Interlude: BTS, Pressure, and the Measure of the Self

Heidi S.
9 min readAug 27, 2021

This is a small interlude in my series on fame. (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Postlude)

I’ve written about BTS before, about how I think we should take seriously their message of self-love and how music critics undervalue joyful music. But this Billboard article written by Jeyup S. Kwaak just came out that touches on a couple things I’ve been thinking about in this series of my musings on celebrity, and I want to reflect on it directly. Particularly, I want to talk about pressure.

(I’m setting aside the chart stuff from the article, because, frankly, I don’t care about Billboard charts. I think they’re archaic and don’t make sense in the streaming era. Plus, I feel like there’s always unmentioned xenophobia lurking whenever BTS’s popularity in the US comes up and that would be worth its own essay.)

Economic Pressure

BTS is the biggest artist in their company, formerly known as Big Hit Entertainment, renamed HYBE earlier this year. Like by far. From the Billboard article, they “[brought] in about 85% of its 796.3 billion won ($680 million) in total 2020 revenue.”

HYBE is also clearly trying to break into US markets. The article implies that because their stadium tour was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic (a massive loss of revenue), BTS released three English-language songs, which all went on to top the Billboard charts, specifically for the US market.

It’s here you see a tension between company and entertainer, because the members’ primary interest is clearly in performing, not exclusively in making money. In terms of releasing songs in English, president of Big Hit Music (BTS’s label, a subsidiary of HYBE) Shin Young-Jae is quoted as saying they came “to a friendly resolution” that was “mindful of the company’s needs.” Meanwhile, group leader RM has said elsewhere (see also here) that he wants to keep their music predominantly in Korean. And here in the Billboard article, “I don’t think we could ever be part of the mainstream in the U.S., and I don’t want that either. Our ultimate goal is to do a massive stadium tour there. That’s it.”

(I suspect that RM is more acutely aware of being othered by American xenophobia than someone who mostly deals with the business side of things and sees the US for its buying power. In a November 2020 Weverse Magazine interview, RM said: “There’s something Whanki Kim said that’s been running around in my head lately: After moving to New York, he embraced the style of artists like Mark Rothko and Adolf Gottlieb, but then he said, ‘I’m Korean, and I can’t do anything not Korean. I can’t do anything apart from this, because I am an outsider.’ And I keep thinking that way, too.”)

BTS’s international success has put a lot of pressure on them. They were even given diplomatic passports after being appointed the Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture. Per the Billboard article, South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s office released a statement at the time: “We expect BTS to make great contributions to raising our country’s prestige as a leading nation in the post-COVID age.”

NPR recently reported that not only did BTS’s two Map of the Soul ON:E streaming concerts during the pandemic bring in $70 million in ticket and merchandise sales, their popularity has a ripple effect that is adding $5 billion annually to the South Korean economy.

Having a company’s success be dependent on you must put quite a bit of pressure on you. Now that HYBE is publicly held, there are even more stakeholders. I’m sure BTS has long been aware that their success in (essentially) selling themselves has a direct effect on the livelihoods of the people they work with, some of whom they probably know very well, like choreographers, producers, and stylists. But as they’ve gotten bigger and bigger, that number of people has also gotten bigger. And then add to that the pressure of their country expecting them to raise its prestige (and GDP), well, I don’t think that’s an experience anyone reading this could possibly relate to.

Closing screen from BTS’s 2018 Love Yourself tour; photograph by me

Work Pressure

One of the things that often escapes articles written for the US audience is that BTS is popular in part because they’re really good at what they do. They are fantastic performers, and they have worked very hard to become so.

The Billboard article does mention their work life. Jin is quoted as saying that when they used to get their work schedule for the month, there would be work on 28.5 days. Jungkook talks about how arduous their path has been, saying: “it’s taken a toll on my health, and I think we’ve put in every bit of our youth and more.” Later in the article, Jungkook is attributed as saying that during the pandemic, he has been reading critical feedback online as motivation, and he practices singing “all the time.”

Let’s just pause here to appreciate the sheer fortitude it takes to look at online feedback, let alone use it as motivation.

In a November 2020 Weverse Magazine interview, J-Hope talks about writing the song Dis-ease (on BTS’s 2020 album BE) and how it’s about a love-hate relationship with work. One of his (translated) lyrics is: “I think I should work till my body breaks.” One of RM’s lyrics in the same song is: “Oh, just do your job like it’s one / I’m ill, yeah, I’m the job itself.” I think, in part, this connection between work and life, work and self, comes with the territory of having your job be in a creative/performance field, but it’s pretty clear that BTS works a lot.

In the Billboard interview, RM is quoted as saying, “For the first time in maybe 10 years [because of the pandemic], we kind of have a clear line between work and life.”

For the first time in ten years BTS has a line between their work and their lives. USians are really bad about work-life balance (because most of us aren’t afforded a balance) so maybe that statement doesn’t strike you as strongly as it does me. But think about about how old the members of BTS are now — all in their mid-20s, which means that they’ve been steadily having their career completely bleed into their life since they were teenagers, maybe getting one full day off a month.

BTS on stage at Soldier Field during the 2019 Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour; photograph by me

I think they all love performing and making music. I think this is all probably worth it to them. But as they get bigger and more popular, it’s a lot of pressure to make and do things that will please millions of people in different markets across the world. I imagine it must make them question their work decisions a lot more and maybe take fewer risks. In this 2019 Paper Magazine interview they all say they feel pressure to be perfect in their performance, and Jungkook says that pressure of perfection is “always there.”

BTS has 38.5 million Twitter followers. The thought of 38.5 million people seeing a random thought I post on Twitter turns my stomach in a knot. Maybe at some point the number of fans gets so unfathomable you just can’t think about it, but I can’t imagine the pressure really ever goes away.

Fan Pressure

Maybe the most interesting part of this Billboard article for me was the part where music industry analyst Mark Mulligan was quoted as saying that HYBE was “very smart in understanding that the future of music needs to look at the present — that music is what people use to identify themselves.” And: “Outside of Korea…there was a whole generation of teenagers who just knew that there was a hole in their musical soul. They knew something was missing, but they didn’t know what it was. And then, suddenly, [BTS] comes along, and they say, ‘This makes sense. I can say who I am through being a fan of this band.’”

Mulligan is obviously wrong that BTS fans are just teenagers. I would argue that I have way more holes in my soul now than I did when I was a teenager. But regardless, I think he’s on the right track about the identity stuff.

You often see people online who identify as a fan of a specific thing. All K-pop groups have a name for their fan base (Army, Shawols, Monbebe, etc.), and you see this with fans of US artists, too (the Beyhive, Little Monsters, Beliebers, etc.).

Humans are group animals. Yes, US socio-economic structures are hyperindividualistic, but people are always seeking out community in spite of this. Those of us in the US framework think of “identity” as personal, but most of our identity categories are ultimately group categories. Some parts of our identity aren’t things we choose, and we get forced by outside factors into some identities (i.e., we get othered). But some things we identify with are things we do choose. Like being in a fandom.

I think this can be risky. When something you like becomes something you personally identify with, then you’re more likely to get defensive toward any kind of critique, to gatekeep other fans (anything from trying to enforce your ideas of the “right” way to be a fan to snobbery à la the hipster), and to act in ways that are exclusionary. This certainly happens within other types of identity communities, too. But when you identify as a fan of a musical group or an actor or a film series, your identity is then dependent on other people (the entertainers), but also on business decisions made by companies who want to profit off you and the rest of the world. (Speaking from experience, this gets uncomfortable when you’re a superhero comic book fan.)

In the case of a musician or group, there’s less of a buffer between your identity as a fan and another human being, who has their own personal, multifaceted, human identity as more than just a performer. RM touched on this aspect of his work in a July 2021 Weverse Magazine interview, describing it as “a sort of business — a person-to-person kind of business.” He goes on to say that this is why he feels obligated to be honest when communicating to fans.

It’s different when you’re a fan of something fictional. Deadpool only exists for me as a consumer. Deadpool isn’t going to suffer an identity crisis if I claim being his fan as part of my identity. (This is a bad example, because Deadpool frequently breaks the fourth wall, but you get my point.)

So what’s interesting to me here is the case of the singer, the actor, the idol. Because if people start to identify themselves as your fan, then their identity is tied up with you. And your existence is tied up with them.

And that has to feel weird for the famous person.

BTS occasionally talks about how their celebrity side is different from their “normal” self — Jin, for example, has said he’s more cheerful when he’s doing something for work as BTS Jin. Jimin has said he doesn’t know whether to separate the celebrity persona from himself at all.

Of course this just leads me to more questions about this experience. And I can’t really say much beyond this, because I have no idea what it feels like for the celebrity. And I think BTS are in a pretty unique situation, even among other famous people.

I’m pretty sure it would make me question my “self,” who I am independent of my work. And if I was a member of a K-pop group that I had been working ungodly hours for over the course of a decade during my prime adult developmental years, I think I’d probably have an identity crisis every other day. I think I would never feel sure that I knew how to make choices for my own best interest. I think I wouldn’t know what my best interests even were or how to set boundaries to protect myself. I think I’d be filled with doubt. I think I’d have to fight the urge to rebel. I think I might even feel untethered to reality.

But that’s just speculation.

Someone put me in touch with RM so I can ask.

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Heidi S.

PhD in philosophy | Feminist | Anarchist | Pop culture junkie | Kpop listener | Actually Autistic