In a TV grab, BTS perform at the 2020 MTV Awards show on August 30. The act's online professionalism has kept them relevant during the global pandemic. Photo: AFP

Covid-19 can stop performances and concert tours, but it can’t stop BTS.

South Korea’s leading act exploded onto the Billboard 100 singles chart in the top spot, Billboard reported Monday. That was a first for any South Korean artist and the first time any Asian artist has topped the list since Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto grabbed number one with the now-classic Sukiyaki way back in 1963.

BTS did it with Dynamite – their first English-only song. Although they have included snatches of English lyrics in previous hits, the new direction suggests that the Bangtan Boys have been using the enforced break from touring and performing to brush up on their language skills.

The best achievement by any South Korean artist prior to this on the Billboard singles charts was Psy’s irresistible foot-tapper Gangnam Style, which rose to No 2 in 2012. BTS has, however, topped Billboard’s album charts four times.

According to South Korean media, Dynamite drew more than 3 million concurrent viewers when it premiered and won 101.1 million pairs of eyes in the first 24 hours online, making its YouTube’s biggest music video debut to date. That makes it the latest landmark in the career of the Bangtan Boys and also in K-pop as a whole.

And at a time when concerts worldwide are off limits for the foreseeable future, BTS may just be the perfect pop fit for the pandemic era. This is due not just to their virus-defying upbeat vibe, but also to a brilliantly curated digital engagement strategy that has allowed BTS to outmaneuver the ongoing live performance lockdown.

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South Korea does it again

Only days earlier, the boy band had stormed the MTV Video Music Awards on August 30 with a performance of Dynamite, and won four categories – Choreography, Pop Video, K-pop and Group.

Even so, the Billboard Singles Chart win was a special landmark. BTS – who most certainly do not cultivate a macho, surly or dismissive rock ‘n roll image – were reportedly “in tears” to hear of their achievement.

The chart-topping success is just the latest triumph for hallyu – South Korea’s Zeitgeist-grabbing cultural content industry – since Director Bong Joon-ho’s midnight-black social comedy Parasite walked off with the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.

In a Covid-weary country, with the capital Seoul on a Level 2.5 social distancing regimen – a whisker short of the most stringent tier, Level 3 – BTS has provided some welcome good news, which has been splashed across the media.

On Tuesday morning, BTS even drew admiring comments from no less a citizen than President Moon Jae-in.

“It is truly amazing, it is a splendid feat that further raises the pride of K-pop,” Moon wrote in a message to foreign reporters. “The song … is all the more meaningful as it has been composed to give a message of comfort and hope to people around the world who are struggling with Covid-19.”

With lyrics like “Life is sweet as honey/This beat cha-ching like money,” The Oprah Magazine praised the song and video for its sunny tone, look and message.

“Featuring a funky, upbeat, quick-paced staccato beat reminiscent of fireworks lighting up the sky, the song’s striking high register and airy vocals evoke the best of carefree summertime living – providing the listener a welcome escape from the harsh realities of a pandemic,” the magazine wrote.

Conquering the world, digitally

While Covid annihilates industries worldwide, one sector that has surged is online sales. In South Korea, the national flagship firm, Samsung Electronics, has ridden this wave due to the surging demand for memory chips.

BTS too may have benefitted from the ongoing stay-at-home habit that has been forced upon the world.

With concerts across the world facing a highly uncertain future due to social distancing necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, BTS might have been expected to suffer. They are known for their intensely planned stage shows and bulletproof dance choreography.

However, live performance is only one of their competencies. The act has stayed relevant, on-message and in-face with fans via a constantly updated online presence. In that space, BTS is arguably the most consistent and professional outfit in K-pop, a genre that first went global via astutely designed internet strategies.  

Lacking relationships or contracts with the major global record labels that dominated the industry, K-pop artists, from their earliest days in the late 1990s, leveraged digital media as a free, border-bouncing international distribution network.

With the advent of YouTube, K-pop videos, boasting intricately choreographed dance routines, pretty-boy and pretty-girl performers and MTV-class production values, went viral worldwide.

“If you think about what K-pop is, it is very much a visual medium, it is an art that evolved through screens,” Michael Hurt, who teaches visual sociology at Daegu Institute of Science and Technology, told Asia Times. “In that case – aint the Coronavirus kind of a boon?”

In the K-pop universe, no artists have operated their online presence as professionally or as dynamically as BTS. However, the band’s digital engagement extends far beyond posting performance videos.

“They are, I think, the best at doing social media distribution about all information related to their activities,” Choi Jung-wha, who heads the Corea Image Communications Institute, which promotes national branding, told Asia Times.

BTS live together in a top-secret mansion in the upmarket Seoul district of Hannam Dong. From that strategic headquarters, they dispatch constant messages of their activities, thoughts and lives as well as their work.

“They have been able to become popular because of their influence in cyberspace and their publicity on online platforms,” said Lee Gyu-tak who teaches Cultural Studies at George Mason University in Incheon. “They are a kind of cultural symbol of online media among Gen Z.” 

“Not only are they good in the quality of their performance, but they are great at connecting to the world, showing that they are caring for their fandom,” Choi continued. “That is the basic power of their expansion of influence.”

Unusually BTS, with their ultra-clean image and their habit of putting out upbeat, wholesome messaging, have cultivated a fandom, who call themselves the ARMY, that extends far beyond the teen demographic.

Choi, who is 64, admits she is a fan, logging on to Twitter and YouTube every day to follow the boys’ latest announcements and activities. Yet she is far from the most fanatical matronly soldier in the ARMY.

“One of my friends is 65, and she tracks them every hour on Twitter,” Choi said. BTS’ constant social media presence, Choi said, “is the basic power of their expansion of influence.”

Into English

Moreover, BTS, as the ultimate K-pop act is very much about being international, which could explain their first venture into an all-English language song.

Hurt, who also lectures on global culture at Korean National University of the Arts, notes that US acts never had to change themselves to go global: They represented the leading soft power in the world, and spoke the global lingua franca as their first language.

This was not true among Koreans, who, Hurt said, “grew up watching films with subtitles and listening to music they did not understand the lyrics to.” With K-pop’s influence being largely African-American, many K-pop acts – including BTS – have always included a smattering of English lyrics in their songs.

This broad range of cosmopolitan influences and a yearning for increased international outreach may explain the evolution of Dynamite.

“According to [BTS’] interview, the release of this single was not planned, but they tried to give a kind of comfort for their fans and they wanted it to be heard by as many fans as possible,” said Lee. “I think when they release their new album, they may release one or two English songs as a new way to approach their international audience.”

“To do better in the international market, it makes sense to shift toward English language lyrics,” Hurt added. “And as that is a part of K-pop DNA, it is not that hard to do.”