The Stunning Transformation Of BTS

You likely know of BTS even if you're not a big fan of Korean pop music, more commonly known as K-pop. The ultra popular boy band has taken not just its native country of South Korea by storm, but also the rest of the world thanks to their catchy music, powerful vocals, lightning-speed rap, and killer dance moves. Even those who don't understand the Korean language have become fans of the band, turning the artists into one of the biggest international sensations in all of music history.

BTS' meteoric rise to fame has not been an accident. The band's formation and record-breaking success have been the product of hard work and talent as well as some skillful planning, strategic publicity, and an army of devoted fans. From their early days as a novice K-pop group to achieving megastar status across the globe, here is a closer look at how BTS has transformed over the years.

Before BTS, there was just Kim Namjoon

While all of the members of BTS are each famous in their own right these days, Kim Nanjoon is arguably the band's most recognizable member. Namjoon is the frontman of BTS and is known by the stage name RM, which stands for Rap Monster. RM both sings and raps for BTS, and he's also a talented songwriter. Namjoon is the only member of the band who speaks English, which, as he told Yahoo! Entertainment, he learned by watching Friends "like a dozen times." The impressive feat was aided by RM's high IQ, reported to be 148, as noted by the South China Morning Post.

RM's skill set would prove to be the foundation of the band that would become BTS. Without him, the group may not exist. Before BTS, RM was making a name for himself as an underground battle rapper performing under the stage name Runch Randa as well as performing with Daenamhyup, as noted by BillboardHe became the first member of the group that would become BTS when he was scouted by its founder, Bang Si-Hyuk (via Time).

BTS got its start in 2010

The band that we now know and love as BTS got its start in 2010, although it would be awhile before the artists debuted as a group. A lot of work was put into assembling the right team around its frontman, RM, after he was discovered by Bang Si-Hyuk that year. "I was ... only 16 years old, a freshman at high school," RM told Time. "Bang thought I had potential as a rapper and lyricist, and we went from there."

As noted by Time, the rest of the band slowly started to come together. Min Yun-Ki, whose stage name is Suga — it's short for shooting guard — was the second to join the group. Then came Jung Ho-seok, known in the group as J-Hope. The fourth member to join the band that would become known as BTS was Park Ji-min, aka Jimin. Followed by Jimin were Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Kim Tae-hyung (V), and Jean Jeong-guk (Jungkook).

It took a while, but the band that came together was well worth the wait. The members of BTS would become "as close as brothers," as RM told Time.

The members of BTS went through a rigorous training process

One does not simply become a top boy band star overnight. One of the reasons that it took so long between RM being discovered in 2010 and BTS' official debut in 2013 is that the band had to go through a rigorous training process. The South Korean music industry can be cutthroat, with hopeful entertainers going through grueling training programs in the hopes of making it big.

Vox noted that three major studios began the process of forming "idol groups" in the '90s. They are "polished to perfection, designed to present the very highest standards of beauty, dance, and musicality." Not everyone makes the cut, of course, but those who are chosen for a group are often subjected to a lot of control by the studio, which has a strong hand in not only their music but also their overall image, marketing, and even their personal lives.

Nevertheless, Bang Si-Hiyuk's approach to forming and training BTS in his own studio, Big Hit Entertainment, was a bit more relaxed as he wanted the band to be more authentic. As he told Time, his company's trainees aren't coached solely on performance but also "about life as an artist, including social media."

BTS was initially supposed to be a hip hop group

While BTS is known for its catchy pop tunes today, the band was initially conceived as a hip hop group. Three of its members, RM, Suga, and J-Hope, are rappers, as noted by Time. While BTS would no doubt have achieved success as a hip hop group and, in fact, features rap quite prominently in their music, the decision was made to take a route that would bring them to a bigger audience and achieve more commercial success. As Bang Si-Hyuk told The Hollywood Reporter, he wanted to bring rappers and vocalists together to follow "a U.S. pop formula."

This decision wasn't popular with everyone. At the time, Bang was training several performers for the group that would become known as BTS. As he told Time, many of them "wanted to pursue hip hop and didn't want to be in an idol band." Those trainees left, leaving only RM, Suga, and J-Hope. The search then began for "members that had more of an idol-like quality." And eventually, Jimin, Jin, V, and Jungkook were added to the lineup.

BTS' socially conscious lyrics helped the boy band appeal to fans

One of the things that makes BTS so popular with their fans is the fact that their music carries a message with socially conscious lyrics. As noted by Billboard, the band set out to do this with their very first single, "No More Dream," which was released in 2013 when most of the members were still in their teens. The song urges young people not to conform to societal expectations but to follow their dreams. "Dope" is another anthem of empowerment, condemning older generations that look down on the youth. "Am I Wrong" references political issues in South Korea and questions people who are apathetic about the state of the world. Other issues the band sheds light on include bullying and mental illness (per SBS).

Suga told Billboard that the band felt it was necessary to draw attention to such topics. "If we don't talk about these issues, who will?" he asked. "Our parents? Adults? So isn't it up to us?"

BTS' first album didn't bring them international success

It's hard to imagine a time when BTS wasn't the massive international success that it is today, but this boy band was not exactly an overnight success — at least not internationally. BTS released its first single, "No More Dream," ahead of the band's first album, 2 Cool 4 Skool, in June 2013. While BTS' music performed well in South Korea, with Allkpop noting that it made it to number five on the country's Gaon Album Chart, it didn't exactly launch them to international superstar status.

Yes, in the U.S. it was a different story. As noted by The Hollywood Reporter, on BTS' first visit to Los Angeles, California in 2014, the band didn't exactly receive a warm welcome. Instead, they had to walk around the city in order to round up people for a free concert they gave at The Troubadour. And even after all that work, the concert was only attended by a couple hundred people.

The BTS ARMY was formed shortly after the band's debut

Almost as famous as BTS is their fan club, known as the BTS ARMY. "ARMY" is an acronym that stands for "Adorable Representative M.C for Youth," as noted by NMEThe fan club wasn't organized by fans, but rather by BTS members themselves. They announced the name of their fan club in July 2013, shortly after the release of their first album.

The BTS ARMY is massive and vocal, and its members have been a driving force in the success of the group. The fandom is known for its ardent devotion to BTS. As Michelle Cho, who is a professor at the University of Toronto in its East Asian studies department told CNN World, "You're not just a casual fan of BTS, you have to be initiated into their world and then you get sucked in."

While many consider themselves a part of the BTS fandom, an official membership in the BTS ARMY costs $30 but comes with perks, such as early access to concert tickets and birthday wishes from the band, according to CNN. There are also rules members have to follow, such as never intentionally boarding the same airplane as BTS.

Social media helped BTS break into the United States

BTS' social media presence is huge, and it was a major factor in helping them break into the international music scene. The band even holds a Guinness World Record, issued in 2019 for the most Twitter engagements for a music group. 

The band has millions of followers on the social media platform. While this media presence helped BTS break into the international market, their large platforms were also spurred by a "massive guerrilla campaign" as Eshy Gazit, a manager hired by Big Hit Entertainment in 2016, told The Hollywood Reporter. Gazit was tasked with helping BTS — who'd recently blown up in South Korea — achieve a level of fame in the United States. Gazit said that it was a combo of the band's "inelegant charisma" and timing that helped them become so big in the U.S. "The music industry in the internet day and age is global in every aspect," he said.

Bang Si-Hiyuk also credits fans on social media with helping BTS expand to the U.S., but told Time that the relationship BTS has with their admirers helped cultivate that following. "Loyalty built through direct contact with fans had a lot to do with that," he revealed.

After hitting it big internationally, BTS changed their name (sort of)

BTS founder Bang Si-Hyuk carefully considered names for the band that would eventually become known as BTS. Contenders for the group's name included Big Kids and Young Nation, but Bang eventually settled on BTS, short for "Bangtan Sonyeondan," which roughly translates to "Bulletproof Boy Scouts."

As Bang explained to The Hollywood Reporter, the name symbolizes "the periphery" in which the band exists as members of a young generation fighting against conservative Korean Society. Bang said that BTS was formed "at a time of increased longing for fairness and the rights of the marginalized."

As noted by ET, the band is also sometimes known as the Bangtan Boys, in reference to the band's full name. In 2017, after BTS reached an international audience, they changed up their name a bit. While they are still officially known as BTS, the letters now stand for "Beyond the Scene."

BTS' music grew up along with the band

BTS has changed a lot over the years. As the members have each matured, the band's look and sound has likewise shifted. It's been quite the transformation, with fans referring to the various milestones along BTS' transformation as "eras," which was described by The Ringer as "a blanket term that refers to the entire promotional period of a series of interconnected albums and singles."

As noted by CheatSheet, the members of BTS were all in their teens or early 20s when they released their first single in 2013. Their early sound and style reflected their young age, and they frequently sang about teenage problems in what StyleCaster called a "loose school concept." Their music videos were often set in schools and featured the band wearing school uniforms, such as in 2014's "Boy In Luv."

Gradually, the band began to grow into an edgier sound. The album Wings, released in 2016, sparked a new BTS era which saw the band singing about more adult themes like good versus evil and finding your beliefs, StyleCaster explained. By 2018, the boys of BTS were all grown up and singing about love, both "for yourself and those around you."

BTS has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the industry

While BTS performs primarily in its native language, fans all over the world have become fans of the Korean pop music whether or not they understand the lyrics. BTS has, however, found ways to cater to their English-speaking fans, including collaborating with some of the biggest names elsewhere in the world. As noted by Vox, BTS has recorded or performed music with several leading names in the industry — an ever-growing list that includes hitmakers like The Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki, Nicki Minaj, Halsey, and Ed Sheeran.

These collaborations haven't just garnered BTS members attention from fans who may have never previously listened to K-pop, but they've also endeared the artists closer to international audiences. The collaborations also seem to have encouraged BTS to branch out a bit. Per NME, BTS' third collaboration with Steve Aoki, 2018's "Waste It On Me," marked the first time that the band sang and rapped a song entirely in English.

BTS matched a record set by The Beatles

By 2017, BTS' position as one of the world's most popular musical groups was official. CNN World noted that the band became the first K-pop group to win a Billboard Music Award. BTS also beat out the likes of Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande. By the end of the year, BTS was ranked on several Billboard charts and had performed on some big stages including the American Music Awards, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve in New York.

Their success didn't stop there. The Hollywood Reporter noted that the group has been compared to The Beatles "for the hysterical fan mania they generate." BTS also happens to be the first musical group since The Beatles to make it to the top of the Billboard 200 with three different albums in under a year — "a feat that's all the more astounding considering their songs are mostly in Korean," the publication noted. BTS' 2019 tour of the U.S. was so in demand that ticket sales caused Ticketmaster's servers to crash. 

In 2020, the boy band became the first K-pop group to top the Billboard Hot 100 with the English song "Dynamite." Not too shabby for a band that once had to scrounge up an audience for a free concert, right?

BTS' commitment to social justice inspires fans

BTS doesn't just perform songs about social issues — they also back up their beliefs with their money. The band's influence has even inspired others to do the same, such as in June 2020 when they pledged $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement. As noted by Variety, the BTS ARMY quickly followed in their footsteps, vowing to match the group's donation — a feat they accomplished in just 24 hours.

Nicole Santero, a sociology PhD student who researches the culture that has sprung up around the BTS ARMY, told Al Jazeera that there are millions of BTS fans "[spanning] all over the globe." This makes BTS' social reach huge. While the artists don't often publicly back a particular cause themselves, their fans have been inspired to use their massive internet presence to help others.

An offshoot group, the One in an ARMY fan collective, has volunteers all over the globe who have been helping to raise money for non-profits since 2018. Causes they have supported include providing Tanzanian families with clean drinking water and emergency relief efforts for the bushfires in Australia.

Will BTS ever retire?

BTS has been going strong for years, and there's no reason to assume that the members won't continue to do so for years to come. While South Korea mandates that men between the ages of 18 to 28 complete two years of military service, proposed legislation may allow members of BTS to put off the compulsory assignment.

Under the law, all men must begin military service by the age of 28, although top athletes and classical musicians may delay it until the age of 30. The proposed change would allow other entertainers who make "great contributions" to do the same."We need to give the option to postpone military service to those whose career peaks in their 20s," lawmaker Jeon Young-gi told Fortune.

Legalities aside, BTS wants to perform as long as possible. As Jimin told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019, the members of the group "just have so much fun together singing and dancing that [they] want it to continue." Suga added, "As long as our bodies hold up, we'll be doing the same thing in 10 years."