Can Conscious K-Pop Cross Over? BTS & BigHit Entertainment CEO ‘Hitman’ Bang on Taking America
On April 2, BTS played the fifth and final date of a sold-out U.S. arena run, performing to the shrieking fans who helped the group’s second full-length album, Wings, become the first K-pop project to crack the top 40 of the Billboard 200 in 2016. Since debuting in 2013, the seven-piece boy band has become a commercial behemoth in its native South Korea while continuing to make inroads within American pop culture. “Change,” an English-language hip-hop collaboration between BTS member Rap Monster and U.S. star Wale, was released three days before the kickoff of the stateside run.
“Change” touches on topics like voting rights and online harassment, while some of BTS’ biggest hits have addressed mental health. “Worldwide, our young generation shares the same issues socially and politically,” says BTS member Suga. Although K-pop music generally steers away from controversy, Rap Monster says that remaining outspoken “is important to us. And the bigger the voice we get, the more powerful our words become.”
A new BTS album is already underway and more U.S. dates might be on the way later this year. Bang Si Hyuk, the CEO and Executive Producer of label/management agency BigHit Entertainment who is better known as “Hitman” Bang, hints at “special features” designed for international listeners but thinks BTS will continue playing to its base.
“I’m not a believer in releasing full English songs to the U.S. market, like many K-pop artists have,” Bang tells Billboard in his first-ever interview with American press. “We must focus on what we do best as K-pop artists and producers and maybe add some special features to which international or U.S. music fans can feel attached. That is the best way for me to put K-pop into the mainstream U.S. music market and, in that regard, BTS will participate and perform in a way that is not much different from what they have been doing in the last three years. We’re adjusting and improving the way we do shows on the tour to meet the international or global level and expectations so that anyone, regardless of their culture and background, can enjoy BTS music and performances.”
Bang is sure to add that the group will be “very active and responsive in releasing new songs that would come out of collaborations with international artists, like 'Change.’” And, looking ahead, both the CEO and band see their most recent accomplishments as inspiration to achieve even more in the future.
“I’m so excited and thrilled at the response to the U.S. tour,” Bang says. “It’s still overwhelming and unbelievable at some point. I even further feel responsible for producing better music and production for fans around the world and I’d definitely think harder on what makes fans enthusiastic and passionate about BTS music and the band.” Meanwhile, the ambition within the group is perhaps best felt when member V winks that the group has “grander goals”; as if arena shows are just the beginning of what he and his band mates plan to accomplish around the world.
Below read on for an extended interview with BTS held before the tour kicked off. All member answers are taken via a translator except for Rap Monster.
With five arena shows, this tour is so huge and I think the main reason for that and why you guys are doing so well in America is because you sing about personal topics. Why is that so important to talk about in your music?
Suga: Worldwide, our young generation shares the same issues socially and politically. I think that young people feel the same way about similar issues and BTS wants to cheer them up with our songs and talk about our feelings and social issues.
Rap Monster: These topics, like you said, they’re important, right? They should be told by someone. Someone should talk about it. And if someone should talk about it, then it feels like we have to talk about it. It’s very much an honor that we get power and attention from our fans them when we use our voices more. It’s important to us and the bigger the voice that we get, the more powerful that our words become.
These topics – loneliness, mental health, bullying – you don’t hear about in K-pop or even Korean culture much. Or, really, in American pop music either. Have you ever worried it might get a negative or opposite response?
Suga: There are people who think negatively and there have been people who react negatively towards BTS’ music. But I think it’s way more important to make music with those issues because I think it’s important to encourage people to fight for those issues and, through the music, have a resolution for those issues. But I’m going to continue to talk about those issues through the music anyway. [Laughs]
Do you think K-pop needs to get more personal to gain a wider audience? Would you like to see that more in future?
Rap Monster: We still need some party songs, we still need some light love songs. I love to listen to them and feel the vibe from that. Everyone has their luggage and their shadows, but it’s up to everyone’s own [devices]. But we’re us. I think if we talk about it and if it gets more voice and attention, then maybe there are a lot of people in the world that accept us start to talk about those issues. I think that’s the change.
I thought “Spring Day” was a really big musical moment for you guys. Not only did it do really well on the charts, but this time you were showing a progression in thinking and a message of hope. The idea of recovering and winter moving to spring. Was that a conscious decision?
Rap Monster: It’s just like what you said, that was one step further. We’re always talking about the crises, the sorrows and youth’s feelings of getting lost. In many [television] programs, when we’d introduce our new album, I’d always talk about the word “recovery.” Like you said, it’s all about the recovery. Winter going to spring. The middle of the winter going to the spring. You got that.
Suga: In addition to being what we are as BTS, we wanted to bring some changes and we actually wanted to evolve as a group. We wanted to show our many colors, but we still want to console others and give hope to others.
Something that was unique was all the solo songs on the Wings album. You’ve done mixtapes, but instead of full-fledged solo or unit releases, you got to show your different sides of yourselves. Why was that necessary?
Jin: The solo tracks were important because it was personal, an individual story and it was represented in the way that we are good at it. We worked a lot on each track and that’s why it was important to each of us.
Rap Monster: When I get questions about why is K-pop is so popular; I always tell them K-pop is like a great mix of music, videos, visuals, choreography, social media and real-life contents. Making the solo tracks on the album was quite a venture, but it’s connected to the concept. Like, when you watch the “I Need U” video, everyone has their own crises and characters. It’s kind of connected to our real personalities and characters, but the solo songs have their own characters and personalities. It’s all connected. It’s a mixture and that’s why people get interested in the concepts.
Speaking of solo songs, “Change” recently came out. Rap Monster, you and Wale are talking about different-but-similar issues when South Korea and America are both having interesting political times. Did you guys have a chance to discuss your different viewpoints?
Rap Monster: We didn’t have the time to get into it deeply, but I’m always watching the news about Trump and America; I always watch. When he first suggested a collaboration, I was like, “What should we do?” We could just do you know, a common hip-hop song, but I wanted to do a little more special. We have our political situation in Korea and the students are very angry. So, I think, if we talked about what’s going on, then we’ll have a real special collaboration. I think my guess was right and it became special.
Do you see or feel your influence among other groups in the industry?
Jungkook: When we debuted back in 2013, we were influenced by our sunbaenim [Korean word for “senior”]. Over the years, as we watched other younger groups, we know they talk about us, they cover us and they follow us. I think they’re saying in interviews that they learned a lot from us and that makes us feel great. Being a sunbaenim, we want to be a good influence and be a better role model to other groups.
Last question, are you happy?
V: For now, we are very happy as we are, as a group, together. And I think we are happy because we are walking on the same path, walking the same direction. We wanted to get Daesang [Best of the Year award], but we have it already so our goal is to make great music, to share it with our fans.
Rap Monster: And a worldwide, stadium tour. That’s the goal.
A/N: This is my first reaction/scenario and I just love how funny BTS can be, so I wanted to make myself laugh today and I hope I can get a little chuckle from you too. Let me know what you guys think! ~ Gaishō
Scenario: You just got bullied by someone you thought was your friend. Feeling weak and defeated you can’t help but run off and cry. The tears won’t stop coming. What do you do now?
“Ah, Y/N what’s going on? Stop those tears.” Jin comes to wipe the tears from your face. He asks for you to tell him what’s going on. You explained to him that a friend of yours betrayed you and you just feel so lost. “What!? Not today, not ever! Bitch just lost a good friend! Now get up! Let’s go eat a ton of food and talk!” He grabs your hand and lifts you up. Though you’re still crying you can’t help but laugh. Upside is, you get to watch Jin eat and it’s absolutely adorable. At the restaurant you watch him stuff his face and put away the massive amount of food you both just bought. “Y/N, you need to love yourself. Like me!” He smiles with a mouthful of food. You giggle. In your mind you know he’s right.
“Hey. Why the tears?” You look up to Suga. He stands there tall with his hands in his sweater pockets. Though you shake your head and continue to cry he kicks your foot. “Nuh uh, can’t get rid of me that easily. Tell me, Y/N. What’s going on?” You tell him you can’t trust people anymore, they’re all backstabbers. He crouches down and lifts your chin up. “Hey now, look at me.Fuck ‘em. They aren’t worth your time. And stop crying over them. Get up.” He lifts your deadweight body. “Now do this,” he puts up both his middle fingers and yells “FUCK YOU.” He looks to you with a little side smile and nudges you. You do it and smile for you have found a new sense of pride for yourself.
You sit there crying relentlessly, but notice Hobi coming your way. Hoping he doesn’t notice you quickly wipe up your tears and try to run away. “Woah! Y/N, what’s the rush?” You look into his sweet eyes and start to cry again. “Hey hey hey! No crying. Someone as cute as you shouldn’t be crying!” You explained to him how terrible your friend was to you. Suddenly he turned into J-Nope. “What!? Who!? Where!? I’ll destroy them. I’m done with people’s shit. No one makes Y/N cry!” He growls and beat his chest a few times. Never knew he had this side to him, but it made you feel good he cared so deeply.
Sitting on the curb you think about what just happened. How can friends disrespect you like that? Suddenly, you feel someone trip over your feet. Was that… Joonie? “Ahhhh my head. Oh! Y/N, why are you sitting here. And, have you been crying?” You try to wipe them up quickly and tell him you’re fine, but he comes to sit next to you. He attentively listened to what you have to say. “Well, Y/N, sometimes friends are not forever. But, that does not mean you have to change yourself for them. Remember, just do you.” He smiled and those dimples made you smile too. “And sometimes, that’s all that you can do. Be the best you. And so what if they judge you? Do you think I care what others think of my dancing?” He dances for you to make you feel better. Honestly, he’s better than what others say.
Jimin hears your little cries. He starts looking around to find you. “Y/N-ah, what are you doing here crying?” The sweet boy holds your hands. You told him that your friend was not the friend you thought they were. “Well, how about me? Am I the friend you thought I was?” You immediately tell him how kind he is and an adorable little Chim Chim. He giggles and blushes. “Who needs them! Screw ‘em. You got me!” He winks at you and you can’t help but hide your face because you start to blush too. He holds up two finger hearts and smiles. “Friends forever, okay?” Your heart begins to smile too.
Tears stream down your face as you contemplate what to do next. You hear some loud muffled music heading your way. “Oh, Y/N. What’s going on?” Tae takes off his headphones and sits next to you. You explain to him it’s hard to understand others when they mistreat you. You also tell him it’s hard for you to express your feelings too. He slowly smiles into a large cute grin. He then puts the headphones on your head and says, “I’m going to play a song for you, and I want you to let your emotions out. Don’t hold back. Music has a way of expressing things that words cannot describe.” You get up and the both of you dance and just let it all out. His goofy self is busting moves that don’t even go to the song, “yaaasss”. You roll your eyes and go along with it.
You see Jungkook in the distance. He doesn’t notice you there crying. He actually passes you up before he realizes you were sitting there. He stops and gives you a shocked look. He doesn’t say anything, but sits next to you. It grew a bit awkward but his presence made you feel a little bit better. He then holds the cuff of your sweater. You give him a confused look and his eyes completely widen. He swallows a lump in his throat, “Y/N, whatever it is…I’m here.” You smile and initiate to hold his hand. He blushes, but holds your hand. He is a bit nervous and his eyes just get wider and wider. You smile from his innocence. You don’t even need to tell him what’s wrong, but he knows and he’s there for you.