K-pop has been on a meteoric rise around the world, and one needs no further proof than the group BTS. Billboard and Forbes writer Tamar Herman’s new book BTS: Blood, Sweat, & Tears explores this phenomenon, diving into the history behind these iconic artists, the complexities of their music, and their overarching community. On the behalf of All-Comic and in cooperation with publisher Viz Media, I had the chance to ask Tamar about the rise of K-pop, BTS, and her new book. Check out the interview below:
What was your first exposure to K-pop and BTS?
I became a K-pop fan when I was in high school, around 2008-09 when K-pop acts like Wonder Girls, BIGBANG, Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, SHINee etc. were going viral on YouTube. I remained a fan ever since, and first encountered BTS before their debut through their work with former labelmates 2AM, as I was a big fan of that act, and the name “BTS” (as 방탄소년단) was featured on one of 2AM’s albums while J-Hope worked with Jo Kwon on his solo debut. Once they debuted in 2013, when I was actually studying in Seoul, I kept my eye on them and have been watching them ever since.
How does K-pop transcend linguistic barriers to reach a global audience?
At its very essence, K-pop is based around music, and K-pop idol performances are a sonichoreo form of entertainment, so like many works of great performance art they can be interpreted by audiences regardless of linguistic limitations. Nowadays it’s common for popular acts to share music videos with subtitles, so it’s a bit easier than it used to be, but still you can just enjoy a good song, K-pop or otherwise, if it’s a good song, regardless of if you understand the meaning. That’s the beauty of music. Beyond the music, K-pop is also a larger form of entertainment, and nowadays it’s quite common to regularly access subtitles and translations for content on the Internet, which has really helped K-pop’s international growth.
How has the K-pop industry fared during the current pandemic?
It’s pretty much fine, touring aside. Releases are still happening, and album sales are actually so strong it’ll probably be the biggest year on-record by the Gaon Chart to record album sales.
The American music industry has historically ignored outsiders, but is K-pop’s rise in popularity forcing meaningful change?
I don’t know if it’s forcing meaningful change, but I think in general the American music industry, and our entertainment industry in general, is really being held to task for a lack of representation and I think K-pop is a sign of that. “If you won’t give me diversity and innovation, I will seek it elsewhere.” I think it says a lot that both the music and film industry right now are very hyper focused on Korea after the success of Parasite and BTS.
What separates BTS from other modern K-pop groups?
There’s really not one single thing, but so much that I explore in the book. But to pick one thing that I think really appeals to a lot of people, it’s that they’re here not just to sing and entertain: they’re here to make listeners walk away from a performance ruminating on it, whether it is their music about personal growth, socio-political issues, or just generally about love, there’s so much depth to what BTS has to say that they really changed the way the K-pop industry approaches things. Now, you look at many newer acts coming after BTS and they’re similarly exploring the complexities of life, which was really not in vogue when BTS started. You’ll see it a bit earlier in K-pop, with first generation and some second generation groups, but BTS were really full-heartedly throwing their dedication and passion towards sharing their important messaging with the world into their music since day one.
What drives BTS’s ARMY to be so active in the band’s promotion?
Love and the desire to help their favorite band succeed in any way they can.
How has BTS excelled in transmedia storytelling?
Traditionally, fictional media entities like The Avengers or even Pokémon tell their story across different platforms, whether it’s movies, television shows, games, books, etc. You, as its audience, can engage with only one element, or all, or some. BTS, and other K-pop acts, do this too, but BTS does it not only regarding their career, like on social media and streaming platforms, but they’ve actually built a fictional narrative into their art, so there’s a whole story happening across platforms that really enhances the BTS experience. There are references in songs and music videos, unique social media accounts, books, webtoons, videos, hints in speeches, and so much more through which you can engage with BTS’s creative narrative, aka the BU or Bangtan/BTS Universe. Personally, I think it’s a fascinating approach to art, using this non-linear form of storytelling to tell a story that runs parallel to a band’s own musicality.
Do you think BTS will reach its peak in popularity anytime soon or will they continue to defy expectations?
I’m not a prophet so I can’t predict anything, like covid-19 had a huge impact on their tour this year unfortunately, but I think it’s safe to say BTS has a lot more to show the world in the future.
For the uninitiated, what is the best gateway into BTS’s music?
I think it depends on the person, but some good intro songs to BTS that seem to capture people’s attention, depending on their own personal taste, are “Dope,” “Spring Day,” “Boy with Luv” featuring Halsey, “Mic Drop,” and “Fake Love.” And, of course, “Blood Sweat & Tears.” I think these few songs kind of offer up a taste of everything BTS has to offer to people who are just joining the ranks of ARMY.
What do you want readers to take away from BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears?
That BTS’s story is still being written. For people new to the group, I hope this serves as an introductory chapter to give you a taste of their career. For ARMY already familiar with them, I hope it helps add a new chapter to their story in your mind that expands on the context their career is taking place in. So much of engaging with fandom nowadays is social media moments, which are great and wonderful, but every existence is more than just the present, and that’s kind of what I aimed for this book, to lay out who BTS are, what they’re offering the world, and how it’s happening.
BTS: Blood, Sweat, & Tears is available now from Viz Media, so be sure to pick it up. Thank you to Tamar Herman and Viz Media for making this interview possible.