BTS earned their fourth No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 this week with “Butter.” This should come as no surprise to anybody who keeps abreast of pop music news, as dozens of prominent entertainment publications (Forbes included) have spent the past week churning out headlines about the Korean pop septet’s new single breaking records on YouTube, Spotify and beyond. “Butter” marks BTS’s fourth consecutive No. 1 hit in a row behind last year’s “Dynamite,” “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” remix and “Life Goes On,” and they have now racked up four No. 1 singles faster than any group since the Jackson 5 in 1970.
The news of “Butter” topping the Hot 100 delighted the millions-strong BTS ARMY, who propelled the disco-pop smash to No. 1 by buying and streaming it en masse. But others were less impressed. On Wednesday, Stereogum’s Tom Breihan published an article titled “BTS And Their Fan Army Are Rendering The Pop Charts Useless.” Breihan, who writes a weekly column about every song to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, argues that because “Butter” soared to No. 1 based largely off the strength of 69-cent digital downloads (plus an instrumental version that was independently available for download and also counts toward its chart placement) while trailing several new Olivia Rodrigo songs on streaming services and falling short of Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” at radio, its success is somehow inorganic. He claims that “Butter” is not, in fact, the most popular song in America right now, and that “if you look at the charts, then, you’re going to get a completely distorted idea of how popular BTS actually are.”
“The Hot 100 is the best historic marker we have for what’s big at any specific time,” Breihan continues. “In gaming the system, BTS are f***ing that whole thing up.”
To his credit, Breihan—who is a terrific writer and whose columns I frequently enjoy reading—cites other artists who have charted No. 1 hits via unscrupulous measures, such as Travis Scott, 6ix9ine and Taylor Swift. He’s talking about bundles: Up until last year, Billboard counted music sold through merchandise and ticket bundles toward its song and album charts, which the aforementioned artists—along with Lady Gaga, Kenny Chesney, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, the Weeknd and many more—milked to the fullest extent. (The Weeknd’s enormous After Hours debut was assisted by more than 80 different merchandise bundles.) Billboard stopped counting these bundles toward its charts last July while also ceasing to allow physical music bundled with digital downloads to be reported as digital sales. That means artists must actually ship physical products before they can be counted toward the charts.
Breihan also notes, as I have in previous articles, that many of the songs that debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100 plummet several dozen spots in their next week and quickly vanish from the charts when they’re no longer being propped up by branded sweatpants, lollipops and condoms. “It feels like a broken system,” Breihan laments, and in a sense, he’s right. That’s why it’s disappointing to see him place the blame almost exclusively on BTS and give his article such an obvious rage-bait headline while making scant mention of all the other artists who have been manipulating the charts for years. (You can click here to read up on some of 2020’s more egregious chart-gaming examples, including Harry Styles’ eleventh-hour, multimedia push of “Watermelon Sugar,” Travis Scott and Kid Cudi’s hilariously excessive bundling efforts on “The Scotts,” and Drake literally paying influencers to make a viral dance challenge for the terrible “Toosie Slide” before it even came out.)
It’s worth noting now that BTS have never relied on merch or ticket bundles to sell their music because they don’t have to. They’re one of the few artists capable of selling out stadiums all over the world while simultaneously netting No. 1 hits and shattering sales and streaming records. It wasn’t always that way. Eight years ago, the group started out with virtually no stateside presence. Their first several albums didn’t even crack the Billboard 200, and once they started to do so, the group enjoyed a years-long ascent before finally topping the chart with 2018’s Love Yourself: Tear. Music video streaming records, collaborations with major Western pop stars and the leap from arenas to stadiums followed, cementing BTS’s status as not just the biggest “K-pop” group, but one of the biggest musical artists in the world. They’re doing concert numbers on par with U2, the Rolling Stones and Metallica, while doing chart numbers comparable to Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.
You can’t fabricate that sort of otherworldly success, nor can you rush it. BTS have been methodically growing their audience for years, and now, their enormous, global fan base has the power to shoot their songs and albums to No. 1 in America and abroad. That’s how popularity works: You get more fans, you get better chart placement. In a way, you could consider the BTS ARMY the largest grassroots organization in pop music, supporting their favorite artist 69 cents at a time. Is it unconventional and a little excessive to spectators who don’t understand the fandom? Maybe, but really, what’s the difference between downloading a single multiple times—when Billboard only counts up to four purchases per transaction, mind you—and buying an overpriced hoodie from an artist? Fans are entitled to spend their hard-earned money however they want, and it’s weird to scold them for doing so.
BTS aren’t tarnishing the credibility of the Billboard charts; they’re spotlighting just how fundamentally broken the charts, and the metrics by which they are calculated, have been for years. Pop radio is an outdated monolith designed to uphold the status quo of algorithmic pop songs by Western artists; bonus points if those artists are white and conventionally attractive. For the first several years of their career, BTS were effectively blackballed from U.S. pop radio for simply daring to sing in their native Korean. The fact that radio stations were so quick to add their two English-language hits, “Dynamite” and “Butter,” is exciting on one hand, but also indicative of the systemic issues still plaguing the format.
As for streaming, companies like Spotify will likely never be fully transparent about their streaming filtration methods, which knocked the official first-day streams of “Butter” to roughly 11 million, down from the 20.9 million unfiltered streams it garnered, which would have been the biggest single-day total in Spotify history. And if we’re talking about dubious sales tactics, let’s not forget that prior to the introduction of Nielsen SoundScan in 1991, Billboard tracked sales by calling record stores across the country, an honor system that was subject to outright fraud by clerks with a vendetta against certain artists or a little financial incentive from record labels. If you want to argue that the pop charts are useless, you’ve got to be willing to admit they have been for decades.
Rather than chastising fans for spending their money on music released by their favorite artist—which, you might recall, is how songs topped the charts in the olden days before streaming existed—maybe we should criticize the record labels that reportedly spend tens of thousands of dollars on strong-arming radio stations into playing their music despite such pay-for-play practices being ostensibly outlawed, according to a damning Rolling Stone exposé from last October. We should ask why non-Western artists are so often “othered” and why their fandoms feel like they need to employ alternative methods to send them up the charts. We should ask the skeptic within us and the skeptics around us why the notion of a South Korean boy band topping the charts is less credible than one of their Western contemporaries doing so, and why those Western artists don’t warrant the same scrutiny.
Breihan’s assertion that “Butter” isn’t actually the most popular song in America right now simply does not hold water. Just because a song doesn’t fit your preconceived notions of what a hit sounds like or how it is achieved doesn’t make it less legitimate. Barring a seismic industry shift, the Hot 100 still determines the most popular songs in the country, flawed methodology and all. Somebody’s got to determine what song takes the throne every week, be it fans, record label executives or somebody else with deep pockets. This week, the fans put their money where their mouth is and sent “Butter” all the way to the top. To accuse them of ruining the pop charts in the process is to ignore decades of foul play surrounding the Billboard charts as well as BTS’s own stratospheric success, which took years to cultivate and which shows no signs of diminishing. If you’re just now taking note, that’s on you.