows them (it took me a while to get it, too), at the very least you can now understand what a quarter of Twitter is talking about at any given time. Or maybe you’ve just found your next fixation — if so, welcome, there’s plenty to enjoy (watch a RUN BTS! Episode where they train puppies! Or a choreography video! Or a cute interview!). We’re happy to have you as part of the ARMY.