BTS Revolutionizes the Boy Band Documentary Format

Illustration for article titled BTS Revolutionizes the Boy Band Documentary Format
Screenshot: BANGTANTV

No boy band is exactly like the one before it, and no boy band is quite like BTS. In Western music, the K-pop boy band is poles apart from the MTV-approved groups of the ’80s, ’90s, aughts, and beyond. They don’t perform entirely in English because a global music audience no longer requires it. They don’t restrict themselves to three to five members. They don’t pander with lyrical platitudes devoid of political messages. They don’t abide by the same tropes. The list goes on, so it should come as no surprise that when BTS approached the familiar boy band documentary format, they would flip it on its head. Their latest docuseries—the eight-episode Break the Silence, filmed in Korean during their 351-day Love Yourself and Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tours—challenges established ideas of how a pop group should present itself.

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To stream Break the Silence: Docu-Series, you must first create an account on WeVerse, the social media platform built by BTS’s company, Big Hit Entertainment (a one-stop-shop that behaves like a record label, management team, and development team, all in one) to create content for fans. There, you must pay for access to the series—as you would any other streaming giant—in this case, $19.99. BTS could’ve easily released the series on Netflix or Hulu, but that would alter the content of the doc. Because Break the Silence is exclusive to a fan-only platform, the documentary skips any foundational information that usually exists in a boy band doc meant for the masses, like One Direction’s This Is Us or the Backstreet Boys’ Show ’Em What You’re Made Of. To engage with Break the Silence, you must already know the members of BTS, their personalities, and to a lesser extent, their basic history. If you aren’t a fan of BTS, or if you lack an elementary understanding of how the K-pop industry works, it’s likely you’d be confused. And if that’s you, then you’re not the intended audience.

Exclusivity is brilliant marketing. Curious parties can get into BTS by simply googling them, by obsessing over their maximalist music videos and faultless choreography. But only true fans—ARMY, as they are called—can enjoy Break the Silence; in that way, the docuseries is a gift to their most ardent supporters (and in some cases, their motivated detractors, known as anti-fans.) That fact validates the documentary’s content: it’s not meant to convince anyone of BTS’s greatness; it’s there to act as fan service to those who already know it. Instead of fulfilling the role of entertaining explainers, like in a traditional doc, Break the Silence exists only to give BTS fans a more intimate look into their seven members’ emotional well-being, allowing them to feel closer to their beloved boy band.

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Illustration for article titled BTS Revolutionizes the Boy Band Documentary Format
Screenshot: BANGTANTV/WeVerse

Of all the docuseries’ globetrotting footage, I found one-on-one interviews with each member to be the most affecting. Unlike in Western boy band tradition in which criticizing your group or your role within it or discussing life after the band is reserved for behind-the-scenes—an obvious sign that a breakup is on the horizon—BTS lean into their struggles. They’re forthright with their insecurities, and they don’t shy away from negative self-talk.

Jin says he’s never satisfied with his talent. “I always try to be cheerful when I’m on camera. People watch me because they want to feel happy. But if they feel sad from watching me, that would make me feel worse,” he says of his performing. “What I want is for people to see only my cheerful side on screen.” J-hope talks about the pressure he feels daily. Suga mourns “the loss of the ordinary,” in his rock star lifestyle and celebrates things like going to dinner or to the movies because he “doesn’t have a lot of friends.” Jungkook says he “envies the image people have” of him. Jimin admits that “it’s true I didn’t do a good job,” after losing his voice from straining it on tour—he’s then shown inhaling oxygen backstage between songs during a live stadium performance. It’s hard to imagine *NSYNC or the Jonas Brothers doing the same.

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BTS routinely refer to their artistry as their “job,” a term divorced from the romanticization of musicianship so many Western audiences are used to placing onto their favorite singers. They also speak openly about infighting. And it’s not a tool to garner empathy—it is an honest portrayal of how exhausting it is to be BTS, how hard they work (the most valuable currency in K-pop), and how grateful they are for the fans that support them.

In fact, while every boy band expresses gratitude to their fans, BTS makes it their mission in Break the Silence. It’s less “thank you for everything you have given us,” and more “this is yours as much as it is ours, and we’d cease to exist without you.” The love and near-obsessive language the band uses to describe ARMY is not unlike how a superfan would desperately describe and communicate the object of their affection. In the third episode, Jin talks about losing friends while gaining successes, but he doesn’t harp on it. “I’ve lost a lot of people around me. What makes up who I am now is our Fans, ARMY,” he says without missing a beat. In the next episode, when BTS is forced to perform in Chicago’s freezing rain, instead of worrying about landing their complicated choreography, the group talks about their concerns that ARMY might catch a cold. No boy band is any good without its fans, and in Break the Silence, BTS makes it known that ARMY holds their power—fans take a participatory role in their group’s existence, and they are well aware. Ownership is complicated when it comes to BTS. Jin, Jimin, V, J-Hope, Jungkook, Suga, and RM are in BTS, but everyone, including their fans, is BTS.

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“It doesn’t belong to someone. It’s like an imaginary, momentary rainbow that’s been created by ourselves and the people who help us,” leader RM says in Episode 6. “It’s going to disappear someday, so we have to stay humble and reflect on ourselves.” Notably, he uses “it’s,” and not “we.”

Break the Silence is not BTS’s first docuseries and surely won’t be the last. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying Western boy bands, and now, as someone immensely curious about how the K-pop industry takes ideas laid forth by the Motowns and One Directions of the world and builds upon them, I feel late to the party. Everyone else who fancies themselves a music industry professional should, too. There’s a difference between being well-aware of BTS’s total ubiquity—how they offer unprecedented access to their fans through live streams, social media, television shows, “untact concerts” (the K-pop phenomenon of live-streamed concerts during covid-19 social distancing protocols, and beyond), and how they’ve managed to secure unprecedented global success without leaning into cheap crossover behavior. It’s not something that can be explained in a single viewing of a single series, but Break the Silence does illustrate an evolving relationship between boy band and diehard boy band fan. Everything BTS does feels new because in many ways, and for most Western audiences who’ve grown accustomed to being marketed towards in a formulaic way, it is. By extension, so is Break the Silence.

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Given that they’re the biggest group on the planet, you’d think there’d be more discussion on how BTS has developed new avenues for monetization and success, which I suppose speaks more to the devaluation of music journalists around the world than anything else—but I do wonder how something like WeVerse will pop up for Western artists and who will be credited. Break the Silence is a brilliant business, but more importantly, it’s an unrivaled fan service. And when it is inevitably mimicked by Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande or a teen pop artist, I hope the history isn’t lost in translation.

It's facetious. Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.

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DISCUSSION

reindeerbandit

maria i’ve had your book on pre-order for months, and every article about boy bands i read from you makes me more and more excited for it.

also, army 4 life