Music

BTS Are Playing—and Winning—the Billboard Charts Game Fair and Square

Is anyone surprised that BTS’s newest English-language single became an instant hit?

A man sits facing the camera. He has brown hair, a white suit, and sunglasses. Behind him is a yellow wall with orange panels and a group of five men. They are in brightly colored suits and sitting in director's chairs. The carpet beneath them is turquoise.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by BTS/HYBE LABELS/YouTube.

I don’t know who’s handling the Twitter feed for Queen these days, but they either don’t know pop history or have some seriously misplaced chutzpah. When “Butter,” the latest single from global pop dominators BTS, dropped in late May, someone at Queen HQ posted a snarky tweet (since deleted) within an hour of its release, alluding to the similarities in the bassline of the K-pop kings’ new hit—a very familiar-sounding three-note THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. that anchors the song—and that of “Another One Bites the Dust,” Queen’s Hot 100–topping 1980 banger. “Are you ready hey are you ready for this…” the tweet read, citing a verse lyric from the Queen song alongside a #BTS_Butter hashtag, a retweet of the just-arrived BTS song, and a GIF of the late, great Freddie Mercury.

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I mean, props: That’s some grade-A shade in its ostensibly celebratory, sneakily accusatory tone. But it gets a D in the area of glass house–dwellers throwing stones, because “Dust” is infamous for having stolen its own damn bassline from Chic’s preceding 1979 chart-topper “Good Times.” As I noted in my recent Hit Parade episode about disco-era production geniuses Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Chic bassist Edwards called out Queen bassist and “Dust” songwriter John Deacon for having hung around with Chic in the studio and, on his way out the door, nicking the “Good Times” hook (a walking bassline so legendary it also spawned the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” among many hip-hop–era hits).

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So, Queen’s social media person has got some nerve shading the South Korean septet. Annoyingly, BTS member RM (Kim Nam‑joon) even had to clarify in a “Butter” press conference that they didn’t sample, interpolate, or even mean to invoke Queen on their new hit—even if the boys are Queen fans. Frankly, outside of those three recognizable bass notes, “Butter” sounds far less melodically indebted to “Another One Bites the Dust” than “Dust” did to “Good Times.” You can accuse BTS’s second-ever English single and new global chart dominator of being shamelessly premeditated to blanket the airwaves at the start of the 2021 Song of Summer sweepstakes. BTS have basically copped to that. But beyond that bass hook, “Butter,” which leads this week’s Hot 100, has got many more moves up its sleeve. (Seven sets of sleeves.)

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Among the song’s assets is an infectious breakdown in the pre-chorus; you know when it arrives, because rapper J-Hope (Jung Ho-seok) introduces it with a “Break it down!” The breakdown finds Jin (Kim Seok-jin) swooping from his low voice to a falsetto high note on the line, “I’ll break your heart into two.” That breakdown is then broken down even further on the actual chorus, which fairly bursts with melody. (To go back to Queen, this is another big difference between “Dust” and “Butter”—the former pumps up Chic’s three bass thumps as its main hook; BTS’s hit, by the chorus, has moved on.) The chorus sports a tag team of Jungkook (Jeon Jung-kook), Jimin (Park Ji-min) and V (Kim Tae-hyung), who take turns laddering up and down melodically, with catchy syncopation: “SIDE-step right/ LEFT to my/ BEAT, heartbeat.” By the way, the lyrics, while pretty goofy even for a frothy pop song (“High like the moon, rock with me, baby!”), are a bit less awkward than those of BTS’s first English-language hit, the 2020 Hot 100–topping, “cup of milk”–slinging smash “Dynamite.”

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After all, that’s what this song is: a sequel. Having owned the tail end of America’s prior summer, from the moment “Dynamite” dropped in August 2020, BTS is now making a bid to own our full summer in 2021. Game on! As with “Dynamite,” the English-language No. 1 that Columbia, BTS’s American label, went trolling the world looking for, the origin story of “Butter” is rather cold and factory-like: seven credited songwriters, most of them industry journeymen and -women and none of them Korean save for rapper RM, the only BTS member among the writers. Oh, and one of the six non-BTS songwriters is the CEO of Columbia, Ron Perry, who found the demo and (he says) A&R’d it into a showcase for the boy band. Imagine a song-slash–corporate product so carefully micromanaged, a senior executive gets a piece of its publishing every time you stream it.

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For all that labor, “Butter” gets the job done. It’s not a spectacular summer song—many hits that win our annual American warm-weather chart sweepstakes aren’t much better—but it’s solidly crafted, brain-sticky, bumping, and thumping. In a year when we’re gearing up for what’s being hyped as the most turnt summer ever, we could do worse than nod our heads to BTS’s latest earworm. America’s Song of Summer competition is just that, a game, and you kinda have to give it up for a little hustle.

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Know what else is a game? Getting a song to No. 1, period. The recording industry has been trying to game Billboard’s systems for about as long as charts have existed. This week’s No. 1 is BTS’s fourth in just nine months, among the fastest accumulations of a quartet of chart-toppers in Hot 100 history. (The last act to do it faster: Justin Timberlake, who banked four straight No.˘1s in 2006–07, in just seven months, at his Imperial peak.) This achievement by Team BTS—let’s call it gamesmanship—merits a bit of a deep dive into the current mechanics of the Hot 100. In every installment of this long-running No. 1 hits series, I devote at least a bit of attention to the pools of data—streaming, radio and sales—that combine to generate hits. But the lopsidedness of BTS’s chart-toppers is unusual enough to warrant a closer look, especially as a friend and fellow chart columnist is crying foul. Hold that thought for now. Let me first explain how BTS keeps ringing the bell.

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You will recall that, prior to “Dynamite,” BTS had never scored an American No. 1, a long-desired goal of both Columbia and the band’s vigilant A.R.M.Y. fanbase. U.S. radio was always the obstacle: As long as BTS sang largely in Korean (with short English phrases sprinkled in), radio programmers were never going to put their singles into serious rotation. “Dynamite” changed that—but not right away. The week the song debuted late last summer, blasting straight in at No. 1, its opening was fueled overwhelmingly by the A.R.M.Y., who have shown their devotion to not only streaming but most especially buying anything the group puts out. To get a BTS song to No. 1, given radio’s passivity, fans would have to buy a lot of singles. And so they did: About 265,000 “Dynamite” downloads were sold in that first week, and another 35,000 physical vinyl and cassette singles. This was impressive enough to make programmers take notice. Steady radio increases kept “Dynamite” within the Top 10 for several months, and eventually—in early December, 14 weeks after it debuted—“Dynamite” scraped the Top 10 on the Radio Songs chart, the highest position any K-pop act had ever reached at U.S. radio.

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By then, BTS had scored two more Hot 100 No. 1s. Their belated addition to a remix of Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” pushed that TikTok phenomenon to No. 1, again fueled largely by sales—the BTS remix boosted “Savage Love” downloads by more than 800%. Then, in early December, BTS’s own “Life Goes On” matched “Dynamite” by debuting on top, making history as America’s first primarily Korean-language No. 1 song ever. Again, sales (150,000 downloads in week one) contributed to the overwhelming majority of “Life’s” chart points; given the language barrier, it never made Billboard’s radio charts at all.

Now, here comes “Butter,” and the BTS pattern seems to have repeated: Download sales swamp all other chart factors. The single sold 243,000 digital copies last week, virtually matching the opening downloads of “Dynamite” last August. (Physical singles are not a factor this time; late last year, Billboard changed its rules to count preordered physical recordings only when they ship, not when they are ordered. Turns out BTS didn’t need collectors to snap up vinyl 45s and cassingles to top the chart.) What’s especially unusual about all of these big debuts for BTS is their overreliance on sales, not streams. “Dynamite,” “Life Goes On,” and “Butter” all opened to very respectable streaming totals—ranging from 14 million for “Life” to 33 million for “Dynamite”—but none was the week’s top stream. BTS has never peaked higher than No. 3 on Streaming Songs. Normally these days, when songs debut on top, streams are the key factor; that’s largely what fueled recent No. 1 debuts by Olivia Rodrigo, Polo G, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and even Taylor Swift. Plus, real talk: The download is a dying medium. (I say this with no joy; I have an odd attachment to my meticulously meta-tagged-and-synced iTunes collection.) You can really tell how devoted the BTS A.R.M.Y. is in their willingness to pony up for AACs and MP3s every time the boy band drops anything. (They also buy a lot of BTS albums on collectible CDs. Yes, compact discs, in the 2020s.)

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Speaking as a chart analyst and fan, my primary response to this behavior is: Hey, fair play to the A.R.M.Y. Sure, they’re juking the chart stats by buying ungodly amounts of BTS product—but they’re doing it legally, and Billboard has rules that prevent egregious bulk buyers to count toward their charts. (BTS fans are hip to this rule.) Fan armies, of any variety, have a long history of hustling songs up the Hot 100 through sales alone—the most direct means at their disposal of affecting the charts. Heavy preorders of singles by rabid fans was how the Beatles soared to No. 1 in just two weeks with “Can’t Buy Me Love” in 1964 (a record at the time). In 1995, Michael Jackson scored the first-ever Hot 100 No. 1 debut with “You Are Not Alone” thanks to tens of thousands of first-week singles purchases. In the mid-aughts, outsize singles-buying by American Idol viewers gave instant Hot 100 No. 1s to Idol finalists Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken (remember “the Claymates”? Now there was a scary fanbase), Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Hicks. (Seriously: Taylor Hicks had a No. 1 hit.) I am often asked if fandom armies skew the charts, and the answer is, sure, to some extent—but it’s harder to do that than it looks, and if they do it by actually consuming the music and not cheating, it’s hard to be too cynical about it.

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My good friend Tom Breihan does not agree. This week, as “Butter” topped the Hot 100, the writer behind Stereogum’s superb, long-running blog The Number Ones decided he was fed up with all of these left-field chart debuts and wrote that “BTS and Their Fan Army Are Rendering the Pop Charts Useless.” Breihan has a vested interest in how many songs reach No. 1—he’s been blogging about all of them, in order, dating to the 1958 launch of the Hot 100, and he’s currently up to 1988. (Seriously: Bookmark it. New entries every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The series is a chart nerd’s paradise.) Tom and I compare notes all the time, as I write about new No. 1s and Tom about historical ones. But he plans to work his way up to the 2010s and ’20s eventually, and this raft of artificial debuts is making him fairly ill: “It’s not just BTS. Thus far this year, 10 songs have made it to No. 1 on the Hot 100. Seven of those songs have debuted at No. 1. … [T]he fans keep figuring out new ways to push not-that-popular songs to No. 1. A lot of the time, these songs plummet out of the top 10 almost immediately after getting their one week at No. 1. It feels like a broken system.”

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Here’s the thing: Tom and I are in, broadly, the same business, and I agree with him that there are entirely too many Hot 100 No. 1 hits these days. It’s why, as I have explained previously, this series can no longer cover each one. And while I wouldn’t call the Hot 100 broken, it is askew right now, for reasons that have nothing to do with zealous fan armies. I don’t blame Breihan for going postal, but I’m not sure why another BTS No. 1 was the trigger. (I pity Tom when his blog gets to the ’00s and has to write Stereogum pieces about “Inside Your Heaven” and “Do I Make You Proud?” Mind you, I will love reading them.)

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If the Hot 100 is a three-legged stool—streams, sales and airplay—two of those legs have been sawed down to nubs, making for a very wobbly stool. As I said, the download is dying. In a week where there isn’t a new single by BTS or, say, Taylor Swift, the top download sells in the range of 15,000–25,000 typically, sometimes even less. That’s down about 80% to 90% from just a half-decade ago, when a normal top-seller was still in the 150,000–200,000 range. But more recently, and especially since the pandemic, there’s been an even more ominous turn of events: the erosion of radio audiences. Frankly, they’ve been on a downward slope since the mid-’10s, but COVID-19—and the elimination of drive-time commutes for most Americans—has accelerated the damage. I see it when I dig into the chart data every week. As recently as early 2020, a top radio smash like Post Malone’s “Circles” would clear 100 million in “radio audience” (Billboard’s term of art) on the regular. By summer 2020, when the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” was topping the Radio Songs chart for a record 26 weeks, it was doing it with audience totals in the 70 million to 80 million range. This year, when Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” topped the radio chart in April, its radio audience was just 65.5 million. By the way, that’s just over a quarter of the total audience “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams scored in 2013, when it set a weekly radio audience record of nearly 243 million.

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As I have long said, the Hot 100 is a system of checks and balances: passive radio consumption is counterbalanced by hyperactive fan consumption. The chart becomes boring, or less credible, when one chart factor swamps the others. What the erosion of both sales and airplay means is that any song with a strong first-week streaming total (not even a record total; medium-great will do) like Drake’s already-forgotten “What’s Next,” can crash in at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Or, on the rare occasion when a single does sell well, like BTS’s four chart-toppers, a lack of airplay doesn’t matter. (The fact is, contra Tom Breihan, BTS are a true outlier, their opening sales so massive—literally 10 times a normal best-seller—that they would have eventually started debuting at No. 1 on the chart of 10 to 15 years ago.) What I think will fix this state of affairs is one of two things: either a post-pandemic shoring-up of radio ratings—and it wouldn’t take much; Maroon 5 spent seven weeks on top in late 2018 with “Girls Like You” thanks largely to radio, even with weak streams and sales. Or a change in the Hot 100’s formula to make passive forms of listening like radio a bigger counterweight—say, if programmed streaming playlists were tallied more like radio than like streams in Billboard’s formula.

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Where does that leave “Butter” by BTS? For now, as Tom Breihan contends, it’s a Potemkin village of a hit, propped up by its faithful A.R.M.Y. much the way Justin Bieber started scoring chart-toppers in the early–mid ’10s through his militia of Beliebers. But! BTS might be earning their way into radio’s inner circle, and the aural wallpaper of less-rabid fans, as we speak. Buried among “Butter’s” first-week chart stats is an opening radio audience of 18.1 million. That’s a really good start! Good enough to launch the song at No. 39 on Radio Songs, 10 points higher than “Dynamite” started last September—and “Dynamite” took two weeks to even appear on the radio chart. So fear not, BTS A.R.M.Y.: Soon, your parents and/or hipster friends will go from thinking of BTS as a curious phenomenon to the sort of ambient hitmakers they can’t escape. And hey, maybe—in our post-pandemic summer, at a beach or a barbecue—they might even welcome the sound of that THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

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