There are a thousand reasons to like BTS but perhaps the most imposing of them is that they have brought women together as part of a hugely diverse and unique fandom, united in their experience as people who exist across identities
I dreamt again of Namjoon (RM), the South Korean rapper, songwriter, and leader of the boy band BTS. This time, we were in a classroom; a passageway to Seoul’s Yeouido Park where he was to host an event for fans as part of BTS’s 10th-anniversary celebrations. He was asking how I have been. I was not hesitant in ranting to him about all that is wrong around me. He, I knew, would understand.
He would understand because he and his six fellow members of BTS, now also hailed as the biggest boy band ever, write and sing of the troubles of existence. BTS’s songs—more than 300 including group releases, solo works, and collaborations—speak of identity, friendships, family, love, loss, hope, youth, dreams, ambitions, fears, longings, greed, oppression, corruption, politics, and governance.
I adore and am grateful that their oeuvre is not entirely dominated by songs of romantic love, seeking comfort in knowing that they sing of concerns of the everyday and that it is alright to venture beyond the confines of heteronormative ideals of love.
Their music is special also because they bring so much conviction into it. They write and sing and perform with conviction. They truly and genuinely believe in the messages they impart and in their craft.
BTS is an emotion, and even as most of our experience of BTS may begin with their songs, our love is also about much more than that. I, and most other older ARMY (the name for BTS’ fandom) I know, have been asked more than once what makes BTS special, what sparked and has sustained our interest, and what it is that has let it evolve into this life-defining sort of love (the less spirited have called it an obsession).
The questions at their kindest have been curious, at worst, cruel, mocking, xenophobic, and homophobic. Why are we asked this so many times, and why must we be prepared with an intellectually rooted, deep answer?
Are dudebros asked to justify their worship of abusive footballers, apathetic and unfeeling cricketers, and the predatory stars of Hollywood or Bollywood? Why must I be armed with a justification each time, and why is my answer of ‘I like them for them’ not enough? Why do I, and about at least five million others, constantly have to face the ‘why’ of it?
The sharpest and most precise answer to this was recently offered by my friend Soumashree when she wrote on The Wire that BTS have:
…struck at two strong bastions of culture – male acceptance and the power of white privilege.
The fact that many predominantly male and Western-aligned thinkers on social and news media routinely comment on them – dismissively – and seek to minimise their diverse musical output, is testament to their value as veritable cultural disruptors
Anything that women, especially younger women, like is suspect. We, as fans, therefore have learnt to imbibe that same conviction I spoke of above for the many different things we love—a necessary skill in a world that asks far too much of women.
Anything that is foreign—but not the kind of foreignness of the West—more so. Where men admiring French music, whether they understand it or not, is an admirable quality and even makes them desirable, women liking Korean music is immediately subject to questioning disbelief. ‘You don’t know the language, so what do you like about BTS?’
While knowing the language certainly brings its own loveliness to knowing BTS, enjoying their songs is hardly constrained if one does not. As BTS themselves have emphasised many times—music is a language unto itself and it unites us.
Still, in many cases, fans do know the language. Perhaps not from the moment they discover a Korean artist (specifically BTS, in this instance) but the depth of BTS’ music and message have made many want to learn the language.
Several of my friends are enrolled formally in Korean language classes and follow lessons diligently. Some have taught themselves—no small feat—and some, like me, are finding their way through broken phrases and words. Put together, that is not a small number of people investing time and thought in embracing a language different from their own and done under no compulsion other than love (@BangtanAcademy_ provides a fair idea).
The response to this shift away from the drive to learn French, Spanish, and Italian and towards Korean and Japanese, ranging from mild surprise to blatant shock, questioning the ‘use’ of it all, has brought evidence to support what we have always known—Asian art and culture are to be exoticized and occasionally awarded on big platforms for little D&I purposes, but the West is the real deal!
Adding to it all also is the silent judgement from the self-appointed high priests of intellect, for whom anything pop or mainstream is the reason for derisive tirades and petty, snide remarks. Unless, of course, that mainstream act can be packaged in hashtag nostalgia, or hashtag throwback, as exhibited most recently at the Backstreet Boys’ concert in Mumbai in May 2023.
Many acquaintances, who back in the day would have scoffed at the admission of enjoyment of such pleb things, have been to the concert, following up their attendance suitably with social media posts and photos complete with captions that explain how much the band meant to them growing up.
It is amusing. But I also really hope that music and concerts of any kind bring genuine joy to us all, especially now that we have the relative safety of age (most of us are in our late 20s or early to the mid-30s) and distance from each other and are no longer bound by imagined ideas of what it means to be an intellectual university graduate.
Once again, we all need to have the conviction that it is alright for us to embrace what we like and enjoy and if welcome, share it with others. And that is how the BTS fandom in my life has grown.
Many a BTS performance, music video, song, interview, game show, fan art, and fanfiction has made me smile, bawl, and have long discourses with friends through the pandemic (and continues to).
I discovered writers and artists, the softest of words and warmest of thoughts, rekindled friendships, found friends in strangers, became closer to close friends, discovered friends and acquaintances in new—some in poor, but also many in surprisingly bright light—all through our engagement with and response to BTS.
The wholesomeness and softness of emotions of these seven men, who share a large part of their lives with each other and with us, play games, and fight over rice cookers, are a comfort. I like BTS for a thousand reasons. But perhaps the most imposing one of them is that they have brought women together as part of a hugely diverse and unique fandom, united in their experience as people who exist across identities.
BTS held a three-day concert in Seoul in March last year, the second performance of which was streamed in movie theatres worldwide. It was a time when we in India, following a third wave of the surge in Covid cases in January, were playing ‘Guess?’ with the pandemic and taking tentative steps back into every day that exists outside for so many of us.
In an upside-down world, where families and friends had uncertain living situations split across cities, the concert appeared like a lifeline. I, for one, felt like a purpose had been drawn up and a clear plan laid out: buy a ticket, go to the cinema, live.
Once at the theatre, I realised that a hundred others had received the same memo (the post-concert realisation, upon discussion with friends and by browsing social media, was that it had reached millions). BTS’ concert tour, Map of the Soul, scheduled for April through September 2020, had been put on hold (and eventually cancelled) on account of the pandemic.
We had all arrived to sing along with BTS as they performed to an audience in their homeland in person for the first time in two years. I had gone to the cinema alone but returned with four new friends with whom I had shared the joy of knowing BTS as we sang along and did the fanchant several times over.
We rode a wave of emotion and euphoria with BTS. The audience, reflective of the fandom, was mostly women. The sheer joy and abandonment with which we experienced the concert stayed with me because it let so many women exist peacefully, unthreatened, for a few hours and just breathe easy in those moments.
My friends watched in different cities, and afterward, we all had this to say: BTS had brought people together and allowed us to feel unfettered joy, and we are grateful to witness this cultural revolution unfold.
This joy, unsurprisingly, is triggering to many men who have only known the way of the patriarch in this world and feel it an absolute necessity to attempt to ruin a woman’s moment of happiness.
On every Indian ARMY’s post is at least one man commenting because ‘of these guys we have no chance anymore.’ (I say ‘these guys’, but the terms the comments use range from offensive to criminal). Their primary grouse seems to be that the members of BTS appear too perfect, setting impossible standards for the rest of humanity.
To counter the insecurities that the assumption of perfection stirs in them, they resort to making blatantly misogynistic and homophobic arguments, exposing once again why they would never be a choice for any relationship for a lot of us.
The joke in the fandom is that we have a parasocial relationship with BTS, invested emotionally in their well-being as they seem invested in taking care of us—an equation too complex to explain only through words and in one essay. I would say it feels entirely real and fully justified. We do not live in a beautiful world (I have not evolved into a cynic for nothing) and the cruelties of existence are many.
Amid all of that, BTS is a beacon, and this is not an exaggeration. The most common results you will see if you search for #BTS on Twitter are likely to be notes from fans on the blessing that BTS has been to them in many, many ways, threads of various kinds on the wisdom, loveliness, and hilarity that they embody, and the kindnesses that ARMY offer to each other—friends and strangers alike.
The fandom is a marvel in itself. It puts to rest the generalisation that BTS fans are only teenage girls, obsessing over a passing fad, and without priorities or agency of their own. While teenage girls are an unmistakable part of the fandom, the composition of the ARMY is wide beyond what the norms have said about fans of boy bands so far.
ARMYs come from all ages, nations, and professions, to put it very simplistically, and bring the sort of diversity that is beyond the grasp of HRs even globally. ARMYs are fun and funny. ARMYs are sensitive and serious. ARMYs help, have answers to everything and exist as much for Bangtan as for each other.
They run charities like One in An ARMY, translation accounts like Doolset Bangtan, Do You Bangtan, and @ryuminating, art accounts like BTS is/in Art, @kayyy_tae, and @thisiskeets, provide recipes at BTSARMY Kitchen & Bar, book recommendations at Namjoon’s Library, and foster the love of plants at Bangtan Greenhouse. This, still, is a few of many. For every profession, every hobby, and every curiosity, there is surely a Twitter ARMY account. Search, and you shall find—like BTS, like ARMY.
Leah Greenblatt, in an exclusive cover story on Entertainment Weekly, described BTS as a ‘tumbling-puppy cyclone.’ No phrase has summarised them better:
Though they’re unfailingly polite and attentive in interviews, there’s a certain amount of contained chaos when they’re all together—a sort of tumbling-puppy cyclone of playful shoves, back slaps, and complicated handshakes—but also a surprising, endearing sweetness to the way they treat one another in quieter moments. When a question is posed to the group, they work hard to make sure each one of them is heard, and if someone is struggling to find a word, they’ll quickly reach out for a reassuring knee pat or side hug.
The poetic spirit of Namjoon, the quiet wisdom but loud tomfoolery of Seokjin, the softness of Yoongi the person and outrage of Agust D the lyricist, the thoughtfulness of Hoseok, the steadfastness of Jimin, the soulfulness of Taehyung, and the absolutely, maddeningly, endearing quirks of Jungkook are, individually as well as a group, home for me and millions of others, making us daydream about befriending them.
The seven share traits that have made them the superstars they are–immense charisma, unearthly beauty, unfading enthusiasm for performance, and unflinching love for their craft. But it is also their emotional intelligence, critical awareness, and capacity to be a tornado of laughter, fast-spoken jokes, and faster-thrown hands for a game of rock-paper-scissors, and a constellation of smaller, individual quirks that make them more than just another band to us. Long may this parasocial relationship thrive.
As I wrote this, a 10th Anniversary Fireworks Show played in Seoul that once again left ARMY in tears but also with the biggest smiles—a demented combination on our faces indeed, but our hearts are full.