Earlier this month, an album sung mainly in Japanese landed on the U.S. Billboard 200 album chart at No. 43. That’s a rare accomplishment for any Japanese artist — and an even less frequent one for a non-Japanese outfit to pull off.
But it’s just another entry on a long list of accomplishments for South Korean pop group BTS. Their third Japanese album, “Face Yourself,” came out April 4 and quickly climbed the charts. Besides Billboard, it topped the weekly Oricon album ranking with more than 284,000 copies sold (via four physical editions, one version more than AKB48’s latest release).
The seven-member group has appeared on (and won) American awards shows, recorded the highest-charting K-pop single and album on Billboard ever, and even impressed my Mom after she saw them on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” It’s up for debate if K-pop as a whole has achieved mainstream success in the Western world — but BTS unquestionably are South Korea’s most successful international act since Psy.
BTS’ inroads have apparently also assisted other Asian acts in their efforts to go west — including many Japanese ones. According to people here who promote Japanese acts in the United States, the rise of BTS has made their jobs a fair bit easier. Artists who have otherwise had a tough time getting noticed abroad are getting new life.
Part of the appeal is thanks to BTS’ dedicated fan base, nicknamed ARMYs (Adorable Representative M.C for Youth). They can turn any story or blog post about the group into a high-performing piece of content (maybe even this one!). So while more Japanese acts are getting coverage, a lot of it comes with awkward mentions of BTS. British site Metro recently asked Sekai No Owari vocalist Fukase if his band competes with BTS, even though there’s nothing in either’s music that would suggest so (Fukase diplomatically said he respects the group). At its stupidest, though, you get TV site Decider coming up with the headline “The Boy Band On ‘Fuller House’ Is Sexy Zone, Not BTS!,” despite BTS not being mentioned anywhere in the article. Now that’s what I call clickbait.
Still, BTS has been able to remind people of the potential of non-English acts in overseas markets. This past weekend (and the one coming up), X Japan and Otoboke Beaver play the Coachella music festival in California, and articles have focused on the “significance” of the two Japanese rock acts playing there. It’s a win for those bands, but pour one out for Bo Ningen, who played the event in 2014 to no such celebration (or the three Japanese acts — Cornelius, Fantastic Plastic Machine and Cibo Matto — who played the 1999 debut installment).
BTS existed for years before getting any love at home, so maybe the current interest in Asian music will peak in a few years. If not, maybe the 2020 Games will give us a new star?