TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The South Korean music style known as K-pop made a fresh impression on American audiences recently with the release of a new album by the group called BTS. The seven-man vocal group's new collection called "Map Of The Soul: 7" sold over 2 million copies in its first two hours of release in South Korea. It also immediately went to No. 1 in the U.S. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a look at K-pop and a review of "Map Of The Soul: 7."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON")
BTS: (Singing) I can't understand what people are saying. (Singing in Korean). Look at my feet...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The South Korean pop music genre known as K-pop emerged in the early 1990s. One of its foundational figures was Lee Soo-man, a producer and manager who decided to try and create a homegrown version of American pop and R&B. Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown, along with boy bands such as Boyz II Men and the Backstreet Boys, were particular inspirations for him. Lee Soo-man didn't sign groups; he created them, auditioning voices and physical types, mixing and matching for maximum appeal. Other producers began doing the same thing, and soon enough, there was a virtual assembly line of K-pop groups that sold millions of songs and albums, first in Asia and eventually throughout the rest of the world. At the moment, no group on Earth is as popular as BTS.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGH!")
BTS: (Singing in Korean).
TUCKER: BTS, whose material is delivered primarily in Korean, features both singers and rappers. The group's music partakes of hip-hop rhythms pumped up with power ballad melodrama. The songs can be grandly dramatic or impishly playful; in other words, there's a lot of variety and individuality within its prefab structures, as you can hear in the dreamy production called "Black Swan."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK SWAN")
BTS: (Singing in Korean). But what if that moment's right now - right now? (Singing in Korean).
TUCKER: The lyrics on "Map Of The Soul: 7" reveal a theme that carries throughout much of this big 20-track collection. It's primarily an album about being on the road, grappling with the difficulties that come with success, such as sustaining romantic relationships. This is, of course, a time-honored pop tradition. Everyone from Billy Joel to Lady Gaga has wasted time lamenting the tribulations of fame. And really, who cares about the details? What listeners grab onto is the pain and passion in the vocals, for the way a specific kind of anguish becomes a universal expression of emotion. In executing that, the seven guys in BTS are absolutely first-rate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE BULLETPROOF: THE ETERNAL")
BTS: (Singing in Korean). Don't want to die. But so much pain, too much crying. (Singing in Korean). We were only seven, but we have you all now. (Singing Korean). Can we get to heaven?
TUCKER: This album arrives on the heels of the South Korean movie "Parasite" and its multiple Oscar wins. It's tempting to say that Korean pop culture is having a moment here, but that's thinking neither globally nor artistically. The rest of the world has known for a long time about K-pop's massive outreach, and here in the West, it's time for BTS to be freed from the stereotype ghetto of teen pop and acknowledged as a pop group of enormous skill and influence.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Map Of The Soul: 7" by the K-pop group BTS.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO'S "WISHING WELL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO'S "WISHING WELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.