At first glance, BTS and the concept of feminism (equal rights for women) seem like an unusual pairing. Yet, the more I delved into the history of BTS and their varied musical phases, I discovered a point of convergence with today’s modern feminism (equality movement). The band, comprised of seven men, has over the past 8 years explored a wide-range of music, but at the end of all that musical experimentation and identity search, BTS remained a constant, propelling force in modern music — and much of that success is owed to one key ingredient: BTS shifted away from writing songs about women to writing songs for women, which aligns with the popular saying: “know your audience.” BTS had an awakening or realization at some point around 2015 that their primary audience was women and they needed to appeal to and market to that audience, and it became a question of: adapt or die? BTS adapted quickly and successfully, and stands now as the biggest, most popular band on the planet. Why? Because BTS recognized it needed a growing female audience to succeed.
One of the secrets of today’s commercial world is how much of it is aimed at women. Women are the primary consumers in the marketplace. Women may only earn $.80 for every $1.00 a man makes, but when it comes to buying-power, women are in control of how money is spent — whether it is money they earn for themselves or earned by a male provider. Women decide what food and household products are purchased. Women decide what clothes children, spouses and relatives wear. Women influence other women and recommend more products. Women also go to movies and pay for entertainment more than men. Women travel for leisure and pleasure more than men. With women already comprising over 52% of the world’s population, they are the dominant sex in sheer numbers alone. It is just less obvious that women control the purse-strings in the financial world. Wall Street, politics and the upper echelon of most businesses and corporations are run by men. Yet, it is really how women allow money to be spent that controls what succeeds and what does not succeed.
Big name corporate brands are always aimed at women: fashion, beauty, travel, household goods, food, education, and entertainment. Even advertising of products for men is usually aimed directly at women who buy those products or who allow men in their households to purchase those items. Women are the gatekeepers to how money gets spent. Thus, it makes sense to advertise products and services to women; and the music industry is no different. To survive, any musician must find a way to appeal to women. After all, women will be the ones buying concert tickets, buying and downloading music and, more frequently, the ones who buy related merchandise. Men typically do not attend concerts on their own. They go with women and women decide who they will be seeing in concert and will be the most swayed to purchase products at the venues or go online to seek out related merchandise and to purchase music for home, work and leisure use.
Entertainment has previously been dominated by men since the dawn of time, but increasingly, in these modern times, that is changing. The phrase “The Future Is Female” has never been more timely and apt. From the overt rise of feminism (the equal rights movement) in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the recent 2017 “Me Too” movement and its long-reaching ripple-effects at unmasking and naming abusers in the workplace — in particular, spotlighting the rampant abuse in the entertainment realm that had been previously always been swept under the carpet and kept hidden. Even the most recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States that then spread globally as women organized and came together and visibly began demanding change, as well as the most recent U.S. presidential election also revolved around women — as it became evident that women are determined to no longer be silent or ignored in the political and socio-economic worlds. Women are now demanding seats at the table in business and in politics — and in Hollywood and entertainment realms.
The music industry is not exempt from this wave of women demanding change, accountability and representation. Yet, for the band BTS, they came to the realization earlier than most in today’s music industry. BTS began as a hip-hop/rap band with a very dominant gangsta-street look that they portrayed in their earliest videos and appearances when the band debuted in 2013, which can be seen in their official music videos: “BTS No More Dream Teaser 1” (June 2013), “No More Dream” (June 2013), “We Are Bulletproof, pt. 2” (July 2013). BTS leaned heavily into a pro-male stance and took a hardline at writing lyrics about women in order to cater to the predominant male audience that it was seeking, such as in the songs: “If I Ruled The World,” “Miss Right,” “Intro: Skool Luv Affair,” “Where You From,” “Look Here,” and “War Of Hormone.” But that is nearly where the band did not succeed. BTS did not recognize that behind every man tends to stand a woman: a girlfriend, wife, life-partner, sister, mother, grandmother. Almost always there is a woman in man’s life that he defers to when it comes to music. Women decide which music is played in the home, workplace, car, or in recreation and leisure activities. So songs that have lyrics that are about women — that alienate women or portray women in a less flattering light — is not the way to get female approval. BTS’ initial sound and image succeeded in reaching their core audience of young men. But that was a smaller money-generating world than they had anticipated. BTS and their management company Big Hit Entertainment had envisioned reaching a vast, worldwide male audience. But, in 2013 through 2015, the world was changing fast and BTS had to move quickly to survive in the new world order.
Women have always been the biggest consumers and spenders in music. BTS just needed to come to the realization that it needed women for their career longevity, sustainability and profitability. Women control the money. So BTS had to find a way to ensure that their music and performances were attracting women. BTS’ image had to be modified and quickly, and their songs had to stop marginalizing women and start appealing to women. In 2016, for a band made up of seven young men ages 18 to 22, that was a little outside their scope of familiarity as young men tend to not write songs for women. They are thinking only from their own perspective. What then happened is nothing short of miraculous — BTS made significant changes to revamp their image, songs and music to appeal to women. Fortunately, they were very attractive young men and it only took changing hair styles, clothing choices and changing their dance routines and lyrics to shift towards a more female-friendly presentation that would attract women to their concerts and their music. BTS already had a devoted following of female fans that showed up early when they debuted, but to expand to a much larger female audience, changes were adopted.
The 2015 to 2016 period for BTS was a time of growing-pains as they worked to retain their core audience and attract a larger audience of women. In addition to their own personal image changes, BTS also reached out to and began working with women as lyricists, producers and collaborators on their songs. One of the first women that I could find listed on their songs was Samantha Harper, who helped co-write the song “Save Me” on BTS’ 2016 album entitled “The Most Beautiful Moment In Life: Young Forever” (LISTEN HERE). This appears to sync up with the time period in which the band began changing the physical appearance of the members to more varied hair colors, eye colors, clothing, and shifting from a gangsta street-wear image to more boyfriend-style image. BTS was actively courting women. Best of all, women noticed and showed up. “BTS fever” quickly swept across social media like a firestorm. Women are the dominant users of social media and, thus, they wield power on the internet. With the core female fans already organized as the BTS official fanbase known as ARMY (which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), recruiting more women was easy. Women are social media savvy and take recommendations by other women seriously — especially if that recommendation comes accompanied with a photo showing off any one of the attractive young men from BTS. Recommendations and photos will get women to check a band or song out, but then the music has to stand on its own. This is where the new songs and lyrics were essential. It had to hook a wider female audience. Without a sound and lyrics that appealed to women, women would tune-in and then would tune-out. So what makes women stay? Lyrics and a sound that speaks to a woman’s soul.
This is where the BTS magic comes in — somehow they found a way to merge their own unique hip-hop/rap music into some of the most gorgeous melodies and ballads in modern music, which industry professionals have dubbed “fusion music” because BTS weaves in elements of hip-hop, R&B, rock, orchestral strings, electronic dance music, moombahton, Neo-soul, emo-rap, nu-disco, funk, pop-rock and pop-rap. That takes craftsmanship. Asking 18-to-22 year olds to multi-layer their songs and music is a high bar. It was with the help of strategic producers and lyricists that aided in that pivotal transition. 2016 does indeed seem to be the year that different producers and lyricists were brought in to help adapt the BTS music and songs. BTS then started to work with women lyricists, so that by 2018 nearly half of its songs had women contributing as writers and producers. For the BTS album “Love Yourself: Answer” (LISTEN HERE), 11 out of the 16 songs listed women as contributing writers and for “Map of The Soul: 7” (LISTEN HERE), 10 out of the 20 songs had women listed as contributors. Most notably, BTS also recorded the hit songs “Idol” featuring Nicki Minaj (2018, “Love Yourself: Answer” album), “Boy With Luv” featuring Halsey (2020, “Map Of The Soul: 7” album), “ON” featuring Sia (2020, “Map Of The Soul: 7” album), “Dream Glow” featuring Charli XCX (2019, “BTS World Original Soundtrack” album), and “A Brand New Day” featuring Zara Larsson (2019, “BTS World Original Soundtrack” album).
Diversifying BTS’ songs and sound was key. Big Hit Entertainment began expanding the musical components necessary to ensure BTS would survive and thrive — and it worked. 2016 proved to be a break-out year for BTS. It secured an alliance with Universal, Columbia and Sony Entertainment to help promote and market BTS overseas to the U.S. markets and began limited appearances at small venues and concerts and on a variety of television shows in the United States. Perhaps to their own surprise, BTS was a massive hit. Venues were selling out. Dates were added to the number of venue locations and still selling out. What had changed? The whole world was in the middle of changing. 2016 was supposed to be the year that women came to power in the United States. Hilary Clinton was considered to be a lock for the next presidency. Women were getting ready for their day to rule and they were embracing music and entertainment that made them feel seen and empowered. BTS’ shift from “music about women” to “music for women,” was right at the forefront and, add in the fact that they were incredibly good-looking, women happily showed up to BTS performance venues to support the band who had traveled across the globe to entertain them.
While 2016 ended up discouraging for women after losing the presidency in the United States, women were no longer content to sit back and be quiet and let the centuries of inequality and status quo to continue. The Women’s March in early 2017 was just a prelude to what would be unleashed by the end of 2017 as the “Me Too” era erupted, not just in the United States, but across the globe. “Me Too” was not just an issue for women in the U.S., it was a global rallying-cry — and billions of women responded. BTS were in a unique position at the start of 2017 and continuing through 2017, they had already begun their transformation into advocating on behalf of pro-feminist and pro-female empowerment (equal rights). Learning from their past with women speaking up about the lyrics and portrayal of women in BTS’ 2014 music video “War Of Hormone” and 2014 video “Boy In Luv,” BTS willingly began listening to women about why such lyrics and portrayals were considered chauvinistic and misogynistic. BTS, through their management company Big Hit Entertainment, even issued a formal apology on July 7, 2016.
In fact, BTS was determined to learn from their own past view of women and began looking for ways to show support for women and under-represented groups, using their influence and strong fanbase ARMY to support racial equality and LBGTQIA equality, as well as equality for women. This pro-equality stance along with BTS’ “Love Myself” message got the band invited to speak as UNICEF Ambassadors in 2017 in support of UNICEF’s #ENDviolence campaign, and to speak before the United Nations for “Generation Unlimited” in September 2018 and again in September 2020. Suddenly, BTS was the group that the world was looking to as an example of learning, self-educating, and standing up as an advocate for better treatment (equal rights) of women, minorities and persecuted groups. This was not just a PR-move, the BTS members seemed genuinely moved to change and do better. They appreciated being held accountable and wanted to set a better example so other men and/or women could do the same.
The willingness to admit their wrongs and failings, learning from those mistakes, and then making concrete and identifiable changes is what really propelled BTS onto a large world-stage. They were not just a talented singing and performing group of young men, they were a movement — a well-organized movement supported by fans from every nation around the globe. The global appeal and global audience is what really gave BTS the foundation they needed to keep pushing themselves further in their career and to get the recognition they craved for their hard work. While award-recognition and peer-recognition was slow to come, in the intervening 5 years since 2015, BTS kept moving forward. They kept releasing albums, writing and recording music, learning and crafting, and engaging with their exponentially-increasing fanbase as much as possible. There is a phrase that I like to use that works in describing the symbiotic relationship between performers and their fans, it is called: “feed the fans.” All it takes to keep a fanbase happy is to regularly feed it behind-the-scenes information, video clips and interviews. The more you “feed your fans,” the more they grow. BTS is an expert at this.
Early on, in late 2012, with the prodding and support of Big Hit Entertainment, the band members were encouraged to establish a joint Twitter account and set up regular postings on Vlive, and later on the WeVerse social media platform (starting June 2019) to get the core fans involved and engaged in their lives and work. It was a way of keep the fans close and fully invested in every step of the BTS members personal and professional lives. This seeming transparency and engagement is highly addictive, and at this point, 8 years later, it is a finely-tuned, well-oiled running publicity machine. With a core of 30 million active users and another 100 million ARMY fans, which keeps growing daily, BTS has at their fingertips an actively-engaged fanbase that will retweet, stream, and recruit more fans.
So for the time period of 2016 through 2020, that 4 year period was a key time period of growth, as BTS began to inspire and motivate teens and 20-something through 30-something fans to get active, get loud, and make a difference to respect and support women, minorities, LBGTQIA individuals, and promote positive treatment of those groups. By early 2020, BTS was poised for world domination. They released their album “Map Of the Soul: 7” in February to much acclaim and were about to embark on a world tour that would extend through the end of 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shut the entire world down in early March 2020. BTS’ world tour was canceled and the band’s plans for world domination seemed to evaporate in an instant. But, choosing to be undefeated, BTS took on the challenge of creating new music to release. That resulted in the release of their first all-English, Grammy-nominated hit single “Dynamite” in August 2020. “Dynamite” immediately landed on the Number 1 spot on the Billboard Top 100 Hot List and propelled the band in a trajectory that even they could not have anticipated. The upbeat song “Dynamite” and MV captured the world’s attention, and better yet, the U.S. audience’s attention.
Sales for “Dynamite” quickly reached over 1 million sales in the U.S. alone. Suddenly, BTS’ momentum was back and rolling even faster than before. With a handful of well-place video appearances on U.S. television shows like The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, The Late Late Show With James Corden, Good Morning America, the MTV Movie Video Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards, iHeart Radio Music Festival, TIME’s Entertainer Of The Year special, and their own streaming concert for “Map Of the Soul: 7” ON:E in October 2020, BTS was a global phenomenon that everyone wanted to see perform. Magazine covers and features in Variety, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and TIME magazine were selling out within hours and multiple reprints had to be ordered.
Suddenly, the world could not get enough of BTS. Their 2020 “world domination” plan seemed to have happened in spite of the pandemic derailing their 2020 world tour. The desire for music that “spoke to the soul” was in high demand and BTS’ sound and lyrics was the perfect fit for that global yearning. Sales of BTS’ prior catalogue of songs and albums started spiking, streaming numbers for their songs were in the hundreds of millions and some in the billions. Album sales went from a 7-year cumulative total of 9 million to 24 million album sales in one year. Imagine: 14 million more albums sold in one year when the prior years had not even reach one million in sales a year. BTS had ignited a fascination and obsession across the globe, and not even a pandemic was could extinguish that flame.
Why BTS? Because the band understood that it needed women. It made the needed course-correction, made the necessary apology, and learned from their previous misconceptions. Better yet, BTS has embraced women into their audience and were working with women to create songs and music that appeal to women. Choosing women turned out to be the one thing that ensured BTS succeeded where other bands tended to stall and plateau. BTS understood that just “looking good for women” was not enough. Image always matters, but what the music says to women can make-or-break a band’s success. BTS’ willingness to change, to adapt, to recognize and appreciate women as their core audience helped the band reach a level that would never have been attained without women embracing their music and promoting their music — proving that women are the consumers that drive a band’s success.
This, in my mind, makes BTS one of the most feminist (equal rights) bands on the planet. It is why when I first heard their music in June 2020, my brain felt like it had exploded and my heart leapt with joy. Why? Because I do not listen to male musicians and their music that does not recognize women as their audience and alienates women more than it attracts women. Now, in context, my first introduction to BTS was through their 2020 album “Map Of the Soul: 7” quickly followed by the single “Dynamite” and then followed by their November 2020 album “BE.” All of these songs are all exceptionally female-friendly and soul-soothing. The fact that I fell under the band’s spell so fast amazed even my family members since I am the hardest to sell on male-dominated music. I can hear all the “you fell for the hot guys in the band” come-backs right now, but just take a look at any male band out in the music scene. They are all comprised of “hot” men. So good looks only go so far. To persuade a consumer like me, you have to have music that appeals or I am not buying it. Yet I have gone on to purchase and listen to the entire discography of albums and singles that BTS has released in the past 8 years. Why? Because I wanted to find out where they came from. Albums like “BE” and “Map Of the Soul: 7” are too well-crafted and composed to have just appeared out of the ether. Curiosity and interest drove me to explore the band’s long history of music and its unique evolution. BTS’ history of where they started to where they ended up today is fascinating. It is nothing short of miraculous and quite an achievement that is a testament to the tenacity of the seven members who were determined to create and perform on their own terms and yet willing to learn and change to be more inclusive and aware of the audience that they are creating for.
Feminism (equal rights) is not just about being born to believe women are equal and deserve to be treated with respect. Feminism (equal rights) is also when someone learns and changes to understand that women are equal and should be respected. If one chooses to change, we should applaud that change and embrace them. BTS members grew up at a time and in a culture where women were perhaps not treated as equals or with respect, and to overcome that cultural and historical bias is quite a feat. Thus, just as BTS chose to embrace feminism (equal rights) and be an advocate for women and under-represented groups, we should embrace BTS as they have changed.
With an open-mind and a willingness to change — all while creating some of the most beautiful music and songs that I have ever heard — BTS encapsulates what I see as modern feminism (equal rights movement). I marvel at who BTS is today and how far they have come. They are world-class entertainers and consistently deliver performances that delight and entertain fans from every country across the world. Why? Because they are that talented. They sing, they dance, they are beautiful and magnificent. But even if we were not able to see all that, we would still hear their songs and music and be awed. BTS has raised the bar for musical art and performance art as they are not content to be mere musicians and performers — the BTS members are artists. Yet, in addition to being artists, BTS should also be recognized for their personal growth and the power they have chosen to wield to help women and the under-represented. BTS did not have to do that, but they chose to do that.
It is an honor to be a fan of BTS’ music and work. It is an honor to watch BTS perform. It is an even bigger honor to watch BTS lead by example for an entire world of young people looking to them as role-models and learning from them. I want to live in a world where the world embraces “the future is female,” and having watched BTS do just that, I am hopeful that it is attainable. That is a world I want to live in.
(This article was first published at Seat42F, December 2020.)
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