Do You Believe in the Radical Possibility of BTS?

Do You Believe in the Radical Possibility of BTS?

Illustration: Elena Scotti/GMG; Images: Getty

You’ve probably heard by now about the K-pop stan uprising; how a coalition of fandoms for the superstar South Korean boyband BTS mobilized to spam the Dallas police department’s snitching platform with pictures and videos of their idols and crashed it in a matter of hours. How these digital vigilantes then turned their efforts to the #whitelivesmatter hashtag on Twitter, treating white supremacists to endless fancams of our beautiful boys body-rolling and crotch-thrusting their hearts out. And if you didn’t catch on then, there was no avoiding this new political reality by the time the BTS ARMY conspired with TikTok teen allies to bring down President Trump’s Tulsa rally. Politicians, from a jubilant Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to an aggrieved K.W. Miller, are hailing a new era in BTS-fueled leftist activism.

But even with these promising displays of allyship, you may still be harboring doubts over whether a shared love of seven Korean boys with perfect skin constitutes a legitimate basis for international revolution. You may even be wondering whether this group has artistic merit at all. And that’s understandable. Thirty years of the End of History have clipped the imaginative wings of even the most radically inclined in our society, including many of my millennial socialist peers, who for a long time regarded my BTS fandom as an eccentricity at best. My own mother does not stan, even after recently being forced to watch in full BTS’s objectively delightful Carpool Karaoke episode.

So I won’t try to convince you by invoking their overwhelming talent and cuteness. (And the fangirl in me is squirming. I want so badly for you to appreciate their perfection. Yoongi’s scar?? In the Daechwita MV??? Is anyone else dying???) If the history of great global movements teaches us anything, it’s that the locals are won over via appeal to universal and instinctive principles of justice, fairness, integrity. People or ideas possessing a kernel of authenticity so pure and undeniable they manage to plow past institutional, cultural, and linguistic barriers; past stubborn individual cynicism and apathy, to touch the souls of millions. Karl Marx comes to mind, as well as a Chinese farmer called Liu Shichao.

Liu became well-known on the Chinese short video app Kuaishou several years ago for his stunt drinking videos; in one video, Liu pours a liter of beer, a can of Pepsi, and an unidentified blue liquor into a jar, cracks a raw egg into it, sets his own finger on fire, lights his cigarette with it, and proceeds to drink down the ghastly concoction in one expressionless gulp. This is the clip that went viral on Twitter last year, much to the surprise of Liu, who had never heard of Twitter (it’s blocked by the firewall). After making an account to see what all the fuss was about, he quickly gained a following of 160,000 foreign friends, with whom he earnestly shares cooking lessons, beer-drinking techniques, and slices of daily life from his village in Hebei province, northern China. A year later his replies remain a space of peace, epicurean delight, and international friendship. I interviewed Liu over the phone a little while ago and he is exactly as guileless as his Twitter presence suggests.

What I’m getting at is that BTS belongs to that rare class of individuals, like Marx and Liu Shichao, who can unite people by standing in for the larger ideologies of a movement. Perhaps you are wondering what BTS’s all-penetrating message of unity is. This is the hardest part of the sell, because if you are one of those people who believe the world is fatally compromised and true sincerity is impossible—which I am sometimes—reading about BTS’s message will cause your eyes to roll firmly back into your head. The first time I watched Namjoon explain Speak Yourself on Jimmy Fallon, I thought: What is this “We are the World” shit? To sum in a way I think is fairly neutral, BTS’s message is one of uncompromising solidarity, something along the lines of: Life is pointless and painful, but we can get through it by being there for each other. For close readings of their lyrics, you can check out Kim Young-dae or Lee Ji-young’s books on BTS. Arguably there is a fairly trenchant critique of capitalism to be found in their early work.

At some point, though, the exact wording doesn’t really matter. What matters is that when they say they care, you know that they really mean it. If we’re being completely honest here, I’ve never looked up translations to the vast majority of BTS songs (have I just admitted to sacrilege?). I don’t know the meaning of any of the lyrics to “Spring Day,” although I have a vague idea they’re about grief and healing. And yet: the opening bars to that song—like just the first few piano chords, before Namjoon even starts singing—invariably make me start weeping. “Spring Day” came on just now as I was writing this, and I had to skip to next because I can’t afford to drench my keyboard while I’m trying desperately to finish this draft.

So how am I so sure they mean it? Why is it that I’m constantly tearing up not only at their music, but at content as mundane as a recently tweeted photo of Seokjin, Hoseok, Yoongi, and Jungkook holding iced coffees (which I did, in fact, cry over the other day)? To invoke a term favored by my fellow millennial socialists: Praxis, honey!! I’m talking about hard work and consistency. These boys rehearse 16 hours a day! No matter what you think of them, you have to admit their performances are impeccable. Arguably it’s this commitment to excellence that saved them during their unsuccessful early days when undeniably perfect showmanship was their only recourse against widespread ridicule. And to be fair, their appearance at the time was ridiculous. Their label had conceived of BTS as a hip-hop group, but what they ended up looking like was if you had tried to describe the aesthetic of ’90s west coast to a neophyte who had also just recently learned about leather daddy culture. The less said about Namjoon’s frohawk, the better.

But even after seven years, long after proving themselves, becoming international superstars, getting better haircuts, these boys are still putting in the long hours in the studio. If anything, their routines have only gotten harder. And their stages remain stunning. If you don’t believe me, watch their Saturday Night Live performance of “Mic Drop,” which is what initially reeled me in. Tell me if you don’t come away thinking: These sweet poreless cherubs are fucking serious. Because as much as sincerity is about choosing the right words, those words mean nothing without attendant elbow grease. Caring for the sick. Going out to protest day after day in the heat. Drinking an entire vat of baijiu on camera. I can hear you asking me right now if I’m really suggesting that coordinated hip thrusts can be revolutionary praxis and I am telling you: absolutely.

And there will be a lot of them in the new order.


In painting a portrait of the BTS revolution thus far, I have mostly focused on our seven perfect angels and the qualities that have won them a grassroots following the size of a medium country. But any discussion of the coming uprising is incomplete until we get to the spectre that has been haunting social media, which is of course ARMY: BTS’s millions of fans, the broad masses, my comrades far and wide who are out here in the virtual trenches day after day, posting, voting, streaming, bringing down #whitelivesmatter hashtag. Because this is where the true power comes from.

As Marx predicted, these soldiers of the revolution come from all over the world. Like, literally anywhere in the world that you can get an internet connection. And this is crucial. If spending the last six years between the U.S. and the PRC has left me with any firm geopolitical conviction, it’s that nation-states are not the way to go. I both dread and fully expect a coming cold war. Perhaps, if you are one of my fellow millennial socialists, you are objecting right now that positing BTS fandom as an alternative to the impending bipolar imperial world order is a typical liberal escapist fantasy. And I retort: Where, if not in BTS fandom, have you caught a glimpse of Actually Existing Internationalism recently? Just now I checked Weverse, the app we use for communicating with the boys, and found a flurry of posts about a project being organized to celebrate BTS’s June 13th debut anniversary, with directions provided in English, Korean, Russian, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. The one-worlder in me is misty.

Because if, as Intro Sociology teaches us, nation-states are really just imagined communities, ARMY has imagined a new one. Call it the Republic of BTS. I mean this is a fully realized state with a President, norms, shared values, rich cultural traditions, and plenty of factional strife (Jimin’s best hair color was orange, end of discussion). For a peek of what this country looks like IRL, I direct you to clips of any BTS stadium concert, in which our flawless septet push themselves to the point of physical and mental exhaustion before crowds of 70,000 peacefully hyperventilating fans. Watch videos from the raucous tailgating of the BTS concert in Sao Paulo last year and tell me this isn’t a country of which you would like to be a citizen. (Fora Bolsonaro indeed.) I have never attended a BTS concert and it remains my fondest wish to attend one, even though I’m certain that prolonged exposure to so much guilelessness would do lasting damage to my membrane of ironic detachment. Unable to interface with my fellow millennial socialists; unable to tweet; dispensing nothing but sincere sentiments for days, if not weeks. Imagine!

And yet I have, in my own modest way, paid a visit to the Republic of BTS. That journey began on a summer afternoon almost exactly a year ago, not long after I became ARMY. I was walking back to the WeWork I used to rent in Chengdu, the city where I lived until the pandemic made it impossible for me to return to China, when I heard the strains of what sounded like the chorus to “Burning up (Fire),” BTS’s 2016 banger. I wasn’t imagining it: three teenage girls in assorted hair colors were playing the track from a speaker in the plaza outside my building and going over the steps to the dance break.

This was surprising to me because, in China, BTS is kind of a forbidden love. Since the 2016 THAAD missile defense system dispute, when China levied sanctions against South Korea, no Korean idol group has been allowed to promote or tour in China. Moreover, social networks like Twitter and YouTube by which BTS generated a grassroots following are all blocked by the government’s internet firewall. Apparently, most Chinese BTS fans use a VPN to keep up with the boys on western social media and help streaming efforts. Why the CIA has not yet attempted to disseminate a deepfake of BTS calling for the overthrow of the Chinese government is beyond me. (I could actually hear the tankies furiously screenshotting as I wrote that last sentence.)

Before I could lose my nerve, I walked up to the blue-haired girl.

“Are you… fans of BTS?” I asked.

“Yes! Are you?”

We both screamed. My new friend Gougou explained that they were preparing to perform at a K-pop and C-pop dance cover event in the plaza that evening and we exchanged WeChats.

The dance event was one of the most flamboyant public displays I’ve ever seen in China, a country in which any form of spontaneity is regarded with intense suspicion by the government, and even the dancing aunties are regulated. Four preteen boys turned out an absolutely ferocious cover of the girl group BLACKPINK’s “Kill This Love.” During a free-for-all, 30-second snippets of various K-pop hits played and anyone who knew the choreography could jump in. When BTS came on the already deafening enthusiasm of the crowd amped up a notch. The song was 2015’s “I NEED U,” BTS’s very first win in Korea, the single that had definitively launched the group out of obscurity. Gougou found me and clutched my hand. We screamed through the chorus and stumbled through the Korean parts. I had met her three hours previously.

One Thursday night a week or so later, I was having cocktails with friends and idly scrolling through my WeChat feed when I noticed an urgent post from Gougou. Someone had backed out last minute and they needed a substitute to fill in for Taehyung’s part in the dance to “Boy with Luv,” which they would be performing at the upcoming BTS sixth debut anniversary event in Chengdu’s Eastern Suburb Memory Park.

Emboldened by drink, I messaged Gougou that I could fill in for the part.

“You know the dance, right?” she responded.

“More or less,” I lied.

My friend Taylor, a seasoned K-pop fan and accomplished hip-hop dancer, happened to be visiting that weekend, and instead of taking her to see the sights I made her take me through the steps of “Boy with Luv.” Every night for the next week, I went to my gym when it was deserted and practiced my step-and-turn-and-kick-and-pop-pop-pop (ARMYs know exactly what part of the dance this is) until midnight. It was hard and stressful, particularly for someone with no natural talent or intuition for dance, but it was also one of the most meaningful weeks of my life.

I dreaded the debut anniversary event a little bit, to be honest. In my experience, walking into an enclosed space as a tall Caucasian usually results in disproportional and unwanted attention. People become uncomfortable worrying that their English isn’t good enough, and when they learn I can speak Chinese, they go out of their way to make a fuss over how good my Chinese is (it is not), and I become uncomfortable.

But language abilities, cultural differences, the trade war did not matter at the BTS debut sixth-anniversary celebration at Chengdu’s Eastern Suburb Memory Park, because we were all much more excited about BTS. Gougou explained to people we met that I was ARMY and that was enough; discussion quickly turned to the matter of gushing over our biases. I had a moment of screeching mutual recognition with a fellow Jimin stan who I think was maybe 12 years old. She gave me a foot-tall portrait of Jimin’s adorable squishy face that, until I had to move out due to the pandemic, graced the wall of my living room in Chengdu. (That my entire collection of BTS merch languishes in storage indefinitely is undoubtedly one of the lesser tragedies of the pandemic, but it still hurts me.) A huge screen at the front of the room played concert footage from our idols, and we screamed especially loudly at the famous moment Jungkook flashes his abs in “FAKE LOVE.”

Before it was time for us to go on, I muttered my anxiety to my teammate Mengmeng. Mengmeng smiled and replied in English: “You never walk alone.” This was the name of the 2017 repackage of BTS’s fourth studio album, Wings. I smiled back and we went onto perform. As the twinkly opening bars of “Boy with Luv” came on, our audience broke into the fan chant that is recited at BTS events in every corner of the world, that will be shouted during the coming revolution:

Kim Namjoon! Kim Seokjin! Min Yoongi! Jung Hoseok! Park Jimin! Kim Taehyung! Jeon Jungkook! BTS!!!!


The other evening, while I was working on this article, about an hour after I saw the news that BTS had donated one million dollars to Black Lives Matter, I suddenly heard the strains of “This Land Is Your Land.” They were muffled at first and then grew clearer.

When I finally walked out of my house I saw I wasn’t imagining it. It was sunset and several hundred people were marching down my suburban D.C. street, singing and chanting and holding candles.

I recognized a high school friend and joined her. We marched down the familiar streets of our neighborhood together, catching up and singing. On one of the main roads, we passed a middle-aged woman standing in her yard and staring in wonder.

She was saying to no one in particular: “I didn’t know I had so many neighbors.”

Lauren Teixeira is a writer formerly based in Chengdu.

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DISCUSSION

kaltesklareswasser
KaltesKlaresWasser

Please tell me you’re over 30... Do you want to be my friend? The indifference to the perfection and revolutionary force that BTS and ARMY in my circle are is really becoming a strain in my social life.

But I’m afraid nothing can save my dating life, because all the guys I meet have pores (I actually don’t anymore, motivated by BTS), but more importantly knowing BTS makes it so fucking obvious how easily threatened the masculinity of every single man I know is.