Many have tried to get a glimpse of the levers behind the band’s unfathomable success, including the best minds at Harvard Business School, who published an in-depth analysis of the group’s worldwide popularity. But just to summarize the success of bts in the context of their record-breaking singles and other arbitrary statistics it would be a disservice to the work they have done to shift tectonic plates under the highly regimented, and often exploitative, K-pop idol industry. Who’s ready for a history lesson?
How BTS defied all odds to reshape the identity of K-pop idols
It’s the year 2013, and music producer bang sihyuk is ready to debut the group he has assembled, known as Bangtan Boys or BTS. In a story that is destined to draw a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival one day, the odds have been stacked against the group from the start. The multi-billion dollar industry of K-pop has been monopolized for a long time by the big three: SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment, so Bang SiHyuk’s Big Hit Entertainment is somewhat of a handicap. Without the clout of an established name in the industry, how could this modest start-up make it to its first anniversary? With hopes and dreams, yes; but also with an approach that breaks up the clutter of the idol industry.
After all, the legends of the k pop They are not born, they are manufactured. Idol training academies, which attract countless hopefuls each year, have long been known for their exploitative structure that isolates young teens from their families and support groups in search of rigorous lessons in music, dance and glamour. In exchange, young idols hoping to make it to the big leagues sign their lives, accepting a future of limited salaries and restricted exposure to the outside world. The lyrics of the songs that allude to social issues are carefully censored to promote a healthy and pleasant image. And the idea of talking about their struggles is a luxury most idols can only dream of when the heat of their studio careers has died down.
By comparison, Big Hit Entertainment employed a hegemony-breaking approach to idol induction by allowing space for individual identities and self-expression. Since 2014, BTS has joined a wide range of social causes, even risking the wrath of the South Korean government by extending his support to taboo topics, such as the LGBTQ movement. The slave contracts that govern the lives of young idols have been lifted, instead offering group members the freedom to be honest with their fans about the downsides of fame. The septet has responded by taking advantage of this rare freedom, offering socially conscious lyrics that acknowledge the pressures of youth in South Korea.
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