Saturday Night Live is a notoriously tricky stage to master. It’s small — if you think Studio 8H looks small on television, it’s even smaller in real life — and the sound mix is always slightly off. And most importantly, it’s live, which means anything can happen. Still, performing on SNL is an important test for an artist, and for those who can transcend the stage’s shortcomings and create a truly memorable performance it’s a defining moment in their career.
For Korean artists BTS, the stakes were even higher on Saturday night (April 13). As the first K-pop group to perform as musical guests on SNL, it was a chance to be taken seriously by the industry at large. But if they were nervous, BTS didn’t show it.
In fact, there was a general sense of ease as BTS performed their latest single “Boy With Luv.” The septet — consisting of members RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — charmed audiences with their boundless energy, on-stage charisma, playful choreography, and slick precision. They didn’t have to do anything extra with the stage, or try and turn it into three-minute performance art to make something visually arresting. Just purple lights — the signature color of the group and their fans, known as ARMY — and a live band, thereby putting Western perceptions of the “manufactured K-pop machine” to rest. (They even invited songwriter Melanie Fontana, who co-wrote “Boy With Luv,” to sing backup vocals for them on stage.)
History aside, perhaps their most miraculous feat was just how well it all worked in that tiny, hallowed studio. With seven members, BTS somehow made the SNL stage feel larger than life.
If “Boy With Luv” was a feel-good celebration — an introduction to the world’s biggest boy band — then their second performance, “Mic Drop,” was a fiery coronation. As the group’s first certified platinum hit in the U.S., the hip-hop track “Mic Drop” (released first in 2017, then again with a Steve Aoki remix in 2018) was a sensible choice for the group. But beyond it being one of their most well-known songs in the U.S., it’s also a choice display of the group’s duality: Sure, they can be playful, but they’re also fierce and they have swagger — and they can dance.
For Western audiences longing for the days of actual boy band choreography (and if so, you should maybe get into Korean pop music), BTS brought an epic, electrifying dance break to Studio 8H:
Of course, SNL is only the latest stop on the group’s history-making journey. They were the first Korean act to have a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 — a feat so impressive they did it again — and they’re also the first Korean group to hold a stadium concert in the U.S. — again, they broke their own record by announcing a full-on global stadium tour, selling out dates in England, France, and the U.S.
But there’s something remarkable about the kind of visibility SNL affords an artist. And for Korean Americans watching at home — who have never grown up with a full-time Asian cast member on Saturday Night Live — seeing seven Korean men joyously sing in Korean and represent their culture was a milestone you can’t begin to quantify with records and charts.
There’s a lot to be said about where BTS goes from here, how they channel this fame and visibility into tangible results. Their goals are ambitious, but not unlikely: a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 (“Boy With Luv” will arguably get them closer than ever before); a chance to perform on the Grammy stage; and a coveted Grammy nomination for their music.
But what of Korean music in general? Now that BTS have busted down barriers that previously prevented Korean artists from making it big in the U.S. — and changed Western perceptions about K-pop in the process — there’s no telling who or what will break through next as BTS continue their quest for total world domination. But one thing is certain: The musical landscape is better for it.
BTS are the firsts, but their SNL performances ensured they won’t be the lasts.