Some moments in your life become, in retrospect, the dividing lines between Before and After. This year, I experienced a new bifurcation—and that is My Life Before BTS, and now, My Life As a Dedicated Member of the BTS ARMY.
If you’re not familiar with BTS, the reigning K-pop boy band made up of seven extremely pretty and charming twenty-somethings with outrageously perfect skin who’ve dominated the global pop scene for several years now, don’t worry, I was once just like you. I, too, once had a gaping hole in my life that I didn’t even realize existed, one shaped exactly like the letters B, T, and S.
It’s here that I should mention that my love is strictly and eternally for BTS, for Jimin, V, RM, Jungkook, Jin, J-Hope, and Suga (yes, that is my official ranking of the boys from best to less best), and not for K-pop as a whole. I had never been a fan of K-pop as a genre—the first legitimate star who came onto my radar, Rain, didn’t really do it for me. Neither did the Wonder Girls, each of whom, like most K-pop performers but especially groups made up of lissome young women, had gotten so much work done on their faces that they seemed as interchangeable as dolls, and equally as lifeless. (Perhaps they just needed to eat more, the girls were clearly famished!) It didn’t help that I had read the stories, too, of the extreme exploitation rampant in the K-pop industry—the incredibly abusive contracts that locked performers in for life, the strict restrictions on everything from what they eat to their dating lives to where they live, the extreme pace of practice and performances that have led stars to collapse from exhaustion and even die by suicide. Not exactly appealing.
When I would happen to hear them and see their videos, I enjoyed 2NE1, especially its star CL, who had the vibrating energy of a barely contained feral animal and an actual personality to boot. Same with BIGBANG, though they were just a touch too bro-y for me with their aggressive abs and spiky hair. Still, even 2NE1 and BIGBANG weren’t quite magnetic enough for me to do much more than watch whenever their videos were on at the K-town bakery I loved and then go back to eating my shaved ice, my enjoyment of their music as fleeting as the popingsu. Even CL’s solo effort, like her highly produced “Hello Bitches,” a banger aimed squarely at an American audience, left me a little cold, too derivative, too try-hard. If K-pop groups (or rather, their domineering labels) had perfected the girl-band and the boy-band formula, it was all too slick, too obviously manufactured, the pop culture equivalent—as the South Korean government, which sees K-pop as yet another economic export and soft power ambassador meant to promote the nation’s image—of a Samsung phone. Consuming their music and their videos were like eating the best possible version of a Snickers bar, good, perhaps even delicious in the moment, but nothing life-changing.
To a true K-pop stan, what I just wrote might be sacrilege. BigBang and 2NE1, after all, were two of the biggest acts in the world during their heyday in the early 2010s, with Rain the granddaddy of them all. But I share all of this to underscore just how big my conversion was to the truth of BTS earlier this year when, after tripping down nostalgia lane watching Backstreet Boys videos with a few friends, I decided on a whim to finally watch a BTS video, “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Call it divine intervention; call it chance or my subconscious somehow knowing exactly what I need, but like a lightning bolt, this six-minute, three-second gift arrived in my life. Please, if you have never seen this video, I beg of you, watch it, and then watch it again, and then maybe several times a day for the entirety of the rest of your life:
Did you watch it? Did you experience it? Did you love it in all of its baroque excess? Did you marvel at Jimin’s shoulder shrug? Did you then attempt to recreate Jimin’s shoulder shrug and fail utterly? Did it change you? Is Jimin now your gender expression? Did you shiver when Jin kissed the statue? Did you immediately fall into a BTS rabbit hole? Is it now 24 hours later and you’ve read all about its symbolism and watched every single one of their live performances and you’re now an incredibly dehydrated in body yet nourished in spirit shell of your pre-BTS self, hollowed out and fully ready to be filled with the Holy Gospel According to Jimin, V, RM, Jungkook, Jin, J-Hope, and Suga (but really Jimin only)? Do you feel cleansed of the filth of the world? Are you fucking reborn yet???
Welcome, my friends. (And for those of you who were already converts, I apologize for my delay in joining you. I am a dummy!) As I wrote in a different blog, I would laugh at BTS if I weren’t so transfixed, and transfixed I am, to the point that 97 percent of the reason I bought a projector this year was to watch BTS videos—their official music videos, yes, but also the thousands of fan-created videos like “BTS JIMIN 지민 ULTIMATE SEXY MOMENTS” and “TOP3 BEST MEMBERS OF EACH BTS ERA” and “BTS (방탄소년단) Extra & Funny Moments #2”—in the darkness of my bedroom.
If you’re asking yourself why an adult woman would cream her big-girl panties like a teenager over a boy band, well, all I can say is that life is a mystery and we all have a bit of our former young selves inside of us somewhere, ready to be reactivated at any time like a sponge. But I’m merely one of millions who are part of the BTS ARMY (aka “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth”), the incredibly devoted, incredibly large fandom that has propelled the group to its current status as the world’s number one pop group, all of which has been made possible by social media networks that allow BTS content to spread almost instantaneously around the globe. And while the massive global appeal of BTS to millions of largely young teenage girls has been explained as due to their “venting about a structure seemingly gamed against the younger generation” in their socially conscious lyrics, or because of their authenticity (BTS members are not on as quite a tight of a leash as some of their K-pop counterparts and often write their own songs), it feels equally as important to acknowledge that watching their videos gives me the same feeling as when I went to raves in my youth.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate when BTS members acknowledge that an entire generation of young people has been fucked over. “It’s hard to get a job, it’s harder to attend college now more than ever,” RM told Billboard in 2018, adding, “Adults need to create policies that can facilitate that overall social change. Right now, the privileged class, the upper class needs to change the way they think.” As Suga put it, “And this isn’t just Korea, but the rest of the world.” He attributed their success to their willingness to tackle the problems facing people loosely in their age bracket: “The reason why our music resonates with people around the world who are in their teens, 20s and 30s is because of these issues.”
But what I really appreciate, what I love, is the pure joy they somehow transmit straight from the screen and into my veins. (Who needs MDMA when there’s BTS?) And isn’t joy in short order these days? Just try and watch their video for “Boy With Luv” without a smile pasted to your face:
Their dancing! Their styling! Their videos are a visual feast. They’re sexy but soft, the non-threatening ideal object of desire for their fans, who can (and do) project all sorts of fantasies onto the seven members of BTS, as the fandom of boy bands have done for decades. And their gender presentation! Call it a deliberate flirting with homoeroticism; call it South Korea’s norms around masculinity, but these boys (or young men, rather) styled to a brilliant gloss, their hair perfect, their faces beautifully made up, delicate earrings dangling from their ears, have a refreshing intimacy with one another, which I suspect is a significant chunk of their appeal. (And, at least in China, where K-pop is hugely popular, the source of a significant amount of fretting by government-sanctioned writers in the country’s state-controlled media outlets, who have called Chinese artists inspired by K-pop “sissy pants” and the sign of a “sick” and “decadent” culture.”) As Michelle Cho, whom I would describe as the world’s foremost BTS scholar, told Elle Canada, “They’re affectionate toward one another, which is not something you see men do a lot in pop culture.” Cho added, “It’s the opposite of this toxic masculinity that you find in a lot of online spaces.” I guarantee that an entire generation of young kids will or have already pinpointed BTS as the moment they realized they were queer. What’s not to love?
Every generation gets the one boy band that rules them all that it deserves. It feels especially fitting that as the United States (not to mention the U.K.) wanes on the global stage, America’s pop culture dominance has now been forced to make room for seven candy-haired South Korean boys who have perfected and redefined an art form that was never intended for them, but that they have made indelibly their own.