Five Burning Questions: BTS Posts 2020's Best First-Week Numbers With 'Map of the Soul: 7' D

By: Billboard Staff

The upward trajectory continues this week or Korean pop septet BTS, who have hit new commercial heights in the United States seemingly every year since their official 2013 debut.

The upward trajectory continues this week or Korean pop septet BTS, who have hit new commercial heights in the United States seemingly every year since their official 2013 debut.

Map of the Soul: 7, their latest full-length release, bows at No. 1 this week on the Billboard 200 albums chart, having moved 422,000 equivalent album units in its opening frame. The staggering number for the 20-track set — which includes five tracks previously found on the Map of the Soul: Persona EP, also a chart-topper for the phenoms last year — is not only a career high for BTS, but the best first-week numbers for any artist thus far in 2020. Meanwhile, the group also scores their highest peak yet on the Billboard Hot 100, with the No. 4 debut of 7 single “ON.”

How do BTS keep getting bigger? And will “ON” continue to grow from here? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Map of the Soul: 7 moves a stunning 422,000 equivalent album units this week to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — nearly twice as much as Changes, from fellow pop idol Justin Bieber, did in its first frame a week ago. Does this seem like a changing of the guard moment to you, or is that reading too much into the numbers?

Tatiana Cirisano: Hey, the numbers don’t lie. What’s really astonishing is what BTS didn’t do — there was little to no radio play to support the album’s singles, and no merchandise bundling, meaning the album’s sales were almost purely organic. And this wasn’t BTS’ first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, but their fourth, with the biggest week of 2020 for any release. Did we mention it’s also non-English? BTS has always made it clear that they only want mainstream success if they can achieve it without losing their identity. They’ve done just that — and it feels like a changing of the guard moment to me, or a challenging of the guard, at the very least.

(Speaking of Bieber, it’s worth mentioning that his comeback single “Yummy” recently lost a No. 1 debut to a hip-hop newcomer — yet another example of how as streaming and social media give fans and artists more power, America’s pop superstars are no longer an automatic lock for the top chart positions.)

Eric Frankenberg: Well…it’s complicated. As Justin Bieber will tell you or gleefully sing to you himself, he is an adult now and seems to have transitioned out of true pop-idol status to mature hitmaker, not directly competing with BTS for fans. But even more than a more apples-to-apples comparison like One Direction, BTS seems to be operating on their own plane. It’s hard to compare them to Bieber or really any other modern pop star because their fan base, their legacy-in-progress, and their music really exists by itself.

Jason Lipshutz: Justin Bieber and BTS exist in such different corners of pop music that it’s difficult to picture the Biebs passing the torch to the BTS boys as a one-to-one exchange. That said, the juxtaposition of those first-week numbers demonstrates a group still experiencing its commercial apex and an artist who’s a bit removed from his own: Bieber’s 2015 album Purpose had three No. 1 singles and a much stronger opening than Changes, while BTS, which just scored its highest-charting Hot 100 hit to date and is barreling toward its most ambitious U.S. stadium tour, keeps pushing its respective ceiling higher.

Mia Nazareno: Yes, for sure! I don’t think the two albums really compare. Map of the Soul is a full-on pop experience — that just happens to be in Korean. On the other hand, Changes sounds like Justin’s dip into R&B, and has been received with mixed reviews. BTS is at the top of their game, they put out a fine-tuned album full of bangers, and they’re here at the right time. Listeners and audiences are ready for foreign-langauge acts not only entering charts, but also topping them. This trend goes beyond music: There’s a greater cultural shift in Western media recognizing art that comes out of Asia. I mean, shoutout to my oppa, Bong Joon-Ho, for giving us the Oscar-winning masterpiece Parasite.

Andrew Unterberger: I think so, but probably one that was well-overdue. Bieber is a married adult now, and is very clearly singing from that perspective on Changes — aspirational for some young pop fans perhaps, but not really typical teen-pop fare, which is usually more “Girl I wanna marry you someday” than “Girl, I’m so glad we got married 15 months ago.” Besides, The Bieb’s long made it clear that the demands of being a teen idol had been taking its toll on him mentally and physically; if this is Justin passing the torch, it’s largely because he was getting sick of it burning his hands.

2. What’s something that BTS does that allows them to continue to grow their worldwide fanbase in such an impressive way?

Tatiana Cirisano: They’re smart at using nontraditional methods of promotion — like releasing not one, but three music videos for “ON,” performing the single inside Grand Central Station for The Tonight Show, and offering heaps of collectible merch items, from Mattel dolls to a Notes book series. And while it may seem obvious, it’s also worth spelling out that BTS has always understood the importance of having a dedicated fanbase in the first place. The group is fiercely loyal to its ARMY, and that loyalty pays off: It’s the fans who organize to stream new releases on repeat, create and promote social media hashtags, call on radio stations to play BTS music, and buy all those merch items and physical albums for their collections.

Eric Frankenberg: Being themselves. What would be the point of BTS if they were chasing One Direction or the Jonas Brothers? Despite their collaborations with western acts like Sia, Halsey, and Nicki Minaj, it’s surprising that BTS hasn’t gone right to Max Martin or Pharrell or Finneas to engineer a radio hit for them. For all the synthesis of genre in their catalog, they don’t seem interested in pandering to American audiences (or radio). If they were, writing credits from Ed Sheeran and Troye Sivan would have made sense as lead singles, but both songs were relatively buried. So while a song like “Black Swan” didn’t make too much of an impact on the Hot 100, maybe team BTS has decided that at this point in their unprecedented global success, it doesn’t matter.

Jason Lipshutz: Anyone who’s paying close-enough attention to BTS’s music understands their prolonged success: instead of relying upon boy-band gimmickry, their music has leaned into experimental pop structures — their tracks often zag into electronic build-ups and rap breakdowns — as well as social consciousness, with mental health often a thematic focus. BTS could sing the telephone book and still have the Army hooked, but their ability to mix up their musical approach has helped gain fans with each new project.

Mia Nazareno: They are unapologetic in their Korean, and I love that. In the past, not speaking English was more of a barrier to success in the West, but their music and enviable choreography transcend borders, cultures, and languages. I think it’s pretty brave to speak your own language in Western media. That’s what they do — almost like they didn’t need the West’s approval to be big. They just do their thing, and we’re still listening.

Andrew Unterberger: They’ve managed to stay something of a self-contained universe, with each release building on the last in a way that feels not only like a progression but an expansion. They have guests and collaborators, but they’re never overshadowed by them, and they’re in dialogue with popular music around the world without ever being overly beholden to it. They’re at the point where every career move they make seems to make sense merely by virtue of them having made it — which is about an enviable place to be as there is within pop stardom.


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