The Week In Pop

Superstar K-Pop Boy Band BTS Launch Their American Invasion

The best way to judge a boy band’s potency is the intensity of the screaming throng that accompanies its every move. That was true in the 1960s, when the mop-top-era Beatles incited widespread hysteria, and it was true again at the turn of the millennium, when Backstreet Boys and NSYNC became the faces of a similarly boisterous and pervasive movement. It’s been a constant throughout modern history, spanning from the Bay City Rollers to Menudo, from New Edition to New Kids On The Block. It’s hard to take a boy band seriously as a cultural entity if they can safely travel from point A to point B without being accosted by a deafening mob of enthusiastic fans.

In the wake of One Direction’s breakup last year, many new boy bands — Miami’s CNCO, UK’s New Hope Club, dueling Hollywood upstarts Why Don’t We and PRETTYMUCH — have been angling to become the next youth-culture phenomenon. They’re all doing pretty well for themselves, particularly CNCO, a Latin pop combo founded on the reality show La Banda. But each one was fighting a losing battle from the start because the next youth-culture phenomenon was already well underway. It just wasn’t playing out on US soil until recently.

Perhaps now is not the time to joke about a “Korean invasion,” but that’s what BTS — the singing, dancing, rapping Seoul sensation also known as Bangtan Boys — have been staging this month on American TV. BTS is short for Beyond The Scene, and the seven-man ensemble’s popularity indeed extends well outside the boundaries of the K-pop community that birthed them. So does their music, which applies a freewheeling, omnivorous approach to pop, a stark contrast to the restrictive, retrograde NSYNC impressions that define most of their Western counterparts. Whereas PRETTYMUCH and Why Don’t We are largely stuck in the past, BTS look and sound like the past rocketing into the future, which may be why they’re ruling the present.

Two weeks ago Jin, Jimin, J-Hope, Jungkook, Suga, V, and RM (formerly Rap Monster!) made their US television debut at the American Music Awards, where they were greeted by all the ecstatic fanfare you’d expect from a legitimately massive boy band. (Throats were shredded; tears were shed.) Their heavily choreographed performance was a rare flash of excitement at an otherwise dour event. Since then, BTS have played Kimmel. They’ve played Ellen. Their appearance on Corden, hotly anticipated for weeks, is finally airing tonight. All of these broadcasts are being promoted as major events, with each talk show devoting multiple segments to BTS and their horde of passionate fans. This procession of competing Beatles-on-Sullivan moments feels like the US entertainment industry scrambling to recognize what has been true for a while now: BTS are one of the biggest pop groups in the world, if not the biggest outright.

They are, at the very least, the biggest on social media. BTS boast more than 10 million Twitter followers, 6.9 million Instagram followers, 5.4 million Facebook likes, and 5.2 million YouTube subscribers, plus more than a million followers on Chinese social network Weibo and 675K on Korean site Fancafe. Just last week they set a Guinness World Record for most Twitter engagements — which means they’re not merely the most liked and retweeted musical act on Twitter, they’re the most liked and retweeted account on Twitter. Each tweet averages 252,200; by comparison, Harry Styles averages 165,473.

This massive online presence won BTS a Billboard Music Award earlier this year for Top Social Artist, and the resulting acceptance speech was repurposed as an interlude on the group’s latest EP, Love Yourself: Her, which recently became the first K-pop release to reach the top 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Scrappy and lo-fi, the acceptance-speech interlude is as much of an outlier on the album as BTS were at the AMAs. The project’s other eight tracks are sparkling and vivacious examples of modern pop music, seamlessly darting between subgenres and languages (mostly Korean, with some English). Collectively they present BTS as a group that could easily catch on in a US radio climate that made room for predominantly Spanish “Despacito” this year.

Love Yourself: Her begins with “Intro: Serendipity,” a better Justin Bieber single than anything Bieber himself has released in the interim since his Purpose album. It casts breathy singing against misty keyboard sounds and gradually intensifying digital low end, working its way to a floaty denouement infused with piano and acoustic guitar. That leads into “DNA” — the second Korean-language single to crack Billboard’s Hot 100 following PSY’s “Gangnam Style” — which initiates with whistling, staccato guitar strums, and a four-on-the-floor beat and ultimately finds space for aggro rapping and aggressive EDM drops. If this all sounds like a nightmare clusterfuck worthy of Black Eyed Peas or LMFAO, well, it doesn’t not sound like Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO, but BTS and producer Pdogg execute the tune with such brazen enthusiasm that it’s difficult not to get swept up in maximalist euphoria right along with them. And anyhow, there’s a place for such unrestrained ebullient corniness; “I Gotta Feeling” and “Party Rock Anthem” might have annoyed you at their height, but see how much you mind next time the DJ drops one of them at a wedding.

Speaking of disreputable yet quasi-irresistible MOR monoliths, the Chainsmokers’ Drew Taggart worked on “Best Of Me,” and it shows in the track’s lukewarm, EDM-tinted soft-rock posture. In this case the results are not nearly as winsome. The quality picks up again on the bouncy synth-pop cascade “Dimple” and the loose, funky, midtempo “Pied Piper.” Yet the EP truly peaks with its last three tracks, where the balance shifts from rap-informed pop to pop-minded rap. On the tensely jittery “MIC Drop,” the hip-swinging “Go Go,” and the squelchy boom-bap throwback “Outro: Her,” BTS never cease sounding like a boy band even as they lean liberally into hip-hop. This, as opposed to the cautious and muted appropriations of the Lou Pearlman era, is one of the most obvious ways BTS and K-pop forebears like BigBang have evolved the concept of the boy band. It’s a big reason BTS are so much more fun than their peers from this hemisphere, and it makes me want to see them catch on here in the States.

BTS don’t need to infiltrate American pop culture to succeed. On a global scale they are already a runaway success story. Although that success happens to include a fervent core of US fans — BTS remain the only artist who had to bring their own security service to Billboard’s New York office in the year since Stereogum moved in — K-pop bands do not live and die by the US market. How exciting would it be, though, if this Korean teen-idol party patrol came along and shook up not just a top-40 landscape in stasis but our very concept of what a boy band can be?

CHART WATCH

The Week In Pop was on Thanksgiving break last week when Taylor Swift’s Reputation scored 2017’s biggest debut, so to recap her achievements: Reputation’s 1.216 million in sales immediately made it the bestselling album of 2017. That figure also amounts to the 10th-largest sales week of the SoundScan era (since 1991) and Swift’s record fourth million-selling week, breaking a tie with Adele. Relatedly, Swift’s first-week Reputation sales add up to the best sales week since Adele’s 25 set the one-week record with 3.378 million back in November 2015. So of course it debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and unsurprisingly it remains at #1 for a second frame.

Billboard reports that Reputation’s second-week haul totals 256,000 equivalent album units, 232,000 of them based on pure sales. Coming in at #2 is Swift’s former country contemporaries Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s collaborative album The Rest Of Our Lives, which debuts with 104,000 units and 98,000 in traditional album sales. After Sam Smith at #3 comes more country at #4, where Garth Brooks enters with 53,000 units (all sales) of The Anthology: Part I, The First Five Years. ‘Tis the season, therefore Pentatonix’s 2016 release A Pentatonix Christmas is back up to #5. And rounding out the top 10 are popular titles by Pink, Maroon 5, Lil Uzi Vert, Ed Sheeran, and Post Malone.

Speaking of Post Malone, he and 21 Savage remain at #1 on the Hot 100 for a seventh straight week with “Rockstar.” Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” follows at #2 yet again, though Billboard notes the gap between the two songs is tightening. Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” and Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” also remain at #3 and #4 respectively. Up to a new #5 peak is Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” The rest of the top 10 comprises Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” at #6, Sam Smith’s “Too Good At Goodbyes” at #7, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” at #8, Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” at #9, and Maroon 5 and SZA’s “What Lovers Do” at #10.

POP FIVE

Machine Gun Kelly, X Ambassadors, & Bebe Rexha – “Home”
OK, I’m ready for the pop posse cut era to be over.

Logic & Rag’n’Bone Man – “Broken People”
“We’re broken people now!” Ran’n’Bone Man huskily emotes, and although I get where he’s coming from regarding our existence in this dystopian hellscape, I don’t think I was fully, finally broken until I suffered through this song.

Matoma – “Slow” (Feat. Noah Cyrus)
EDM may be over as a cultural groundswell, but as a template for pop hits it may never die. It’s remarkable how durable this format — the MOR pop song with the subtle then not-so-subtle EDM undercurrents — has proven to be.

Nick Jonas – “Say All You Want For Christmas”
This goes about as well as a Nick Jonas x Shania Twain Christmas song could go. What are the odds it’s a Nick-Jonas-goes-country Trojan horse?

Why Don’t We – “Kiss You This Christmas”
I am a sentimental bastard who believes the boy band Christmas original is a time-honored tradition because a few of them were popping when I was in high school. Therefore I unironically included N’ Sync’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” on the mix of Christmas songs I unironically listen to this time of year. Why Don’t We did pretty well with this, or at least they got through it without faceplanting, but I am having trouble getting past the super-serious cello face.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Elton John is reworking his Lion King hits for Disney’s live action remake and there’s speculation Beyoncé will sing with him on the soundtrack. [NY Daily News]
  • “Despacito” won Record Of The Year at the Latin Grammys. [NY Daily News]
  • Taylor Swift has added second dates in some cities on her upcoming US tour. [Taylor Swift]
  • Maren Morris says Niall Horan will perform at her wedding in March. [E!]
  • Justin Bieber has a new German T-Mobile commercial. [Twitter]
  • Khalid spoke out about being groped by a fan. [NME]
  • Pink released a video for “Beautiful Trauma” co-starring Channing Tatum. [YouTube]
  • Louis Tomlinson’s new single “Miss You” is out Friday. [Twitter]
  • Call Me By Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet thanked Cardi B in his IFP Gotham Awards acceptance speech. [YouTube]
  • Sara Bareilles will return to Waitress on Broadway early next year, costarring with Jason Mraz. [Vulture]
  • Kelly Clarkson did a Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME