BTS Speaks Out In Seoul: The K-Pop Megastars Get Candid About Representing a New Generation

No sound on the planet inspires as obsessive a fandom as K-pop. The “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” of BTS have (finally, for real) imported that mania to America -- all in Korean, as they rally dissatisfied millennials around the globe.

Built in 1957 as a reception hall for South Korea’s fledgling postwar government to entertain foreign dignitaries, the Korea House is a quiet oasis amid the tumult of Seoul, with a photogenic courtyard and collection of old-school Korean houses known as hanoks. Normally it’s the setting for historical TV dramas or weddings, but on this bright, cold mid-January morning, it’s a hideaway for the seven-man Korean pop group BTS, whose celebrity has expanded past K-pop’s traditional sphere of influence and, especially during the last six months, moved into the United States as well. 

When I arrive, the band is sequestered in a room within a room, behind paper doors manned by a security detail. In the outer room, over 20 groomers, publicists and other handlers from the group’s management agency, BigHit Entertainment, mill about, grazing on the provided snacks and drinks. Everyone speaks in low tones. The members of BTS need an extra 15 minutes before the scheduled photo shoot, I’m told. They are, understandably, exhausted: Their schedule has been packed since New Year’s Eve with performances, TV appearances, commercials and meet-and-greets. I flew into Seoul expressly to meet them for this rare opening in their calendar.

The first to emerge from the room is J-Hope, 23, the former street dancer from the city of Gwangju, who capers down the steps, then doubles back to get RM, also 23, the group’s leader and English-speaking ambassador. The rest soon file out wearing similarly dark Saint Laurent-heavy outfits: Suga, 24, the idealistic and soulful rapper; Jimin, 22, the baby-faced modern dancer; V, 22, the master impressionist; Jungkook, 20, the golden maknae (youngest member, a sort of privileged position in K-pop) who’s good at everything; and Jin, 25, who’s known as “Worldwide Handsome.” They form a semicircle of multicolored bowl cuts, and RM comments on how tall I am (6 feet) and that I can speak Korean (like a 10-year-old). They’re photo-ready but groggy enough that I wish they’d taken another 15 minutes to rest. But time is money, and these guys are worth a lot.

Peter Ash Lee
From left: V, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, Jimin, RM and J-Hope photographed on Jan. 19, 2018 at Korea House in Seoul. 

It’s reasonable that BigHit would handle the members like prized jewels. They’re among the biggest stars in K-pop -- their last album, 2017’s Love Yourself: Her, has sold 1.58 million physical copies around the globe, according to BigHit. And while it may not be a household name in the United States, BTS -- which stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan and roughly translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” -- is pulling unprecedented numbers for a group that mainly sings in Korean to an American populace that has long resisted K-pop’s charms. Love Yourself: Her debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 in September 2017, and BTS claims the two highest-charting songs for a K-pop group ever, “DNA” (which peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100) and the Steve Aoki remix of “Mic Drop,” featuring Desiigner (No. 28). In the States alone, BTS has sold 1.6 million song downloads and clocked 1.5 billion-with-a-“B” on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music.

BTS has connected with millennials around the globe even though -- or really, because -- the act seems to challenge boy-band and K-pop orthodoxies. Sure, it’s got love songs and dance moves. But BTS’ music, which the members have helped write since the beginning, has regularly leveled criticism against a myopic educational system, materialism and the media, venting about a structure seemingly gamed against the younger generation. “Honestly, from our standpoint, every day is stressful for our generation. It’s hard to get a job, it’s harder to attend college now more than ever,” says RM, until recently known as Rap Monster. “Adults need to create policies that can facilitate that overall social change. Right now, the privileged class, the upper class needs to change the way they think.” Suga jumps in: “And this isn't just Korea, but the rest of the world. The reason why our music resonates with people around the world who are in their teens, 20s and 30s is because of these issues.”

The shoot’s done, and we’re sitting on couches in a small living room-like space amid the production studios at the BigHit offices, the members changed into cozy but still-stylish jackets and knitwear. Here at home, speaking in Korean, they’re calmer and less eager to impress than they were on their recent, occasionally awkward American press tour, where they did the rounds on The Late Late Show With James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where RM gamely evaded questions about dating. Today, their voices are noticeably deeper, more sonorous. RM does, as usual, a lot of the talking, sometimes throwing questions out to the quieter members. But Suga is a surprise: garrulous and thoughtful, seemingly primed for a socially conscious rap battle.

Rabid K-pop fandom is, by now, a pop-culture cliche. Even in a world where supporters of American stars engineer efforts to goose chart positions and feud with rival fandoms -- Beatlemania multiplied by the internet, basically -- K-pop stans are legendarily devoted and influential. The BTS ARMY (that’s short for “Adorable Representative M.C for Youth”) is the engine powering the phenomenon: It translates lyrics and Korean media appearances; rallies clicks, views, likes and retweets to get BTS trending on Twitter and YouTube; and overwhelms online polls and competitions. BigHit says that it makes sure to disseminate news and updates about the band on the fan cafe, so as not to arouse the wrath of the ARMY.

The global fan base is why a group you may never have heard of is attaining the upper ranks of the U.S. charts; playing late-night slots; appearing at the Billboard Music Awards, where it picked up the fan-voted top social artist trophy in 2017; and performing on the American Music Awards. (“The AMAs were the biggest gift we could have gotten from our fans,” says Suga.) Purely in terms of social media, they’re just about the biggest thing going, driving BTS to 58 weeks at No. 1 on the Social 50 chart, a total that’s second only to Justin Bieber’s, and more than doubles the number of weeks scored by the third-place act -- none other than Taylor Swift.

The ARMY doesn't merely idolize the members of BTS, it identifies with them. When the group debuted in 2013 with 2 Kool 4 Skool, the members talked about the pressures familiar to any Korean student: the need to study hard, get into college and find a stable job. Their first singles, “No More Dream” and “N.O.,” castigated peers who attended classes like zombies without a sense of purpose. What was all this education for, they asked -- to become “the No. 1 government worker?” The tracks were a throwback to Korean pop acts like H.O.T. and Seo Taiji & Boys, only updated for a generation saddled with debt in an increasingly competitive economy.

“I was talking about my past self,” says RM, confessing that he was one of those drones. “There was nothing I wanted to do; just that I wanted to make a lot of money. I started the song by thinking about it as a letter written to friends who were like me in the past.”

“College is presented like some sort of cure-all,” says Suga. “They say that if you go, your life will be set. They even say you’ll lose weight, get taller...”

RM: “That you’ll get a girlfriend...”

Jin: “That you’ll become better-looking...”

Suga: “But this isn't the reality, and they realize that was all a lie. No one else can take responsibility for you at that point.

“If we don’t talk about these issues, who will?” continues Suga. “Our parents? Adults? So isn't it up to us? That’s the kind of conversations we have [in the band]: Who knows best and can talk about the difficulty our generation faces? It’s us.”

As they become increasingly famous, though, the artists have also become wary of saying what might be perceived as the wrong or “political” thing. Suga is the most outspoken. When I ask them about the massive candlelight protests calling for President Park Geun-hye’s resignation in Seoul last winter, Suga readily takes on the topic: “Moving past right and wrong, truth and falsehood, citizens coming together and raising their voice is something that I actively support.”

RM, on the other hand, is more alert to potential sensitivities. On the recent death of Jonghyun of K-pop group SHINee, who suffered from depression and committed suicide last December, he says, “We went to give our condolences that morning. I couldn't sleep at all that night. It was so shocking, because we had seen him so often at events. He was so successful.” Adds Suga, “It was a shock to everyone, and I really sympathized with him,” and then RM moves to end the conversation: “That’s about all we can say.”

But Suga goes on. “I really want to say that everyone in the world is lonely and everyone is sad, and if we know that everyone is suffering and lonely, I hope we can create an environment where we can ask for help, and say things are hard when they’re hard, and say that we miss someone when we miss them.”

I later bring up a tweet that RM wrote in March 2013, saying that when he understood what the lyrics to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ gay-marriage anthem, “Same Love,” were about, he liked the song twice as much. BTS fans naturally took this to mean that BTS openly supported gay rights -- a rarity in K-pop. Today, he’s slightly circumspect on the topic: “It’s hard to find the right words. To reverse the words: Saying ‘same love’ is saying ‘love is the same.’ I just really liked that song. That’s about all I have to say.” Suga, though, is clear on where he stands: “There’s nothing wrong. Everyone is equal.”

BTS’ meteoric rise was something of a surprise, even in Korea. Three years into its career -- eons in the K-pop life cycle -- the group finally gained traction in 2016 with hits like “Blood, Sweat, Tears” and “Burn It Up.” Part of the reason is that BTS is the first major act to come out of BigHit Entertainment, an anomaly simply in that it is not one of the “Big Three” entertainment companies -- YG, JYP and SM -- that control the Korean music industry, producing most of the past decade’s notable pop acts, including Girls’ Generation, BIGBANG, Super Junior, Wonder Girls and 2NE1. And BTS simply didn't have the same feel as factory-fresh groups created to dominate the Asian music markets.

Bang Si-hyuk, the founder/CEO of BigHit, cut his teeth at JYP, working alongside Park Jin-yong and writing and producing hits for Rain, 2AM and Baek Ji-young. “Even the people around me didn't believe in me,” he says, recalling the early days with BTS. “Even though they acknowledged that I had been successful in the past, they didn't believe I could take this boy group to the top.” Like the other companies, BigHit oversees everything from recording to distribution to marketing to events for its acts. He says that people thought the “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” name had a North Korean feel, but he felt that they would become a metaphorical bulletproof vest for their generation.

Bang originally wanted to create a hip-hop group -- “like Migos,” according to RM. He first listened to RM’s demo tape in 2010 and still remembers some of the lines. (He cites, “My heart is like a detective who is the criminal’s son. Even as I know who the criminal is, I can’t catch him.”) “It was shocking to me,” says Bang. “RM is extremely self-reflective, sophisticated and philosophical, considering his age.” RM, whose real name is Kim Nam-joon, was only 15 at the time. Bang signed him immediately.

Peter Ash Lee
Clockwise from top left: Jimin, Jin, V and RM. “We looked corny” before forming the group, says RM. “We were really grubby.”

Back then, though, “idol groups” -- boy bands and girl groups -- like Super Junior and SNSD were ascendant. So Bang created an act that would meld the honesty of hip-hop with the visual flair and charisma of a boy band in the vein of BIGBANG. During the next couple of years, he recruited Suga, a rapper he describes as having an “I don’t give a fuck” magnetism masking a humble core, and then J-Hope, the street dancer. BigHit then held extensive auditions. A casting director chased Jin after seeing him get off a bus and convinced him to try out for the group; he eventually made the team alongside V and Jungkook. Jimin was the last to join, after a BigHit agent scouted him at a modern dance school.

In the beginning, each of the members tried their hand at rhyming. “I went so far as to learn how to rap,” says Jimin, who, like Jungkook, now sings. “But after they had me do it once, they were like, ‘Let’s just work harder on vocals.’” RM nods -- “It was the wise choice,” he says -- and everyone bursts out laughing.

These were BigHit’s ragtag champions, and they have a sense of unity. Early on, they lived together in one small room, sleeping in bunk beds and learning one another’s sleep habits. (Jimin does strange contortions in bed, and Jungkook has started snoring. “It’s TMI,” acknowledges RM.) They still live together, just with a little more space -- J-Hope and Jimin sharing the biggest room -- and plan to keep doing so.

“When we’re at home, we go around to everyone’s room,” says Jin. “Even when I go home [to see family], I get bored, honestly,” adds Suga. “And if there’s a problem or someone has hurt feelings, we don’t just leave it, we talk about it then and there.”

“So if Hope and Jin fight, it’s not just the two of them that resolve it,” explains Jungkook. “It’s all seven of us!” says Suga.

“Everyone gathers together,” says RM, ever the intellectual. “It’s like an agora in ancient Greece: We gather and we ask: ‘What happened?’”

After the interview, RM takes me to his production studio, a small room at the end of a hall decorated with giant KAWS figurines in glass boxes, a Supreme poster of Mike Tyson and skateboards. Inside, the walls are lined with his own KAWS toys and a model version of the Banksy piece “Rage, Flower Thrower” that he admits paying a hefty sum for. Other than that, there’s just a typical workstation: a pullout chair, giant monitor and the most precious item of all, his laptop.

In BTS’ lyrics, there’s a motif of the baepsae, a squat, fluffy bird native to Korea and known as the crow-tit. A Korean expression says that if a crow-tit tries to walk like a stork, it’ll tear its own legs. It’s a cautionary tale -- a suggestion that you shouldn't try too hard or be something that you’re not. But BTS deploys it as a brag, a declaration of a small, striving bird. In “Silver Spoon,” Suga puts a cheeky, boastful spin on it: “Our generation has had it hard/We’ll chase them fast/Because of the storks the crotch of my pants is stretched tight/So call me baepsae.”

Peter Ash Lee
From left: Jungkook, Suga and J-Hope. Growing up, “I was just a country boy from Daegu,” says Suga.

Now that they are, almost in a literal sense, on top of the world, can they still claim to be underdogs? “We’re very careful about calling ourselves baepsaes now,” says Suga. “But the reality is that that’s where we started and that’s where our roots are.” And RM points out that they still consider themselves agents for change: “If there are problems, we’ll bring it up so that our voices can get louder, so that the climate changes and we can talk about it more freely.”

BTS is the K-pop group of the moment because it balances the contradictions inherent to the genre on a genuinely global scale: The act is breaking through in America singing and rapping in Korean, creating intimacy through wide exposure on social media, expressing political ideas without stirring up controversy and inspiring fervent obsession with mild-mannered wholesomeness. It is the underdog that has arrived.

But the group would rather you not ask what’s next. Its members and producers are skillfully evasive when it comes to questions about the next BTS album -- although they apparently have no immediate plans for an English-language release, intuiting that such a move would alienate their core fan base. Instead, they seem content to keep doing what they do. RM, of course, is philosophical about it. “In Korean, the word ‘future’ is made up of two parts,” he explains, proposing a sort of riddle about how far the band has come and how far it might yet go. “The first part means ‘not,’ and the second means ‘to come.’ In that sense, ‘future’ means something that will not come. This is to say: The future is now, and our now is us living our future.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of Billboard.