Will 'Dynamite' Become the Long-Awaited Breakthrough for BTS - And K-Pop - At Top 40 Radio?

BTS, "Dynamite"
Courtesy Photo

BTS, "Dynamite"

The English-language single debuted atop the Hot 100 chart, but its radio performance may help it become a durable hit

On this week’s Billboard Hot 100, BTS scores a historic achievement: their new single, “Dynamite” debuts at the top of the chart, giving the group its first career No. 1 and making the seven-member boy band the first all-South Korean group to top the Hot 100.

It’s a huge moment for all of Korean pop music -- which had previously reached a No. 2 peak on the Hot 100, with PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012 -- and for BTS, who are positively giddy about the accomplishment. "This is my tombstone! We'll take it to this grave!" RM exclaimed when discussing the No. 1 debut with Billboard earlier this week.

If the No. 1 bow is an immediate triumph for BTS, “Dynamite” may be gradually breaking another important barrier -- American pop radio -- in the weeks to come. The single, a disco-pop jam that doubles as the group’s first all-English-language single, is already their highest-charting single on the mainstream top 40-based Pop Songs radio airplay chart, where it comes in at No. 20 in its first full week of tracking.

The song drew 11.6 million radio audience impressions in its first full airplay tracking week ending Aug. 30, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, with 10.5 million of those impressions coming from mainstream top 40 plays. After being largely stymied at U.S. radio for years,  “Dynamite” could prove to be a breakthrough for BTS, and for K-pop on the whole.

“All of their records are catchy, but this just really stood out to me as being fun and uplifting,” says Will Calder, director of branding & programming at WPOI Tampa & WPYO Orlando, of “Dynamite.” “Is this record going to be a mass-appeal song, like [The Weeknd’s] ‘Blinding Lights’? I think this one has that staying power, my gut is telling me.”

JJ Ryan, program director at KJYO Oklahoma City, says that the hot start for “Dynamite” indicates a sustained radio run. “The fact it’s top 20 in its first week is impressive,” he says. “Most songs take weeks to get to that point, and BTS did it in the first week. I expect this song to continue to grow, get stuck in listeners’ heads, and move up on station playlists as time goes on.”

U.S. radio has largely been on the sidelines for the major K-pop gains of the past few years. As BTS has become a global force thanks in part to huge streaming numbers and significant digital sales, U.S. radio has been generally reluctant to embrace the group: despite having three top 10 Hot 100 hits prior to “Dynamite,” for instance, the highest BTS had ever climbed on the Pop Songs airplay chart was No. 22, with their Halsey-assisted single “Boy With Luv” last year.

Meanwhile, Blackpink has notched multiple top 40 hits on the Hot 100, and SuperM has scored a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, but neither has been able to help K-pop gain traction at top 40 in America. (PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” which became an out-of-nowhere international smash back in 2012 largely on the back of its extremely viral music video, managed to reach No. 12 on the all-format Radio Songs chart.) Having limited radio play has thus affected the performance of modern K-pop acts on the Hot 100, which blends all-genre U.S. streaming, radio airplay and sales data.

“Sometimes, there is that language barrier, unfortunately,” says Calder, nodding to the fact that most K-pop singles -- including every BTS single prior to “Dynamite” -- are a mix of Korean and English. Although strides have been made at U.S. radio to become more multilingual over the past five years, with No. 1 hits like “Despacito” and “I Like It” prominently featuring singing and rapping in Spanish, the large majority of top 40 songs remain in English.

The fact that “Dynamite” is an all-English single from BTS will likely help the song’s chances to receive heavy rotation -- but that’s also underselling its sonic appeal, Calder argues, as well as the zeal of the BTS Army in helping the song cross over at radio. The Army has been one of the most dedicated online fan bases over the past half-decade, and now, they’re making concerted efforts to have U.S. radio programmers play “Dynamite” as often as possible, both with social media campaigns as well as direct outreach.

“There were so many teasers being posted on a regular basis leading up to the release of ‘Dynamite,’” says Ryan, “that we had local listeners requesting the song be played on release day more than a week before the song even came out.”

“[The BTS Army] have sent radio DJs and programmers care packages just to show how passionate they are about helping to break BTS through,” adds Calder. “I’ve never, in my entire career, been sent a care package from a fan group. We get them from artists all the time, but never from a fan group!”

Time will tell just how durable “Dynamite” proves to be at U.S. pop radio -- it fell shy of the all-format Radio Songs chart in its first week, where it would have marked BTS’ first entry -- but the single isn’t the only K-pop track currently making waves at top 40. One week after “Dynamite” was released, Blackpink dropped “Ice Cream,” a new collaboration with Selena Gomez; from Friday, Aug. 28, through Wednesday, Sept. 2, the song drew 12.7 million in all-format audience, with notable major-market play including WHTZ (Z100) New York (55 plays in that span) and KAMP (41) and KIIS (34) Los Angeles.

Calder believes that, after years of watching K-pop become increasingly influential on the U.S. mainstream landscape, now is the moment for radio programmers to effectively join the discourse. “As far as top 40 radio is concerned, we need to be a part of these big moments,” he says. “We need to highlight and elevate them, and let them be heard, and let the audience decide whether or not this will be the one that takes them to the next level.”

If “Dynamite” helps to open the floodgates for K-pop at top 40, then the details of the song’s radio performance -- whether it cracks the Radio Songs tally, or pushes toward the top 10 of the Pop Songs airplay chart -- are ultimately less important than the trend it helped translate to the format.

“It may not be this record, but it’ll be one record eventually,” says Calder. “We’re gonna look forward to this thing continuing, because it ain’t stopping here.”

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