Who is the 2020 TIME Person of the Year?
BTS isn’t just the biggest K-pop act on the charts. They’ve become the biggest band in the world—full stop. Between releasing multiple albums, breaking every type of record and appearing in these extemporaneous livestreams in 2020, BTS ascended to the zenith of pop stardom. And they did it in a year defined by setbacks, one in which the world hit pause and everyone struggled to maintain their connections. Other celebrities tried to leverage this year’s challenges; most failed. (Remember that star-studded “Imagine” video?) But BTS’s bonds to their international fan base, called ARMY, deepened amid the pandemic, a global racial reckoning and worldwide shutdowns. “There are times when I’m still taken aback by all the unimaginable things that are happening,” Suga tells TIME later. “But I ask myself, Who’s going to do this, if not us?”
BTS is not the first Korean act to establish a secure foothold in the West, yet their outsize success today is indicative of a sea change in the inner workings of fandom and how music is consumed. From propelling their label to a $7.5 billion IPO valuation to inspiring fans to match their $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter, BTS is a case study in music-industry dominance through human connection. Once Suga masters the guitar, there won’t be much left for them to conquer.
But unlike their peers, BTS had an antiestablishment streak, both in their activism and in the way they contributed to their songwriting and production—which was then rare in K-pop, although that’s started to change. In BTS’s debut 2013 single, “No More Dream,” they critiqued Korean social pressures, like the high expectations placed on schoolkids. They have been open about their own challenges with mental health and spoken publicly about their support for LGBTQ+ rights. (Same-sex marriage is still not legally recognized in South Korea.) And they’ve modeled a form of gentler, more neutral masculinity, whether dyeing their hair pastel shades or draping their arms lovingly over one another. All this has made them unique not just in K-pop but also in the global pop marketplace.
In March, BTS was prepping for a global tour. Instead, they stayed in Seoul to wait out the pandemic. For the group, life didn’t feel too different: “We always spend 30 days a month together, 10 hours a day,” Jin says. But with their plans upended, they had to pivot. In August, BTS dropped an English-language single, “Dynamite,” that topped the charts in the U.S.—a first for an all-Korean act. With their latest album this year, Be, they’ve become the first band in history to debut a song and album at No. 1 on Billboard’s charts in the same week. “We never expected that we would release another album,” says RM. “Life is a trade-off.”
Their triumphs this year weren’t just about the music. In October, they put on perhaps the biggest virtual ticketed show of all time, selling nearly a million tickets to the two-night event. Their management company went public in Korea, turning Bang into a billionaire and each of the members into millionaires, a rarity in an industry where the spoils often go to the distributors, not the creators. And they were finally rewarded with a Grammy nomination. On YouTube, where their Big Hit Labels is one of the top 10 most subscribed music accounts (with over 13 billion views by this year), their only real competition is themselves, says YouTube’s music-trends manager Kevin Meenan. The “Dynamite” video racked up 101 million views in under 24 hours, a first for the platform. “They’ve beaten all their own records,” he says.
Comparisons to that epoch-defining group are inevitable. “What’s different is that we’re seven, and we also dance,” says V. “It’s kind of like a cliché when big boy bands are coming up: ‘Oh, there’s another Beatles!’” says RM. I’ve interviewed BTS five times, and in every interaction, they are polite to a fault. But by now they must be weary of revisiting these comparisons, just as they must be tired of explaining their success. RM says it’s a mix of luck, timing and mood. “I’m not 100% sure,” he says.
They’ve matured into smart celebrities: focused and cautious, they’re both more ready for the questions and more hesitant to make big statements. When you ask BTS about their landmark year, for once they’re not exactly chipper; J-Hope wryly calls it a “roller coaster.” “Sh-t happens,” says RM. “It was a year that we struggled a lot,” says Jimin. Usually a showman, on this point he seems more introspective than usual. “We might look like we’re doing well on the outside with the numbers, but we do go through a hard time ourselves,” he says. For a group whose purpose is truly defined by their fans, the lack of human interaction has been stifling. Still, they’ve made it a point to represent optimism. “I always wanted to become an artist that can provide comfort, relief and positive energy to people,” says J-Hope. “That intent harmonized with the sincerity of our group and led us to who we are today.”
In an era marked by so much anguish and cynicism, BTS has stayed true to their message of kindness, connection and self-acceptance. That’s the foundation of their relationship with their fans. South Korean philosopher and author Dr. Jiyoung Lee describes the passion of BTS’s fandom as a phenomenon called “horizontality,” a mutual exchange between artists and their fans. As opposed to top-down instruction from an icon to their followers, BTS has built a true community. “Us and our fans are a great influence on each other,” says J-Hope. “We learn through the process of making music and receiving feedback.” The BTS fandom isn’t just about ensuring the band’s primacy—it’s also about extending the band’s message of positivity into the world. “BTS and ARMY are a symbol of change in zeitgeist, not just of generational change,” says Lee.
And in June, BTS became a symbol of youth activism worldwide after they donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement amid major protests in the U.S. (They have a long track record of supporting initiatives like UNICEF and school programs.) BTS says now it was simply in support of human rights. “That was not politics. It was related to racism,” Jin says. “We believe everyone deserves to be respected. That’s why we made that decision.”
That proved meaningful for fans like Yassin Adam, 20, an ARMY from Georgia who runs popular BTS social media accounts sharing news and updates, and who is Black. “It will bring more awareness to this issue people like me face in this country,” he says. “I see myself in them, or at least a version of myself.” In May and June, a broad coalition of K-pop fans made headlines for interfering with a police app and buying out tickets for a Trump campaign rally, depleting the in-person attendance. Later that summer, ARMY’s grassroots fundraising effort matched BTS’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter within 24 hours.
For 28-year-old Nicole Santero, who is Asian American, their success in the U.S. is also a triumph of representation: “I never really saw people like myself on such a mainstream stage,” Santero says. She’s writing her doctoral dissertation on the culture of BTS fandom, and she runs a popular Twitter account that analyzes and shares BTS data. “Anytime I’m awake, I’m doing something related to BTS,” she says. “This is a deeper kind of love.”
Devotion like that is a point of pride for BTS, particularly in a year when so much has felt uncertain. “We’re not sure if we’ve actually earned respect,” RM says. “But one thing for sure is that [people] feel like, O.K., this is not just some kind of a syndrome, a phenomenon.” He searches for the right words. “These little boys from Korea are doing this.” —With reporting by Aria Chen/Hong Kong; Mariah Espada/Washington; Sangsuk Sylvia Kang and Kat Moon/New York
BY RAISA BRUNER
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