In a now-deleted but oft-quoted tweet, revered critic Jessica Hopper once asked to “replace the word ‘fangirl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens.” It was a response to how young women are often mocked for the fervent passion of their fandom, how “fangirl” is usually used dismissively, and how the music that these women love so completely is disregarded and not taken seriously, as is their extensive knowledge about it. But with examples ranging from The Beatles and Justin Timberlake to Harry Styles and The 1975, young women have often been at the forefront of musical trends, first in line and the last to leave for what would become huge cultural touchstones. And in 2018, it feels like another one of those moments is here: BTS.
Even if you aren’t keen to the latest pop sensations, there really isn’t an excuse to be oblivious to BTS at this point. Their 2016 album, Wings, debuted at No. 26 on the Billboard 200, becoming the highest charting record ever for a K-pop group in America, while their 2017 album, Love Yourself: Her, hit No. 7 and became the highest US charting album for an Asian artist ever. Those records continued to be shattered this year, with Love Yourself: Tear and its repackaged version, Love Yourself: Answer, both hitting No. 1 in 2018, and that’s not even mentioning their record-breaking status in their home country.
But while the numbers are impressive, the story of BTS is particularly interesting in how they are accomplishing it. For one, they’ve refused to switch from their native Korean to English, and though there are some hooks and English words thrown around, their music is still predominantly Korean. But in a post-“Despacito” world, that seems to matter less and less in the US, with foreign language successes now coming across less as a novelty and more as a possible glimpse into the future. Many K-pop artists before BTS had tried to break into America by compromising their sound or their language and failed. BTS is succeeding at simply by being themselves. As member RM told the LA Times earlier this year, the suspicion is that their core fans “won’t like that much if we sing in other languages,” that their Korean language was a huge “part of their identity.”