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Why BTS Made History as Saturday Night Live’s First K-Pop Musical Guest
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BTS made history last night by becoming the first K-pop band to perform on Saturday Night Live. The group was introduced by the episode’s host, Emma Stone—who’s herself a big K-pop fan—and pulled off note-perfect performances of their songs “Mic Drop and “Boy With Luv.”
But the appearance was far from the first American history-making moment for the seven-piece band, who’ve been at the forefront of the global explosion of South Korean pop, a style marked by an irresistible fusion of pop, hip-hop, and EDM, all sung largely in Korean. BTS was the first Asian act to win a Billboard Award, and earlier this year became the first K-pop group to serve as presenters at the Grammys. The band’s video for “Boy With Luv” broke Youtube records by racking up 78 million views just 24 hours after its debut last week. And America’s love for BTS is part of a broader trend: After decades of largely ignoring non-English language music, US audiences are listening to international hits more than ever.
BTS’s 2017 album Love Yourself: Tear was only the 5th non-English album to top the Billboard charts, and the only release in that tiny group not sung in a Romance language. Only 17 non-English language songs have ever made it to the American top ten. But that seems to be changing—after a 16 year drought between “The Macarena” in 1996 and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012, there were four non-English top ten hits between 2013 and 2018. According to The Guardian, only four Spanish-language tunes landed in the top 100 in 2016, while 19 charted the following year.
Part of K-pop’s American success is due to the advent of social media, which has allowed artists to bypass some of the usual gatekeepers that have historically prevented global music acts from reaching listeners Stateside. And BTS has mastered social media more than any other artist—the band topped Billboard’s year-end Social 50 ranking of musicians’ social media clout in both 2017 and 2018.
While BTS is the first Korean pop act to gain musical guest status, they’re not the first K-pop artist to appear on SNL—that distinction goes to Psy, who made a cameo at the height of “Gangnam Style” mania. That the track and its endlessly watchable music video were satirizing K-pop tropes could easily elude audiences unfamiliar with the genre, and it was sometimes hard to tell whether Western audiences were laughing with or at Psy.
In that regard, BTS is making history yet another way: They’ve cultivated an American audience that treats the group with the same sort of devoted boyband worship that has usually been reserved for groups composed of white, Western men. Members of “The Army,” as the group’s fanbase is known,” camped outside NBC for up to a week in hopes of snagging tickets to see BTS perform on SNL. And when their idols finally took the stage, the fans’ screams were deafening.