BTS on hiatus: how the K-pop superstars became the biggest band in the world - and the toll its taken

·7-min read
 (Getty Images for MRC)
(Getty Images for MRC)

“We’re going into a hiatus now,” said BTS’s Suga, 20 minutes into an-hour long YouTube discussion with his fellow band members earlier this week, displaying a matter-of-fact nonchalance that seemed quite at odds with the reaction he was about to generate.

The dreaded H-word has been a sign that the end is nigh when it comes to boy bands — as emotionally scarred Directioners will tell you. And so when it was uttered by the K-Pop titans, whose global success has surpassed all precedents, the reaction from onlookers around the world was one of understandable shellshock.

Some $1.7bn worth of shares were wiped off the market value of Hybe, the company that manages the seven-member BTS, and social media was flooded with reactions from the band’s global fanbase — many of whom put on a brave, if slightly teary face, with others admitting that even the sight of their idols getting emotional during the video was “enough to send a person into emotional turmoil”.

Hybe has tried to allay fears. “To be clear, they are not on a hiatus,” the company said in a swiftly issued statement, “but will take time to explore some solo projects at this time and remain active in various different formats.” Whatever the case, it seems certain that we’re entering a new era for the world’s biggest boy band; a group whose chart-topping, stream-dominating, stadium-conquering power generates an estimated $5bn for the South Korean economy each year.

But how did we get to this mind-boggling point? To understand BTS, you need to understand K-Pop — the loosely defined brand of pop music made by South Korean artists — and the forces behind it.

In the Nineties, a group called Seo Taiji and Boys laid down the K-Pop blueprint: a groundbreaking musical style that married Western sounds such as hip-hop and R&B with Korean heritage; slickly choreographed dance moves; and cutting-edge fashion sense. The three-piece created some of their country’s best-selling albums of all time, and helped to launch hallyu, otherwise known as the Korean Wave: the multinational spread of South Korean music, film and TV, backed by government subsidies and funding.

K-Pop was nurtured as a key part of that and, largely controlled by three major studios, the concept of the so-called idol group was formed — similar to the Western boy band, but engineered with an exacting precision. Budding idols, often children and teenagers, were scouted through auditions, and then put through a stringent training programme to turn them into all-singing, all-dancing, fame-ready entertainers. Suitably honed, they were assembled into idol groups with pre-assigned roles: the leader (The Gary Barlow, if you will), the singer who could also rap (The Simon Webbe From Blue…?), and even the pretty face (take your pick). It all made for intensely marketable acts and, as a result, cemented K-Pop as a national powerhouse.

With BTS, though, the rules changed. They were formed by a new company, Big Hit Entertainment, with new ideas. While Seo Taiji and Boys were celebrated for their socially conscious, honest lyrics, the idol group machine soon grew to become something oppressive, exerting control over what the artists sang about, spoke about, and did in their free time. Things became toxic, to the tragic extent that, in a number of high-profile cases, the pressures of the industry were linked to suicides among K-Pop artists.

BTS perform at the 2017 American Music Awards in Los Angeles (Getty Images)
BTS perform at the 2017 American Music Awards in Los Angeles (Getty Images)

With Big Hit and BTS, the vice was loosened. Once the seven members — Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, Jungkook — emerged in 2013, it was clear they wouldn’t be censored like so many of their predecessors. Relatively so (it’s hardly as if they were singing about the slaughter of the bourgeoisie over slick R&B beats) but they did take the comparatively radical step of tackling things that truly resonated with young listeners: love and relationships, of course, but also mental health, as well as the mighty weight of expectation placed upon them by Korean society.

It made them relatable in a way K-Pop groups hadn’t been for a while. They were real, fallible humans, cultivating an adoring, personal connection with a rapidly growing fanbase. They were gifted songwriters, and eventually had the pulling power to attract the likes of Ed Sheeran to further help them craft addictive, commercially friendly pop. They were social media savvy, giving fans regular insights to their daily lives. And when on stage, they performed with crowd-pulling star-power. It was the perfect combo.

Their big international breakthrough came with the album Love Yourself: Tear, the first ever Korean-language album to top the US charts (and only the fifth ever foreign language record to do so), and a first top 10 entry in the UK album charts. The milestones kept coming — in September last year, the Guinness World Records announced BTS had smashed 23 records, from the most streamed act on Spotify (16.3bn in April 2021) to the fastest time to reach one million followers on TikTok (just three hours and 31 minutes).

It all speaks to the phenomenal power and passion of the group’s international fandom, collectively known as the BTS Army. Like any large group where emotions run high, things can occasionally turn sour. In 2019, an article I wrote about the band’s transformational effect on pop music failed to mention all seven members by name in the headline — purely for brevity, I promise — referring to some as “other members”. It was, apparently, a grave insult, resulting in 48 hours of near-constant tweets sent by fans attacking my professional and personal integrity, and even complaint letters to this paper’s managing editor. Largely, though, that ardour has been reserved for supporting their idols’ every move — among those world records is the highest number of average retweets for a music group (422,228 per post) and, for their 2021 track Butter, the most YouTube views on a music video in 24 hours (108.2m).

It’s not just in the virtual realm, either. The band’s first ever stadium show in the US, at the 45,000-capacity Citi Field in New York City, sold out in minutes back in 2018, and when they played the twice-as-big Wembley Stadium a year later, tickets were all snapped up in 90 minutes.

The group have used their ever-growing platform admirably, speaking at the United Nations in 2021 about inequality and climate change, and at the White House last month to promote Asian inclusion and decry anti-Asian hate crimes.

BTS visit the White House in May 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)
BTS visit the White House in May 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)

But a decade of ever-growing fame, power and responsibility takes its toll. “The problem with K-Pop and the whole idol system is that they don’t give you time to mature,” BTS member RM said in that YouTube discussion earlier this week, with bandmate Jimin adding: “I think that’s why we’re going through a rough patch right now, we’re trying to find out identity and that’s an exhausting and long process.”

It’s the kind of honesty we’ve come to expect, even if some are suggesting this news could be more to do with South Korea’s compulsory military service laws — a parliament bill was passed in 2020 allowing the country’s biggest K-Pop stars to defer until they were 30, but oldest member Jin is now 29. It all suggests that, at least for the foreseeable future, BTS as a single entity might take a back seat. Let’s hope that, unlike One Direction before them, this isn’t the end, and that the “hiatus” is just that, or there’ll be hell to pay.

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