“I tend to explain BTS's appeal like this: Imagine if the players on your favourite sports team (the members train like athletes, after all) were also your favourite musicians and the stars of your favourite reality-TV show and you also thought of them as family members.” Lenika Cruz, a senior editor at The Atlantic, from “I Wasn’t a Fan of BTS. And Then I Was”
I’ll get into the “how” a bit later when I walk you through BTS's content strategy, but let me share the key outcome of all of the content the group has released: I know more about the seven members of BTS than I know most of my friends and family members, save for my immediate family and the closest of friends. Emotionally, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that I have become as fond of them, yes all seven of them, as if they were my little brothers. (I am older than the members, making me what they call a member of the noona or older sister ARMY.)
I’ll introduce the members of BTS by their stage names (followed by birth names in parentheses) in the order of the fanchant that ARMY does at concerts. Besides RM at the top as their leader, everyone else is introduced in order of their birth date. Age is a very important aspect of social interaction in Korean culture, and it affects how one would address and act in front of others. By age, BTS can be split into the hyung (older brother) line with four members born between 1992 and 1994, and the maknae (younger member) line with three members born in 1995 and 1997. The older members, in addition to their individual contributions, take on greater leadership responsibilities in the group. The younger members from a promotional perspective tend to be more popular with fans, as they are “cuter” (a huge component of idol fan service involves performing aegyo or cute displays of affection, which is largely the domain of the maknaes) and are closer in age to the typical K-pop target demographic of teenagers. (There are lots of other “lines” or “units” that the group can be split into, but I’ll let you have the joy of discovery on this one.)
For roles, the classification of responsibility in each major role (vocal, rap, dance, visual) goes from main, to lead, to position (e.g., main vocalist > lead vocalist > vocalist). Of the K-pop role categories, BTS is strongest at rap and dance. BTS's rappers (or “rap line” in K-pop parlance) are considered to be the best in the industry which makes a lot of sense given their beginnings as a hip-hop group with RM and Suga coming from the underground rap scene. In their rookie years, BTS devoted an immense amount of practice time to their dance and performance, and drew attention initially in Korea for their precise and powerful dancing. Their vocal line, while not initially the group’s calling card, has developed over time into strong singers who lend unique vocal tone and colour to their increasingly diverse song catalogue.
Since so much of their appeal is as personalities in all the content that they release, a discussion of their contributions to the group would be incomplete without highlighting some of their key personality traits.
And finally, since it’s K-pop and entertainment in general, I’ll touch on looks where it’s relevant. It might be hard to believe for those new to BTS and K-pop, but a few of the BTS members were not initially considered attractive enough to debut as idols in the context of Korea’s notoriously harsh and narrow standards of beauty. (Yes, for men as well, not just for women. Korean men are known as the world’s leading male consumers of beauty and grooming products.) A point of debate is whether the members have undergone any plastic surgery like many of their idol peers: ARMY says no and points to the group’s childhood pictures as evidence while others are more skeptical. I’ll let you be the judge.
This is the beauty of doing an analysis of BTS on my own platform, and not for an established media publication: I can share with you fan-generated video content that these organizations (with the exception of a Buzzfeed) wouldn’t necessarily want to be associated with. Both Vox and Vulture have done admirable, well-researched explainer pieces on the group, but they aren’t able to capture the true joy and fun of watching BTS content if they’re not showing the reader all the behind-the-scenes content showcasing the group’s personalities. Beyond their good looks and their many talents, the main reason why fans can’t seem to hit a saturation point on BTS content and so eagerly anticipate any new content is an addictive positive reinforcement loop of knowing so much about someone that you can seemingly predict exactly how they’ll act in any situation, and the satisfaction of seeing that person act exactly as you imagined in “real life.” Western artists love to be mysterious and keep appearances scarce to elicit maximum promotional impact when they do resurface (case in point: Beyoncé, who seemingly disappears between promotion cycles), but there’s no such thing as oversaturation in K-pop: More is more is more. (ARMY has learned to be suspicious whenever BTS is being “too quiet” on their social media channels, as it’s usually foreshadowing of a comeback and accompanying huge promotional onslaught.)
There’s a huge cottage industry on YouTube of fan-generated content documenting and explaining the rise of BTS, and the most popular ones get millions of views. I’ve watched my fair share, and I really think the one I’m about to share does a great job of helping those new to BTS quickly learn about and remember the names and faces of the members using iconic memes in the fandom.
Alright, without further ado, “let’s get it!”
Who are the members of BTS?
RM (Kim Namjoon)
Roles: Leader, Main Rapper, Composer, Lyricist, Producer, English Spokesperson and Translator
- Leader of the group and the raison d’etre of BTS as the group was literally built around him; leads as a servant leader who “shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible”
- Credited on the vast majority of BTS's songs as both a composer and lyricist, serving as the artistic and musical core of the group. While the rap line members typically write their own raps and the vocalists have started to work more and more on lyrics in recent years, RM has historically written 80-90% of the group’s song lyrics. He’s the first person the other members go to for feedback and help on lyrics
- Possesses an emotional and intellectual maturity that belies his age and represents the group’s complex ideas and concepts with ease. Many members have openly admired and envied his brain, and he purportedly has an IQ of 148. He’s recommended many books to ARMY, and the Twitter account @namjoonbooks has compiled a Google Doc with over 20 pages of his recommendations
- Speaks and translates for the group in all English interviews as he’s the only member who is fluent (thanks to repeated childhood viewings of a DVD box set of Friends)
- Released two solo mixtapes/playlists. The latest one, mono, which was released in 2018, has as of October 2020 become the album that has hit the most country #1s in iTunes history (tying with Ed Sheeran's Divide)
To see RM’s leadership and emotional maturity in action, I highly recommend watching his speech at the UN, where BTS was invited to speak about their global Love Myself Campaign with UNICEF:
I also just really love this piece of fan art that has his key autobiographical details and attributes:
Jin (Kim Seokjin)
Roles: Main Visual, Vocalist, Songwriter
- As the big brother of the group, he is the trusted confidant to the older members and life mentor to the younger members
- Most improved idol in the group as he originally joined the company as an actor (after getting scouted coming off a bus) and had no previous experience or interest in either singing or dancing. Considered to be one of the hardest workers (along with Jimin) on a team that possesses an extremely strong work ethic across the board
- Developed into arguably BTS's most technically proficient singer who has a clear tone, wide range and emotive quality to his voice
- Embodies the Korean standard of male beauty in an industry and country obsessed with image. Self-anointed as “World Wide Handsome,” Jin has gone viral many a time for his looks as “third from the left” and “car door guy”
- Known to be considerate and polite (Korean netizens have called him “manner-dol” which is short for manners idol), he is always willing to sacrifice his dignity as the eldest to provide comic relief and be the mood maker for variety shows and interviews as he knows that many of the other members are shy. His efforts to project a young and childlike persona have earned him the “fake maknae” moniker
To see Jin #livinghisbestlife telling his favourite dad jokes on Knowing Bros, being unfailingly polite when invited into a fan’s home for dinner on Let’s Eat Dinner Together (Korean variety shows are really something: you feel for these teenage girls who are desperately suppressing their inner screams of euphoria while sitting through dinner with their favourite idol), and having fun with his shameless on-screen persona on Please Take Care of My Refrigerator, please enjoy this variety show compilation (hit the “CC” for English subtitles):
Jin’s solo song, “Epiphany,” (translation) is a fan favourite for its uplifting self-love (“I’m the one I should love”) message that serves as an emotional coda to the group’s Love Yourself trilogy of albums.
Suga (Min Yoongi)
Roles: Lead Rapper, Producer, Songwriter
- Infamously “tricked” into becoming an idol (he had auditioned intending to be a producer for Big Hit), Suga has become the most prominent of the class of producer-idols that emerged in full-force in the K-pop industry in the 2010s. He has produced and collaborated with a number of K-pop idols, including IU (known as “nation’s little sister”) for her 2020 chart-topper “Eight”
- Alter-ego is Agust-D (Daegu-Town SUGA backwards, as Daegu is his hometown) and has released two mixtapes showcasing his introspective, fast-paced, emotionally vulnerable, brand of rap
- Every team needs a visionary and cheerleader to empower and motivate the team towards greater and grander aspirations, and Suga plays that role for BTS. He’s heralded as an oracle within the fandom (or manifestor-in-chief), as all of his previous goals have come true for BTS. His latest dream is for BTS to win a Grammy
Suga recently released his second mixtape, D-2, and the main track, “Daechwita,” has been widely praised by Koreans (including the Korean Minister of Culture) for its use of traditional Korean cultural and musical elements:
You’ll notice that throughout this analysis, I will often excerpt lines from interviews that Suga has given over the years to illustrate the group’s growth and emotional depth. He’s really the team’s philosopher king and has given a lot of thought to both the meaning behind and cost of their rise to fame. While he is always willing to tell it like it is, earning him his “Savage Suga” nickname, he’s widely beloved in the fandom for how much emotional support he gives both the group and ARMY.
J-Hope (Jung Hoseok)
Roles: Main Dancer, Dance Leader, Rapper, Songwriter
- J-Hope is the team’s main dancer, dance leader and de facto performance coach. He was arguably the most anticipated member prior to the group’s debut as he had gained some notoriety as a great street dancer as a part of an underground dance crew called Neuron in his hometown. For performances, the team relies on him to provide feedback, guidance and remedial lessons. Big Hit’s performance director and BTS main choreographer Son Sungdeuk has said that he’s very thankful towards J-Hope as “he takes care of putting everything in order” when he can’t be with the group to personally supervise every practice. This Twitter thread provides a translation of a detailed analysis of J-Hope’s strengths as a dancer:
- He didn’t originally have any experience in rapping or music prior to joining Big Hit as a trainee, but has since become a well-respected rapper and prolific composer. He wrote the majority of their hip-hop anthem “Dionysus,” from the Map of the Soul: Persona album, which featured as the main performance set piece of BTS’s 2019 tours and performances
- His sunny on-screen persona is a big draw and source of comfort for ARMY, and he is known for his off-duty fashion-forward street-style looks
To see J-Hope in his element as BTS's dance leader and performance coach, watch this compilation:
J-Hope collaborated with American singer Becky G on the song “Chicken Noodle Soup” which showcases his indomitable cheeriness and incredible dance skills:
Jimin (Park Jimin)
Roles: Lead Dancer, Lead Vocalist, Songwriter
- Jimin, with his childhood roots in contemporary dance, is a distinctive and charismatic dancer and widely considered one of the top dancers in the K-pop industry by dance professionals. If you’d like to understand more about what makes his performances so emotive and extraordinary, there’s a great Twitter account (@JiminUncut) run by an experienced dancer:
- Unique crystalline vocal quality with the highest voice (although Jin gives him a run for his money lately) in the group. It serves as an effective counterpoint to the group’s other voices given its more feminine timbre
- Jimin is the group’s prince of charm and shameless flirt, which comes through even in non-Korean interviews. He is also beloved amongst fans for how caring and thoughtful he is towards the other members and to fans
- He’s become more open over the years, particularly in their more introspective content (the documentary series and films), about his struggles with body image (James Corden famously shared one of his early nicknames, “Mochi,” in their Carpool Karaoke appearance) and perfectionism and how he’s worked hard to accept and love himself
Please enjoy a compilation of Jimin’s iconic dance performances (this video has over 4 million views at time of writing):
Many K-pop fans are obsessed with their favourite male idols’ “duality,” which describes how these men can be cute in off-stage moments and very traditionally masculine in appeal on-stage. Jimin is one of their favourite examples of this duality. After James Corden christened Jimin as “Baby Mochi,” fans have picked up the baton and edited Jimin’s variety show and vlog appearances to showcase how adorable his behaviour can be:
V (Kim Taehyung)
Roles: Vocalist, Visual, Lead Dancer, Songwriter
- Distinctive baritone voice that is not commonly heard in K-pop male groups, which tend to be primarily comprised of tenors because there’s a bias for higher-key songs in K-pop
- One of V’s many nicknames is “CGV” which means “Computer Graphics V,” to describe how his visual appeal in completely unretouched pictures seems so unreal and perfect that it seems that the image was computer generated. Particularly in their rookie years, V’s good looks helped attract quite a few fans to BTS. He is also the group’s fashion plate who has a particular love for all things Gucci
- V is often singled out by both fans (he’s the “fancam king”) and other idols for his stage presence and charisma
- Along with Jungkook, V personifies the all-round strength the group has in their major elements. V isn’t the main or lead in most of his role categories, but he’s become so strong over the years in these areas that I think casual observers might be surprised that he wasn’t originally categorized as such. For example, in 2018 he received acknowledgement from their performance director that he should now be considered the fourth member of the “dance line” (previously just J-Hope, Jimin, and Jungkook). Sweet Night, the song he penned for the soundtrack of the Netflix K-drama “Itaewon Class,” beat BTS's own record as the song with the most iTunes country No.1’s in history. He’s also made no secret that he’s gunning for a spot on the rap line, so ARMY has been eagerly anticipating the day of his appearance on a “Cypher” track (a rap line song concept that the group has revisited a few times)
- In 2016, V appeared in the K-drama “Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth” which to date, is the only professional acting credit within the group
V’s smooth baritone vocals and all-around magnetic charisma is showcased beautifully in the music video for his solo track, “Singularity”:
V’s fancam of when BTS performed “Boy with Luv” has 125 million views. I don’t think you need much context for this massive number, but just wanted to emphasize that this video has been seen more than some of the less popular BTS official music videos.
Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook)
Roles: Main Vocalist, Lead Dancer and Centre (in formations), “Golden Maknae,” Songwriter
- Smooth R&B style vocals. His voice is the most stable while performing their strenuous choreography and most versatile in singing harmonizations and ad libs in the group. As the main vocalist, Jungkook gets the lion’s share of the lines and airtime - which can be a rather contentious issue in ARMY for those whose “bias” (K-pop parlance for favourite) is not Jungkook
- While Jimin and J-Hope are considered stylistically to be the world-class dancers of the team, Jungkook as the primary “centre” in the dance formation provides a solid base on which all BTS performances are built upon given his more neutral, versatile dance style. He was sent by Big Hit during his trainee days to LA for additional dance training as he initially had “no emotion” when he danced, and fell in love with dance so much that he briefly contemplated quitting the group
- Given how central his role is to BTS (quite literally), especially on the performance side of things, and how extraordinary that is given how young he was at debut (he was a few months shy of his 16th birthday), RM gave Jungkook the “Golden Maknae” (maknae means youngest member) moniker. It was clear from his first auditions at age 13 that he had idol potential: he was famously scouted by seven entertainment agencies and ultimately chose BTS and Big Hit because he was impressed by RM. On top of his idol talents, Jungkook is seemingly good at everything he tries, however random, to the eternal admiration and exasperation of his hyungs
- Has gained greater confidence in being a topliner and lyricist in recent years, most notably writing their fan song “Magic Shop” and the eponymous theme song “Your Eyes Tell” for a Japanese film
Jungkook is considered to be BTS's most popular member (he has the Twitter record for being the first individual to have five tweets with over 2 million likes), and there’s no shortage of fan-generated content that shows off his myriad of talents. I thought it would be helpful if you’re new to BTS to see him in-situ as the “centre” and main vocalist in their DNA music video, which is BTS's most popular with over 1 billion views on YouTube. In case it isn’t clear from how much screen time he gets, he’s the one whistling at the beginning.
Jungkook’s solo song, “Euphoria,” is a great example of when music and production work seamlessly to evoke the meaning of the concept and lyrics. DJ Swivel, a Canadian producer who gained fame as Beyoncé’s recording engineer, wrote and produced the song and broke down the behind-the-scenes process with Genius and his alma mater. It’s also featured in the season finale of the HBO show, Euphoria. The music video is an important part of the canon for BTS’s Bangtan Universe (BU), which is the group’s narrative vehicle, and the first few minutes focuses on key events in that storyline.
Musicians and Performers First
I hope these profiles have helped you understand that the members of the group are musicians and performers first and foremost, who also happen to be great social media personalities. There’s apparently a saying in the K-pop industry that you don’t improve your skills after debut because the promotional schedule is just too intense. But BTS, with leadership from RM, Suga and J-Hope in particular on the musical front, are continuing to push themselves creatively and inspiring each other to become better musicians. Big Hit founder Bang Si-hyuk was very adamant from the beginning that every member of the group had to be passionate about music as a fundamental qualification, which is not always the case in K-pop where idols are oftentimes more focused on getting famous and transitioning into a career as a celebrity personality or actor.
They’ve shared every step of their musical growth with their fans. In the first season of Bon Voyage, their reality travel show that first aired in 2016, RM spoke in Episode 7 about the ultimate goal Bang Si-hyuk had for the group musically: “Because he [Bang] always says this: There will come a day when they don’t have to do this for us. That we’ll create our own album from beginning to end. When that happens, he said that he’ll really be like a closer older brother.” He goes on to say that if that day comes, that he’ll tell Bang that he’s “really grateful he stayed with us and taught us so much.”
They are getting very close to that musical goal now in 2020. The group revealed to fans in a series of behind-the-scenes footage of team meetings that they are self-producing the album that will be released on November 20, 2020. (Fans have picked up RM's quote "beginning to end" to explain the album title BE.)
Every town is small, and those who follow the gossip scene know that the rise of mobile devices has made it exponentially so. (That wonderful scene in the movie Crazy Rich Asians showing how news of a new relationship travels from New York City to all the major capitals in an instant is a perfect illustration of it.) In this environment, what’s remarkable is how well the BTS members are spoken of as human beings “off-camera” in their interactions with staff and other professionals. Despite their fame, there are few reports of any diva behaviour and instead, many accounts of how polite, courteous and professional they are in their interactions.
It’s no wonder they’ve had the longevity they’ve had in the music industry thus far.
The seven members of BTS each bring diverse musical talents and contribute their unique "colour" to the band. The Korean music critic Kim Youngdae and author of "BTS: The Review" discusses how the talents of each member contribute to the greater whole that is BTS in this article, "BTS: 7 Maps" (translation):