BTS And Their Fan Army Are Rendering The Pop Charts Useless
About nine months ago, the phenomenally successful South Korean boy band BTS released “Dynamite,” their first-ever English-language single. Up until the moment that they announced “Dynamite,” the members of BTS had said that they didn’t plan to record in English. This made sense. They didn’t need to record in English. At the time, BTS represented a radical decentering of the global pop system: A leviathan-level success story in which the principal figures come from outside the anglophone pop system to capture the hearts of millions of people around the world. BTS weren’t simply huge in Korea or even Asia. They were (and are) huge everywhere, and their rise mirrored the trajectories of Spanish-language urbano stars like Bad Bunny and J Balvin. In America, BTS could sell out stadiums and land top-10 singles while only sprinkling occasional English into their records. They didn’t need to pull crossover moves. Instead, they brought everyone else into their world. Then they went ahead and pulled a crossover move anyway.
“Dynamite,” written and produced by British pop-industry professionals, is a perfectly OK example of sunshine-drenched, Bruno Marsian quasi-disco. The song is fine. It won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. BTS and their handlers delivered a piece of product designed to attract as many consumers as possible into their whole thing. They succeeded. “Dynamite” came out in August of 2020, and it promptly debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first K-pop single ever to scale those heights. The song occupied that slot for three weeks. It got actual pop-radio airplay, something that had previously evaded BTS. It was a genuine smash. But then some funny things happened.
Since last September, BTS have notched up three more #1 hits. In October, members of the group jumped on “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat),” a TikTok-driven hit from the young New Zealand producer Jawsh 685 and the fading American dance-pop singer Jason Derulo. That song, which has a complicated history of its own, was hanging out in the lower rungs of the top 10 for a while. When BTS showed up on the remix, the song went straight to #1. A couple of months after that, BTS released the breezy midtempo ballad “Life Goes On,” and that debuted at #1, too. In the process, it became the first Korean-language single ever to top the Hot 100. (“Gangnam Style,” which peaked at #2 in the period just before Billboard used YouTube streams to figure out the charts, got robbed.)
A week and a half ago, BTS released “Butter,” a song that sounds a whole hell of a lot like “Dynamite.” It’s their second English-language single. The entire creation of “Butter” feels oddly murky; one of the seven credited songwriters, for instance, is Columbia Records chairman Ron Perry, a man with no previous songwriting experience. The song has done what it was intended to do. “Butter” now sits at #1. According to Billboard, no group has cranked out their first four #1 singles this quickly since the Jackson 5 did it in 1970. (Justin Timberlake notched his first four chart-toppers even faster in 2006 and 2007, which is weird. Timberlake only ever reached #1 once as a member of *NSYNC, and none of the hits from his massively successful 2002 solo debut Justified made it to the top.)
Here’s the thing, though: “Butter” is not the most popular song in America right now. Billboard figures out its charts through some arcane combination of streaming, sales, and radio play. “Butter” made it to #1 almost entirely based on sales of discounted digital singles. “Butter” did get a lot of streams, but it didn’t get as much as any of the three most popular songs from Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album. At radio, the biggest song in America right now is “Leave The Door Open,” the retro-soul soul ballad from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s Silk Sonic project. There, “Butter” isn’t even a factor.
So “Butter,” like the big BTS hits that preceded it, sits at #1 right now mostly because BTS have effectively mobilized their tireless fan army. BTS sold downloads of “Butter” for 69 cents. They also sold an instrumental version. That’s 69 cents, too, and its sales count towards the chart fortunes of BTS. (There are also physical editions of the single, but those won’t count on the charts until they ship.) BTS fans are extremely plugged into the whole pop-chart thing, and they’re invested in helping the group get to #1 as many times as possible. If that means buying two different versions of the same song for 69 cents a pop, plenty of them are happy to do it. If you look at the charts, then, you’re going to get a completely distorted idea of how popular BTS actually are.
Record labels have always tried to juke the chart stats. Billboard has kept changing its tabulation methods in part because labels keep trying to use shady tactics to push their songs to #1. (At times, Billboard has allegedly been complicit in those tactics; witness the sordid saga of how Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” blocked Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” from the #1 spot in 1978.) There have also been vast stretches where the Billboard charts haven’t been a useful metric in figuring out what’s actually popular. For most of the ’90s, for instance, record labels refused to sell singles, driving people to buy CD albums instead, while Billboard refused to count any songs on the charts that weren’t officially released as singles. Still, the Hot 100 is the best historic marker we have for what’s big at any specific time. In gaming the system, BTS are fucking that whole thing up.
It’s not just BTS. Thus far this year, 10 songs have made it to #1 on the Hot 100. Seven of those songs have debuted at #1. Last year, people like 6ix9ine and Travis Scott weaponized their self-aware fanbases to push unremarkable, unmemorable singles to #1, helped in part by scams like merch bundles. You could accuse Taylor Swift of something similar with the two #1 hits that she released in 2020. These days, it’s not just the artists and the record labels who are trying to game the charts. It’s the fans, too. Billboard has messed around with its rules a few times to keep things like that from happening, but the fans keep figuring out new ways to push not-that-popular songs to #1. A lot of the time, these songs plummet out of the top 10 almost immediately after getting their one week at #1. It feels like a broken system.
Now: BTS truly are a massively popular group. They’re big enough that their popularity has actually changed Korean laws. K-pop boy bands used to go on hiatus when the members of the group would have to report for compulsory military service, but thanks to a law passed in 2020, they can now delay their service until age 30. BTS keep appearing on American TV because people want to see them. “Dynamite” was a legit #1 hit — the kind of song I actually heard out in the world more than once. Maybe I’ll encounter “Butter” the same way, too, but I have my doubts. Instead, we’re dealing with a situation where everyone is working to inflate certain numbers and to affect the charts in that way. It’s almost like sports fandom, if you could actually will your team toward a championship by being louder and more obnoxious than anyone else in the arena, or by buying more jerseys than anyone else.
Look: It doesn’t ultimately matter how many times BTS get to #1 in America. The group has already proven to be hugely important to the history of pop music, and it’ll likely be years before we see how the ripple-effects of their popularity have changed the world. But it’s frustrating to see a phenomenon like this inflating the stats, obliterating any sense of accuracy in how we keep these records. I’m writing both a column and a book about #1 singles, so I have a vested professional interest in these charts not getting completely fucked up. But even as a fan, a passive observer, it’s not a fun thing to watch. Organic popularity, once the driving force behind pop music, barely feels like it exists anymore. Instead, the pop charts are turning into a battlefield for warring stan armies.
There’s no real answer for this. If Billboard changed its rules again, then fanbases would just change their approach toward pushing songs toward the charts. Stan culture has made it so that we feel like we’re winning if our favorite artists are winning; you see the same thing reflected in, say, all the people on Twitter who jump to Elon Musk’s defense whenever anyone points out that that guy has too much money. That means the fuckery on the Billboard charts is merely a symptom of a larger societal fuckery. But it’s still fuckery.