Members of South Korean boy band BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, perform during the 2018 MBC Plus X Genie Music Awards in Seoul on November 6. 2018. Photo: AFP

Internet, prepare to break: The global phenomenon that is BTS looks set to explode with thermonuclear force this weekend.

On Friday, the South Korean group’s new album, which includes two collaborations with global A-list stars, hit shops and online music platforms globally. On Saturday, they appear on iconic US TV show Saturday Night Live.

To say the new album from arguably the biggest pop culture export in Asia in recent years is highly anticipated would be an understatement. Map of the Soul: Persona had racked up three million pre-orders only 24 hours before hitting online music platforms and stores.

Those are big numbers, even by BTS’ standards. According to industry body the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), last September’s Love Yourself: Answer sold 2.7 million units and May’s Love Yourself: Tear sold 2.3 million units.

The level of anticipation can be judged from the fact that when the list of tracks was pre-released, one song was called Dionysus and fans went online to find what the word meant – the Greek god of fruitfulness, in case you were wondering.  As a result, Dionysus trended on Twitter.

And it is not only Greek mythology the Bangtan Boys referenced in their latest work. According to South Korean media reports, the theme of the album is “finding your own persona” – a motif apparently inspired by the works of Carl Jung. The theme of their previous album was the well-received message “love yourself.”

Eastern promise in ‘White West’

In a sign of their broad acceptance in the English-speaking music industry – an acceptance that largely eluded previous K-pop idols – the new album includes collaborations with British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran (Make it Right) and US songstress Halsey (Boy with Luv).

“This is a sign there is something to them,” said Michael Hurt a Seoul-based American academic who tracks digital-culture and is a research professor at the University of Seoul and the Social Science Korea Center for Glocal Culture and Social Empathy. “These established guys are going to work with whoever is hot – and K-pop is hot.”

Regardless – and beyond album sales numbers, beyond artistic collaborations, beyond talk show appearances and beyond addressing the United Nations – the SNL performance will be an iconic moment marking the Bangtan Boys’ arrival in mainstream Americana.

Even staid Vanity Fair commented on the popularity of the band. In a report entitled “BTS is one of the biggest musical guests SNL has ever had,” the publication noted that approximately 100 fans had camped outside the studio to get tickets.

“If you are a musical guest on SNL you have established your name – this is not a premier!” said Hurt. “You have made it – the conversation is over!

Given that K-pop has already captured massive fan bases across the global south, Koreans have grown jaded about successes in those markets. However, the SNL appearance marks the entry of a South Korean act into what Hurt termed “the White West.”

“If a bazillion brown people in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam loved them, nobody gave a shit,” he said. “But if a few prominent people in the ‘White West’ pay attention to Korea, then people are super interested.”

Tsunami incoming

Even so, some members of the BTS “ARMY” – the act’s global fan base – are not entirely happy with the SNL appearance. The cast of Saturday Night live has already filmed comic segments in which they play members of the ARMY, BTS’ fanatical support base.

Reportedly, the ARMY are not entirely happy – critiquing teasers of the show that were pre-released for misrepresenting the fan base as comprising giddy teenage girls.

One fan tweeted: “We can take a joke, we often clown each other too! … but  just to clear any possible misconceptions, the fandom is VERY diverse and known for it too … the fans are of all different ethnicities, skin colors, gender, ages, etc. We take pride in that.”

In an action that looks set to send waves – if not tsunamis – across the internet, BTS are expected to debut songs from the new album on the show on Saturday.

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