The untold truth of BTS

When BTS performed its first show on U.S. soil in 2014, nobody would have believed this K-pop boy band would someday generate more tweets than Donald Trump, but by the beginning of 2018, that was the reality. The names of the seven members (RM, Jimin, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, V, and Jungkook) might not garner household recognition in America just yet, but even those with little interest in music are starting to hear about BTS. Short for "Bangtan Sonyeondan" (Korean for "Bulletproof Boy Scouts,") the name has "profound meaning," according to rapper and lead dancer J-Hope.

"'Bangtan' means to be resistant to bullets, so it means to block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that aim on adolescents like bullets, to preserve the values and ideal of today's adolescents," he said (via Affinity magazine). In 2017, the band adopted a new English name, declaring that BTS would now also stand for Beyond the Scene. "We really like the new BI [Brand Identity]," the group said (via Billboard). "More than anything, it shows that ARMY and we, BTS, are connected as one." ARMY is what BTS fans call themselves, and, according to South China Morning Post, they always "rally hard and vote with their wallets." As of 2018, BTS has sold an estimated 5 million albums since its debut in 2013, and the group expects to sell a lot more in the future. 

But how and when did these guys get so big? This is the untold truth of BTS.

False idols

BTS was formed by Bit Hit Entertainment CEO Bang Shi Hyuk (affectionately known to the boys as "Hitman Bang") back when Big Hit was just a small fish in the K-pop pond. After he auditioned for TV talent show Superstar K, Jungkook reportedly received calls from seven different K-pop agencies, but he chose Big Hit over bigger names. "I thought RM was so cool, so I wanted to sign with them," the youngest BTS member said (via Koreaboo). According to RM (formerly known as Rap Monster,) the dream back then was to create a hip-hip idol band. "Suga joined the team after me and J-hope was the third member (he was quite popular for his dancing in his hometown)," he told Elle. "With the rest of the four members joining the band, BTS was born in 2013."

The following year, BTS flew to Los Angeles to film a series called American Hustle Life (via Billboard). The idea was that the boys would learn more about hip-hop and its culture through working with industry legends such as Warren G. While filming the show, the group put on its first American concert, doing a last-minute gig at L.A.'s Troubadour. While going global was always the ultimate goal, Hitman Bang had a much humbler target in mind at the time. "I didn't want them to be false idols," the Bit Hit CEO said (via Soompi). "I wanted to create a BTS that could become a close friend."

Coming to America again

Bang Shi Hyuk attributes the global spread of BTS to social media, which the band has mastered over the years. "The fandom was able to grow because videos related to BTS were translated into many different languages and posted to sites like YouTube or Twitter in real time," Big Hit's CEO said (via Soompi). It was their online presence that ultimately helped the BTS boys break into the U.S. market.

After BTS was nominated for top social artist at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards (which it won, beating Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Ariana Grande), America suddenly wanted to know everything about this group. When they guys landed at LAX ahead of the BBMAs, the press was waiting. Back when they were filming American Hustle Life, they struggled to get random girls on the street to appear in their music video, but this time, the welcome was quite different. They became involved in a heated exchange with paparazzi, but Big Hit execs didn't care — they were reportedly thrilled that they'd caused such a ruckus.

"The L.A. trip was the sort of pop cultural milestone not seen since the Beatles arrived in New York," Vogue reported. The boys did the rounds on the late shows and sat down with various magazines, but winning at the BBMAs was the real watershed moment for them. "We were so honored and got to meet so many artists that we love and admire that we can't wait to return to the States," RM told Time.

Kings of social media

BTS became the first K-pop act to get its very own Twitter emoji in 2016, and the following year, a second one was released to coincide with the band's new English name, Beyond the Scene. In 2017, BTS was liked or retweeted a staggering 502 million times. To put that into perspective, Justin Bieber was only liked or retweeted 22 million times, while U.S. president Donald Trump managed 213 million retweets. BTS became the new kings of social media that year, which led to them winning top social artist for the second year in a row at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards.

While there's no doubt that fan engagement has been a key part of their strategy, some of the boys from BTS are beginning to resent the fact that some people believe they only got so big because they're social media savvy. "What I find most unfortunate is that some people, after analyzing us, say that we succeeded only because of our use of social media," Suga said (via Soompi). 

RM agreed. "I think that the secret to BTS' success can be summed up with the keywords 'sincerity and skills.' I think the public can see sincerity," he said. "However, people focus only on the fact that we communicated a lot with our fans through social media." He added, "Since we're singers, I think what's more important is that the quality of our music and performances has to be good above all else."

The one where they learned English

When he introduced himself on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, RM explained that he was the leader and spokesperson for the group, and it's easy to see why. The rapper (real name Kim Nam-joon) has become the most recognizable BTS member among international audiences because he's bilingual and speaks the best English. He had a head start on his bandmates thanks to his mom, who did what every other mother in his neighborhood was doing at the time — she bought her son the complete Friends box set.

"It was like a cliché for the parents in my hometown to let their kids watch Friends," he told South China Morning Post. "I had no interest at first, because I could not understand a word. But [my mother] thankfully let me watch it in Korean, with subtitles. So as I watched the show, I was so into it — the characters, the love stories. She bought all the DVDs and I watched them all like a dozen times. I think that's why [I learned English so well]. Their speech is clear and easy to understand."

The rest of the BTS boys sometimes struggle when they have to communicate in English without RM, but, to their credit, they've been trying to improve their English skills since that first flight to America in 2014 (they only allowed themselves to communicate in English on the flight.) In January 2018, Suga revealed that his goal for the year was to improve both his English and Japanese.

The condom scandal

Jin is the resident BTS food guru. According to Billboard, several BTS members have admitted that Jin keeps the team fed during those long days and nights on the road, and the idol often shares his love of the kitchen with his fans, too. He has a web series called Eat Jin, in which he cooks, eats, and gives tutorials. It all sounds innocent enough, but, back in 2014, one of his foodie posts sent shock waves throughout the ARMY community, and it had nothing to do with the recipe. One eagle-eyed fan spotted a condom on the floor behind Jin, and chaos ensued.

In South Korea, celebrities are discouraged from dating (some are reportedly contractually obligated to stay single) because agencies worry about upsetting fans of the opposite sex. The love lives of the BTS boys have been the subject of much debate over the years, but they always avoid discussing the topic in interviews. They were even left a little flustered when Ellen DeGeneres asked them if they were dating anybody.

Big Hit Entertainment didn't try to deny that it was a condom, instead offering a simple explanation. "The item within the picture is indeed a condom," the company confirmed in a statement (via AllKpop). "Those were presents they received from fans." The fact that the condom was a brand not available in Korea corroborated this story, but that never stopped fans from speculating over a possible relationship between Jin and comedian Lee Gook-joo.

Are their lyrics misogynistic?

Dubbed "K-pop's biggest taboo breakers" by Rolling Stone, BTS doesn't shy away from sensitive subjects. Issues such as mental health and LGBTQ rights are often brushed under the carpet in Korea, where "controversial themes" and pop music don't usually mix. "By straddling the line between maintaining a respectable image and writing critical lyrics, BTS has offered a refreshing change from what some critics and fans dislike about the K-Pop machine," the music mag said. However, not everyone believes BTS sends such a good message.

In 2016, one concerned fan started the hashtag "#WeWantFeedbackFromBTS" demanding that BTS explain some lyrics that she believed were misogynistic. The lyrics in question ("A woman is the best present" in BTS's "War of Hormones" and "You were never the boss, instead of boss I'll say gonorrhea" in RM's "Joke") were defended by some fans, though others weren't as forgiving (via Soompi). Big Hit Entertainment initially remained quiet, but, when the hashtag started gaining momentum, it was forced to comment.

"The agency as well as all of BTS feel very apologetic towards all the fans who have may have felt uncomfortable from any lyrics or social network posts, and we will take the criticisms and the points in question into consideration for future works," a statement read. RM failed to address the controversy himself, but fellow singer eAeon confirmed that he'd spoken to him privately. "Namjoon felt shame and guilt because of the controversy and revealed to me that he is distressed and unable to sleep well due to it," eAeon said.

They work insane hours

The life of a K-pop idol can seem glamorous from the outside, but to make it in this demanding industry, you have to be willing to work all day, every day. After winning a contract, trainees are sent to boot camp. Contact with friends and family is limited, and dating (along with all "unwholesome" behaviors) is prohibited. Diets are monitored closely to make sure prospects stay in shape, and training sessions can often be intense. These pressures have led numerous idols to go on dangerous starvation diets and some have even collapsed live on stage due to exhaustion.

"We practice all the time," BTS told BBC Radio 1's Adele Roberts (via Metro). "We spend a lot of time on a performance. When we're getting ready for an album, we move all of the schedule for a month and just do this album, and practice. When we have no schedule for one month, it's a big deal." The boys went on to reveal that they rehearsed for up to 15 hours a day when they were debuting.

They've never complained about the way they were handled back then, but questions were raised in 2015, when a behind-the-scenes video surfaced (via Soompi). In the clip, the band's manager at the time can be seen threatening Jungkook, raising a hand to him, and allegedly shouting, "Get lost while I'm still speaking nicely." Big Hit initially tried to downplay the incident but later decided to fire the individual in question.

Death threats

When BTS visited America in 2015 as part of the Episode II: The Red Bullet tour, its New York gig had to be cut short after the group received a death threat. According to Billboard, someone posted a picture of people bearing guns and added the concert's official hashtag, which was enough for Big Hit to pull the plug. A planned meet-and-greet was also canceled. "People think I'm trolling for attention," the ominous tweet, which was accompanied by a picture of a pistol, read (via Koreaboo). "I ain't trolling I'm as serious as can be, bye bye RM."

The threats were thought to have stemmed from an interview RM did while in Australia, in which he made remarks that many people interpreted as being racist. When asked about his first impressions of his bandmates, RM said that, when he first saw V and J-Hope, he couldn't see them "because they were too black."

RM isn't the only BTS member to have had his life threatened via social media while in America. In July 2018, one Instagram user claimed they were going to shoot Jimin during BTS' September concert in Los Angeles, but Big Hit refused to cancel this time. "We plan to do our utmost and take all necessary measures in responding to actions that may threaten the safety of the members," the agency said in a statement (via SBS).

The EXO fan war

The name ARMY is an acronym for "Adorable Representative M.C for Youth," but "adorable" isn't a word you'd use to describe the rivalry that BTS fans have with the EXO-Ls, fans of EXO. EXO, a nine-piece idol group, was dubbed "the biggest boy band in the world" by Dazed back in 2016, when it seemed poised to become the first K-pop act to make it big in the States. BTS would win that race, igniting a fan war that has been known to get pretty nasty.

Accusations of plagiarism and "sajaegi" (when a band's agency buys records in bulk to manipulate the charts) have been made by EXO-Ls, and idols put themselves at risk of being drawn into the beef if they dare comment on the BTS-EXO debate. When former U-KISS member Alexander simply mentioned BTS during a tweet about the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Closing Ceremony, a firestorm of fan hate followed, forcing the singer to plead for a truce. 

Big Hit may even be keen to call a ceasefire, as one fan was shocked to find a picture of EXO member Chanyeol slotted inside her brand new BTS album, which may have been a stunt intended to bring the warring factions closer together. 

BTS fandom is far from toxic, however. ARMY has been known to mobilize in huge numbers whenever the boys issue a rallying cry, with BTS fans often making sizable donations to charities and worthy causes in the band's name.

Future goals

The BTS boys will always be remembered for being the act that made America start taking K-pop seriously, but it isn't just the United States that's getting into the group in a big way. As of May 2018, BTS' latest album had topped the iTunes best selling album chart in 73 countries across three different continents. In short, the group is a global phenomenon, but there are still corners of the planet it's yet to conquer. "I've never been to the UK and I want to go," RM told Metro. "It's one of our dreams."

The BTS boys all have their own individual goals for the future, as they explained when they sat down for a group interview at the beginning of 2018. For J-Hope (the latest BTS member to release a solo mixtape,) he wants to stay fit and healthy amid his hectic schedule. "We have a lot of plans scheduled for this year, and if we want to accomplish those things, health needs to be a top priority," he said (via Soompi).

Jungkook revealed that he's given up gaming so he can dedicate more time to becoming a well-rounded musician. "I want to learn to play classical music on the piano, and I want to be good at foreign languages and singing," he revealed, which excited Jin. "Now that Jungkook has started learning to play the piano, I'm going to dig out my guitar and try to match his progress," he said. "Eventually, I'd like to form a BTS band."