Break the Internet: BTS
Break the Internet ®

Break the Internet: BTS

Photography by Hong Jang Hyun / Story by Erica Russell / Styling by Mia Solkin

In June 2018, a massive billboard celebrating the fifth anniversary of one of the world's biggest music groups went live in Times Square. Splashed across multiple towering LED screens, videos and images promoting and commemorating the band were broadcast for days, visible to nearly half a million daily passersby in one of the densest and most visited pedestrian areas on the planet and the epicenter for tourism in New York City. But the billboard wasn't purchased by the band's record label, nor was it the corporate product of some multimillion-dollar branded advertising campaign. Rather, the billboard — which, compared to similar NYC ad space, likely cost somewhere between $10K and $30K to run — was funded by a handful of fans intent on showing the world, and the K-pop group featured on its screens, just how much BTS means to them.

Whether you spotted international headlines about their impassioned 2018 speech at the United Nations (a first for a Korean music act), watched their charming presentation at the 2019 Grammy Awards (also a first for a Korean music act) or stumbled onto the YouTube video for their landmark Saturday Night Live guest performance in April 2019 (another first — getting the picture?), BTS is an omnipresent force. Even if you've never heard a single song from the superstar music group, it's impossible to ignore their ongoing impact on the music zeitgeist — and the overarching increased globalization of pop culture — in the 21st century.

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Over the past half decade, BTS has made veritable history, setting and smashing records across Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, Twitter, Guinness World Records, the Billboard charts and the Gaon charts in Korea. Two highlights include May 2018, when BTS became the first Korean music act to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with their album Love Yourself: Tear, and April 2019, when the video for their RIAA Platinum-certified single "Boy With Luv" (featuring Halsey) broke the YouTube record for most viewed video, most viewed music video and most viewed K-pop music video in 24 hours, thanks to a reported 74.6 million views within a day of its release. And many of their award wins, like their landmark Best Group victory at the 2019 MTV VMAs, have been firsts for a Korean act.

BTS made their debut in June 2013, just three years following their 2010 formation under Big Hit Entertainment, a Korean entertainment company launched in 2005 by record producer and businessman Bang Si-hyuk (a.k.a. "Hitman" Bang). At the time of the band's official introduction, Big Hit was still a relatively young company — at least compared to South Korea's established and longstanding "Big 3" agencies, SM, YG and JYP, the latter for which Bang cut his teeth as a composer.

Despite Big Hit's corporate juvenescence, Bang had managed to bottle lightning with the members of BTS: RM, the underground hip-hop star referred to Bang by a friend, as well as the first to join; Suga, the hip-hop producer convinced to join BTS in 2010 after auditioning to become a trainee; J-Hope, the rising dance star who auditioned for another company before being scooped up by Big Hit; Jin, who was famously scouted after being spotted on the street while making his way to university in Seoul; Jungkook, who was recruited by numerous talent agencies but ultimately chose Big Hit after RM impressed him with his skills; V, who serendipitously auditioned on the spot after initially attending a friend's tryout; and Jimin, who was encouraged to audition by his dance instructor.

Following a vigorous yearslong training period that included dance and vocal lessons (standard for a K-pop group, sometimes along with English language courses and media training), the group spent the early days of their career on the grind. They enthusiastically performed at smaller venues, including a free show at West Hollywood's Troubadour in 2014, as well as mid-lineup at the Korean pop culture festival KCON LA the same year. From the ground up, they cultivated a diverse fanbase through meet-and-greets, savvy social media practices (including charismatic V Live streams) and energetic, high-quality hip-hop-inspired releases (2013's single "2 Cool 4 Skool" and EP O!RUL8,2?) that captured complex issues faced by young people.

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According to the Hyundai Research Institute, Big Hit is currently believed to be valued between $1 and $2 billion (which means it could potentially rank higher than the original "Big 3" agencies in terms of corporate value). BTS themselves reportedly account for an estimated $4.65 billion of Korea's GDP, which includes tourism draws, exported goods and brand campaigns, among other factors. (Even in the West, the group has become highly in-demand for brands, from Mattel to FILA.) But it's no secret that long before they were leading the pack, BTS was the underdog of the ultra-competitive K-pop industry.

The foundations of the modern multibillion-dollar K-pop industry were first laid in the early to mid-'90s, with pioneering Korean acts like Seo Taiji & Boys and H.O.T. incorporating international music elements (in their case, rap and hip-hop) to cultivate a new musical landscape marked by genre experimentation and diversification. By the early 2000s — thanks partly to its allure to the Korean diaspora, as well as the growing appeal and accessibility of its internationally successful acts — K-pop was firmly established in its power to not only shape music media and culture, but the very economy of Korea itself, lending to Korea's significant "soft power" around the world. (Even the South Korean government has noted that K-pop is one of the country's most lucrative exports, behind goods like vehicles, medical equipment and computer products.)

Though BTS was initially formed within the framework of a more traditional K-pop idol group, they've arguably transcended their place inside the industry — surpassing talented K-pop peers even during the exciting rise of Hallyu 2.0, or the second Korean Wave that began in the late 2000s. Spurred by the success abroad of K-pop idol groups like Girls' Generation, and driven by technological developments in how media is disseminated across time, space and culture (i.e., social media, YouTube), Hallyu 2.0's Herculean grip on mainstream pop culture has so far proven even more salient than its predecessor, putting K-pop at the forefront of mainstream cultural conversations around the globe.

But BTS' groundbreaking success has sparked much debate about whether it's even accurate anymore to define them as a by-the-books K-pop act, considering their steady, rarely-before-witnessed ascent to mega-fame as a globally dominant pop music act, period. But it doesn't matter what you label them: At least in the West, their very existence is challenging outdated perceptions about non-white, non-English-speaking music acts. (The label doesn't appear to matter much to BTS, either. As RM raps on their fiery 2018 single, "Idol:" "You can call me artist/ You can call me idol/ No matter what you call me/ I don't care!")

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Each member of BTS is a multifaceted artist in his own right. RM (Kim Nam-joon, 25), an agile rapper and hip-hop prodigy, serves as the group's sagacious de facto leader who, thanks to his English-speaking skills, often acts as a translator for his bandmates when abroad. Thoughtful and fierce, Suga (Min Yoon-gi, 26) is a skilled yet humble record producer and songwriter who has worked on tracks for other K-pop idols like Epik High and Heize, and angel-voiced Jin (Kim Seok-jin, 26), a.k.a. "Mr. Worldwide Handsome," is a sentimental songwriter. Jimin (Park Ji-min, 24) is an elegant dancer and lyricist whose delicate vocal style is chills-inducing; V (Kim Tae-hyung, 23) is a talented actor and deeply soulful vocalist; Jungkook (Jeon Jung-kook, 22), the group's shy yet strong "golden" maknae (youngest member), is well-regarded for his impressive songwriting talent and for making short, insightful documentaries chronicling the group's journey; and playful J-Hope (Jung Ho-seok, 25) boasts explosive rapping and dancing skills, which are on prominent display on 2019's "Chicken Noodle Soup," his multilingual rework of the 2006 hit with Mexican-American pop artist Becky G.

BTS' appeal is far-reaching: They're objectively talented (see their kinetic choreography, extensive vocal abilities and glossy visuals) and their camaraderie (like when they play pranks on one another in vlogs or comfort each other during interviews and moments of backstage stress) is undeniable. They're also philanthropic, frequently donating their time and money to meaningful causes. (Currently, BTS is an ambassador for UNICEF, where the group advocates against childhood violence. Since its launch in 2017, their UNICEF LOVE MYSELF campaign, which aims to "lend a helping hand to children and teens exposed to violence," has raised more than $2 million in donated funds.)

And though the group is powerful as a singular force, they also shine in their autonomous endeavors, which include individual mixtapes, songwriting projects and occasional collaborations with other artists, the latter of which have increased in recent years as BTS' popularity spreads and the Western music industry catches up. From Lil Nas X to Fall Out Boy, Nicki Minaj to Charli XCX, BTS members have, either as a group or solo, worked with a diverse assemblage of rap, rock, pop and EDM acts.

Becky G says she was "honored" to work on "Chicken Noodle Soup" with J-Hope: "I've always said that music is universal, and to be able to merge three beautiful cultures in one song, especially one that both J-Hope and I remember dancing to during our childhood, was so cool. He was so welcoming and absolutely crushed it with every dance scene. Everyone on Twitter said we are kind of the same person, and I definitely felt that when we finally met."

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BTS' wide-scale discography, catchy as it is, is packed with complex lyrics about a multitude of layered topics often considered taboo in traditionally conservative Korean society, from the crushing societal pressures explored in "N.O," an aggressive hip-hop single about South Korea's restrictive education system, to the importance of discussing mental health as heard in "The Last," Suga's solo track about anxiety and depression, released under his Agust D stage name. Originally, the group's titular acronym represented the Korean phrase "Bangtan Sonyeondan" (or "Bulletproof Boy Scouts" in English), a metaphoric nod to their initial mission to protect the youth from society's criticisms. (In 2017, Big Hit announced that for its English translation, "BTS" would thereafter stand for "Beyond The Scene" to coincide with their pursuit to inspire youth to seize their own future.) That unapologetic self-love is a major cornerstone of BTS' widespread message, and just one of the many reasons the septet has inspired Beatlemania levels of devotion. And if BTS is the lightning, their fans are the thunder.

The booming millions-strong international community of BTS fans is known as the BTS ARMY, an acronym that stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth. Dedicated to spreading BTS' message (as well as pushing for more representation and visibility for the band), ARMY is one of the most deeply engaged music fandoms — especially on Twitter, where they boast 22.2 million followers as of October 2019 and where they hold the record for most engagement at more than 250,000 retweets per tweet. They're responsible for the thousands of BTS-related hashtags on Twitter on any given day; the countless fansites and accounts chronicling BTS' every activity and accomplishment; the self-funded promotional billboards splashed across cities and subway stations; and the mobilized voting sprees that help propel the group towards social media award wins and other digital victories.

But perhaps one of BTS' most resonant victories is their incidental yet inherent transformation of the face of global superstardom, and their impact on the increased visibility for artists who are often excluded from white-ethnocentric Western music industry narratives. (On March 1, 2019, BTS famously sold out London's 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium in under 90 minutes for their Love Yourself: Speak Yourself World Tour, becoming the first-ever Asian act to do so.) Sung primarily in Korean, their songs have been embraced in countless non-Korean speaking countries, from the U.S. to Brazil, transcending lingual and cultural boundaries. BTS' future-facing stance, in which they affirm through their lyrics that achieving one's dreams is never out of reach, is deeply self-prophetic for an East Asian music act that has become "the world's most preeminent musical group," according to DJ and producer Steve Aoki.

"[They've] dented the universe," continues Aoki, whose BTS credits include a remix for their 2017 single "MIC Drop," production on their 2018 track "The Truth Untold" and their 2018 future-bass collaboration "Waste It on Me," which features English language vocals from members RM, Jimin and Jungkook. "There hasn't been a more prolific phenomenon since the Beatles. For us Asians, this is our generation's Bruce Lee — putting Asian faces once again in a powerful image."

According to BTS, the theory behind their universal appeal to listeners is quite simple: "We think it's the message [behind] our music that we want to share with our fans," the group shares. "Anybody can relate to the message we are trying to deliver, as we try to talk about the feelings shared by our generation. Our music may be breaking down barriers between regions, languages and people."

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PAPER: What's the greatest challenge you've faced as a group, and how did you overcome it?

RM: Seven grown men always staying close together and experiencing work and life at the same time means that we come face to face with numerous contradictions and differences. But I think we overcame that by working on understanding and caring for each other over time.

Suga: Seven men with different values living together was not easy. It was difficult for all of us to focus our thoughts on one single point, but looking back, they are all good memories.

J-Hope: There was a time when we fought each other quite a bit because we all came from different backgrounds and our personalities were so different. But we were able to overcome that after frequently talking to each other and living together for a long time. We now know what each of us are thinking just by looking at each other.

Jimin: Because each member was so different, I think it was hard for everyone to understand each other. But we didn't give up, and now we are a team where each member is irreplaceable.

Jungkook: When something I said or did caused an issue or made people feel disappointed, I realized that I should think twice before I do anything, and not forget where I am, no matter what situation I may be in.

If you could switch talents with one of your bandmates for 24 hours, who would you choose and why?

RM: I would like to dance like J-Hope just for one day. What would that feel like?

Jin: V's ability to memorize choreography. I want to say to RM, "Have you already forgotten [the moves]?"

Suga: RM — I want to be good at English.

J-Hope: Suga's amazing producing skills!!!

Jimin: J-Hope's smiley face. Looking at J-Hope, I think his smiley face is really adorable.

V: I want to borrow RM's brain and make a whole bunch of songs.

Jungkook: RM. I want to write really nice lyrics and have deeper thoughts.

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Do you ever feel pressured, in the face of global fame, to present yourselves a certain way to the world? What do you do when you feel overwhelmed to be “perfect"?

RM: It would be untruthful if I said there was no pressure. Still, on stage I want to do really well.

Jin: I try to keep myself on the right lane.

Suga: I would not be telling the truth if I said there's no pressure. But what can you do? Pressure is also one part of life.

J-Hope: I can't say we don't. These days, I feel like I live with a sense of mission. Rather than thinking, “It has to be perfect!," I do what I have to do, making sure I remember the really important and fundamental things and trust that the results will follow.

Jimin: All things aside, I always think that I have to show a performance that is at least close to perfection for everyone who comes to see our performance.

V: I feel the pressure of showing a performance that is close to perfection, but I also think that being natural is important, too.

Jungkook: The pressure is always there. But I want to show them that I am improving.

Is there any advice you wish you could give your younger selves?

RM: If you're debating whether to go or not, go.

Jin: Jin, study English!

Suga: Please study English.

J-Hope: When things get tough, look at the people who love you! You will get energy from them.

Jimin: Silence is golden. Don't waste time.

V: You worked hard! [Pat on the back.]

Jungkook: Don't lose the people beside you because of your mistakes and wrongs. And live [your life] to the fullest.

You recently took an extended vacation in order to rest and get some relaxation after a long span of releases and promotions. How did you spend your vacation?

RM: I slept, worked out and went to art museums quite a lot. I went to Jeju Island, Venice, Vienna and Copenhagen.

Jin: I played games at home. I also went fishing with Suga.

Suga: I focused on resting and worked on some songs. It was a time [for] looking back at myself.

J-Hope: I went to film the music video for "Chicken Noodle Soup." I felt and learned a lot of things! I can't call it a rest time, but it was a meaningful time. After that, I came back home, I had good food and rested well. I also played with my puppy.

Jimin: I just kept on the move and went to a bunch of places. It was an opportunity to think about [the group] in the past and in the future.

V: I took a good rest. It was an eat-play-sleep routine.

Jungkook: I worked on music.

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Are there any music styles you haven't tried yet as a group that you're excited to dip into in the future?

RM: I want to show our various sides that reflect the progression of our age as well as our emotions and sensibilities.

Jin: I want to try something in the genre of rock. I think it will come out great because our members are pretty charismatic.

Suga: There are so many I don't know which one to say. There's plenty of things to show you, so please look forward to it.

J-Hope: Now it feels like BTS is just BTS. Whichever [style of] music or performance, it comes out in BTS style.

Jimin: There are so many things I want to try, but I don't want to be too specific about it.

V: I want to try doing music in the style of Conan Gray or "All Tinted."

Jungkook: It's different from time to time. I just hope I can widen my vocal spectrum regardless of what that might be.

Your fans, ARMY, are one of the most passionate, mobilized music fanbases in the world, especially on social media. How would you define what makes your fanbase so special?

BTS: It's an honor that people around the world love our music and messages. It seems like there's no language barrier. We think that ARMY helped us spread our music across the world. All of this would have not been possible without ARMY.

Another theme in your music is dreams. With all the heaviness of the world today, do you think dreams help people find meaning and ambition to move forward amid uncertain times?

RM: We just hope that we can be of help. We did say that you don't have to dream, but living a life without dreams or hope would be quite dim, wouldn't it? I think everyone needs motivation and milestones in order to move. Whatever that may be, we want to be of help, even a little, for them to move forward.

So many of your dreams have come true since you'd made your debut: No. 1 albums around the world, sold-out stadium tours, Grammys and U.S. award shows, becoming the first Korean music group to perform on Saturday Night Live…What new dreams have sparked for each of you now that you have these accomplishments crossed off the list?

RM: I want to head in a straight path without losing sight of what I feel now. [I want to] keep our passion burning bright and walk straight.

Jin: I talk to Producer Bang quite often about how we should work together for a happy life. How to live happily...I think about that frequently.

Suga: I would like to have a hobby since I never had one. I would love to have a lifelong hobby.

J-Hope: To stay healthy! So that we can keep doing what we're doing now!!!

Jimin: I know that many people are cheering for us for who we are now. I think about how those people would love seeing our new, better music and performances. What I'm trying to say is, my dream is to show them more performances and better music for a long, long time.

V: They're not new dreams, but dreams that we never imagined could achieve. I'd like to keep them going.

Jungkook: I wouldn't want anything more than to keep doing music and performances just like now.

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What do you hope to get better at or improve upon?

RM: Dancing! And knowing "myself."

Jin: I hope that the team always gets along and everyone is happy.

Suga: Without a question, English.

J-Hope: Our team's health! And happiness! They are the path to growth!

Jimin: I want to be good at what I am currently doing.

V: I want to widen my spectrum and become an artist who has a variety of talents.

Jungkook: If I had a chance to improve every aspect of myself, then I would work hard to make it happen rather than just sitting idly by.

What music is exciting you right now? What's on your personal playlists?

RM: I'm listening to Post Malone's latest album.

Jin: Taylor Swift's “ME!" The song has a bright energy, so my mood is lifted when I listen to it. I want to try that kind of music, too.

Suga: Post Malone's “Circles."

J-Hope: I listen to older songs these days: The Fugees' “Killing Me Softly" and Cheryl Lynn's “Got to Be Real."

Jimin: I prefer songs that fill me with emotions. Nowadays, I listen to our song “Jamais Vu."

V: I'm listening to DaBaby's new album.

Jungkook: I'm listening to Jang Beom June's songs these days.

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What did it mean for your album to be nominated at the 2019 Grammy Awards for Best Recording Package?

BTS: It truly was an honor. We were happy to be invited as presenters to such a big show, with such great musicians. We also became members of the Recording Academy this year. We hope to be invited to the show next year as well.

The importance and power of “loving yourself" is a cornerstone of the BTS message, in your lyrics, speeches, music videos and beyond. But when and how did the notion of self-love become something you were all so passionate about?

BTS: Our LOVE YOURSELF series bears the message that “loving yourself is the beginning of true love." The “love" that we aim to convey can be both the individual experience and a message to our society today. We once saw somewhere that “being able to love is also an ability. If you don't love yourself, you can never love anyone else." Reflecting on the ways you love yourself, we thought that this question could give the answer for many different aspects. We wanted to focus on that searching process and find the answers. [We] think LOVE YOURSELF has a positive impact. [We] also ask ourselves, “Do I really love myself?" So, [we] looked back one more time and put that notion into the lyrics.

What are the key differences in performing for audiences back home vs. elsewhere in the world?

BTS: Fans all over the world are cheering for us. We get on stage with the mindset to give them the best performance. Every occasion to meet our fans is important and meaningful.

How has social media and the Internet impacted the way you're able to reach listeners?

BTS: We like communicating with our fans. We communicated [with them online] even before our debut. Fans enjoy it and so do we. Our Weverse app was launched recently, which is a platform for our fans. We can see their messages and leave comments there. We feel that the whole world is truly connected as one through social media. Language is not a big barrier anymore, and we think that with good music, sincere messages and the effort to communicate, fans from all around the world will show their love.

What can you share about any upcoming new music?

BTS: We are currently practicing and working on new songs so we can show you the best sides of ourselves. Please look forward to it.

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Editors' Note: For PAPER's 2019 Break the Internet moment, we combined three cultural powerhouses: BTS, our cover stars; Lisa Frank, who created custom artwork; and Virgil Abloh, whose Spring 2020 collection for Louis Vuitton Men appears on the group. BTS is the biggest music group on the planet and since the beginning, they have championed youth empowerment. PAPER is particularly inspired by their "Love Yourself" campaign and speech at the UN last year when RM urged young people, "No matter who you are, where you're from, your skin color, gender identity: Just speak yourself. Find your name and find your voice." For decades, iconic American artist Lisa Frank has similarly empowered young people to express themselves freely and think creatively. Her art is the ultimate symbol of "Love Yourself." Finally, there is simply no one better at communicating with younger generations and breaking barriers in fashion than Virgil Abloh, artistic director for Louis Vuitton's menswear as well as the founder and creative director of Off-White. Separately, their contributions to pop culture are enormous, together they Break the Internet.

Photography: Hong Jang Hyun
Illustration: Lisa Frank Inc.
Styling: Mia Solkin
Art Director: Jonathan Conrad
Hair: Kim Ji Hye; Seo Jin Young (at Bit&Boot); Kim Ye Li
Makeup: Kim Da Reum; Baek Hyun A; No Jin Kyeong
Casting: Jill Demling
Production: Lee Kyung Kim
On Set Coordinator: Park Hee Young
Fashion Assistant: Kim Na Yon

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