On a business trip through Japan in 1962, the president of Britain’s Pye Records heard an enchanting pop song by the young Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto and brought a copy of the 45 back with him to the U.K. He gave the record, titled “Ue o Muite Arukō,” to Pye act Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen to record—but to make it more memorable for British listeners, the label issued Ball’s instrumental cover under the nonsensical, demeaning title “Sukiyaki,” the name of the popular Japanese hot-pot dish. (A Newsweek reporter later said this would be like remaking “Moon River” under the title “Beef Stew.”) In America, Kenny Ball’s cover was not a hit, but in 1963, a Washington radio DJ played the original Japanese recording and found his listeners swooning for it. So Capitol Records acquired the U.S. rights to “Ue o Muite Arukō” and issued Kyu Sakamoto’s single under the same dumbed-down title Pye used for Ball’s cover, “Sukiyaki.” Amazingly, in June 1963—more than six months before the Beatles broke in America, at a time when even British music still seemed exotic to U.S. listeners—Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” in its original Japanese, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. In decades to come, the bewitching melody would find its way into multiple U.S. hits from everyone from A Taste of Honey to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick to Mary J. Blige—but to this day, Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” stands as the first and only single performed in an Asian language to top the American chart.
That remains true this week, even as the premier South Korean boy band of its era, BTS, fulfills its long-predicted destiny and becomes the first K-pop act with a No. 1 song in America. The debatable part is whether the song itself is K-pop. That’s because the band’s Hot 100 chart-topper “Dynamite” is sung by the seven-man pop act entirely in English—its first ever. More than 57 years after Kyu Sakamoto’s all-Japanese hit, we’re still waiting for a second U.S. No. 1 in an Asian language. Not that the ever-vigilant fan group, the BTS A.R.M.Y., reportedly 48 million strong, shouldn’t be thrilled. And, oh my, are they ever.
Say this for “Dynamite”: It’s catchy as all get-out. Its Western crossover is also one that the self-assured members of BTS—known to their fans by the mononyms J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga, and V—eagerly sought out. No one appears to have forced their hand in recording an English-language hit. This despite the fact that, as recently as last year, they were attesting to their disinterest in recording in English just to score a U.S. chart-topper. “We don’t want to change our identity or our genuineness to get the number one,” group leader RM (aka Rap Monster, their most fluent English speaker) told Entertainment Weekly in early 2019. “Like, if we sing suddenly in full English, and change all these other things, then that’s not BTS.”
Radio has long been an obstacle to BTS’s chart conquest in America.
So why would the kings of K-pop change their minds? The most obvious answer—one I have brought up many times before in this No. 1 hits series—is radio, and the outsize role it plays on the American charts. Radio is one of the three main components of the Hot 100, and the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that incorporates airplay as a major chart factor (most countries’ charts are based exclusively on sales and streams). As far as U.S. radio programmers were concerned, BTS had two strikes against them: Their fanbase is perceived as primarily tweens and teens, a less desirable demographic to radio advertisers than young adults, and their hits didn’t have sing-along English choruses for American listeners. On Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, BTS has yet to score a single airplay hit big enough to register, even now.
So, yes, radio has been an obstacle to BTS’s chart conquest in America. This has not gone unnoticed by the group’s fans, who have tweeted endlessly and even written articles decrying radio gatekeepers thwarting their heroes. But the answer to why “Dynamite” finally brought the world’s biggest K-pop act to the top of the Hot 100 really has little to do with radio as yet. There’s evidence that BTS’s American audience was ready for a more American-sounding BTS song. In other words, the already converted wanted this, too.
Call this my Western bias talking, but the first time I heard “Dynamite,” when it was released in late August, I instantly knew it was a smash, and language had little to do with it. It’s not as if prior BTS singles were avant-garde or hard to grasp: 2018’s “Fake Love” was appealingly moody, guitar-flecked electropop, and 2019’s “Boy With Luv” was bubbly pop-and-B with guest vocals by fellow chart-topper Halsey. But none of them sounded undeniable. “Dynamite” is a precision-tooled blockbuster, expertly crafted with the sort of “melodic math” that made Max Martin famous. The remarkable thing is Martin had nothing to do with it.
“Dynamite” was the brainchild of U.K. journeyman David Stewart (not to be confused with the Eurythmics member), who produced the song and co-wrote it with British girl-group singer-turned-songwriter Jessica Agombar. The track was quite literally made to order—in a Rolling Stone interview, Stewart revealed that U.S. label Columbia was trolling around the industry for a suitable Western-skewed hit for BTS: “It had to have tempo, be exciting … one thing I’m good at is writing to brief.” Stewart and Agombar also consulted with the BTS members themselves, tweaking lyrics to ensure the words were things the boy banders might say. The British songwriters did almost too well: Lines like “Cup of milk, let’s rock and roll” and “Ding-dong, call me on my phone” evoke the uncanny valley of would-be hip, teen English delivered by a non-native speaker, a common feature of K-pop. (It’s also a cousin of the, awkward, Swede-written lyrics of some American pop acts).
The thing about K-pop is that it’s an industry more than a sound. In theory, any type of contemporary music sung by a carefully groomed South Korean act can be K-pop, including on-trend, throwback disco. Indeed, “disco pop” is the genre tag most critics and appreciators have appended to the song, and in a year when ’70s-esque songs by Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, and Doja Cat have all done well, BTS has latched onto the pure-pop sound likeliest to break through on the charts worldwide. “Dynamite” is a particularly ingenious hybrid, grafting together—to my ears—the vibe of two massive retro hits from the past five years, Justin Timberlake’s sunny, Max Martin–produced “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ electro-funk reboot “Uptown Funk. ” David Stewart even brought in veteran U.K. brass player Johnny Thirkell, who played on “Funk,” to play on “Dynamite.” Topping it all off is a chorus that’s pure Bee Gees: The cadence of BTS’s “I–I–I’m/ In the stars tonight” and “Light it up/ Like dynamite” is just a 2020 update of “Ah, ah, ah, ah/ Stayin’ alive.” The song may be sung entirely in English, written and produced by Brits, and echoing the sounds of the Gibb brothers and Dua Lipa, but that doesn’t mean it’s not K-pop.
Back to those English lyrics: How essential were they to BTS’s breakthrough? The inclusion of a few “Hey, sexy lady” refrains helped make Psy’s K-pop novelty “Gangnam Style” a No. 2 Hot 100 smash—and even a No. 12 radio hit—back in 2012. Did a K-pop boy band really need a whole English song?
Though we will now never know, a case could be made that BTS—originally an acronym for Bangtan Sonyeondan or “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” that the group later claimed could also stand for the more Western-friendly “Beyond the Scene”—was going to top the Hot 100 eventually, whether they stuck to Korean or not. They have dominated our album chart repeatedly over the past two and a half years, topping the Billboard 200 four times with two installments each of their Love Yourself series and their Map of the Soul series. When BTS first led that list with 2018’s Love Yourself: Tear, they not only became the first K-pop act to score a U.S. No. 1 album, they did so with an overwhelmingly Korean disc—no Western featured acts, no English beyond song titles and one-off lyrics.
Even with that Korean-led breakthrough, BTS has been dropping breadcrumbs for American fans all along. Their first U.S. Top 40 hit, 2017’s “Mic Drop” (No. 28), broke through in a remix featuring former one-hit wonder Desiigner. Their 2018 hit “Idol” (No. 11) was remixed with a much bigger rapper, Nicki Minaj. Eight months later, the aforementioned “Boy With Luv” not only debuted within the U.S. Top 10 (peaking at No. 8), it arrived as a BTS-Halsey pairing from the jump (not a remix), with the band also launching the song on Saturday Night Live. In summer 2019, BTS leader RM appeared on the last of Lil Nas X’s smash remixes of “Old Town Road,” a reboot dubbed “Seoul Town Road,” and six months later, the full BTS lineup backed Lil Nas X on the Grammys. Finally, in April 2020, the yearning, marching “On,” lead single from Map of the Soul: 7, slammed onto the Hot 100 all the way up at No. 4. Notably, “On” hit the Hot 100 in its mostly Korean original version, while a remix with Australian singer Sia didn’t sell or stream enough to make a chart impact. Arguably, the next major BTS single could have been No. 1 on the Hot 100 no matter what.
Still, there was the little matter of BTS’s lack of airplay. Industry observers began wondering aloud whether BTS could score a No. 1 U.S. hit without radio play. As with U.K. boy band One Direction, the only reason BTS singles kept debuting high on the chart was download sales. In general, BTS fans love buying stuff—all four of the band’s chart-topping albums sold better than they streamed, with the most eager fans picking up copies of their multiple CD editions. (If that sounds like a ploy, note—to the band’s credit—these old-fashioned physical releases have sold well without leveraging the industry scourge of merch or ticket bundles.) This extends to singles and the digital realm: The band has repeatedly topped Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart, from “Fake Love” to “Idol” to “On,” with ever-increasing first-week download tallies (29,000; 43,000; and 86,000, respectively).
A case could be made that BTS was going to top the Hot 100 eventually, whether they stuck to Korean or not.
Which brings us back to “Dynamite,” whose numbers have blown BTS’s prior hits out of the water. The song’s opening sales totaled a stunning 300,000, including 265,000 downloads—the largest digital sales week in three years, since Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” (More on how BTS pulled this off in a moment.) It’s also the group’s biggest-ever streaming hit, ranked just behind “WAP” and the latest from Drake. The song’s crush-worthy video, with showcase moments for all seven members, opened to gargantuan YouTube views, which helps explain the strong streaming debut. And … radio? Well, “Dynamite” doesn’t log enough first-week airplay to appear on Radio Songs, but at pure-pop stations, “Dynamite” is already BTS’s biggest hit ever. It’s up to No. 20 on Pop Songs and rising fast, suggesting it’s on its way to becoming BTS’s first true ambient American hit. It will almost surely crack the all-genre radio chart in a week or two.
This all presents a mixed picture when it comes to both the radio question and the language question. Despite a heavy push with U.S. programmers, “Dynamite” still couldn’t crack Radio Songs—but its opening audience of 11.6 million is virtually identical to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s opening airplay two weeks ago for “WAP,” which also missed Radio Songs when it entered the Hot 100 on top. That makes “Dynamite” basically on par with any Gen-Z–style, digital-first-then-radio hit. As for those sales and streaming numbers, both were goosed by a slew of remixes of the song that Team BTS dropped in the first week—from acoustic and EDM to tropical and “poolside” mixes. Gimmicky? Perhaps, but none of the remixes features a guest rapper or Western celebrity vocalist. And let’s recap those eye-popping sales numbers. Yes, all the remixes helped boost BTS downloads into the stratosphere; at one point during the opening week, various “Dynamite” versions held down the top four spots on the iTunes chart. But I don’t think BTS tripled its downloads from 86,000 of “On” in March to 265,000 of “Dynamite” in September through remixes alone. There has to be another X-factor, and I’d argue the English lyrics were a big part of the appeal. While preparing this article, I sought the expert counsel of a longtime friend’s 14-year-old daughter, a BTS diehard, who told me she was “extremely excited about them releasing their first all-English song … because it makes it a lot easier to memorize the lyrics.” The language shift wasn’t just for programmers and passive radio listeners. It was for Western fans.
Of course, now Team BTS has its work cut out keeping “Dynamite” aloft. The band’s performance of the song on the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday—which fell in the song’s second tracking week—should help keep it in the upper reaches of the chart for a little while. But for K-pop fans, many questions remain. Will radio listeners make “Dynamite” an enduring hit? Will BTS’s next album have a follow-up that waltzes through the door “Dynamite” blew open? Will that follow-up be in English or Korean—and will fellow K-pop dominators Blackpink follow suit? BTS has won another major victory, but for 48 million A.R.M.Y. troops, the K-pop invasion has only just begun.