Even in a pandemic year like no other, the K-pop group BTS — and their fandom like no other — has managed to make record-breaking strides, pushing the boundaries of what a band singing primarily in a non-English language can accomplish in the U.S. music industry, while lifting the spirits of millions of fans with hopeful lyrics at a dark time. Their prowess will be on display again in full force at the Grammy Awards on Sunday, where BTS is set to perform.
The group has already notched new achievements in just the first few months of this year, becoming the first Asian act named by IFPI as Global Recording Artist of the Year. Last week, IFPI also crowned BTS’ album “Map of the Soul: 7” as the first-ever winner of its new Global Album All Format chart, which tracks the best-selling records of the year across all consumption types.
Fans will be watching expectantly to see whether the group, who starred on Variety’s cover last year, take home gold this weekend in the race for best pop duo/group performance.
In no particular but roughly chronological order, here’s a look back at some of their band milestones from the past year leading up to this weekend’s Grammy stage.
- “Black Swan” Soared to the Top
The first single from “Map of the Soul: 7,” “Black Swan” dropped on Jan. 17 last year to pave the way for BTS’ hotly anticipated fourth Korean-language album. Propelled by social-media action from BTS’ global legions of fans, known collectively as ARMY, the song went on by summer to hit Number 1 on iTunes in 104 countries, more than any other song in history — beating out Adele’s “Hello,” which had previously held the record for almost five years.
Last week, BTS announced that it would extend its ongoing “LOVE MYSELF” UNICEF campaign to eliminate violence against children, pledging to donate a further $1 million as well as a portion of proceeds from their “Love Myself” merch and “Love Yourself” album to the cause. The campaign has raised nearly $3 million since its start in 2017.
Their newest UNICEF commitment is just the latest step in their efforts to give back.
At the height of social justice protests sparked by the death of Minneapolis’ George Floyd in June, Variety broke the news that BTS and its management company Big Hit Entertainment had quietly donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter. Within the next 25 hours, fans organized to match the donation with a further $1 million. “It was a decision we thought about very carefully: What could we do, as part of our overall message of speaking out against prejudice and violence?,” group member RM told Variety in October, explaining their rationale.
In June, BTS and Big Hit also donated $1 million to Crew Nation, Live Nation’s campaign to support live-entertainment workers affected by the pandemic.
It only took 25 minutes for BTS to break NPR’s series record for most first-day YouTube views with their first Tiny Desk Concert in September. The clip garnered more than 6 million streams in just 24 hours. Unable to travel to the organization’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, the band sang intimate renditions of “Save Me,” “Spring Day” and “Dynamite” while perched on stools amidst rows of vinyl in a Seoul record shop, backed by a live band.
“The mainstream American market had been a tough nut for the band to crack. Looks like all it took was a little dynamite,” remarked NPR host Mary Louise Kelly in a recap of the show, calling it “a reminder that BTS has arrived” — as if the world needed another.
The upbeat disco funk track “Dynamite,” BTS’s first entirely English-language song, hit in late August with a bang. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, making BTS the first Korean group to top the chart. It also topped Spotify’s streaming rankings to nab the biggest opening day for any song last year on the platform, beating Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan.” Its music video set records as well, becoming YouTube’s video with the most streams in its first 24 hours of all time, with 101.1 million plays on day one.
“Dynamite” wasn’t initially part of the band’s plans, but in the midst of the pandemic, the group said they wanted to send out something positive for fans to enjoy. “It just made us feel good when we heard it,” RM explained before its debut. “We really wanted to share this energy with the fans as soon as possible.”
Apparently shutting down New York’s Grand Central Station with scores of back-up dancers, a marching band, and Jimmy Fallon in tow to perform “ON” wasn’t enough for the boys. They returned to “The Tonight Show” in October for an unprecedented week-long takeover that had the program’s official twitter bleeding purple hearts.
“We love having BTS on the show,” Fallon said at the time. “You just know they’re going to go above and beyond to make their performance unforgettable.”
Never a group to sit still, BTS managed to keep their concerts alive, despite the cancellation of their planned 38-date “Map of the Soul” world tour last year. With a savvy, high-production value pivot to digital, they hosted “BangBangCon: The Live” in June, a virtual pay-per-view concert to celebrate the seventh anniversary of their debut. The event notched a Guinness World Record for “most viewers for a music concert live-stream” thanks to 756,000 fans from 107 countries who tuned in their 12-song set. Variety’s recap called the virtual event “the next best thing to being there” in person, noting that despite the boys’ distance from viewers, “one of BTS’ charms is their ability to make fans feel valued and seen.”
The record didn’t last long, though. Just three months later, BTS broke it again themselves. Their their two-day online concert “Map of the Soul ON:E” brought in 993,000 viewers from 191 countries and territories. With production costs reportedly some eight times that of “BangBangCon,” the full stage show was broadcast live without an audience from Seoul’s 15,000-seat KSPO Dome.
Big Hit Entertainment listed on the Korean stock exchange October 15 with a $820 million offering, South Korea’s largest in three years. Though its stock price has roller-coastered since an initial surge at its trading debut, the initial IPO nonetheless made Big Hit founder and co-CEO Bang Si-hyuk the 14th richest person in South Korea. Each of the seven BTS members were also granted 68,385 shares, making them multi-millionaires in their own right. The company stated last week that it is in the process of changing its name to HYBE Corporation.
Despite COVID-19, BTS was able to put together their fifth Korean-language studio album, “BE,” which hit on Nov. 20. The album showcased the band members’ creative talents, with Jungkook directing the video for the lead single “Life Goes On” and V stepping up as the LP’s visual director. The release made BTS the first group to simultaneously hit No. 1 on the Artist 100, Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts.
Unlike “Dynamite,” “Life Goes On” featured the boys singing and rapping in their native Korean, making its rise to the top of the charts even more impressive, particularly considering it received little U.S. radio play.
BTS’ growing global footprint has given the boys more opportunities to act as inspirational ambassadors in areas beyond their music.
In June, they spoke at YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” virtual graduation event alongside Barack and Michelle Obama. In September, they spoke alongside Korea’s President Moon Jae In to kick off South Korea’s first annual National Youth Day. Days later, they made a special video appearance at the virtual U.N. General Assembly, offering up a speech about resilience in the face of uncertainty during the pandemic. In October, they were awarded the Van Fleet Award for their role in promoting U.S.-Korean cultural ties. To cap off a strong 2020, Time Magazine named the group Entertainer of the Year.
And while it may not be as formal an honor, Jungkook was last year named People Magazine’s inaugural “Sexiest International Man,” striking a coup for Asian male representation.
BTS became the first Korean pop group to ever receive a major Grammy nomination thanks to “Dynamite” (the group was nominated for best album package in 2019). Their first nod is in the best pop duo/group performance category, where they’ll compete against collabs from pop heavyweights like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
It won’t be the first time they take the stage at the Grammy Awards, however. In 2019, they debuted briefly on-stage as award presenters, and last year performed alongside Lil Nas X. However, after the show they reiterated their dream of winning a Grammy of their own.
“We weren’t given much time” on stage, RM admitted in Korean. “We wanted to do more. I’d love to sing our song here one day. We hope to more next time, please.”
On Sunday, they’ll finally get their chance.
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