BTS at the Love Yourself world tour (Photo: Alamy)
MEMBERS OF BTS are rehearsing at a venue in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Outside, a crowd of young women, all dressed in traditional attire, assemble. Upon hearing muffled singing, they recognise whose voice it is and shout out the names of the members from behind their veils. In America, their rise to fame is compared to Beatlemania, that’s how deep the affection of fans goes. They make appearances at the United Nations and do a campaign for UNICEF. McDonald’s ends up selling “BTS Meals” in 50 countries for a while. Coldplay’s Chris Martin flies to them during the pandemic for a collaboration. Beyond The Story: 10-Year Record of BTS by BTS and Myeongseok Kang (Macmillan; 544 pages; ₹2,499) is an official chronicle of the unfathomable rise of K-pop idols BTS — Bangtan Sonyeondan, or Bangtan Boys, or Bulletproof Boy Scouts, or even Beyond the Scene — as they complete 10 years of existence in 2023. It’s a coming-of-age story of one of the biggest groups in music today, maybe even ever. (They’ve sold over 100 million albums.)
Given that the book is an official release, credited to BTS and Kang, with the English translation done by Anton Hur, Slin Jung, and Clare Richards, it’s in part an exercise in mythmaking. It’s a meticulous — if often sanitised — behind-the-scenes look at the seven young men who today make up BTS, spread over 500 pages. They started off as wide-eyed teenagers auditioning for a position as an idol for the company Big Hit Entertainment, spending all their time together as trainees in a dorm in Seoul — the ‘hyoungs’, the elder brothers, helping the younger ones learn the ropes, and learning about themselves in the process. Eventually, they went on to conquer the world.
The book pitches them (and Big Hit) as underdogs in the K-pop world. The initial challenges they face — middling sales, cyberbullying by ‘anti-fans’, jealousies and rivalries, accusations of fraudulent sales numbers, public criticism from rappers and even fellow idols, private snubs by artists and companies — drive them to greater determination. Setbacks motivate them, lead them to self-improvement, with the support of their fandom helping them through tough times.
There’s a lot here for fans of BTS, and ARMY — Adorable Representative MC for Youth, the obsessive and loyal fandom that BTS has, with wings across the world, including several local ARMYs in India too. The message, really, is that BTS and their fans are indelibly linked. And for those fans, the book is a must-have, with hundreds of QR Codes embedded as footnotes in the text: archival footage of their rehearsals, performances, rare YouTube videos, fan interactions, solo departures, and plenty more besides. There are portraits of each of the seven members of BTS, while group photos bookmark the chapters. The text is shaped by candid commentary by the members, who speak freely about the lyrical material informing each release and their own state of mind at the time. Each song, each album, is dissected by the idols themselves.
A quick background here is perhaps necessary for those unaware of BTS. They’re part of Hallyu, the Korean cultural wave that’s captured the world’s imagination with its music, its TV soaps and shows (K-drama) and its food. In K-pop specifically, the idols—the musicians and performers who make up the music ‘teams’ or groups —go through a rigorous training process upon signing with a company. SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment were the big hitters at the time, but BTS’ success has meant that its company, Big Hit Entertainment (now called HYBE), has been catapulted into the big leagues as well. They’re trained in singing, rap, and dance choreography, following which an audition process is carried out to choose the final members of a group. From here, the group debuts and, based on the reception by the fandom that K-pop invariably engenders, their future growth is determined through chart performance and appearances on variety shows on TV. Often, an organic explosion of fans leads to online visibility and sales, leading to packed shows and greater success. Unlike western pop music, where the personal lives of popstars are often exploited for cynical publicity, the idols here maintain a squeaky clean image. There’s very little about their personal lives on display; as the book details, K-pop is a ‘fantasy’ genre, an escape into a perfect, shiny world for audiences and artists alike.
There’s a lot here for fans of BTS, and Army—the obsessive fandom that BTS has, with wings across the world, including several Armys in India too. The message, really, is that BTS and their fans are indelibly linked
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While its success was originally limited to Korea and other parts of Asia, the movement grew significantly in the past decade. Today, BTS has literally millions of fans across the world. There has been criticism of K-pop from time to time, of the exploitative nature of the industry and the gruelling physical and mental demands placed on the idols. Jung Kook, of BTS, was all of 15 when he first signed on as a trainee. However, while the book does allude to the painstaking training of the members as they prepared for their debuts, it’s framed here as little more than a commitment to the craft (which may well be true).
Beyond the Story is however not about that; it’s not that book. There are passing references to the troubles they’ve naturally faced over the past decade, growing up as they have in the public eye, but a lot of it is glossed over or only explored superficially, or it’s positioned as fodder for new creative directions. One of the more interesting sections here, in fact, is about the attitude of the Korean music industry to ‘idols’, of how there’s an artificial divide between ‘idol’ and ‘artist’, which BTS—driven to create more meaningful work—end up addressing and challenging in one of their releases. It’s a blow-by-blow account of their story, their personal ambitions and desires, the resilient bonds they’ve forged with each other. It’s the story of BTS the way they want to present themselves to the world.
And the thing is, that story itself is a remarkable one. How a group of seven young men grew into the superstars, the icons that they are today, in the face of extreme scrutiny, criticism, admiration and love, and inconceivable levels of fame. How they remain, to this day, impeccably humble and sincere, always grateful to ARMY, always creatively curious and expressive.
And while there’s a repetitive quality to the way the book is structured, with each album or career move being deconstructed by the seven voices who bring their own perspective to it, I imagine that’s a goldmine for fans who’re intimately familiar with the music and the members. Fans who’ve built a lifelong connection to these stories of youth, of love and heartbreak, of personal growth. There’s a universality to the experiences that BTS writes about, which resonates with fans who may not even speak the language. Beyond the Story tries, in a way, to understand and explain to the reader why BTS is as popular, as loved, as it is today.
But there’s always such a mysticism attached to why we love certain kinds of art and artists more than others. It could be the marketing and the way they’re presented to us, it could be an objective difference in quality, it could be the sense of community they foster among fans— who get to feel less alone in the world, to feel part of something bigger—it could be their own individual personalities and how likeable and sincere they appear to be, or it could be all or none of these. But Beyond the Story, in effect, is really a document that serves to strengthen the bond that exists between BTS and their fans. It enhances the unique world of BTS that one step further and fills in the colour.