The names Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes are so engrained in the pop-culture conscious that they hardly even need their last names for the common person to identify. Yet, all four household names were beat out by BTS in the Top Social Artist award at Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards. While the Korean boy band clinched the nomination thanks to their huge and engaging social media presence — which has seen them spend 25 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Social 50 chart so far — and won the fan-voted honor thanks the strength of their supporters, lovingly named Army, the victory speaks to K-pop’s larger global power and appeal.
Korean-pop music is crafted with keen focus on widespread appeal and consumption, seen in the multiple genres and singing styles cooked into each song with groups boasting members specializing singing, rapping, dancing for the ultimate pop package. And in the global music market where English is by far the most the most common language to hear music in, it’s done well. K-pop artists have found success through Asia for years while its footprint continues to grow in America thanks to larger album sales, bigger festivals and more tour dates. The fanaticism that comes with K-pop isn’t exclusively domestic either with fans around the world translating song lyrics and interviews into their native languages and supporting their favorites in any platform online possible. It’s led to Rain winning the Time 100 Poll three times (most recently beating out Beyoncé in 2011), BIGBANG to be named the Best Worldwide Act at the 2011 MTV EMAs (edging out Britney Spears for the honor), Girls’ Generation earning the first ever Video of the Year at the YouTube Music Awards (also beating Bieber, along with One Direction and Lady Gaga), and T-ara to win the last two years of Billboard.com’s annual Fan Army Face-Off.
Arguably, Sunday night confirmed that the socially conscious K-pop band had brought this fanaticism to another level. Not only did their year’s worth of humongous social activity prove that they can rile up the same amount of excitement as the world’s biggest pop stars, but they can make a major statement while doing so.
When Logan Paul and Lindsey Stirling announced BTS the winners of Top Social Star, the cameras cut to the dapperly dressed septet with the guys sporting a mix of casual and formal suits. The group humbly and excitedly accepted their award with Rap Monster speaking for the group both in English and even threw a little bit of Korean at the end. The acceptance speech was not awkward or out of place on the high-energy night with the arena — seemingly filled with on-the-scene Army members — showering the band with supportive hollers. The award was televised on ABC, one of America’s biggest networks which certainly is not used to spotlighting Asian acts. And yet Rap Monster, Jimin, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, V and Jungkook looked like any other A-lister onstage with the camera even catching Miley Cyrus being charmed by the boys.
BTS hasn’t just earned the biggest album sales week for K-pop or nearly cracked the Hot 100 by sheer luck. Undoubtedly, their focus on social issues that are important to their audiences — namely mental health, politics and adolescent experiences — has resonated so much with listeners that their supporters have taken an interest that now rivals some of the world’s biggest pop stars. This isn’t being lost on BTS as the whole band made sure to clear out their schedules to potentially accept the award while meeting other artists, giving multiple shout out their fans and taking full advantage of the U.S. award show experience.
The BBMAs showed that something larger is happening with a group like BTS and is a true testament to how technology and social media has put one the world’s most beloved acts on an equal, language-less playing field to let their fans around the world ultimately prove how they stack up. BTS is taking what the Korean acts before them have built and representing the scene with humility, poise and an undeniable excitement. While BTS was the No. 1 hot topic of the BBMAs — just ask Twitter — with an enthusiastic attitude and approach to the event and industry, who knows where they (or any other K-pop act) can take the scene when given the opportunity.