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July 27, 2021

[Weekender] Why BTS matters: From desert to ocean to world

  • PUBLISHED :October 12, 2018 - 10:33
  • UPDATED :October 12, 2018 - 10:45
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In June, BTS’ “Magic Shop” blared through a crisis residential center in the central US. And it wasn’t a BTS fan who requested the song full of a hopeful message. A 20-something male survivor of a suicide attempt had asked the center’s consultant to play the Korean song during a music therapy class. Describing it as “beautiful,” he sang along to the song.

This instance reported by Korean media outlets in September shows that BTS’ success goes beyond its performance on charts and sold-out world concerts. People from all over the world have been sharing remarkable stories on how the group’s music has helped them overcome their hardships in life. 

(Big Hit Entertainment)

In another instance, a Twitter user expressed her gratitude to BTS in September, sharing how its song “4 o’ Clock” helped her autistic son calm down.

There is no doubt that BTS’ music is making waves around the globe. However, the seven-piece boy band had to cross a desert to ascend to the upper echelons of the global music industry.

Crossing the desert 

(Big Hit Entertainment)

In September 2010, an audition titled “Hit It” was held to pick future BTS members. And in June 2013, RM, Suga, Jin, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook debuted as Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” after training under Big Hit Entertainment for three years.

Overflowing with hip-hop spirit and energy, the ambitious rookie group declared during its debut showcase, “We will survive till the end.”

But it wasn’t a rosy start. Early on in its career, BTS rappers were considered run-of-the-mill, and naysayers mocked the group’s moniker for being too “childish.” Some members even received negative feedback on their appearances. 


In addition, BTS did not come from one of the top three agencies -- S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment. Headed by a former chief producer of JYP Entertainment, Bang Shi-hyuk, the relatively small agency Big Hit Entertainment housed only two acts including BTS at the time.

For such reasons, many had predicted that the group would not survive in the cutthroat world of K-pop.

In “Sea,” Sugar raps, “I thought this was the ocean but it’s a desert. A medium-sized, ordinary idol was my second name. … They say some of these kids can’t make it because their agency is too small. … Times when the seven of us had to sleep in one room. With foolish hope that tomorrow will be different before we fell asleep. We saw the mirage in the desert but we couldn’t grasp it.”

During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, RM said “Some people may not believe (it), but most people thought we were hopeless.”

Slow rise to the top 

(Big Hit Entertainment)

Despite the circumstances, BTS was not daunted. Slowly yet persistently, the group sought a way to connect with the pop audience.

One of its tactics was to tackle topics that could connect with anyone in the world, regardless of language or nationality. Every music video of BTS also features the phrase “Music & Artist for Healing” at the intro.

In its debut single “No More Dream” -- many of the members were teenagers back then -- BTS tells fans to follow their dreams rather than fall prey to society’s expectations. Another song “N.O” addresses the hardships the band and their peers have faced, with lines like “Who made us study machines?” and “Who will take responsibility (for us) living the lives of puppets?”

Released in 2016, “Am I Wrong” is one of the songs that represent the group’s identity -- the members blame the entire world for going crazy and question why people do not react strongly to news and the media.

With its “Wings” album, the boy band went on a world tour, rising to international fame. 

(Big Hit Entertainment)

But the most prominent work that bridged BTS and global fans was its recent three-part trilogy: “Love Yourself: Her,” “Love Yourself: Tear” and “Love Yourself: Answer.” The three albums, built on the idea of self-empowerment, have silenced haters who tried to diminish the band’s value by crediting all its achievements to its loyal fandom, ARMY, not its music.

“Love Yourself: Her” released in September last year became the highest-charting Korean album on the Billboard 200 albums chart, hitting No. 7. With the release of “Love Yourself: Tear,” BTS smashed its own record, becoming the first K-pop band with an album claiming the top spot on the Billboard charts.

It was official. BTS’ meteoric global rise was unrelenting. Even South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his support for the group on Facebook in May, saying, “At the very heart of BTS’s outstanding dancing and singing is sincerity. This magical power turns grief into hope and differences into similarity.”

Making global waves 


One of the major events that ignited BTS’ crossover success was its appearance at the Billboard Music Awards in May last year, when it was named top social artist.

The event prompted US media to shine a spotlight on the group. For instance, major US TV shows and media outlets including E! News, “Entertainment Tonight” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” rushed to interview the K-pop act, and appreciation for BTS was palpable, with ear-splitting screams of fans and the audience on set.


(Big Hit Entertainment)

Despite language differences, BTS’ mostly self-produced songs have attracted worldwide fans, who have given the nod to the group’s authenticity and its message of universality.

In November last year, BTS made inroads stateside by performing its mega hit “DNA” at the American Music Awards, followed by appearances on American shows like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Late Late Show.” The boy band also chatted with magazines like Vogue and Rolling Stone. 

(Big Hit Entertainment)

BTS’ message goes beyond just making good music. With its “Love Yourself” trilogy and the worldwide “Love Myself” movement that was part of UNICEF’s anti-violence campaign, BTS has become synonymous with inspiration and self-acceptance.

“No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color or gender identity, speak yourself, find your name and find your voice by speaking yourself,” said RM during his speech at the UN General Assembly. 

(Big Hit Entertainment)


His words were later quoted in class material at some US schools, and even sparked a #SpeakYourself movement on Twitter, with fans spilling their personal hardships and dark stories.

Last week, BTS became the first K-pop act to perform at the stadium-size Citi Field in New York, reaching the highest tier of pop superstardom in the US. It was named favorite social artist at the 2018 American Music Awards this week. But just as the act said during the concert, this could just be the start of more to come.


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