By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.
This week, I spoke to Lenika Cruz, a culture editor at The Atlantic, who wrote BTS’s ‘Dynamite’ Could Upend the Music Industry. Here's what I wrote about it:
K-pop superstars BTS have become simply pop superstars BTS, releasing their first single to get serious radio play, and rocketing to the top of the U.S. charts that structurally don’t favor songs by artists who sing in another language. The single, “Dynamite,” has original English lyrics and grew to 101.1 million views within 24 hours, the highest ever for a music video on YouTube. But it’s the radio play that’s new: BTS’ Korean-language hits like “Boy With Luv” and “ON.” did not see the radio play that the songs would be expected to see given their streaming and sales performance, and given that FM spins are a factor in calculating the Hot 100 they had a harder time getting to No. 1.
I loved this story because the BTS phenomenon is deeply fascinating to me. A few weeks ago when I interviewed Maria Sherman about her book about boy bands in general, we were only able to touch on the largest musical act on the planet right now. Cruz’s story was a deeply interesting take about what it takes to succeed on the American music charts and why that’s different than succeeding in music, a situation where what’s measured and the measurement is disjointed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You are an editor for The Atlantic, and you write a lot about BTS and the impact that they've had on you. You wrote an article a little while ago about how you were an unlikely fan. Want to start from the beginning here?
This basically starts April 2019, I was covering SNL for work. I was going to edit a piece and I figured I'd tune in and just watch the same episode so that I could discuss angles with the writer later. And I was not planning to tune in to watch BTS or anything like that, and I didn't know much about them at all. I had seen stuff online about the episode being like, "Oh, this K-pop group, BTS, is going to be performing, they're the first K-pop group to perform on the show. It's a big deal. Their fans are really excited." And I was like, "OK, interesting." And being on Twitter, I just saw some of the discussion and I saw the intensity of the fan anticipation and didn't think much of it until I actually watched the episode and saw their performance.
I don't know what I was expecting, but it made me want to watch more of their videos. I was interested in their choreography and the fact that there was this group that, even though I was a culture editor, I had not actually heard much about and seen much written about in mainstream outlets that I follow. Which I guess is partly my own fault. Then, just as I became a fan, I started noticing the ways in which this group was sort of talked about differently than other ones in large part because of them being Korean, being a group of seven Asian men performing in Korean and still attaining popularity worldwide. My own journey was just very down the rabbit hole, watching a ton of YouTube videos, not really having anyone to talk to about it in my own life and people regarding me with confusion and being like, "What's going on with you? You're not a boy band fan."
What I ended up realizing was just how much complexity and how much work goes into being a fan. Certainly, there are a lot of casual fans of the group but the BTS fandom, which is known as the BTS A.R.M.Y, I was so impressed by how much they take it upon themselves to learn about how things like the Billboard charts work, reaching out to different radio stations across the country and asking them to play BTS songs, following YouTube and looking at streaming numbers on Spotify and keeping track of all the records. It's definitely intimidating, I think from an outside perspective. And even myself, as a fan, I would not consider myself nearly the expert. But that's how these other fans are when it comes to understanding the intricacies of the music charts and just knowing the history of how they've charted and all that. I didn't know that fans cared so much about these things.
Intimidating is a great word.
It is wild to see a fan base get actively so involved in understanding the mechanics of fame. You didn't really see other pop stars and pop acts actively try to leverage their people onto the charts, or am I wrong?
I realize I have some BTS blinders on, one of my colleagues, Kaitlyn Tiffany, she is a big One Direction fan. And she's working on a book about them and kind of talking about how 10 years ago they were one of the first groups where their fandom in the US used their social media power to help their favorite artists break through and get attention. There are definitely other groups, certainly throughout K-pop, and there are obviously other fandoms of major artists — Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift — who do follow these things.
But I guess I would say with BTS, what is different is there's an awareness of the kind of odds against them being an international group and not performing in English. So there's just a greater attention to how they're treated differently than some of their peers and how much of that is reasonable and how much of that might be bias. Again, I can only speak to my own experiences, and I realized that fandom is going to be an inherently intense thing. I would say that I'm not the expert that some of my fellow fans are, who are not even journalists and have just taken it upon themselves to understand how these things work. And it's very impressive.
You wrote an article earlier this month about basically why “Dynamite” hit in a way that other songs had not. And you wrote that US radio generally doesn't really play a lot of non-English pop, and that's kind of the key metric to get onto the Billboard chart.
What goes into getting a song on the Billboard chart and why has BTS, regardless of the fact that they are a global juggernaut, had not had a number one yet?
There are three different main factors at play, at least for the Billboard Hot 100. It's a combination of streaming numbers, purchases, and radio play. And they're all weighted differently.
In the case of BTS, the group has always done well in terms of purchases because you'll often see fans using the enormity of the fandom, their sheer size, to buy music and buy MP3s. I would say where things are not as strong is in the streaming compared to some other groups, and then also in the radio play area. That has been a consistent thing from the beginning. I've been shocked by how many people I've heard from who said like, "Oh yeah, I heard “Dynamite” on the radio," and I can count that maybe I heard the BTS last huge song, "Boy With Luv" maybe once or twice on the radio organically.
"Dynamite" has actually been seeing a much greater push and is actually appearing on some of the US radio play charts in a way that none of BTS’ previous songs had really broken through. It doesn't feel controversial to say that that's because the song is in English. And certainly the fact that it's in English, you've been seeing Columbia records promoting the song differently, seeing even media coverage of the song being more intense and saying that this is BTS' first English language single and kind of a hype around that. That, combined with seeing the song being performed on TV a lot on different shows — America's Got Talent, the VMAs — that all collectively has helped “Dynamite” break through.
You can also look to the fact that this is the most popular BTS has ever been just because this is the longest they've been around. Their last album Map of the Soul:7 came out earlier this year in February, and two of the singles from that record broke through on the Billboard Hot 100, though lower on the chart. “Black Swan” broke through at 50 something and immediately fell off the chart the next week, and then their single, “ON,” broke through at four and then stayed on the next week, but then fell to 60-something and then in the third week, disappeared off the charts.
What was so different with “Dynamite” was that it debuted at number one, which was the first time for a Korean-language song to do that, and then stayed at number one for the second week. It didn't have that gigantic drop that BTS' songs usually do where for the first week, you see this intensity that helps it achieve some higher number and then loses that momentum the next week. You had it being it number one one week, number one again the second week, and beating “WAP,” which is such a huge song. I want to give that song credit, it's a huge viral hit and you would see a lot of BTS fans being like, "Ah, I had to force myself out to stream “WAP” because I don't want it to compete, but I really love that song."
It went up against this enormously popular song for two weeks in a row, and then fell this past week to number two, which a lot of fans were really happy that it only felt by one spot. This seems to be the start of longevity for the song. I realize that might sound premature, but it's really significant for this group which has traditionally seen a lot of those plummets and then quickly leaving the charts. It suggests that the song has resonated beyond the intense fandom that is invested in streaming and purchasing, and has actually caught hold with what would be referred to as the general public. Spotify announced that the release of “Dynamite” sparked a 300 percent increase in the number of people listening to BTS for the first time on Spotify.
Yeah, which is enormous. I wrote about this in my piece, you might see people listening to “Dynamite” for the first time, liking the song and then getting into their other music, which is not in English. Maybe that makes it less intimidating for people to listen to songs that they don't understand.
You get into kind of a bittersweet feeling though, among some of the more long time... Again, it does kind of suck that this very much confirmed a lot of the worst fears, the fear that they needed to sing in English in order to get to number one. And that there's worry you allude to that this could provoke them into changing the way that the band goes about it. Again, the music industry is kind of notorious for having very perilous carrot and sticks and for better or worse, the English hit is the one that did hit.
Yeah, absolutely. The bittersweetness that I described in that story was something I wasn't even consciously really thinking of. And when I was talking with my editor, she pointed out like, "Oh, there seems to be this conflicted feeling and on the part of the fandom." I felt this and I was so caught up in wanting to be happy about this and celebrating this milestone, but it does make me kind of sad. Like you said, the success of “Dynamite” makes sense to a lot of fans.
We know on some level that if BTS sung entirely English, that they would be much more accepted and played on the radio and just treated differently in Western media and in American music in general. Seeing the success of the song, which I know some fans had mixed feelings about when it was first announced, seeing it pay off in such a dramatic way, a lot of people are split.
On one hand, this is great, it'll help them breakthrough and get this popularity that they deserve.
And on the other hand is the implicit message to the group that you staying true to your goal of performing in your native language — because that is what you're most comfortable in and that's what you're able to express yourself most in — that was somehow a mistake, and that it's holding them back in some way. I don't think fans are really worried that suddenly they're going to switch to performing in English now, but there's definitely a hope that they can do the same thing in Korean.
I guess the other part of the bitter sweetness is that this is one of the songs that the group wasn't involved in writing or producing. One of the things that sets BTS apart from a lot of other groups is just the level of involvement that the individual members have with songwriting and producing. It's often overshadowed in discussions about them as this boy band that just gets up there and performs. They actually do play a pretty big role in the musicality. There's a lot of videos of them in the recording studio and working on tracks. The group is clearly ecstatic about this achievement. It's bittersweet for fans and I'm sure maybe it's bittersweet for them. Even though they wouldn't say this publicly, for a song that they didn't have a hand in directly being the one to really breakthrough.
The other thing is there were some fans out there who really don't like “Dynamite”. A lot of us really enjoy the song and think it's really catchy. There's some fans who are more overt about it just pales in comparison to their other work. Yet, this is the one that became popular because it's in English, because it maybe fits this retro sound that is really popular now.
Yeah. So, you do allude to the fact that for a long time, it was very hard to get a Spanish hit at the top 100, but “Despacito” obviously conquered society in 2017 and it controlled the chart for weeks and weeks and weeks. There is the hope I got, I kind of surmised from your story.
Yeah. Well, “Despacito” is interesting. I wanted to get more into this, Latin pop is far more of a foothold in American music, obviously, because Spanish is just so much more widely spoken here. I think just seeing way more Latin artists breaking through and even at the VMAs, so that's been amazing to see. I mean, “Despacito” was an incredible song. I'm a big fan of the original song —
Okay. We get it, you're cool. You're a cultural critic.
That's the one that I heard! And then I heard the Justin Bieber version of it. And it's interesting to see how “Despacito,” I believe got on the Hot 100 and hit number one in part because of the success of the Justin Bieber version. You can look at that and say like, "Okay, that amazing pop song needed a white pop artist to be on it in order to get the kind of numbers to get it up there." That is definitely like a tactic, collaborations, it's a strategy by labels to release either multiple versions or have different versions with different features and different collaborations to help a song send on the charts.
But what "Despacito" did has broken through in a lot of ways. And it has paved the way for a lot of other Spanish-language songs to break through in the Hot 100. But "Dynamite" didn't have a Western collaborator on it, other than the songwriters. BTS has collaborated with Halsey and Nicki Minaj and other people, but this one was just them, which is if you look at bittersweet, it leans that more toward sweet.
Well, this has been super fun. Thank you so much for coming on. Where can folks find you and find your work? I've been following you on Twitter for ages, and it is always fun to see you. So, where can folks find you?
Yeah, I’m on Twitter, my breaks never last that long, but I'm on Twitter @LenikaCruz. And yeah, it'd be The Atlantic. I don't write as much as I used to but yeah, that's pretty much where.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.