Music

How BTS Made History With the First Korean-Language No. 1

“Life Goes On” broke the language barrier—but there are still other obstacles holding them back.

BTS hanging out together on the couch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via BTS (방탄소년단) “Life Goes On” Official MV/YouTube.

K-pop fans got a bracing reminder this week that North and South Korea are still technically at war, 67 years after the armistice that ended fighting between the two territories. Why should this still-simmering conflict matter to pop fans? Because it explains why South Korea, all these years later, still maintains a law requiring military conscription for all young men between 18 and 28 years of age. Which, in turn, explains why South Korea’s parliament passed an emergency measure, just this week, to save one very famous near-28-year-old from becoming a draft-dodger.

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That relieved citizen is Kim Seok-jin, known to his fans by the mononym Jin, the oldest member of BTS. Under the new revision to the South Korean Military Service Act, Jin won’t have to serve his minimum 20 months in the military until age 30. He is exempted because, as per the new rule, he’s in a K‑pop band—South Korea’s greatest cultural export. This hastily passed amendment is now known around the world as the “BTS Law.”

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The BTS Law is one of two huge gifts Jin and his BTS bandmates received this week. The other was a No. 1 hit in America, their third in just three months. That’s a Beatles-level pace of chart-topping—literally (I’ll get to the records BTS is setting in a moment). And this No. 1 is possibly the septet’s most momentous: their first U.S. chart-topper sung almost fully in Korean. Actually, it’s the first No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in Korean, period, in history. This has been the dream of both the group and its impassioned BTS A.R.M.Y. fan base for years: Americans embracing the world’s biggest K-pop act without any translation required.

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Three months ago, in my piece about BTS’s first-ever U.S. chart topper “Dynamite,” I half-predicted BTS would pull this off, but I’m stunned at the speed with which they achieved it. Best of all, they did it with a heartfelt, lovely song that quite literally speaks to our times: “Life Goes On” is about the COVID-19 pandemic. To my ears, it’s one of the best songs of the year on that subject, and certainly the best Hot 100 No. 1 on that subject to date, better than the offerings from Drake or Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Of course, to fully appreciate the quality of “Life Goes On” if you don’t speak Korean, you do have to do some translation—only about 30 percent of the song is in English. But as the South Korean winner of Best Director at the Oscars said early this year and several ages ago, it’s worth it to get past “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”—it really only takes one click to surmount—to appreciate its generous spirit.

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“Life Goes On” wastes no time making its point. The first verse, sung by Jungkook, begins: “One day, the world stopped/ without any warning/ Spring didn’t know to wait/ showed up not even a minute late.” I particularly love that second couplet, the idea that the year’s prettiest season was particularly cruel this year by not failing to arrive, just as those of us in the Northern Hemisphere were all locking down. RM aka “Rap Monster” drops some equally emo bars: “This cold that the world gave me/ Prompts me to press the dust-covered rewind.” In a nice touch in the video, around that line, RM wistfully wipes a couple of fingers’ worth of dust off his bicycle seat, recalling an outdoor activity that was more carefree before the pandemic. Then the pre-chorus—probably the song’s strongest melody, sung in unison by Jungkook and V—winds up to this Sondheim-esque sentiment: “Close your eyes for a moment/ Hold my hand/ To the future, let’s run away.” So far, this has all been in Korean. But the half-English chorus offers an accessible olive branch to Western listeners: “[English:] Like an echo in the forest/[Korean:] The day will come back around, as if nothing happened/[English:] Yeah, life goes on, like an arrow in the blue sky/[Korean:] Another day flying by.” The shifts are remarkably seamless and musically deft—you get the sense the group is singing each chorus line in whatever language feels most mellifluous.

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As for the music itself, the song’s guitar strums and close harmonies feel like a throwback to an earlier precision-pop era. You can picture a version of this being sung by ’N Sync 20 years ago or even the Spice Girls in the late ’90s. Its 2020s provenance is only revealed by RM’s nimble rapping and some of the post-EDM production touches, like the opening high-pitched vocal chop that supports the melody—appropriately and poignantly, those vocals almost sound like crying. The song is also, no shock, the handiwork of a half-dozen songsmiths: three BTS members—J-Hope, RM, and Suga—plus the group’s longtime producer and collaborator Kang Hyo-won aka “Pdogg,” as well as a pair of German pop-star aspirants who moonlight as songwriters, singer Alina “Ruuth” Paulsen and German American “bedroom pop” artist Chris James. Despite the global mishmash of collaborators, the resulting song feels coherent and wedded to a specific theme. Moreover, the origin story of “Life Goes On” doesn’t feel quite as crass as that of “Dynamite,” which only came into being because BTS’s label president went looking specifically for an American breakthrough song in English. To be clear, “Dynamite” is irresistible, delightful, and effective. Depending on mood or time of day, it might be what one prefers hearing. But “Life Goes On” shows more of the septet’s natural personalities, and for the uninitiated, it offers an easy entrée into BTS’s Korean-first aesthetic.

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All that said, there’s not much evidence “Life Goes On” is initiating anybody yet, beyond the already committed BTS fan. Let me explain. While this is the group’s first official single to follow up their “Dynamite” breakthrough, it’s their third Hot 100 No. 1 overall, because in October, in between “Dynamite” and “Life Goes On,” BTS was added to a late-breaking remix of “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” by Jawsh and Jason Derulo, powering that Top 10 hit to No. 1. “Savage Love” was major evidence of BTS’s strength with their A.R.M.Y., but “Life” will provide clearer evidence of the stickiness of their American fan base. And even now, that’s still a somewhat mixed picture. Judging the success of the ongoing Operation: Break BTS Stateside—an effort followed eagerly by the BTS A.R.M.Y., even outside of the U.S.—means interpreting mixed signals through glasses of various tints. Your rosiness may vary.

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For starters, even though both songs debut atop the Hot 100, “Dynamite” opened to much stronger sales and streams than “Life Goes On.” The former’s first-week sales were double the latter’s, 300,000 to 150,000, respectively, and its streams were more than double, 33.9 million to 14.9 million. Despite this large disparity, both songs opened on top of the Hot 100, because each outdistanced its competition at the time. “Dynamite” landed in the competitive late-summer market and overcame such August smashes as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later,” whereas “Life Goes On” only had to get past the somewhat lighter autumn competition of 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood,” which clung to the top spot for five weeks in October and November even as its numbers grew steadily weaker.

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This disparity between the two BTS singles might support the contention I made back in September that some proportion of American listeners were jazzed to hear the group sing entirely in English for the first time. This contention was disputed by portions of the group’s devoted fan base, who are deeply invested in BTS scoring their global hits in Korean, and, to be fair, there are explanations for the new song’s lighter opening that have nothing to do with its language. For one thing, “Dynamite” came packed with a wider array of remixes as well as a slew of preorderable physical singles. (As part of its recent crackdown on bundled merchandise and tickets, Billboard’s flagship charts also stopped counting preordered physical singles and albums that don’t ship right away, and perhaps as a result, “Life Goes On” debuted with only 20,000 of its sales in physical cassette and vinyl singles.) Finally, “Life Goes On” arrived the same week as BTS’s new album Be—their fifth No. 1 American album—which means BTS consumers could acquire the song by buying either the single or the album. Probably some combination of factors—that one-inch-tall barrier, the physical-vs.-digital factor, the album-competition factor—softened the launch of “Life Goes On.” We’ll never know exactly how much American buyers and streamers preferred BTS in English.

One thing we do know, basically indisputably, is that radio, the third component of the Hot 100, decidedly prefers BTS singing in English. Here, the disparity is stark: Whereas “Dynamite” opened in late August to a respectable radio audience of 11.6 million, “Life Goes On” launched to an audience of just 410,000, a small fraction of “Dynamite’s” opening airplay. To some extent, this reflects the fact that radio is still busy spinning “Dynamite.” On the current Radio Songs chart, “Dynamite” is holding at a No. 11 peak. This is far and away the best any BTS single has done at American radio. Discouragingly, however, this suggests that BTS is going to fall short of the radio Top 10, even after singing in English. They’ve reached only one position higher at U.S. radio than K-pop breakthrough act Psy achieved in 2012—“Gangnam Style” got to No. 12 on Radio Songs, sung mostly in Korean.

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So what, exactly, does BTS have to lose singing in their native language? “Life Goes On” is off to a comparably slow start, yes, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a sturdy song that could still do better in the long run than either “Gangnam Style” or “Dynamite.” After three straight Hot 100 chart toppers, two of them No. 1 debuts, BTS’s audience, both rabid and casual, is clearly large enough to make the group one of the top pop acts in America, not unlike other chart conquerors who have invaded our shores. Billboard reports that BTS’s three No. 1s in three months is the fastest accumulation of a chart-topping hat trick in more than four decades, since the Bee Gees pulled it off in early 1978 at the height of Saturday Night Fever. Among acts scoring their first-ever trio of No. 1s, BTS’s accumulation is the fastest since the Beatles topped the charts with the back-to-back trifecta of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” in early 1964.

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Is BTS’s popularity analogous to the Fab Four’s or the Brothers Gibb’s? Not exactly—those groups achieved their feats in an age of a more aligned monoculture. But for a more atomized 2020s audience, this achievement is considerable. I would liken BTS, at this stage, to Justin Bieber in 2015. As I wrote for this long-running No. 1 hits series at the time, Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 thanks largely to his young, ardent Belieber fan base. But soon enough, adults who previously said “No thanks” to Bieber became a reliable base of support—within six months, not only had “Mean” crossed to adult audiences; by the time of “Sorry” and “Love Yourself,” adults were arguably more into Bieber than kids. It’ll be more challenging for that to happen to BTS, given the language barrier. But as long as they keep turning out singles as solid and enveloping as “Life Goes On,” it seems like a matter of time.

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In a recent installment in Billboard’s ongoing “Burning Questions” roundtable series, the magazine asked its stable of pop analysts where BTS could go from here, in the wake of their 2020 American success. Music critic Andrew Unterberger, a reliably sharp chart watcher, offered this simple recommendation: “[S]tay together. BTS has been gigantic for a half-decade now, and that’s around the point in the timeline where nearly every one of their biggest predecessors—from New Edition to the Backstreet Boys to One Direction—has begun to disintegrate.” It’s good advice. To many Americans, BTS is a shiny new object, despite the fact the BTS A.R.M.Y. has been shouting their praises from the rooftops for years now. So if J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga, and V can just hang together, long after pandemic bubbles are over, who knows how far they could take this ride? The only downside is, Jin might come to regret that his South Korean military deferment only lasts two years.

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