By Terrance Turner
May 31, 2022
At today’s White House press briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had a surprise.
“Today, on the final day of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’m excited to welcome some special guests to the briefing room today: pop phenom BTS,” said Jean-Pierre. “While many of you know BTS as Grammy-nominated international icons, they also play an important role as youth ambassadors promoting a message of respect and positivity. After this briefing, they will join President Biden in a discussion about Asian inclusion, representation and diversity, as well as addressing anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination.” (Asian-American hate crimes went up 339% in 2021, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.)
“As many of you know, the president has led a historic whole-of-government approach to combat racism, xenophobia and intolerance facing AANHPI communities.” (More than 10,000 hate incidents against AAPI persons were reported to advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate between March 19, 2020, and December 31, 2021.) “Beginning his first week in office, he issued a presidential memorandum leveraging the power of the federal government to stand against this hate. The President also signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into law, signed an executive order to reestablish the White House initiative on Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and funded critical research to prevent and address xenophobia against AA and NHPI communities,” Jean-Pierre said.
“So, without further ado, I will let the band take it from here. They’re going to each speak; we have an interpreter somewhere here,” she said. “So they’ll each speak first, and then the interpreter will come back up and interpret what they just said. They’re not going to take any questions; they’re just going to come here and give some words and then we’ll start the briefing. Thank you.”
Group leader and rapper Rap Monster delivered his remarks in English (the only group member to do so). “It is a great honor to be invited to the White House today to discuss the important issues of anti-Asian hate crimes, Asian inclusion, and diversity.”
The other six members spoke at the podium in Korean, and then an interpreter translated. BTS group member Jin said: “Since today’s the last day of AANHPI heritage month, we join the White House to stand with the AANHPI community and to celebrate.” Ji-min said: “We were devastated by the recent search of hate crimes, including Asian American hate crimes. So to put a stop to this and support the cause, we’d like to take this opportunity to voice ourselves once again.” J-Hope said: “We are here today thanks to our Army — our fans worldwide who have different nationalities and cultures and use different languages. We are truly and always grateful.”
BTS member Jungkook said: “We still feel surprised that music created by South Korean artists reaches so many people around the world, transcending languages and cultural barriers. We believe music is always an amazing and wonderful unifier of all things.” Suga said: “It’s not wrong to be different. I think equality begins when we open up and embrace all of our differences.” V said: “Everyone has their own history. We hope today is one step forward to respecting and understanding each and every one as a valuable person.”
The group formed in 2010 and debuted in 2013 under Big Hit Entertainment, a South Korean entertainment company. Originally a hip hop group, the band’s music style has since expanded to include a wide range of styles, making them a popular example of what is known as “K-pop”. (Korean popular music incorporates genres like rap, rock and techno music.)
According to Billboard, the group debuted in June 2013 with their album 2 Cool 4 Skool. In November they won their first major award, being recognized as Best New Artist at South Korea’s Melon Music Awards. They released three more albums in the year 2014 (!!!) before starting a new era in 2015.
The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part I shifted the group’s sound from hip hop to more diverse styles, aiming to capture the beauty and anxiousness of youth. “The most beautiful moment in life seemed like the definition of youth,” group member Rap Monster said in an interview. “I’m not sure what youth is, but I think it’s the moment I miss the most and think it’s the most beautiful.” Suga added: “I think the beautiful moment has yet to come.”
Indeed. The Most Beautiful Moment became something of a breakthrough. The lead single “I Need U” won first place on “The Show”, a weekly music show on SBS MTV (the South Korean version of MTV). It was the group’s first time taking first place on the program. The Most Beautiful Moment in LIfe, Part II became their first album to debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart (at No. 171).
In 2016, their album Wings landed at No. 26 on the chart, the highest-charting K-pop album to date. The next year, BTS received the top social artist award at the Billboard Music Awards. When their album Love Yourself: Her was released in Sept. 2017, it sold over a million copies and became the highest-ever Korean album ever on the Billboard 200, hitting No. 7. But the next year would take them to even greater heights.
In May 2018, BTS’ album Love Yourself: Tear went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. BTS became the only K-pop act ever to hit number one on the Billboard 200 (which measures the most popular records in the United States), according to Forbes. Their followup Love Yourself: Answer also topped the album chart. So did their next album, which took their sound in yet another new direction.
In April 2019, BTS released Map of the Soul: Persona, inspired by the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, who wrote about extroverts, introverts and the power of the unconscious. Dr. Murray Stein (at the Jung Institute) condensed Jung’s theories into a primer for students. That book — Jung’s Map of the Soul — became the inspiration for BTS’ new album. “A couple of months ago, a Japanese student told me he’d discovered that the BTS website was recommending my book,” Stein told the BBC in 2019. “Then about a month ago [in March], hthe same wstudent told me they were coming out with a new abum titled Map of The Soul: Persona. I was floored.
According to the BBC, “BTS’s lyrics delved into Jungian concepts of the psyche, ego and collective unconscious — with a particular focus on the idea of Persona.” Dr. Stein describes the concept: “Persona is a reference to the theatre. It’s the Latin word for the masks actos wore on the stage — and we all put on masks, in a sense, when we go out in public.” In the album’s opening track, Kim Nam-Joon raps (in Korean): “Who am I? is the question I’ve had all my life/And I’ll probably never find the answer.”
The album became their third straight number one album on the Billboard charts. And it made history, as Map of the Soul: Persona became the first Korean-language album to hit No. 1 in both Australia and the United Kingdom. It later became the best-selling record ever in South Korea, selling over three million copies in less than a month. And when the subsequent Map of the Soul: 7 debuted in 2020, it sold over four million copies in just nine days after its release. The lead single “Black Swan” was accompanied by a dramatic music video, an “art film” performed by MN Dance Company:
In 2020, BTS scored its biggest hit yet with “Dynamite,” its first English-language single. Written by David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, the song fit everything the group was searching for: fun, exciting, uptempo. “I remember having a realy special feeling towards this song, just because I knew it was instant; it was high energy,” Agombar said in an interview with Music Business Worldwide. “I knew it sounded like a worldwide hit.”
It was. Released in August 2020, the song rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard 100, making it their first number-one single in America. BTS became the first South Korean group ever to top the Billboard singles chart. The song reigned at number one for two weeks before slipping to No. 2, but then jumped back to No. 1 afterward. It was the group’s seventh number one in South Korea and also topped the charts in Japan.
The music video for “Dynamite” was the most-viewed premiere in the platform’s history; it broke YouTube’s record for most views on a music video in 24 hours. In the end, “Dynamite” went platinum, becoming America’s best-selling digital song of 2020, and earned BTS a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
According to CNBC, today’s briefing drove more than 310,000 simultaneous viewers to tune into a livestream of the press briefing on the White House’s YouTube channel.