A basement apartment, a makeshift studio, a teenager with too many words trapped in his head - this would sound like the beginning of an angsty Netflix teen drama. Yet, the stories that unfolded from there were not of chaos but of hardwork, talent and success.
The story of BTS, arguably the world's most popular music group right now, started with a 15-year-old rapper Kim Namjoon. Now known to the world by his stage-name RM, Namjoon tells the world how they are entering a new phase, a fresh beginning of sorts, how this chapter of their story comes to a successful conclusion. But it is not the end.
“It’s not gonna be the last time, it’s never gonna be,” said Jungkook, the youngest of the seven members of BTS at one of their last concerts. Looking back, Jungkook’s words reaffirm the notion that BTS isn’t over yet.
The South Korean music phenomenon debuted with seven members, who were between 15 and 20. Now the oldest, Jin, is 30. The group enjoyed a career spanning 9 years which broke the benchmark for success for not just a Korean Pop group but even the world acts.
The nearly decade-long career is somewhat an unusual thing in the K-pop world, which is known for its 7-year curse that most bands, successful or not, disband once their initial contract with their record label (which is often 7 years) ends. Often, the reason for this definite departure is how confining the clauses in the contracts are. The disparity in splitting revenues between the artists and the label, archaic rules like a dating ban, and the unbearable pressure to stick to preset social standards are some of them. That’s where this group of seven and their company - HYBE - stand out.
Hybe, formerly known as Bighit, also has quite a ‘rags to riches’ story. The 15-year-old Namjoon, who was an active participant in the underground rap scenes, was discovered by music producer Bang Si-Hyuk back in 2010. Known professionally as “Hitman Bang”, the man is known for his vision, passion for music and innovative productions. Soon, Namjoon joined Bang's company Bighit as a trainee who would end up being part of a future hip hop group. Namjoon is followed by Min Yoongi, a boy from suburban Daegu with exceptional talent in music composing and rapping. Soon, the rest of the members J-Hope, a street dancer; Jin, a college boy with acting dreams; Jungkook, a 13-year-old prodigy; V, a boy with a deep baritone voice; and Jimin, a contemporary dancer, joined the team. After a gruelling training of nearly two years, the group eventually debuted with the song “No More Dream” on June 13, 2013.
Bighit, being a small production house when compared to the three companies that more or less monopolised K-pop during that time, had little to offer to the rookie band back then. The seven boys often recall their time in the mosquito-infested basement apartment and a makeshift studio where their first songs were born. These struggles – the pressure to prove themselves, the frustrations of having too much at stake – seeped into their songs making them relatable and empathetic to struggling youths all across the world.
The debut track spoke about how a generation, the youth, ends up being numb to the pressures of society. How they lose their dreams with the world around them imposing its dreams and expectations upon them. Hard rap, raw lyrics and breakneck choreography soon became the group’s identity along with their readiness to talk about sensitive, touchy and taboo topics through their songs.
Fast forward to 2020, the group became one of the most successful acts in the world selling millions of albums, headlining shows, making Grammy appearances and selling out stadiums like London’s Wembley. Lyrics that used to talk about the frustrations of social expectations gave way to a message of self-love, saying ‘you matter’ and ‘you are enough’. With the release of their albums in the ‘Love Yourself’ series, the band launched a worldwide campaign promoting self-love. Soon they paired up with the United Nations to promote the same message. This is when they dropped the album ‘Map of The Soul:7’ in early 2020 with the title track ‘ON’. The music video for ON ends with the seven breaking barriers and chasing freedom by running towards the peak of a hill. The video fades to a black frame where the words ‘No More Dream’ are written. The “No More” from this phrase fades then leaving the term “Dream” in big bold letters. Many thought it was the beginning of a new era for Bangtan (Bangtan Sonyeondan aka Bulletproof Boyscouts is the full form of the abbreviation BTS in Korean).
But then the pandemic came and the band was forced to abandon their world tour plans. Later, by the time they completed seven years of their journey, the group dropped the chart-topping single ‘Dynamite’. This followed a fully self-produced album ‘BE’, singles ‘Butter’ and ‘Permission to Dance’. The songs became massive hits and topped charts across the globe. The group’s popularity rose marginally. Now, at the peak of their careers, they came together to celebrate their 9th anniversary in an annual event called FESTA.
The FESTA dinner, which the members affectionately term a family dinner between the seven members and their close-knit fandom ARMY, started with friendly banter and trips down the memory lane. As they share how grateful they are for their current success, the members opened up about how exhausting it was and how it prevented them from going forward as artists. The members revealed that they are heading for an inevitable break from the band. As shocking as this development is, it was what came after that broke the hearts of their millions of fans.
RM, their leader, broke down into sobs while mentioning how tiring it was for them to go forward as artists while fulfilling the industry requirements. "I always thought that BTS was different from other groups, but the problem with K-pop and the whole idol system is that they don't give you time to mature. You have to keep producing music and keep doing something," he said. He, supported by the other six, talked about how it was time for them to work on their own.
However, the members affirmed that this doesn’t mean the end. That the group isn’t parting ways.
"It's not like we're disbanding!," exclaimed Suga, their lead rapper and renowned producer. Adding to it, their main dancer and rapper J-Hope said: "I think we should spend some time apart to learn how to be one again. I hope you don't see this as a negative thing, and see it as a healthy plan. I think BTS will become stronger that way."
The group went on about how they are going to focus on their solo productions, learning, figuring out and experimenting with the kind of music they want to do, and then eventually come back sometime in the future as a group.
A teary Jimin said: "We can't help but think of our fans no matter what, we want to be the kind of artists that are remembered by our fans. I think now we're starting to think about what kind of artists we each want to be remembered by our fans. I think that's why we're going through a rough patch right now, we're trying to find our identity and that's an exhausting and long process." V insisted they were not splitting and vowed the band's "synergy will be like no other" when they regroup. Jungkook asked for ARMY’s blessing for their future ventures, as solo artists, as their person.
Many fans broke down into tears soon after the announcement with tags on 'BTS Hiatus', 'Thank You BTS' topping the trending lists. But most of the circle spoke about how the hiatus, or the break, is not what is making them cry but the struggles and pressures the boys had to go through. How RM said he felt “guilty” for wanting a hiatus. How empty they felt and how they felt like they had nothing more left to say through their music. “I feel lost. After releasing Butter and Permission to Dance, I started feeling that I don’t know what kind of a band we are anymore. What kind of music do we want to make? What do we want to say? I believe we should have taken this break long ago, but we kept putting it off,” he said.
The members spoke in Korean in the video and the subtitles and an English translation of the remarks showed one of the members calling the break a "hiatus," a description a representative for the band disputed in a statement. "To be clear, they are not on hiatus but will take time to explore some solo projects at this time and remain active in various different formats," the statement said. The label also hinted at how the team will still be involved in some of the group programmes, like their game show RUN BTS.
Whichever way, the ARMY largely seems to be respecting their decisions by sharing letters of support for their solo careers and thanking them for their journey so far.
“The BTS I knew from 2016's schedule was so jam-packed. It went on and on till now. This change now just means that they get to focus on their individual growth. It takes a lot of courage to talk about taking a break from their hectic schedule when they are at the peak of their careers. They trust us enough to share their feelings, hopes and future ambitions themselves. Most ARMYs aren't sad about the break. We are sad that even the thought of breaking such news to us made them feel so guilty for this long. From the bottom of my heart I wish them all the happiness and success - both as individual artists and BTS,” says Saritha from New Delhi, who has been part of the fandom for the past six years.
BTS made its debut in June 2013 and became a worldwide sensation with its upbeat hits and social campaigns aimed at empowering young people. The group has over 300 tracks to its credit in three languages - Korean, English and Japanese. The group released its new album, "Proof," on Friday. Last year, BTS became the first Asian band to win artist of the year at the American Music Awards. The group met US President Joe Biden at the White House in May to discuss hate crimes targeting Asians.
The break also hints at another thing. According to South Korean mandatory military service law, all men between the age of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the country's military for at least 20 months. The oldest of BTS is now 30. The band has received some concessions from the government till now owing to the global popularity they brought to South Korea. It seems like they won't be putting it off anymore. Rumours of an official announcement video from BTS via a national broadcaster have been doing rounds on Twitter. This could hint at a possible enlistment announcement from at least some of the band members. Logically thinking, taking a break from the band until all the members complete their army commitments sounds like a better option than going forward as sub-units.
As a new day rolled out, a statement regarding J-Hope’s new solo album also came, the first among the seven. The support ARMY extended to the announcement shows how both the band and the fandom are entering the next phase of their journey.
As RM stated, “this new chapter of BTS, that is yet to come, will be the best, I hope."