KUALA LUMPUR: Twenty years ago, if someone had said South Korean music was going to be the next big thing in youth culture, they would have been laughed at.
Fast forward to today and aspects of Korean culture can be found everywhere in Malaysia, over 4,000km away from South Korea.
No shopping mall is complete without a Korean restaurant, with Korean electronics and products being sold and the latest episodes of K-dramas a frequent topic of discussion.
But one of the most prominent examples of South Korean cultural influence is K-pop, the musical style that has won fans in Malaysia and the rest of the world.
And among K-pop groups, the one that stands above the rest is certainly BTS.
BTS, Bangtan Sonyeondan in Korean or Beyond the Scene in English, is a seven-member boyband that first made its name in 2013.
Since then, the band has grown a massive and very loyal fanbase numbering over 22 million, simply called, “ARMY”.
Band leader Kim Nam-joon, who goes by the name RM, was even invited to address the UN General Assembly last year, talking to young people about overcoming their insecurities.
The band has yet to perform live in Malaysia, but it has visited the country on several occasions, raising the hope it may hold a concert here one day when it is safe to do so.
But what is it that brings BTS’ fans together? Is it the handsome, dashing looks of its members? Or the melodious tunes the band produces? How did they become so influential?
A recent publication titled, I am ARMY: It’s Time to Begin, explores the stories of nine fans from around the world and gives an insight into how the band captivated the public imagination.
Among the authors is Malaysian Lily Low, who told FMT how she fell in love with BTS.
Her first exposure to BTS’ music was when she chanced on a mixtape called mono, the product of RM. Despite not understanding Korean, there was something about the music that appealed to her.
“What surprised me about listening to mono was how comforted I felt,” she wrote. “Somehow, the style of music and RM’s unique way of transitioning from rapping into singing (and vice versa) really calmed me down.”
It helped that the personality of the band was genuine. At one point the band members agreed that they wished to be sincere in their words and actions and said that music breaks down barriers.
It was this sincerity that made Low an avid admirer of BTS, adding to the ever-growing ARMY.
Other factors include their creative music videos, intricate choreography and positive messages.
The members of BTS are regularly directly involved in writing the lyrics of the songs, which often offer comfort and escapism to fans.
K-pop’s success on the international stage did not come overnight, it is the result of a long and gradual journey.
And considering the sheer number of K-pop groups that had gone before BTS and followed in its footsteps, what makes the band stand out so much?
On Oct 13, according to Low, BTS became the first South Korean act to occupy the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, an unprecedented achievement.
Low says she is not too familiar with the whole K-pop genre, but that she is intrigued by the relationship between BTS and its ARMY.
“BTS has been able to reach people from all over the world, all backgrounds, ages and careers,” she said.
“For its recent online concert, Map of the Soul ON:E, it was revealed that there were viewers from 191 countries!”
It was this love for BTS that brought a posse of fans together to chronicle their tales of how they fell in love with the band.
“I Am ARMY: It’s Time To Begin is a collection of personal essays by nine writers from the US, South Africa, Malaysia, Brunei and Australia,” said Low.
Through these stories, perhaps readers can relate or feel less alone in their circumstances, she said.
“Yet, some of the themes of our stories do overlap, as we unite through our human struggles and a love for something greater than ourselves.
After all, as RM said, ‘Love is the key for the reconciliation and integration of all of society’.”
I Am ARMY: It’s Time to Begin can be purchased online here.