SEOUL — Throughout the nine years of their record-breaking career, BTS has spoken with unusual candor about their personal struggles, an anomaly in the highly manicured world of K-pop.
The group’s shocking announcement on Tuesday during a livestream dinner that they are indefinitely suspending their activities to pursue solo projects was no different. BTS members went as far as criticizing the K-pop idol system that developed them for failing to give them enough breathing room and “time to mature.”
News of their “hiatus” has stunned many people around the world — so much so that a rep for the band and its agency, HYBE, later shared a statement rejecting the term and member Jungkook sought to clarify to fans during a livestream that the group isn’t disbanding. But the writing was on the wall for at least three years, with the seven members increasingly speaking out about the challenges of stardom and their nonstop schedule.
Here are some of the warning signs surrounding BTS in recent years:
Public expectations for success triggered an onstage breakdown and health concerns
At the 2018 Mnet Music Awards ceremony, Jin late admitted the group had discussed calling it quits in an internal meeting. As their continued global success catapulted them to unprecedented heights, the band members felt burned out and were buckling under the pressure of having to churn out hits and break chart records. In an interview with Billboard last year, Suga compared himself to an Olympic athlete that competes to win a gold medal and public approval. Lead vocalist Jungkook also told Billboard: “It’s safe to say I am so blessed, but the road up to here has been arduous. It’s taken a toll on my health, and I think we’ve put in every bit of our youth and more.”
Financial pressure for BTS to pull HYBE forward weighed on them.
While HYBE has become less and less dependent in recent years on BTS as its top-earning act, by 2020 the group still generated more than 80% of the company’s revenue. After HYBE (under its former name Big Hit Entertainment) became a publicly listed company in October 2020 on the Korea Exchange, the pressure to serve as its profit engine continued. RM told Billboard he was happy about HYBE’s $1 billion acquisition of Brown Scooter‘s Ithaca Holdings. “The music business is risky to say the least,” RM said then. “If someone quits or something goes astray between members … it is a high-risk business. We’ve managed to come this far as a group but maybe someone could be ill. We don’t want the world to change just because of what happens with us.”
There were disagreements about the group’s future direction
While English-language singles such as “Dynamite” and “Butter” widened their mainstream appeal, BTS members have said they were divided about recording in English. In one of the first public admissions of discord within the group, RM told Billboard last year “there was no alternative” but to release new music to keep the buzz alive. In Tuesday’s livestream announcement, however, he admitted that after “Dynamite,” he felt lost about the band’s direction. “I didn’t know what kind of group we were anymore,” he said.
They are facing mandatory military service
After BTS became a household name worldwide, some South Korean politicians discussed exempting K-pop stars from military service that would require each member to step away from their music career for at least 18 months when they turned 30 years old. Jin, who turns 30 in December, must be drafted next year under current rules. The contentious issue – attempts by such entertainers as Steve Yoo and MC Mong to dodge or delay the draft have ruined their careers beyond repair – has dogged the band since at least 2018, and the members have said they are willing to serve.
Some politicians, meanwhile, have begun to see them as more than typical celebrities, but rather as cultural ambassadors that help the economy and increase Korean soft power. BTS has made appearances at the United Nations and, just last month, at the White House where they spoke out against racism and anti-Asian violence. In May, at a National Assembly hearing, Lee Ki-sik, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, said, “Perhaps it’s necessary to reconsider the system while taking into account the question of fairness and public opinion.” But a legislative attempt to put the bill to a vote in November failed amid dissent across the political spectrum. The defense ministry at the time called the move to extend exemption rights to K-pop stars “a difficult choice that requires caution.”
They are belatedly entering adulthood
From the beginning of their career, the band and HYBE have put a strong emphasis on BTS’ unity but the agency allowed the public to see little of their lives as individuals outside of the group. Members previously had no means of expressing themselves on social media channels that were not controlled by HYBE, until the agency finally allowed them to sign up for individual accounts late last year. On Tuesday, they said they have vacated their shared apartment and are living separately from one another. Last year, BTS told Billboard that they had little understanding of personal finances and delegated that responsibility to their families – a common occurrence among young Korean music stars. But the disregard for such mundane obligations resurfaced in April when the government temporarily seized Jimin’s apartment due to unpaid health insurance premiums. HYBE subsidiary Big Hit Music blamed its staff for negligence.
The output of group music was slowing
In the early years after their debut, BTS had released multiple EPs and albums, in addition to mixtapes and tracks on Soundcloud. Even during the pandemic in 2020 the band released a full-length Korean album, a Japanese album with new music, the English single “Dynamite” and the Korean EP Be. But in the past year-and-a-half, BTS released only seven new songs, including “Butter,” “Permission to Dance” and “My Universe” with Coldplay. Prior to the pandemic, fans could count on at least two EPs worth of music from the band per year. The group admitted in their livestream dinner that the pandemic grounding them in Korea forced them to rethink their release strategies, but the output still felt notably quieter.
There were more chances to do solo music and outside collaborations
Over the past two years, with their international fame growing, BTS members were taking on more opportunities to work outside of the band. Suga was writing and producing for several artists in Korea, Japan and the US like PSY and Juice WRLD. Meanwhile, Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook all released their first-ever solo songs, which were singles for different soundtrack releases: “Yours” by Jin acted as the main theme song to Korean mystery drama Jirisan and Jungkook’s “Stay Alive” was used in the BTS webtoon 7FATES: CHAKHO. (A poll conducted by Billboard that closed early Wednesday showed that fans are most eager to see solo projects by Jimin, Jin and V.)