Graham: BTS, Blackpink signal K-pop's U.S. breakthrough

Language barriers be gone! Korean pop outfits prove pop music is universal

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
BTS arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards.

We don’t know what they’re saying, and it doesn’t matter at all.

Last weekend, the pop landscape was shaken by the official Stateside arrival of two K-pop sensations, the boy band BTS and the girl group Blackpink.

For many, it was an introduction to K-pop – that’s short for Korean pop, the genre that borrows from bubblegum pop, electronic dance music, hip-hop, rock and R&B – and a signifier that, more than ever, pop music is a global marketplace.

BTS made its “SNL” debut on Saturday, performing two songs, “Boy With Luv” and “Mic Drop,” and wowing audiences with its rapid fire, next-level choreography. Suddenly, every other "SNL" performance from this season seemed like it was unfolding in slow motion.

Blackpink, meanwhile, made its U.S. live debut with a performance at Coachella, which was streamed for free on YouTube and caused a major buzz across social media.

Converts have been crowing about the two groups in online fan circles for some time, and the groups have toppled major online records: this month, both groups held the YouTube record for most-played videos in a single day, first Blackpink with "Kill This Love," which racked up 56.7 million views in 24 hours, which was later crushed by BTS' Halsey-featuring "Boy With Luv," which earned 74.6 million first-day views. (Previously, Ariana Grande's "thank u, next" video held the YouTube record, with 55.4 million views its first day.) 

Big questions remain about K-pop’s ultimate viability in the U.S. But the two performances were the groups’ first big test for mainstream crowds, and they were a sight to behold.

BTS has been bubbling under for several years. What’s at first striking about watching them perform is the sheer number of them: seven, which bucks the boy band magic number of five.

Throughout time, from Menudo to New Edition, New Kids on the Block to Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC to One Direction, five has proven to be the magic number for boy band personnel. BTS’ extra two members have increased the possibilities of the group’s choreography exponentially; they can form a long line, break up into groups of three and four and criss-cross each other, and perform all sorts of wild moves we never thought possible from our boy band teen idols. (And that’s two extra members for fans to obsess over, which is never a bad thing.)


There are four members of Blackpink, and they kind of look like the “Mean Girls” cast if they were Korean pop stars. They’re sleek, stylish and a little standoffish; if the Spice Girls wanted you to get with their friends, Blackpink looks like they’d rather you left them alone. But that’s what makes them cool.

K-pop, as a genre, has been around since the 1990s, but BTS and Blackpink are the first two groups to make major waves in the U.S. (Both groups are touring the U.S. in coming weeks, playing arenas and stadiums; BTS has two dates each booked at the homes of the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants.)

Technology and the Internet are a huge reason they’ve been able to make inroads here: In the '90s, access to music was limited to what MTV and the radio would air, and what CDs were carried at your local record store. Sure, you could seek out import copies of albums from your local Tower Records, but it was much harder than it is today, when YouTube and Spotify give listeners access to music from around the world at the push of a button.

Additionally, the timing is right for a boy band breakthrough. Every generation needs its teen idol boy band to keep the pop machine churning, and it’s been several years since One Direction parted ways. BTS has slid into that slot, and the group is bringing something different, something culturally exotic to the table. It’s new. And if BTS created a wave, Blackpink has been able to ride it, offering a female counterpoint to BTS’ energy.

Last summer, the popularity of “Crazy Rich Asians” – which earned $174 million at the North American box office, higher than “Mary Poppins Returns” – proved the potential audience for Asian entertainment in the U.S. True, “Crazy Rich Asians” was filmed in English and made for American audiences, but it showed the viability of a market that had been untapped in movies for decades. BTS and Blackpink are looking to do the same thing for music.

One major difference is the language barrier. But the feelings the two groups tap into and evoke are universal. You don’t have to understand exactly what BTS is saying to understand what they’re saying. Pop is pop, and both groups make catchy, hook-filled hits. (Did what *NSYNC said matter as much as how they were saying it? Survey says: no.)  

Ultimately, will Korean groups flood the U.S. charts? Not likely. But watching BTS and Blackpink perform, you could feel the ground rumble underneath your feet. Change has arrived, right on time.