2NE1 and EXO come from established Korean labels: 2NE1 is a labelmate of PSY on YG Entertainment, and EXO is on SM Entertainment, Korea’s largest label. BTS is on the smaller BigHit Entertainment -- so what has let the upstart group and label succeed where so many others fell short?
BTS also headlined both stops of this summer’s KCON festival, which attracted more than 110,000 fans during its three days at Los Angeles’ Staples Center and two days at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
But most of all, the messaging seems to connect with American fans. “The group blends individual artistry, which is what the U.S. audience expects in their music, and the K-pop system, which focuses more on the group sound and teamwork,” says Grace Jeong, editor-in-chief of Soompi, an 18-year-old K-pop news and media site. “BTS has something to say, and has a great marketing strategy that doesn’t alienate non-Korean-speaking fans.”
Indeed, the Major Lazer-esque lead single “Blood Sweat & Tears” details a life-derailing relationship over a dance breakdown. Elsewhere on the album, the group sings about mental health, takes digs at the Korean-pop “idol” scene and delivers a female-empowerment anthem -- unusual subject matter in culturally conservative South Korea, where most acts stick to safe topics like partying and breakups.
Still, to truly break into the mainstream, BTS may need to look to its galloping rival. “BTS still needs that one viral song that everyone knows, even without knowing their name,” adds Jeong. “Like ‘Gangnam Style.’”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.