Updated June 22, 2022 11:47 a.m. ET
TOKYO — When South Korean boy band BTS announced its decision last week to go on hiatus, it sent shockwaves through the music world and sent the band’s management company’s stock prices plummeting.
And thanks to BTS’s outspoken criticism of their own industry — something few of their colleagues are free to do — it has shed light on the inner workings of the K-pop hit machine.
Last week, the band released a video through their management company, in which they explained their need to take a break.
“After 10 years of living as BTS and working all of our schedules, it’s physically impossible for me to mature,” said BTS leader Kim Nam-joon, also known as RM. He added that he lost sight of what kind of group BTS is and what stories they want to tell.
Singer Jeon Jung-kook, 24, the youngest member of BTS, assured fans in the video that they can look forward to the day the seven members of the group return.
“We’re each going to take a little time to have fun and experience lots of things,” he says. “We promise that we will one day come back even more mature than we are now.”
After the BTS news broke, the stock price of HYBE — the group’s management and production company, talent agency, and record label — fell 25% and failed to recover. This will also affect BTS members, as they hold HYBE shares.
The band had previously gone on hiatus in 2019, but just for a month and not all of the band members were involved.
The decision this time – their management company denies it was a hiatus – comes at the height of the band’s global popularity. Last year, BTS had four of the top 10 digital hits in the United States. They went to the United Nations. They have been nominated for two Grammys. This year they visited the White House and met with President Biden.
“They do so much for this generation,” says BTS fan Fernanda Bedin, 30, while visiting Seoul from Las Vegas. “They’ve always been honest with us, and I guess that’s why we’ll do anything for them.”
Many fans know that BTS members will be required to complete at least 20 months of military service. Under South Korean law, pop stars and athletes the government deems have tarnished the country’s reputation can withhold service until they turn 30. The members of BTS are between 24 and 28 years old.
Bedin notes that other boy bands, such as One Direction, went on hiatus and never returned. But fans say they can understand artists’ need to grow and find new inspiration.
“Since they have been part of my life for a long time, I feel like I grew up with them,” says Swedish student Rachel Borromeo, also visiting Seoul. “And growing as a person is never bad, especially if it helps you find your identity.”
Part of the problem, Kim explained, is the K-pop industry’s grueling production schedule.
“The problem with K-pop and the whole idol system is that they don’t give you time to mature,” he said in the video, in which the band members were talking, laughed and sometimes cried in front of a table full of food and drink. . “You have to keep producing music and keep doing something. Once I get up in the morning and put on makeup, there’s no time left to grow.”
In the K-pop industry, “it’s fair to say that artists work on the company’s schedule, not on their own schedule,” says CedarBough Saeji, a professor of Korean studies and East Asians at Pusan National University which teaches a course on K-pop. .
“There’s a huge team working behind the scenes to write new hits, prep clips, choose costumes, all that stuff,” she says. “And so that means that a lot of artists, especially artists who debuted recently, don’t have much control over their careers at all.”
Some K-pop critics, according to Saeji, unfairly point to this mode of production to denigrate a “factory-made” industrial product, despite its quality, creativity, and popularity.
Many aspiring K-pop stars are recruited at a young age and undergo rigorous training which, unless they achieve commercial success, can put them in deep debt. Occasional scandals involving sexual abuse and cyberbullying have tarnished the image of the industry.
The BTS members’ criticism of their own industry didn’t come as much of a surprise, perhaps due to their track record of social justice activism, including a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter and speaking out against anti-Asian hate crimes at the White House.
But not all K-pop groups are free to express themselves the way BTS did. This is because BTS’ immense success puts them in a class of their own and because of the mainstream nature of the K-pop industry.
“The tradeoff that a lot of K-pop artists make is that in exchange for a chance at world fame, they give up a lot of control over their own lives,” Saeji explains. “They may have a lot of things they want to express, and depending on the management companies they work with, they don’t have as much freedom to express their own ideas as they would like.”
Even though BTS has been outspoken about racial justice in the United States, its members have not engaged in activism on similar issues in South Korea. They remained silent, for example, on the desire to adopt a national anti-discrimination law that would protect minorities.
Whether or not the BTS members reunite in the future or break up, they have already reached the pinnacle of their profession and marked South Korea’s global image. Even so, they are convinced that, as they sing along to a new song, their “best moment is yet to come”.
NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.