1. Map of the Soul: 7 moves a stunning 422,000 equivalent album units this week to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- nearly twice as much as Changes, from fellow pop idol Justin Bieber, did in its first frame a week ago. Does this seem like a changing of the guard moment to you, or is that reading too much into the numbers?
Tatiana Cirisano: Hey, the numbers don’t lie. What’s really astonishing is what BTS didn’t do -- there was little to no radio play to support the album’s singles, and no merchandise bundling, meaning the album’s sales were almost purely organic. And this wasn’t BTS’ first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, but their fourth, with the biggest week of 2020 for any release. Did we mention it's also non-English? BTS has always made it clear that they only want mainstream success if they can achieve it without losing their identity. They’ve done just that -- and it feels like a changing of the guard moment to me, or a challenging of the guard, at the very least.
(Speaking of Bieber, it’s worth mentioning that his comeback single “Yummy” recently lost a No. 1 debut to a hip-hop newcomer -- yet another example of how as streaming and social media give fans and artists more power, America’s pop superstars are no longer an automatic lock for the top chart positions.)
Eric Frankenberg: Well…it’s complicated. As Justin Bieber will tell you or gleefully sing to you himself, he is an adult now and seems to have transitioned out of true pop-idol status to mature hitmaker, not directly competing with BTS for fans. But even more than a more apples-to-apples comparison like One Direction, BTS seems to be operating on their own plane. It’s hard to compare them to Bieber or really any other modern pop star because their fan base, their legacy-in-progress, and their music really exists by itself.
Jason Lipshutz: Justin Bieber and BTS exist in such different corners of pop music that it’s difficult to picture the Biebs passing the torch to the BTS boys as a one-to-one exchange. That said, the juxtaposition of those first-week numbers demonstrates a group still experiencing its commercial apex and an artist who’s a bit removed from his own: Bieber’s 2015 album Purpose had three No. 1 singles and a much stronger opening than Changes, while BTS, which just scored its highest-charting Hot 100 hit to date and is barreling toward its most ambitious U.S. stadium tour, keeps pushing its respective ceiling higher.
Mia Nazareno: Yes, for sure! I don’t think the two albums really compare. Map of the Soul is a full-on pop experience -- that just happens to be in Korean. On the other hand, Changes sounds like Justin’s dip into R&B, and has been received with mixed reviews. BTS is at the top of their game, they put out a fine-tuned album full of bangers, and they’re here at the right time. Listeners and audiences are ready for foreign-langauge acts not only entering charts, but also topping them. This trend goes beyond music: There’s a greater cultural shift in Western media recognizing art that comes out of Asia. I mean, shoutout to my oppa, Bong Joon-Ho, for giving us the Oscar-winning masterpiece Parasite.
Andrew Unterberger: I think so, but probably one that was well-overdue. Bieber is a married adult now, and is very clearly singing from that perspective on Changes -- aspirational for some young pop fans perhaps, but not really typical teen-pop fare, which is usually more "Girl I wanna marry you someday" than "Girl, I'm so glad we got married 15 months ago." Besides, The Bieb's long made it clear that the demands of being a teen idol had been taking its toll on him mentally and physically; if this is Justin passing the torch, it's largely because he was getting sick of it burning his hands.
2. What's something that BTS does that allows them to continue to grow their worldwide fanbase in such an impressive way?
Tatiana Cirisano: They’re smart at using nontraditional methods of promotion — like releasing not one, but three music videos for “ON,” performing the single inside Grand Central Station for The Tonight Show, and offering heaps of collectible merch items, from Mattel dolls to a Notes book series. And while it may seem obvious, it's also worth spelling out that BTS has always understood the importance of having a dedicated fanbase in the first place. The group is fiercely loyal to its ARMY, and that loyalty pays off: It’s the fans who organize to stream new releases on repeat, create and promote social media hashtags, call on radio stations to play BTS music, and buy all those merch items and physical albums for their collections.
Eric Frankenberg: Being themselves. What would be the point of BTS if they were chasing One Direction or the Jonas Brothers? Despite their collaborations with western acts like Sia, Halsey, and Nicki Minaj, it’s surprising that BTS hasn’t gone right to Max Martin or Pharrell or Finneas to engineer a radio hit for them. For all the synthesis of genre in their catalog, they don’t seem interested in pandering to American audiences (or radio). If they were, writing credits from Ed Sheeran and Troye Sivan would have made sense as lead singles, but both songs were relatively buried. So while a song like “Black Swan” didn’t make too much of an impact on the Hot 100, maybe team BTS has decided that at this point in their unprecedented global success, it doesn’t matter.
Jason Lipshutz: Anyone who’s paying close-enough attention to BTS’s music understands their prolonged success: instead of relying upon boy-band gimmickry, their music has leaned into experimental pop structures -- their tracks often zag into electronic build-ups and rap breakdowns -- as well as social consciousness, with mental health often a thematic focus. BTS could sing the telephone book and still have the Army hooked, but their ability to mix up their musical approach has helped gain fans with each new project.
Mia Nazareno: They are unapologetic in their Korean, and I love that. In the past, not speaking English was more of a barrier to success in the West, but their music and enviable choreography transcend borders, cultures, and languages. I think it’s pretty brave to speak your own language in Western media. That’s what they do -- almost like they didn’t need the West’s approval to be big. They just do their thing, and we’re still listening.
Andrew Unterberger: They've managed to stay something of a self-contained universe, with each release building on the last in a way that feels not only like a progression but an expansion. They have guests and collaborators, but they're never overshadowed by them, and they're in dialogue with popular music around the world without ever being overly beholden to it. They're at the point where every career move they make seems to make sense merely by virtue of them having made it -- which is about an enviable place to be as there is within pop stardom.
3. In addition to the resounding Map of the Soul debut, single "ON" hits a new best mark for the group on the Hot 100, debuting at No. 4. To date, BTS has had difficulty finding radio success with their singles to match their performance across streaming and digital sales -- do you think "On" will be their first song to fully break out on the U.S. airwaves?
Tatiana Cirisano: As much as I’d love to see that happen, I wouldn’t totally bank on it. Radio stations have historically resisted playing non-English songs, and BTS has been no exception, despite the group’s growing mainstream popularity. Still, the song’s remix assist from Sia could increase its chances of breaking out on the airwaves, and BTS are quickly becoming impossible to ignore, even for the most traditional radio stations out there.
Eric Frankenberg: …No? To be honest, “ON” doesn’t strike me as the best or even one of the very best songs on the new album. It lends itself to the kinda-stunning direction and choreography that we’ve seen in both music videos and their Fallon performance in Grand Central, but as a song to stream or hear on the radio, it doesn’t sound like a safer bet than “Boy With Luv” or “Idol.” But per my answer to the previous question, my guess is that BTS is more interested in the initial impact of the song and its visuals as part of the greater Map of the Soul era.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s become a busy season for top 40, with The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and the SZA/Justin Timberlake combo all pushing new singles to pop radio in the past few weeks. Hard to say whether or not “ON” will distinguish itself among that competition for spins, although the track is right there with the Halsey-assisted “Boy With Luv” as the most immediate BTS single to date, thanks to an undeniable hook that gets an assist on its remix from pop savant Sia.
Mia Nazareno: I hope so! Have you listened to it? It’s not a hard sell at all.
Andrew Unterberger: I doubt it -- it doesn't feel as undeniable as their past couple singles, which ironically, actually might have had an easier time fitting in on top 40 now, with Dua Lipa, The Weeknd and Lady Gaga making it a friendly place for up-tempo jams again. But BTS has found most of their success to date bending pop music to their will, so I can't say I'd be shocked if their gravity made "ON" irresistible to U.S. radio.
4. If you had to recommend Map of the Soul: 7 to a friend that wasn't that familiar with BTS, which song would you tell them to listen to?
Tatiana Cirisano: With its spirited, almost theatrical vocals, catchy chorus and elegant melody fit for its own ballet, “Black Swan” illustrates the group’s versatility, hit-making power and penchant for nailing a theme. Watch the group’s mesmerizing recent performance of the track on The Late Late Show With James Corden, and you’ll get a sense of their magnetism on the dance floor, too.
Eric Frankenberg: “UGH!” Someone unfamiliar with BTS might assume their tight choreography and matinee-idol looks are just for Backstreet-esque ballads. But part of their charm is in the mix of singing and rapping and “UGH!” leans more toward the latter, further distinguishing them from the stereotype of what a boy-band is or can be.
Jason Lipshutz: Gotta love “Louder Than Bombs,” on which Troye Sivan’s songwriting prowess is clearly heard, especially when the falsettos are busted out on the chorus. This song is just cool, with smoldering verses building to a crescendo that the BTS guys handle expertly.
Mia Nazareno: “Jamais Vu” is my J-A-M. It sounds like how watching a Korean drama feels. A little sad, but so, so, so good. And if you like unexpected acoustic guitars making a cameo in pop songs, “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” is also on my current rotation.
Andrew Unterberger: Give me "Louder Than Bombs" as well -- all about that five-star chorus.
5. To celebrate the chart debut of "ON," currently the song with the shortest title to hit the Hot 100 this year, give a shoutout to another song you love with a title that's two characters or fewer.
Tatiana Cirisano: Let's go even newer than Map of the Soul: 7, with Bad Bunny's YHLQMDLG closer, "<3" -- a breezy, guitar-backed love letter to his native Puerto Rico, family and day-one supporters that showcases his hypnotic flow and skill as a vocalist. Here's to hoping the lyric about dropping another album in nine months is a promise he'll keep.
Eric Frankenberg: Let’s go with “Go” by Grimes and Blood Diamonds (before his transition to BloodPop). I’m not sure if the released version was spruced up or just the demo Grimes made for Rihanna (!) but regardless, it goes hard. I’m both extremely curious to hear a Rihanna recording and to hear the hypothetical/scrapped Grimes album on which it was going to be included.
Jason Lipshutz: “i” earned Kendrick Lamar his first two Grammy Awards at the 2015 ceremony after he was shut out the year prior for Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, and although a grittier version of the single appeared on To Pimp a Butterfly, the affirming single version really runs with that flip of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” and stands as one of Lamar’s purest pop moments.
Mia Nazareno: "XO" by Beyonce! The John Mayer cover is okay, too.
Andrew Unterberger: I'll say another "On": Aphex Twin's single of the same name from 1993. An impossibly lovely, delicate glitch-pop instrumental with a hook that's as hypnotic in its own way as a massive BTS refrain. Plus, an arresting stop-motion music video -- co-directed by Pulp frontman and Britpop survivor Jarvis Cocker, of all people.