As K-pop behemoth BTS hits pause, its fandom reels

SEOUL — She eked out a muffled, squeaking sob as a single tear ran down her cheek. “Yes i heard the news” was the caption and the only context for the video Erika Titus posted Tuesday on TikTok.

She was, of course, reacting to the news that the massively successful K-pop group BTS was taking a break for an indefinite period. Titus was not alone in her despair: Her video had more than half a million likes, with her followers sharing in the comments how they were coping with the announcement. One fan wrote: “i found out at work and literally had to leave early,” followed by three crying emoji.

And in rainy Seoul on Wednesday, Atsushi Harada, a correspondent for Japan’s NTV News, trekked to the headquarters of BTS’s management company, noting the poignant weather in a tweet about how a poster of BTS member Jungkook had gotten wet. “He looks sad,” Harada wrote.

Such was the impact of what appeared to be the end of an era for not only the most successful K-pop act ever, but also one of the most successful music groups of all time. BTS announced during a live-streamed event Tuesday that its members were taking time off to pursue solo projects and take stock of how they could move forward as a group act.

“I hope you don’t see this as a negative thing, and see it as a healthy plan,” J-Hope said, speaking in Korean. “I think BTS will become stronger that way.” He referred in English to what would ostensibly be the group’s comeback as “chapter two.”

The group also lamented some of the less shiny aspects of K-pop stardom, like the constant pressure and the feeling that they were losing their senses of direction as individuals. The venting session was a rare public acknowledgment of the intense nature of the K-pop industry, in which stars — referred to as “idols” — are trained from a young age, taught to look, speak, dress, dance and sing in specific ways.

“I just felt really sad that they felt sad,” Titus, 19, said in a phone call late Tuesday from her home on Oahu, Hawaii. “They felt all this pressure that people were going to be upset with them” for announcing the break, she said.

Since becoming the first Korean act to win a Billboard music award in 2017, BTS has been one of South Korea’s biggest exports, bringing in billions in ticket sales, sponsorships, music downloads and merchandise. It took the top prize at the American Music Awards last year, and in 2019, it was the first group since the Beatles to have three No. 1 hits in a year on Billboard’s Top 200.

HYBE, BTS’s management company, released a statement saying the group was not taking a hiatus but “would start solo projects while remaining active as a group.”

Still, Tuesday’s announcement sent shares of HYBE down nearly 25 percent. It also came amid a growing debate in South Korea over whether BTS and other K-pop stars should be granted exemption from the country’s mandatory military service.

In April, South Korea’s culture minister called for an exemption for BTS, saying it would be “a cultural loss for mankind” for K-pop stars to pause their work for military service. Critics say that proposed exemptions would be bending the conscription rules to help the rich and powerful skip national duty.

All able-bodied South Korean men are required to enlist by age 28, though parliament revised a law in 2020 to let K-pop stars postpone their national service until they are 30. The band’s oldest member, Jin, 29, said in an April news conference that he would leave any decisions about military service to his management company. Lee Jin-hyeong, chief commercial officer at HYBE, told the conference that “the conscription laws continue to change in an unpredictable manner, which actually make things hard for our artists.”

Jin is expected to enlist this year unless a related law is revised to allow the K-pop stars an exemption in recognition of their contributions to South Korea’s international reputation.

“BTS surely needs a break after years of tireless work, but the impending reality of military service must have been a significant factor in their new decision,” said Lim Jin-mo, a pop music critic in South Korea. He said the national duty is a sensitive topic even for top K-pop stars like BTS because “an exemption can be seen as a preferential treatment, possibly invoking a sense of deprivation and discontent among fellow Korean citizens.”

As much as BTS’s news shook the K-pop industry, Lee Kee-woong, a pop culture expert at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, said the impact is likely to be short-lived. “I think it will bounce back quite quickly,” Lee said. With the industry’s exponential growth in recent years, there’s now a multitude of rising bands that could quickly fill the gap while BTS takes a break.

Asked whether she had doubts about whether the group would follow through on its promise for a second chapter, Titus said she had faith: “It can’t end like this!”

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