K-Town

How to Write a K-Pop Hit In English

BTS
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BTS

When BTS debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 in August with “Dynamite,” it marked the chart’s first K-pop No. 1 — and also the first all-English song for a group with only one member fluent in the language. Here, songwriters for BTS, Blackpink (which this year hit No. 13 with “Ice Cream,” a mostly English team-up with Selena Gomez) and others share tips for writing across cultures.

Do Your Homework

When “Dynamite” songwriters Jessica Agombar and David Stewart learned BTS was looking for an English-language single, they did a deep dive into BTS’ world, riffling through the group’s Spotify and YouTube channels for weeks in addition to watching subtitled Korean interviews. “Like an actor gets into a role and becomes that person, we want to walk into the studio and think, act and feel like that artist,” says Agombar. “It had to feel like it came from the boys, not two Londoners from across the ocean.”

Keep It Clean

Songwriter Bekuh Boom, who has crafted several hits for Blackpink that mix Korean and English, knows a few things are always off the table: drug references, most profanity and explicitly sexual lyrics. Yet Boom, a huge hip-hop fan, says that anything too “gangsta” won’t work, either. A scrapped line from the group’s 2018 hit “Ddu-du Ddu-du” — “Hitting up the block like a blacksmith” — wasn’t right for “sweet girls who have an edge but can’t claim to be from the hood,” she says. Similarly, Agombar and Stewart axed a “Dynamite” line about “Playboy bunnies in Hollywood” because it didn’t fit the band’s image.

Listen Closely

Veteran hitmaker Claude Kelly, who wrote English-language material for K-pop girl group Wonder Girls, avoids phrases that are challenging for non-native speakers to pronounce, which can distract listeners. “You want them to lose themselves in the song, not pick out the accent and lose the fantasy,” he says. But the artists should still sound like themselves, says songwriter Jenna Andrews, who did vocal production on “Dynamite.” While reviewing hundreds of vocal takes, Andrews studied every word and syllable to ensure the performances made sense in English but also felt natural to each member. “You don’t want to make them sound too American to the point where it’s not believable for BTS fans,” she says.

Aim For Timelessness

Kelly is careful to avoid regional idioms (“Hit the road” doesn’t translate abroad) or buzzwords tied to websites or digital devices, which can rapidly change and vary across the globe. “You don’t want to come off as corny or outdated,” he says. That goes for any artist, no matter the language: a clear concept and a relatable message tend to go far. “We wanted the most fun, exuberant lyrics that would pop, which is why we went with ‘Dynamite,’ ” says Agombar. “You know what it stands for and can get the energy behind the song.”

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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.