SEOUL: Fans of the K-pop sensation BTS are called “Army”. That moniker is an indication of just how dedicated they are to supporting the group.
This past weekend, the BTS Army displayed that dedication when they gathered outside National Stadium starting the day before their adored performers took the stage, with fans converging on the venue to shop for BTS merchandise and pose for photos in a pop-booth.
THE WORLD LOVES THEM
K-pop has long been a massive industry, with a bevy of successful acts whose fans organise themselves into tribes with their own customs and conventions, but BTS have brought the genre’s fandom to a new level.
The group’s achievements, since debuting in 2013, are unprecedented for a Korean-language act, and too numerous to recite in one place.
While South Korean groups, such as Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation, who were huge at home never found sustained popularity in western countries, BTS has basked in recognition from abroad, including the English-speaking world, a rare achievement for an Asian act.
A few highlights from just last year: BTS music topped the charts in multiple countries including the US, leading the New York Times to declare that “BTS (has) Conquered America”; the group held a sold-out show in London; and the BBC went as far as to deem them “the Beatles for the 21st Century.”
BUT THEY PROVE THEY CAN STILL BE VULNERABLE
In August, when member J-Hope made a roughly two-second cameo in a video by the biggest rapper in the world, Drake, Armys displayed their resolve to support the group in any endeavor, bombarding YouTube with celebratory comments, with at least one comment to the effect of:
It’s funny how there are more JHope fans than Drake fans here.
Of all the year’s highlights, one is particularly noteworthy, and provides clues to the group’s ability to inspire such fervour in their fans.
Last September, BTS member RM gave a speech at the United Nations in New York, in and of itself a noteworthy feat, given that K-pop groups generally sing syrupy love songs and aren’t known for tackling tricky global topics that fall under the United Nation’s purview.
RM took the podium to speak on issues related to youth health and well-being.
(Given the group’s wide appeal and the upbeat nature of their lyrics, UNICEF had recruited BTS as partners in an initiative to get more young people into education, training or employment.)
While at the pulpit, RM, whose real name is Kim Nam-jun, didn’t pretend to be a policy expert.
Instead he told his own story of growing up in a suburb of Seoul and rising to fame as a member of the group. He discussed the sacrifices he made on the road to fame, and how there were times he considered giving it all up.
We’ve all heard such stories from successful entertainers before, but a more novel part of his speech came when he described how, around age nine or 10, he lost the wonderment of childhood. He stopped gazing in awe at the stars each night and began seeing himself how he imagined other people saw him.
“I tried to jam myself into moulds that other people made,” he said.
He concluded with an admonition to everyone listening to embrace who they are, and express themselves on their own terms.
In spreading their empowering message, it helps that BTS aren’t some typical cheesy public service announcement mascot but made of seven young men who have worked hard in their field to get to where they are.
The members have the good looks and smooth dance moves required for success in the genre, and are skilled vocalists. Their choice to speak openly about vulnerability, from a position of strength, is part of what makes them fresh.
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BTS’ RISE ALSO A STORY ABOUT THE SURGE IN MUSIC STREAMING
It is impossible to tell the story of BTS without discussing the overall changes in the music industry, in particular, the rise of streaming. Last year, industry standard bearer Billboard changed the way it determines its chart rankings, increasing the relative value of online streams.
Given how many K-pop fans live in countries with widespread access to fast WiFi, like South Korean and Singapore, such metrics are well-designed for documenting BTS’ popularity.
And in today’s K-pop landscape, many fans are personally invested in their chosen group to the extent that they make deliberate efforts to push them up streaming charts. When BTS drops a song or video, Armys deploy to YouTube and streaming platforms like soldiers in pursuit of the number one spot.
BUT BTS’ SUCCESS IS ALSO PLACING THE K-POP INDUSTRY UNDER GREATER SCRUTINY
It warrants mentioning that K-pop, as an industry, has a lot to answer for.
The big companies that run the show have been accused many times of treating their performers like slaves, forcing them to maintain arduous schedules of practice and performance, while limiting their access to outside friends or family members, and forbidding them from dating.
BTS are a product of this system. Unlike the Beatles, they don’t have an organic origin story: They were put together by their management after a series of auditions.
For every BTS, there are many more failed attempts at stardom. The industry’s history is littered with stories of broken dreams, of aspiring performers who accuse their management of abuse, or of not giving paying them money they are owed.
It is possible that over the years, such unflattering stories will trickle out and sully the BTS brand. The current atmosphere of celebration may come to seem naive in retrospect.
BTS OFFERS FANS HOPE AND A SENSE OF CONNECTION
Nevertheless, we live in an era where many find it hard to find acceptance in a group that is welcoming and supportive. K-pop fans of student age find their schools to be places of fierce competition for grades and prestige.
For those who are working age, the job market can be even tougher, with a dearth of stable jobs in most countries. When the game is to stand out and be noticed, fewer young people are likely to lean on each other for support, or admit to struggling, as RM did in his speech.
Therefore, fandom can offer a sense of connection more meaningful than the consumption of music as entertainment, or the fascination that comes with observing celebrity.
Perhaps when fans, such as those who gathered outside National Stadium, stock up on merchandise that bears their idols’ likenesses they are doing so in an effort to feel closer to them, and to others who share their passion.
At the concert in Singapore, and wherever BTS performs around the globe, the audience sings along to the refrain of their hit Idol, which states plainly:
You can’t stop me loving myself.
That is a sentiment that many appreciate hearing, and that resonates powerfully in any language.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.