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[Yang Sung-jin] Mysterious global impact of BTS

Exactly how Jimin, RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, V, and Jungkook pull off one history-making feat after another is a mystery

Disclaimer: I’m not a member of the BTS fandom named Army. However, because of my job as a newspaper editor, I have been keeping track of the now world-famous K-pop boy band on a regular basis. 

I’ve read plenty of news articles about the group and listened to their music. Strangely enough, the more I get to know about BTS, more mysteries pop up in my mind.

One mystery is BTS’ explosive power that keeps growing in a way that catches even the relatively well-prepared music industry off guard. On Friday, when BTS’ new album titled “Map of the Soul: Persona” was released, the country’s biggest music-streaming site, Melon, was paralyzed for one hour and 45 minutes. Melon issued a formal apology, explaining that the service disruption was caused by the traffic that was “higher than expected.”

On Saturday, Melon scrambled to fix the system to handle the soaring traffic related to BTS’ new album, but suffered another disruption that lasted for about an hour. Melon, faced with a flood of complaints from users, announced it would offer a two-day extension of the monthly subscription for all paying members.

The second mystery has to do with BTS’ impact on a personal level. Last weekend, my Twitter account was accidently sucked into the whirlwind of the BTS syndrome after I dropped a short tweet about Melon’s service disruption. The tweet, when I checked right before writing this column, was exposed to some 820,000 Twitter users across the world, while generating 22,000 retweets and 42,000 likes. More than 800 comments were made for the simple tweet, mostly talking about BTS’ crushing impact on the music industry. I don’t remember any of my articles I have written in my 23-year journalism career generating so many responses.

The third mystery is related to BTS’ appearance on “Saturday Night Live” as a musical guest. With the host Emma Stone playing an ardent fan girl, BTS staged a dazzling performance on Saturday, becoming the first K-pop group to perform on SNL. Given that the K-pop sensation has already been invited to prestigious music awards and various talk shows in the US, it might be about time that BTS deserves a slot on SNL. Nonetheless, it was almost surreal to see BTS showcasing its pitch-perfect vocals and signature dance moves.

Years ago, I was an exchange student at a small college in Vermont. Every Saturday night, my roommate Casey was religiously watching SNL on a tiny TV set he brought from his home in New Jersey. He often had a hard time controlling his laugh while watching SNL. He once asked me whether I understand the humor in a skit on the variety show. I couldn’t catch the nuances of humor on SNL at the time, but I knew that many of heavyweights on the US music scene had performed on that weekly program as a musical guest. It’s a mark that a musician in question is talented and “mainstream” enough to get formally introduced to American audiences. Back in 1996, I had no inkling that a Korean group would perform on that stage decades later.

The fourth mystery involves a question of why BTS is appealing so powerfully to so many different people across the globe. BTS is not the first K-pop group with its eyes set on the global stage. But few broke out of the limited local market and made a real impact across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. I suspect that BTS has somehow tapped into the emotional heartstrings of fans by successfully utilizing the transcendental power of music. Exactly how Jimin, RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, V, and Jungkook pull off that feat is a mystery, but what’s certain is that emotion is at the heart of such cross-cultural phenomenon.

Reaction videos created by fans on YouTube are a treasure trove of emotional impact. Once a new album or music video gets released by high-profile K-pop stars, a number of fans around the world rush to express their emotional responses via reaction videos, with some devotees alternating between screaming and crying. I confess that I have watched many K-pop reaction videos, including those involving BTS, largely because of the irresistible allure of emotional resonations.

Some observers claim that BTS is a special outlier in the K-pop scene and it’s unlikely to see a similarly influential Korean music group emerge any time soon. Possibly. But who knows? Although I still don’t know much about BTS “persona,” I’m sure that many souls in different cultures will readily accept the emotion-driven music map drawn up by the history-making K-pop group.

By Yang Sung-jin

The writer is multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at - Ed.

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