For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 6, we remember the year in BTS — our Greatest Pop Stars of 2020, who simply followed one massive year on the charts with another.
For the first time in American Music Awards history, the 2021 artist of the year accepted the trophy with a speech partly spoken in Korean. On Nov. 21, RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — collectively known as the globe-dominating BTS — took the top honor at the AMAs, dethroning Miss Americana herself, Taylor Swift, who’d held the title since 2018.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
Following RM’s remarks in English, Suga stepped up to the mic and expressed his gratitude to their fans (aka ARMY) and expressed how unexpected the win was, all in his native Korean. While delivering a foreign language speech on U.S. primetime TV carries its own weight as a cultural milestone, particularly for non-native English speakers chasing American dreams – and both Puerto Rican star Bad Bunny and Mexican-American hitmaker Becky G also accepted their respective AMAs for favorite Latin album and favorite female Latin Artist in Spanish this year – BTS’ win in particular signaled a shift in what American pop music can look and sound like in 2021.
BTS’ route to becoming artist of the year on the AMAs stage can be traced to the explosive “Dynamite,” their first English-language track, released in August 2020. The single became the act’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100, and consequently opened the floodgates to five additional No. 1s in the span of 13 months, beginning with their appearance on the remix to Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed Siren Beat)” in Oct. 2020. Wrapping up the year with a third No. 1 with “Life Goes On” off BE in Nov. of last year, BTS was named Billboard’s Greatest Pop Star of 2020 this February.
In April of 2021, the group hinted at a second English-language single as a follow-up to the game-changing “Dynamite.” And in May, they churned out “Butter,” a stick-in-your-head summer smash echoing Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” While “Dynamite” held the top spot on the Hot 100 for three weeks in 2020, “Butter” (and its remix featuring Megan Thee Stallion) enjoyed No. 1 standing for 10 nonconsecutive weeks in 2021. In July, the septet achieved the rare feat of unseating themselves when their third entirely English-language song “Permission To Dance” — a cheery, toe-tapping tune that cheekily name drops Elton John — replaced “Butter” for one week at the charts, before “Butter” resumed its reign at No. 1 the following week.
Following in the footsteps of Jason Derulo and Megan Thee Stallion, veteran pop-rock hitmakers Coldplay dropped a BTS collaboration titled “My Universe” in Sept. After it bowed atop the chart, BTS’ total No. 1s climbed to six in just two years, proving the boy band’s magic touch in lifting their collaborators from various musical eras and genres to the coveted No. 1 spot, where Coldplay hadn’t found themselves since 2008 (“Viva La Vida”).
Outside of the charts, “Dynamite” finally opened the door for BTS to the Grammys in two historic ways. In 2021, BTS competed for best pop duo/group performance, making them the first Korean pop group to vie for a trophy at the awards show. Despite losing the category to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me,” the boys were one of the marquee acts on music’s biggest night — alongside fellow global superstars Taylor Swift and Harry Styles — and became the first Korean-language artist to perform their original song on the Grammy stage. Last month, BTS scored their second Grammy nomination, and are in the running for the same award for “Butter.”
Outside of the Grammys, BTS racked up multiple wins at the Billboard Music Awards in March; the MTV Video Music Awards in September; and the previously mentioned AMAs in November, which turned into a mini BTS concert thanks to performances of “My Universe” with Coldplay and a show-closing “Butter,” both in front of a Microsoft Theater audience brimming with ARMY members filling in the venue’s every tier.
Behind the scenes, the newly rebranded HYBE (previously Big Hit Entertainment) was making moves stateside to further solidify their footing in the U.S. music market. In April, HYBE purchased Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings for $1.05 billion. Following the sale, HYBE “went from being a small agency with a valuation of 10 billion South Korean won (at the time about $9.3 million) in 2011 to an industry juggernaut worth over 1,000 times more (about $9.5 billion),” according to a Billboard report.
Later in the year, BTS ended its distribution agreement with Sony Music, and instead signed a deal with Universal Music Group (UMG) in Oct. “I strongly believe that UMG and Big Hit, two companies that endlessly pursued innovation, will create a synergy that will rewrite global music history,” said HYBE’s founder Bang Si-hyuk at the time. And with that, BTS and HYBE formed an alliance with UMG’s Lucian Grainge, one of the most powerful execs in the business.
Even within South Korean borders, BTS’ superstardom was so undeniable that at the end of 2020, the country passed The Military Service Act — colloquially known as the BTS Law — allowing global changemakers to defer military enlistment from age 28 to age 30 and ultimately saving 29-year-old Jin from mandatory conscription for the time being. Further cementing their status as cultural ambassadors for South Korea, BTS — with the full support of President Moon Jae-in — was invited to give a speech and a performance of “Permission to Dance” at the U.N. on Sept. 20.
Rounding out an already stellar year, BTS christened the newly built SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. with a sold-out, four-day run of live concerts titled BTS Permission to Dance on Stage — LA from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2 — marking their triumphant return to performing in front of an in-person audience after two years. Across four nights, BTS pulled in a whopping $33.3 million from 214,000 ticket sales. Furthermore, the tour boasted “the largest gross for run of shows at a single venue since 2012,” a Billboard Boxscore report adds.
What’s next for the group? “An extended period of rest.” On. Dec. 5, HYBE released a statement announcing BTS’ much-deserved vacation for the first time since 2019. In the same release, the label made sure to tease the fans with the promise of a new album upon BTS’ return whenever that may be. And given what RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook gave us in 2021, one thing’s for certain: There will surely be a place waiting for them on the main stage of American pop music upon their comeback.
Later today: Billboard reveals our No. 5 pop star of 2021, another artist who achieved chart ubiquity in 2021 without releasing a new album.