Tara Jacoby

The Year Pop Went Global: What 'Despacito' and BTS Meant In 2017

When Eshy Gazit began working with the Korean boy band BTS in 2016, the group was seen by some as a long shot for crossover success. “Early on, many people in the industry mocked my attempts to break BTS,” says Gazit, the CEO of the boutique PR, A&R and management agency Gramophone Media. “They thought that it was never going to happen in the U.S.”

Prior to this year, the most notable K-pop success story in the United States happened in 2012, when PSY’s “Gangnam Style” rocketed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. But where that song’s success felt like lightning in a bottle, BTS is bigger than just one song. The seven-member, socially conscious group has spent 2017 collaborating with EDM stars like The Chainsmokers and Steve Aoki, eliciting screaming fans at the American Music Awards and making history on the charts. In September, the album Love Yourself: Her became the first Korean-language top 10 on the Billboard 200, and the single “DNA” reached No. 67 on the Hot 100, the highest peak on that chart for a K-pop group -- until BTS’ “MIC Drop” remix with Aoki and Desiigner debuted at No. 28 in December, breaking the group’s own record.

Recently, Gazit has helped arrange full-band interviews for BTS with James Corden and E! News, even though only one member is fluent in English. “[Interviewers] see the charm, the smile, their humanity,” he says. “The talent doesn’t need language.”

That has been the defining story of pop music in 2017: English is no longer a requirement for mainstream U.S. success. When Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber’s summer smash “Despacito” ruled the Hot 100 for 16 weeks (tying a record set by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day”), it became the first Spanish-language song to reach No. 1 since “Macarena” two decades earlier. And unlike that novelty smash, “Despacito” was a no-joke blockbuster. By the end of the year, 17 Latin songs had reached the Hot 100, including J Balvin, Willy William and Beyoncé’s top 10 hit, “Mi Gente,” and Camila Cabello’s No. 2 single, “Havana,” in an unmistakably huge upswing from 2016, when only two Spanish-language songs made the chart. It has been a growth year for K-pop, too, with veteran acts like Exo and G-Dragon cracking the Billboard 200 and girl group Blackpink (which appeared on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 in July) following close on BTS’ heels.

What’s behind the change? According to Jesus Lopez, chairman/CEO of Universal Music’s Latin America and Iberian Peninsula division, which released both “Despacito” and “Mi Gente,” the answer is simple. “Streaming has democratized the consumption of music,” he says. “As a consequence, the barriers that existed previously -- particularly the language -- have been lowered.” Video is another piece of the puzzle (“Despacito” has 4.5 billion YouTube views). “Latinos have a video consumption average higher than other communities,” he adds.

The streaming boom was a major factor in the stateside success of BTS, which soared to 11.4 million U.S. streams in the week of Sept. 28 after “DNA” was featured as the first track on Spotify’s 2.4 million-follower New Music Friday playlist. Streaming was similarly key to the rise of Cabello’s “Havana.” “Latin Spotify playlists are some of the biggest in the world, and they’re only going to get bigger,” says Syco Music managing director Tyler Brown, whose label also saw high streaming numbers for CNCO’s Latin American hit “Reggaetón Lento” and its Spanglish remix featuring U.K. girl group Little Mix.

Brown believes 2017 reflects a deeper shift. “Latin music became part of pop music,” he says. “When a Little Mix fan or an Ed Sheeran fan listens to a Latin beat, they don’t think, ‘That’s a Latin record.’ They just think it’s a pop record.”

Of course, it helps when a superstar like Bieber or Beyoncé hops on a track, as happened with “Despacito” and “Mi Gente,” respectively. But BTS’ breakthrough suggests this is no longer a must. In 2018, the band is planning to go even bigger, releasing new music and launching an arena tour that expands on its 2017 run.

“The U.S. has been accepting many more different [kinds of] music and cultures than ever before,” says Gazit. “I believe that 2018 will be full of surprises."

Billboard Year in Music 2017

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30 issue of Billboard.