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BTS On the RoadHong Seok-kyeong

Let us take the concept of transmedia to explain the fact that how Bangtan became BTS, and their stories that were developed within and out the media for several years, create one big narrative. Transmedia, as may be guessed from the prefix “trans,” is the phenomenon where content cannot be bottled in a single medium but expands across the borders of several different media space (p. 83).

『BTS On the Road』

Author : Hong Seok-kyeong
Publisher : Across
Publication date : November 22, 2020
Number of pages : 272
ISBN : 9791190030748

Hong Seok-kyeong

After graduating from the Department of French Language and Literature at Seoul National University, she received her PhD in Information and Communication Sciences at University of Grenoble. She worked as an Associate Professor of the Department of Information and Communication Sciences at University of Bordeaux 3 beginning in 2000 and has been a Professor of Communication at Seoul National University since 2013. She has been publishing papers on global Hallyu since 2007, and in 2013, published Hallyu in Globalization and Digital Culture Era on how the Hallyu phenomenon is distributed to create cultural dynamics outside the region of East Asia.

Analyzing the Success of BTS from a New Frame


Perhaps too much has been said about BTS already. Whenever they hit a new landmark there is a veritable flood of analysis on how they are achieving such success. There is an endless list of articles on their lyrics, on their music videos, their communication skills with their fans, their performances and marketing approach. Doubtless all this excitement is due to them being the first Korean musicians to have reached such heights globally. Of course there was Psy, there’s Blackpink and Monsta X. But BTS are the only Korean musicians to cause as much buzz around the world as, well, BTS. They are, no doubt, the biggest global stars to come out of South Korea.

BTS On the Road by Professor Hong Seok-kyeong is her answer to the why behind BTS’ popularity. She asks, “How did BTS move people from all around the world, crossing the boundary of K-pop?”— then offers a multi-dimensional analysis from the different aspects of culture, industry, society and media. Professor Hong, who’s kept an eye out for BTS from a relatively early stage in 2015, concludes that BTS has transcended the boundaries of K-pop, and their transmedia is what made it possible. She uses the theories of generation and class to explain the group’s popularity. She also conveys the voices of the well renowned fan club of BTS, the Army. Furthermore, she offers the frame of race and gender identity to showcase further approaches for understanding the boy group.

Different readers will find different chapters fascinating, each according to their taste. My favorite part was where she explained the group through the frame of transmedia and transfiction. She offers insight into how BTS built and connected their own universe in this new world where music is no longer consumed as simply an assembly of notes and sounds. As a researcher who has studied them with an eye of affection for quite some time, her perspective is outstanding in this chapter. The strategy BTS chose is also superb — they are musicians and leaders of this generation that obsessively turns everything about themselves into content in a generation when the private and the personal self can no longer be distinguished. BTS does not only expose themselves to the public, they have built their popularity by becoming one with the fans and touching them at their core by creating rapport with them through an endless number of contents that reflect their intimate, genuine side. The analysis that the popular group represents the loss and anger of the younger generation and shows a rebellious attitude is also significant. However, Professor Hong Seok-kyeong fails to mention why Bighit Music, the company that organized and still produces and markets BTS, chose and approved of such an attitude for the group. It’s not that the members of the group themselves can make the choices for such a narration on their own. Taking into consideration the fact that BTS did not create albums with alternative worldviews right from the very beginning, in this capitalistic contents market, it is rather naive to say these songs have come about from the minds of the members themselves. BTS, after all, is not a Bohemian artist group or indie musicians who can, free from all control, release songs as they please. We are living in an age where not only every artist, but every person is producing their self-image with certain intent. A more detached, multi-faceted analysis on the driving force behind the chosen attitude seems necessary.

Chapters that analyze their novel take on racial imagination or alternative masculinity elevates this book as a special narrative that renders it possible to think of BTS from a different frame. However, such depictions of the group as “playing the part of heroes fighting against the racial and gender biases still present in this world” seem somewhat exaggerated reflections of her perhaps biased affection and expectation. She writes that they “succeeded in building a message of accepting oneself, at the end of the road which almost resembles religious practice, conveying the growing pain of battling, within a neoliberalist competition, into their albums and stories over the years.” Nonetheless, isn’t this method of displaying one’s growing pain, or the message of accepting oneself, the major driving forces behind neoliberalism? Doesn’t the system of neoliberalism grow ever stronger with the voice of self-criticism?

Even so, it is evident that Hong’s book points at the direction which other frames of understanding BTS, or even the group itself, would best head towards in the future. It would be great if the positive, alternative possibilities that Hong offers continue to bloom, and the boy group continues to showcase stories, different from yesterday’s, on their road. The road is never-ending, and BTS is still walking today.


Seo-Jeong Min-gap
Opinion leader for pop music

Translated by