Once Trish Sotto, 27, found out that BTS was going to hold their first live concert in two years, she knew she had to experience it for herself. It didn’t matter that the show was in Los Angeles, or that she would have to quarantine when she returned home to the Philippines. After devouring the band’s online concerts throughout the pandemic, Sotto knew she had to catch the band in real life.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” the Manila-based fan told VICE in an interview before her flight to the United States. “I always promised myself that the moment they announce their first tour dates, I would be there.”
“Wherever it was, I was going to be there,” said Sotto, who planned to watch two shows of BTS’ Permission to Dance On Stage concert.
Sotto started out as a casual listener in 2019, but it took only a few months for her to fall down the BTS rabbit hole.
“Once I Googled their names, I was a goner. Like I was just completely entranced,” Sotto said.
Her story is similar to many others who identify as ARMY, BTS’ fandom. Since the K-pop group debuted in 2013, its seven members have broken multiple records for their massive popularity in both the K-pop scene and in global pop culture.
Most recently, they became the first Asian act to win Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards, the most prestigious award in the event. They also took home Favorite Pop Duo or Group that night, while their slick hit “Butter” was named Favorite Pop Song.
Now, they’re halfway through their series of four concerts on their Permission to Dance On Stage tour, at the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
Securing the concert tickets was a bit of a bloodbath, said Sotto, who snagged hers with presale codes. With so many fans vying for limited tickets, many waited anxiously on the ticket sale site hours before they were officially released. Those who were unable to get their desired seats then scrambled to find them on resale—sometimes at an unfairly exorbitant price—or had to settle for watching a live broadcast from the nearby YouTube Theater.
After confirming her tickets, Sotto then had to navigate the administrative steps to travel in the middle of a pandemic, like getting a vaccine passport. She even enlisted the help of a travel agent.
The fact that the concert venue will be full of people would raise COVID-19 concerns for most people. Sotto is concerned, too, but she planned to wear a face mask the whole time and practice safety measures. She said she’s used to handling these risks by now.
“We’ve been doing this for two years, almost. So it’s like, we’re not so scared,” she said.
According to Sotto, all this—the hardcore travel planning, the disruption to her job schedule—is ultimately worth it for the rare opportunity to interact with her favorite band.
“You’re in a stadium of 60,000 to 70,000 people who all love BTS. So the energy that you’re going to get from that crowd, I think, is going to be, you know, an irreplaceable experience,” she said. “Just thinking about the concert, I get teary-eyed.”
BTS fans have fostered a strong bond with one another, as well as with the seven members of the K-pop group. They are known to unite fervently for social activism, like organizing campaigns for social causes that resonate with them. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Sotto instantly connected with fellow BTS fans who were previously strangers to her—a display of the supportive fan community Sotto talked about, which continues to fuel her love for the group.
“The energy is just crazy here,” she told VICE through a text message on her second day in LA, before her first BTS show. “It really feels like the whole city is just so excited for the concert!”
Like Sotto, Tokyo-based Seika Kurihara, 27, had no qualms about flying once she found out that BTS was holding their first live concert since the pandemic. Kurihara flew to LA on her own but planned to meet up with other ARMY she met on Twitter when she arrived.
“[There] was no hesitation after the long wait of the pandemic time,” said the BTS fan, who has been following the group since 2017. This will be her third time watching BTS in LA, and she has attended concerts in other countries.
Tickets for BTS’ Permission to Dance On Stage concert range from a couple of hundred to a few thousand dollars, and fans who are traveling to attend the shows also have to factor in hefty costs like plane tickets, accommodation, transportation, and food while in LA.
But fans like Sotto and Kurihara, who are traveling far just to catch BTS, often arrange other activities in their itinerary to make the most out of their international trips. After spending a week in LA, Kurihara will go to San Francisco, where she attended college, to meet up with old friends. Sotto, meanwhile, went to San Francisco first before heading down to LA for the show.
Expenses for a trip like this can easily stack up. According to local reports, about 8,000 tickets were sold to fans in South Korea, many of whom planned to travel from South Korea to LA for the concert. Alexandra Ramirez, 27, is one of them, but since she’s American and is living in South Korea as an English teacher, she had to go through more hoops to ensure that she would be allowed back into the country after the concerts. This includes applying for a re-entry permit and getting necessary vaccination proof.
But all these administrative hurdles didn’t dampen Ramirez’s anticipation to see her idols. Ramirez landed in LA a few days before the first concert and would be staying for a whole week to attend three shows spread across late November and early December.
“[BTS have] been talking about the moment they get to see ARMY in person for the first time, and I felt like I had to be there to witness their return to the stage,” she told VICE. “I’ve seen BTS before, but I feel like it’ll be my first time experiencing them all over again and I’m so excited!”
Liv Mozumder, a 26-year-old veterinary nurse who flew from the United Kingdom, shared similar sentiments. The longtime BTS fan, who has been following the group since their debut in 2013, had bought the tickets to watch the BTS Map of the Soul Tour that was scheduled for 2020. After being indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic, the tour was ultimately canceled.
“When COVID happened and the tour was canceled, I was devastated,” Mozumder told VICE. “So I made it my mission for 2021 to see BTS at every show in LA as soon as they announced the [Permission to Dance] shows.”
Like many others, Mozumder anticipated waterworks from the live connection between the BTS members and their fans.
“The first show is definitely going to be an emotional one, especially since it’s been so long since ARMY and BTS met. These concerts are going to be very special and I think tears will be shed by ARMY and the boys,” she said.
During the first show, BTS members were seen getting emotional, especially J-Hope, who was visibly tearing up and professing his gratitude for ARMY. Fans were also crying from their seats.
The emotionally charged reunion may appear puzzling to people outside of the BTS fandom, and ARMY themselves have poked fun at the tight-knit network between the group and their fans.
Over the years, the group has opened up conversations about mental health, tackling issues like depression and anxiety through their music. For many, BTS is more than vibing along to groovy beats—they’ve essentially created soundtracks for deeply personal journeys of growth that have resonated with fans around the world.
For Melanie Sargony, 27, her love for BTS goes far beyond music. “We have this saying in our fandom that you find BTS when you need them most. In some way I feel like each of us were swallowed by our own darkness and some of us didn’t even notice until we found BTS. I think that’s where the foundation of my love for them comes from,” Sargony told VICE.
“We have this saying in our fandom that you find BTS when you need them most. In some way I feel like each of us were swallowed by our own darkness and some of us didn’t even notice until we found BTS. I think that’s where the foundation of my love for them comes from.”
“They also talk about how to grow from those dark moments. It is a continuous conversation that we have with each other about learning [to love] ourselves.”
To catch the concert, Sargony took a short flight to LA from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives. Having caught both the Nov. 27 and 28 shows, Sargony described the weekend as “the best moments of [her] life.”
“All around, these two days hit me in every emotion—happy that I’m here, hyped about the stages, sad and thankful when they performed their more emotional songs, and heartbroken leaving SoFi not knowing when the next time I’ll see them is,” Sargony said.
During the group’s acceptance speech for Artist of the Year at the AMAs, member Jungkook spoke about the award heralding a “new chapter” for them. This reference was repeated during a press conference after the band’s concert on Saturday, leaving many to wonder what else the K-pop sensation has in store for its fans.
Last week, it was reported that BTS had applied to defer their military enlistment. Its oldest member, Jin, who was due to enlist in December, before he turns 29, now has until December 2022 before he’s legally mandated to serve about two years of military service, during which he will not be able to perform.
The looming military enlistment of BTS members is a common topic among concerned fans—typically, South Korean bands and actors who enlist in the military are forced to go on hiatus, which spells uncertainty for the world-famous K-pop band.
But by the looks of it, BTS is likely to retain their popularity, as dedicated ARMY continue to support them in the next stage of their journey.
“For me when I think about BTS, I think of them as my best friends first, then I remember that they’re superstars,” said Sargony, who was among the sea of purple lighting up the stadium.
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