BTS has been on my mind for a long time. When I was reporting on South Korea, i avoided the usual topics like Korean skin care products, plastic surgery and dogmeat. I was influenced by Western criticisms of Kpop’s boy and girl bands. They were criticized as being manufactured, fluffy, and exploiting their members. BTS was everywhere in the beginning of this year. Everyone seemed to love the group. Continue to ignore the BTS phenomena was to miss something greater than Beatlemania.
Hallyu, or the Korean wave as it is known, was first seen by me a decade before. In the winter 2012, I wrote a story on Latinas who worked as day laborers cleaning Hasidic homes in Brooklyn before the Sabbath. The women’s workload accumulated until outsourcing was necessary. I heard that some employers didn’t pay their workers at all or paid them low wages. Some workers also reported verbal abuse and sex harassment. In a puffy black coat and amongst the women, I attempted to converse in my poor Spanish. A worker asked me, without any reason, one morning if I were Korean. She was beaming when I replied yes. She said, “My daughter loves Korea.” She loves K-pop.
The Story Behind the Picture
E. Tammy Kim talks about her reporting for BTS.
Karina is a young mother who works in a deli in New York. The woman pulled out her cell phone and asked me to speak with her. Karina was interested in learning Korean to better understand boy bands like Super Junior and SHINee. In exchange for her agreeing to be my translator, I agreed to tutor her. We set up a semi-weekly schedule: we would meet every other week to interview day workers, and then go to a library nearby to study Hangul. Karina wrote the alphabet and g n D. . She also learned basic phrases and was able to pronounce them. She wrote a report gushing about King Sejong’s invention of the Korean alphabet and read Bruce Cumings’ “Korea’s Place in the Sun”: A Modern History. She wrote, “I find it beautiful.” When you hear the words, it sounds like a melody.
Three years later, I was told by a Long Island friend that twin teenagers she had met in the town were obsessed with everything Korean. They were also bilingual in English, Spanish and Latino, like Karina. But they were more interested in learning Korean. After learning the basics themselves, they began to text me using short bursts in Hangul with emojis, exclamation marks, and emojis. They brought a friend along to a Korean home-cooked meal. The friend was a Latino Koreaphile. And they also brought a Korean cake decorated with candied fruit.
A few years later, I was on a boat in Greece with my parents to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary when a young Greek in shorts smiled broadly at us. He asked, “Are You Korean?” I love your culture. K-pop! He asked us to talk Korean as if he could inhale it along with the sea air. Korea was fashionable. The country had been successful in selling its cultural products on the international market. Yet, I was unaware of the best-selling product, BangTanSonyeondan (also known as BTS). BTS.
At the beginning of my BTS story, a friend told me, “This is going to be the hardest thing you have ever done.” He meant that there would be so much material (9 years of music and dancing, articles and tweets), and so many opportunities for things to go wrong (a subculture so rich and legions and legions and legions and legions and fact-checking fervent fans). BTS performed in Las Vegas as part of an international tour, which was the band’s first concert since before Pandemic. I purchased a resale for a high price and began to cram.
BTS Army, also known as “Adorable representative M.C. They were happy to make recommendations. They sent links to concerts, music videos and the band’s own variety show “Run BTS”, which has more than 100 episodes. I watched mini-lectures and tried out choreography tutorials made by fans (embarrassing, but fun). I read BTS monographs and listened to “BTS AF” podcast, scrolled through Twitter, and listened BTS fan accounts. On the last day in May, Asian American Heritage Month, the boys were at the White House, doing a mix of P.R. and politics, condemning anti-Asian hatred crimes (in Korean), and making fingers hearts with President Biden.
BTS then made an unexpected but shocking announcement on June 14, just days after the release of their new album. In a video celebrating their ninth anniversary, BTS members sat at a lavishly decorated dinner table in the style “The Last Supper” by da Vinci. All was festive – wine, crab legs, and laughter – until minute 21. SUGA, a rapper in the band, said: “I suppose we should explain why our off-period is right now.” Then, a sober discussion followed. Each member was tired and wanted to try something new. They cried. BTS’s hiatus was feared by many army members. After the stock price for the parent company of BTS dropped by almost 30%, RM, a band member, issued a statement reassuring fans. They were taking a short break to work on solo projects. He said, “This isn’t the end of us.”
BTS debuted in 2013 under the production and songwriting of Bang Si-Hyuk, and his Kpop label Big Hit Entertainment. Bang studied aesthetics at the prestigious Seoul National University in South Korea. He began his career with J.Y.P. With generous government funding, Entertainment, one of South Korea’s “big three” companies, helped K-pop grow into a five billion-dollar industry. During the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, President Kim Dae Jung, whose inauguration Michael Jackson attended, took a page from Hollywood and J Pop (Japan’s popular music industry) by investing heavily in culture. K-pop and Korean genre movies became sources of soft power for Korea.
In 2005, when Bang left J.Y.P. In 2005, when Bang left J.Y.P. to launch Big Hit, he wanted to create a new kind of Kpop. His recruits were still required to go through auditions, and would undergo months or even years of training in dance and song. They would continue to learn English, Japanese, and Korean (if they came from another country) and maintain a pale and dewy skin. They would be expected to maintain total discretion in their romantic relationships, if they are not already chaste. Bang, however, would let his idols express themselves by writing their music and interacting with their fans, as opposed to the Korean Big Three. This relative freedom made BTS the most successful band in the entire world, and Bang a billionaire.
Bang originally envisioned BTS to be a smaller hip hop group. He started with Kim Namjoon a.k.a. RM, formerly Rap Monster, is a m.c. who exudes an unnatural confidence. RM (formerly Rap Monster), a preternaturally confident m.c. Min Yoongi (SUGA), a beatmaker who had gained fame in his home province, and Jung Hoseok (j-hope), a hip-hop artist who would embrace his sunny moniker, followed. Bang continued to grow the band from this trio of rappers, adding visuals and singers. Kim Seokjin (or Jin), the oldest member born in 1992, was a thespian with perfect lips. Jeon Jung Kook (or maknae), the youngest member, was the one who had shown his talent in all areas on “Superstar K.” Kim Taehyung or V had a tender and sweet voice, while Park Jimin had an implacable sweetness.
It was rare for a Kpop group to begin with rap and hip hop. Even more rare was a K-pop group that sang and spoke openly about the struggles of youth. They posted episodes of their variety shows to V Live, a video streaming service. They offered content on the app Weverse that was pay-for play to complement what they already had on YouTube. There was always something new for the audience to enjoy. Watching members practice dance moves, eat fast food, play videogames, and bicker in a friendly manner felt like listening to an endless sleep party. BTS, as ethnomusicologist Kim Youngdae observed, mastered the art of storytelling across multiple platforms. This is what contemporary scholars refer to as “transmedia,” and Heidegger referred to it als Gesamtkunstwerk. The prolific and consistent production of the band conveys a sense of authenticity. BTS fans have a strong attachment to the members and refer to them as “Oh, Hobi”, “Oh, Tae”, just like they would their family and friends. BTS fans are devoted to BTS for many reasons. When asked, “Why?” they all responded, almost identically: “Because BTS does so much for us.” They also express gratitude and self-love to their fans. Jung Kook’s right hand has the words “army” as well as a purple-colored heart.
BTS has achieved more than just to entertain and soothe. The school trilogy reflected the struggles of young people and teens trying to cope with South Korea’s strict education system. The glossy photobook that comes with the third album in the series “Skool Luv Affair” features the seven baby-faced members, their eyes lined in dark black. They wear tattered school uniforms, and encourage rebellion. BTS’s “Spring Day” is thought to be an homage ballad after a ferry capsized in South Korea, killing hundreds on a school excursion.
The army culture has spread beyond Korea, to other parts of East Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. BTS fandom is spread across more than 100 countries and territories, according to a recent survey. Ajla Bralic, mother of two BTS fans from Zagreb in Croatia, said that BTS has opened her eyes to “Korea and Japan, China and all the other countries we know little about.” BTS performed at Los Angeles’ kcon in 2014 as part of a variety show showcasing Korean culture. BTS became the main attraction at the fourth kcon in 2016. The band produced high-concept multi-album releases but added more world beats, E.D.M. and pop to its rap, R. & B. The band’s vocals were highlighted in the youth trilogy of three albums entitled “The Most Beautiful Moment In Life” (“hwayangyeonhwa”). The four-part “Love Yourself”, which was based on a Sino Korean storytelling structure (giseungjeongyeol, meaning introduction, development and turn), emphasized the theme of acceptance. BTS’s therapeutic approach has been sharpened by its recent use of Jungian psychoanalysis. The albums “Map of the Soul” and “Map of the Soul” are a reference to Murray Stein’s book “Jung’s Map of the Soul” published in 1998. According to Stein, BTS music is meant as a way of bridging the gap between ourselves and the world around us.
BTS’s high-energy “DNA” was performed at the American Music Awards in 2017, and many U.S. army units cite this moment as their introduction to BTS. The music video of “DNA” is viewed 1.5 billion times on YouTube. The band was a favorite of Ellen DeGeneres and James Corden. They also won at the MTV Video Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards. Among their collaborators are Nicki Minaj and Halsey. Steve Aoki is also a big fan. Keone Madrid, the choreographer, has worked with them. BTS members have also produced their own rap mixes, music videos and singles. This includes for Epik High, a Korean hip-hop band, as well as for popular Kdramas like “Itaewon Class,” “Our Blues,” and “Our Blues.” J-hope is scheduled to perform at Lollapalooza next month. The boys also lend their stamp of approval to sell a large number of phones, face-creams, cars, and novels. RM is the designated “literature icon” and has been seen reading such diverse books as Plato’s Phaedrus and Han Kang’s “Human Acts.”
These facts alone do not explain the passion that BTS fans have. BTS has the largest and most loyal fan base of any band. BTS has become more elaborate as its army grows. Fans must confess their “biases”, or favorite members, and the “bias wreckers”, (the members that threaten to overshadow those favorites), as well as follow rules of conduct. For example, they cannot accost a member on vacation nor identify him. Armys formed on their own to increase BTS streaming numbers, raise money for charity and fight against movements that are perceived as being opposed to BTS values. One famous example is that in 2020, thousands of army members registered for a Trump rally at Tulsa without intending to attend, which resulted in a low turnout. In the Philippines, supporters mobilized in large numbers, but unsuccessfully, earlier this year to stop Ferdinand (Bongbong), Jr., son of the notorious dictator and the namesake, from becoming President.
The army’s dedication to textual analysis has been described as astonishing. She told me she spent a good chunk of each morning translating BTS articles and videos from English into Korean. Aneesa Mahaboob, an American video editor, has created a YouTube documentary series called “The Rise of Bangtan” that includes 21 half-hour episodes. Thanks to contributions from multilingual fans, V Live offers “Run BTS'” episodes in over a dozen different languages. This includes Azerbaijani, Bahasa Indonesia and more. All of this work was done without compensation.