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NPR Music: BTS breaks onto the Billboard charts

Making it to the top of the Korean pop music charts demands no small amount of blood, tears, and sweat — and even more to break beyond it. Few current groups know it as well as the boys of BTS, the young septet who this week became the highest-ranked K-pop act ever on the Billboard 200 chart, as well as only one to rise into its top ten and to appear on both the Billboard 200 and the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. Their success marks one more step in a long campaign in the Korean pop music industry, and the Korean entertainment industry as a whole, to cultivate a robust fan base as far beyond the borders of South Korea as possible. But how far, K-pop observers have long wondered, can this unabashedly glossy, visually oriented, and aggressively young music really go?

Though 21st-century Korea’s intensively trained (and even more intensively groomed) squadrons of boy bands and girl groups may seem indistinguishable, BTS has had a way of standing out since they made their debut in the summer of 2013. Like every major pop act, they came vetted by the country’s talent oligarchy, specifically as a product of Big Hit Entertainment, an artist management company founded by Bang Si-hyuk, former songwriting partner of top star-making record executive Park Jin-young (known to anyone with an eye on Korean pop culture simply as “JYP”). Before they turned up to Big Hit’s auditions, two of their members were art-school students and two were underground rappers; some point to the group’s own active participation in the writing and production of their songs, heretofore an unusual practice in the highly specialized world of K-pop, as one reason for their rapid and outsized success.

Certainly no other boy band of any nationality has put out a hit single inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Hermann Hesse, as BTS’ members described last year’s “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Its elaborate music video even features a passage from Hesse’s Demian, a novel near-universally known in South Korea and beloved by several generations of its people. The words come recited by member Kim Nam-joon, better known as “Rap Monster,” who has emerged as the group’s breakout star as well as something of a self-styled intellectual, having placed high on IQ tests and South Korea’s university entrance exams — a high mark of distinction in a ranking-obsessed society — becoming fluent in English, and continuing, on his own initiative, the Japanese-language studies all the BTS members received as trainees.

Read the whole thing at NPR Music.