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The Trailblazing Chart Run of BTS’ J-Hope and What it Means for K-pop in India

Can BTS break through India’s barriers of racism, homophobia and toxic masculinity to achieve mass success?

Riddhi Chakraborty Mar 27, 2018

Even though BTS' J-Hope’s solo mixtape was available for free, it charted at Number One on the overall albums chart on iTunes India, making fans aware of how popular the group has become in India.

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I’ve been a fan of South Korean boy group Bangtan Boys or BTS since 2015. While the dynamic music video for “Dope” brought them onto my radar, it was their more emotionally charged single “Run” that cemented them as one of my all-time favorite artists. I had the privilege to speak to their leader RM in 2017 and while our conversation did touch upon the group’s desire to visit India—“I hope that BigHit [Entertainment] is planning to go to India,” RM had stated right after waxing-poetic about the Taj Mahal—there was no concrete promise. To be honest, it wasn’t completely fair to expect it at that point. Because none of BTS’ seven members (RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook) or their Indian fans could have predicted what would come next.

BTS fans pose with the September 2017 issue of Rolling Stone India in Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy of ButterNyan Entertainment

Soon after my second interview with them, BTS released their fifth EP Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ in September 2017 and that marked the first massive breakthrough for measurement of chart success in India. BigHit Entertainment, the group’s label, finally made BTS’ discography available on iTunes India for the first time. The group’s numerous albums began taking up various chart positions while Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ peaked at Number One on the overall albums chart. With a cover feature on Rolling Stone India the same month, subsequent appearances at the American Music Awards 2017, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Ellen Show and The Late Late Show with James Corden (also broadcasted on Indian television) BTS’ popularity saw a spike in the country. Member Suga’s solo 2016 mixtape Agust D tapped in at Number Two on the Indian iTunes album chart upon being made available on iTunes in February 2018 and Hope World, member J-Hope’s solo 2018 mixtape, hit Number One within minutes of releasing on March 1st, 8:30 PM IST. The record-breaking mixtape makes J-Hope the first South Korean solo artist to chart in 75 countries—a list that includes India. King of K-pop G-Dragon comes in next, having charted at Number One in 46 countries with his 2017 solo EP Kwon Ji Yong.

Twinkle Choudhary, co-founder of Twitter’s leading Indian BTS fan page Bangtan INDIA, explains the unique charting and album purchase patterns. The 19-year-old and her friends founded the fan community in 2013 soon after BTS’ debut and have witnessed the group’s meteoric rise globally and within the country since day one. Choudhary says that in addition to the number of followers on social media the fan page has, the proof of BTS’ unbeatable popularity is the increase in the album bulk-orders Bangtan INDIA places for local fans. “The [number of] group orders we reached are no joke,” says Choudhary, adding that it was beyond what her team were expecting. My own friends who had ordered the album through Bangtan INDIA experienced delays in shipping because suppliers needed to re-stock first. “[BTS] have garnered such an audience in our country that fans are willing to buy music and stream to help them chart.” What surprised Choudhary and many others was the fact that even though J-Hope’s mixtape was available for free, it charted at Number One on the overall albums chart. There was a general feeling of shock among Indian ARMYs (the group’s fan club) as they began to see results of their actions for the first time and just how powerful mass streaming and purchase can be. “This kind of dedication is sort of unseen in India. People are willingly ready to open iTunes accounts to make each and every download count and spend Rs. 2000 to just buy an album and even more for other activities happening in the country.”

Local fans are willing to put in the money and time to increase sales in an effort to promote K-pop while making artists aware of India as a potential tour destination through recorded sales that appear on South Korean digital music charts like Gaon and Hanteo. Other instances of fan-promotion include billboards of BTS in certain Indian cities and mass-requesting local radio stations to play the group’s tracks. The recent announcement of BTS’ collaborative collection with sportswear brand Puma launching in India had fans buzzing about saving enough for the merch. “From my point of view, K-pop idol/fan culture integrates more community spirit,” says Lucy Nelia, founder and editor-in-chief of Indian K-pop news platform Destination K-Pop India. “As for India particularly, the fact that K-pop is just making it’s way into India’s music scene as compared to other Western music drives the fans have a stronger sense of community and self-preservation of sorts.” There’s a desperate need to make the fandom not just sustain, but thrive.

Last year I flew to Bangkok to catch a G-Dragon concert and while it was one of the best experiences of my life, it wasn’t exactly cost-effective; flying to another country to see an artist live is an expensive affair. Hours of binge-watching concert footage on YouTube, while entertaining, is obviously nowhere near the real deal. Fans regularly beg BTS to include India in their next tour but is it really something that can happen? “We do see a realistic potential of a BTS concert,” says Choudhary. “If this was asked a year back, the answer would have been ‘no.’” She points out that 2017 was the true turning point. “We have seen how in a year’s span, the popularity and growth of BTS in India is visible.” The most important idea to observe in this narrative is the fact that Indians are ready for more international live entertainment to hit our shores. Artists who have made their debuts in the country in just the past two years include the likes of  Justin Bieber, Coldplay, Jay-Z, Incubus, Anderson .Paak and Demi Lovato while OneRepublic make their debut next month—something many would have considered impossible back in 2015.

But how feasible is mass success in India? Most forget that while there is a new willingness to dive into the unfamiliar, India’s love for accepting new things isn’t exactly all-inclusive. “It’s acceptable to tolerate and follow the West and their artists but any deviation from following the trend would be seen as uncool,” says Choudhary about the general attitude around East Asian artists. Because BTS are Korean, it makes the future difficult to gauge. Let’s be clear, the language barrier isn’t the issue here. If it were, Spanish singles like 2017’s viral phenomenons “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” wouldn’t have gained such momentum in the country.

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In addition to racism, there’s also sexism and homophobia which has filtered down to India from stereotypical portrayals of Asians in Western culture. Some of the most common slurs fans seem to hear about K-pop artists is ‘they all look the same’ and when it concerns male K-pop stars, ‘they look like girls’ or ‘they’re gay.’ “Homophobic comments made by non-K-pop fans in India happens especially because our idea of ‘male beauty’ does not fit into the visual that K-pop artists show,” Nelia says. This is the extent of a conservative, toxic mindset that builds the bones of the average Indian male ego. “Androgynous clothing or visuals have always been part of popular culture and music—David Bowie and Prince have pushed boundaries in the Western music scene and they are considered legends. What we need to keep in mind is, music is a medium which artists create, rebel and even propagate their beliefs.”

BTS in 2016. Androgyny is common in most South Korean groups’ concepts and it can be hard for non-K-pop audiences to process. Photo: Courtesy of BigHit Entertainment

While Bowie and Prince are great examples of artists who quashed gender sterotypes, it’s imperative to note that they also do come from the West—a culture that is idealized by Indians. “We don’t see our parents talking about Asian artists when we do see them talk about the music in their generation,” states Choudhary. It’s true; my own mother and aunt filled me in on their love for George Michael, Prince, Boy George and Bowie but there are no Asian counterparts in my memory because they probably weren’t considered ‘cool’ back then either. “Social media has made it possible to be exposed to such new things now but men in our society are deeply rooted to show machismo and if not, you are instantly called ‘gay’ or a ‘girl’—which sadly is used as an insult. Anything which is different from the masses is mocked.”

It would seem that BigHit Entertainment are aware of this general mood around K-pop globally; making the leap to mass success with Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ saw the addition of more English lyricism and a more ‘masculine’ approach to the aesthetic of their music videos and choreography (especially with “Mic Drop”) while collaborations with Western artists like Steve Aoki, the Chainsmokers and Desiigner increased their male audience. “One thing that stands out for fans of K-pop is that they all relate to the situation and emotion intended,” says Nelia. “It is specifically designed that way, so you will see fans in all age groups, diverse employment categories, to different religions and culture relating to it and responding to it.”

There’s also one more interesting notion to consider: “No one song of BTS’ has been viral as such to the comparison of ‘Despacito’, ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Mi Gente,’” Choudhary points out, explaining that there is a stark difference in the type of virality. “We don’t see people talking of a single song when it comes to them but [people talk about] BTS as a whole.” BTS chart because they are BTS, because the impact of their artistry makes a more striking connection than producing one party banger and then phasing into the background. “BTS speaks the language of the youth, their response to the present society and unlike majority of the K-pop acts, they incorporate activism to their music,” says Nelia, adding that she believes their artistry can resonate with people from all walks of life.

Choudhary is a tad more skeptical. “BTS could break into mass success yet still be treated as an outsider here,”  she says. “India is a huge country with lots of diversity and sadly the masses itself are racist towards their own people, so for BTS to break that barrier is sort of like a far-fetched utopian dream.” She does admit however that things are changing because of the evolving Korean music industry. March was extremely significant not just for BTS with J-Hope’s success, but for K-pop as a whole in India; 18-member boy group NCT’s album NCT 2018: Empathy, boy group GOT7’s  Eyes On You EP and veteran group Big Bang’s single “Flower Road” have all hit Number One or charted in the Top Five on Indian iTunes Charts one after another and it’s not a pattern we’ve seen before. Fledgling group Stray Kids even made it onto Number 12 on the charts with their debut EP I Am Not on March 26th—a phenomenon that wouldn’t have been possible for a brand new group a year ago. But the key question right now is: what does all this mean for desi fans?

The demand for a BTS India tour is immense, but bringing K-pop artists here is a whole other ballgame—the production per concert is intense. In addition to the seven members, BTS often utilize several dozen dancers, pyrotechnics, complex stage-rigging and audio-visuals to make each performance a story worth telling. G-Dragon’s set up in Bangkok was similar—divided into three ‘acts’ the concert featured a legion of back-up dancers, costume changes, documentary-style short films, special effects and pyrotechnics. The only thing close to that kind of production I have witnessed in India is certain stages at Vh1 Supersonic and 2016’s Global Citizen concert—both of which featured a host of artists rather than just one. Justin Bieber’s Mumbai show, which saw a footfall of 65,000 but didn’t turn a profit, is a reality check that high attendance doesn’t necessarily mean success. “We are a fast-growing economy and people expect certain standards because an entertainment event is business,” Nelia reasons. “They do look mostly at the spending power of the economy of a country before catering to the fans.”

As of now, there is hope. Despite most fans being school and college students, there is a determination to save as much money as possible to buy the music and purchase tickets if the chance presents itself. If monetary contribution isn’t possible, the race to push Indian fans’ digital presence takes precedence. “If you see the statistics of activities, trends and Tweets regarding BTS, India is always in top 10 all around the world when compared to other countries and their activities,” says Choudhary, explaining that chart data accounts on Twitter track ARMY’s progress globally per country. It’s possible that if this pattern continues over the next year or two, it can give fans the time they need to begin earning a disposable income—automatically creating an entire generation of urban Indian fans who can and will take matters into their own hands to get the show they deserve. “Honestly, I am low on optimism but I will never say never,” says Nelia. “I have hopes that we Indian fans will not disappoint when they decide to come here.”

BTS upped their live production game during 2017’s WINGS Tour. Watch the trailer below:

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