What can K-Pop bands learn from BTS’ big break into the US mainstream?
Design by Eeza Sheren
Words by Michelle Lee
Data by Winston Wu
Permission to Dance, K-pop band BTS’ new single, dropped on July 9th.
Only 39 minutes post-release, the song’s music video had already racked up over 10 million views. In less than 24 hours, the song reached No. 1 on iTunes charts in 92 different regions.
The huge response is unsurprising: BTS is the biggest musical group in the world right now, with a massive fanbase of devoted fans who refer to themselves as ARMYs.
The band’s global appeal is what makes it unique within K-pop. While K-pop has long been huge in Asia, US listeners have been slower to catch on. BTS, along with girl band Blackpink, are one of the first K-pop names to break into the US mainstream.
Permission to Dance, the band’s third English-language song, can be seen as the latest move in BTS’ strategy to appeal to Western audiences. It’s a strategy that’s working: the song and its A-side Butter are the top two bestselling songs of 2021 in the US.
As the hype continues, we wanted to find out: what themes from the song and music video resonated amongst US fans? And what can other artists learn from BTS’ winning strategy?
We extracted all tweets from public accounts in the US mentioning the song title over the weekend of the song’s release (9th to 11th July). The total dataset consisted of 130,706 tweets.
We used NLP to generate a list of keywords, then sized the percentage of tweets mentioning each topic, before qualitatively analysing the tweets’ content.
Streaming campaigns drove fan conversation
Fans encouraging each other to stream accounted for 15.1% of all tweets. Countdown tweets anticipating the song’s release accounted for 7.6%, with fans counting down the hours and even minutes till the song’s release to hype it up on day it dropped.
BTS’ fanbase is well known for its coordinated efforts to push their songs to No. 1 by encouraging each other to stream new releases on repeat. They’ve been called the most organized fandom in the world, going as far as to spoof Spotify with fake plays using VPNs to hide their locations. Fans may go as far as to offer incentives to fellow ARMYs who prove their commitment via screenshots of their streaming history or listening party.
We saw fans encouraging each other to boost view counts and listens of Permission to Dance. Hashtags like #Permissiontodance100m reflected these collective goals.
One interesting future application of the data could be figuring out which accounts lead these campaigns in order to identify the lead influencers within the BTS fanbase. These accounts are more likely to be fan club leaders, active fan accounts that share photos/ news of the band, or country-level fan accounts, who serve as nodes of connection for wider fan networks.
Messages of positivity and inclusion resonated with fans
Positive vibes were mentioned in 6.4% of tweets, with fans describing the song as uplifting, heartwarming, and a serotonin booster.
Permission to Dance is the latest in a series of songs the band has released during the pandemic, following up from last year’s hit “Life Goes On”. Prior to release, BTS’ label, Big Hit, stated that the song is “dedicated to anyone who is having a bad day or is discouraged in the face of reality.”
The video, which has been hailed as a celebration of community and an example of radical hopefulness, depicts American society slowly returning to normal. Fans mentioned being moved by the song’s heartfelt message of hope, seeing it as encouragement as the US gradually recovers from the difficulties brought about by COVID-19.
Love for individual members
Love for individual members was a major driver of conversation. This is common in K-pop, where fans typically choose a member of the group as their favourite, referred to as their “bias”. We saw this aspect of fandom behaviour adopted in US fan conversation.
Daring costume choices drove fan conversation. Conversation around leader V (4.7%) was largely driven by his physical attractiveness, with many praising the way he looks in red. Jungkook (4.4%) saw fans responding with excitement to his newly dyed black hair, affectionately calling him an “emo cowboy”. Discussion around Jin (3.4%) centred on his unbuttoned shirt, while fans found J-Hope (2.1%) wearing assless chaps both sexy and hilarious.
Members’ abilities were also discussed in the context of their typical role within the band. Lead rapper Suga (3.7%) and main rapper RM (2.4%) drew praise for their voices. Main dancer Jimin (3.2%) warmed fans’ hearts by having fun with his moves, specifically mentioning his hat toss at the end of the video.
Sizing the popularity of individual members versus the band overall has interesting applications from a brand collaboration perspective. Brands can choose the most popular members to collaborate with within specific markets, such as choosing Lisa from Blackpink for campaigns in Thailand.
 See this collaboration between The Pudding and Kontinentalist for a full explanation of different K-pop band members’ roles and the different terms used.
Reaction to video content was small but positive
Fan conversation around the video’s content was relatively small. One reason for this could be that fan conversations were focused primarily on streaming immediately after the video release. However, tweets that discussed the video were generally positive.
- Diversity and inclusion (1.0%) was a reason for fans’ praise. Casting actors of different races, genders, and ages was seen as reflecting the diversity present in contemporary American society. In particular, fans praised the video’s inclusion of the Deaf community through sign language. The song’s choreography, which features the signs for “love”, “dance”, and “peace”, received praise from World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom.
- Western movies (0.7%) heavily influenced the video’s aesthetic, giving it a unique look and feel compared to the typical K-pop music video. US fans responded positively to the playful visual homage to American pop culture, hailing the band’s ability to assume such a radically different cultural context as a sign of their versatility.
- Controversy over English lyrics (0.3%) was limited. While a few tweets acknowledged the band’s divisive recent decision to sing in English, others defended the freedom to sing in any language, praising the song’s quality, and comparing it favourably with previous English songs by BTS.
- Famous Western collaborators like Ed Sheeran (0.2%) and Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid surprisingly failed to drive interest. While they were likely brought on as songwriters as part of the band’s US strategy, fan mentions were low, appearing mainly in tweets from press sources.
What were the winning elements of BTS’ US strategy?
BTS is already well on its way to becoming a household name in the US, as seen by the chart performance of Butter and Permission to Dance.
A major factor for their US success is a strong, organised local fanbase. International artists looking to break into the US market should focus on strengthening fan community there. Elements that help galvanize this culture are a strong fan identity, fan-organized streaming initiatives, and hashtag usage. These are behaviours adopted from Korean fans, who typically stream their favourite artists to earn them awards on local music shows and streaming platforms.
Talent management companies can consider building tools and mechanics to facilitate fan streaming campaigns, such as creating hashtags, introducing formats and platforms for listening parties, and offering prizes such as merch or meet-and-greets.
Another factor was the band’s positive messaging, particularly in the context of COVID-19. The song’s positive vibes were made accessible to a US audience through cross-cultural references such as the video’s Western film aesthetic, English lyrics, and a message of diversity and inclusion.
K-pop bands can learn from BTS by producing music with uplifting and hopeful messages, as well as displaying openness and inclusivity towards the American people and culture.
In future analyses, we plan to look into BTS's international growth over time and identify their big breaks and the catalysts behind their success, such as in their Dynamite x Bruno Mars collaboration, or being on American talk shows (a major factor for Tiffany Young from Girls' Generation's earlier success). Language and sound analysis are other avenues to identify the "recipe" of a breakout non-American band, allowing us to break down the English lyrics and "American" sound of BTS and Blackpink.
We predict that with BTS’ break into the US mainstream will usher in more K-pop bands finding success among US fans. One thing’s for certain - as BTS dances to the top of the US charts, K-pop groups in America no longer need permission to dance.