Do you know BTS? In case you don’t, or have chosen to wilfully ignore them so far, here’s a quick rundown: they’re a seven-member K-pop group from South Korea, whose music treads the line between multiple musical genres, from EDM to hip-hop. The band is composed of Kim Namjoon (RM), Kim Seokjin (Jin), Min Yoongi (SUGA), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope), Park Jimin (Jimin), Kim Taehyung (V) and Jeon Jungkook (Jungkook). They write, produce and are directly involved in the creative process of all their albums, having won multiple awards, both in their home country and internationally. They were the first K-pop group to win a major American award and to speak at the United Nations. They have more than once been directly tweeted by the president of South Korea. And although they have been actively performing since 2013, this Tuesday marked their first-ever performance in the UK.
Approaching the O2 Arena, on an otherwise quiet sunny day, I see flocks of the band’s fans – like, what looks like a crowd of thousands – gathering around posters of the boys, sitting in circles with bluetooth speakers blasting songs from their discography or queueing up to buy merchandise. In a few hours, they’ll be inside, forming a galaxy that can be seen from the stage by holding up a shining light stick device called the ARMY bomb. The swarm of their glow will symbolise each fan’s place in the stands, extending as far as my eyes can see and flickering, sometimes blue, sometimes multicolour, sometimes purple. Each person in that arena will soon be hanging on to every word spoken, in English and Korean, by the seven young men currently hailed by many as the world’s biggest boyband.
These fans sitting around, known as ARMY, are almost as famous as the band itself. Fiercely devoted, they’re able to mobilise themselves en masse and sell out stadiums like no one else – as well as being often misrepresented by media outlets as insane screaming teenage girls with no substance, who “don’t even understand the lyrics”. Because, of course, for some critics young women are not allowed to be passionate about anything without being submitted to ridicule.
“It’s so sad that some people think that music doesn’t have the same meaning just because it’s in another language – it can be just as beautiful and meaningful”, says Rachel, 15. “They think we’re just fanning over some good-looking guys, and that’s not it. Yes, they are pretty, but that’s not all. They work so, so hard, and they’ve made it so far, and the fact they did that makes you feel like you can do anything you want, too.”
But despite the misguided claims of superficiality, ARMY, standing alongside BTS (as the group always remember to point out), are currently leading a radical self-love movement, propelled by the band’s latest series of albums, Love Yourself: Her, Tear and Answer. Each album openly follows the band’s own collective and individual journey towards self-love, going from a youthful, naive perspective of searching for love in others to coming to love and accept themselves, despite flaws or previous mishaps.
The Love Yourself album series also included a collaborative campaign with UNICEF, LOVE MYSELF, which started in November 2017, raising more than $1 million for the UN agency’s #EndViolence campaign and culminating in RM’s much-blogged, touching speech at the UN. There, he coined a new mantra of acceptance: “Speak yourself”.
“Loving yourself is so important – BTS really made me realise a lot of things”, says Hannah, 17, a BTS fan since 2013. “When I watched RM at the UN – I thought it was funny at the beginning, not going to lie, but it really hit me: he’s right. He was talking about how he didn’t accept some things about himself – so I realised I need to accept where I’m from, because I used to be embarrassed about it – since I used to be bullied for being Somalian and all that. Now I just embrace it. And it’s cool.”
Personally, I stumbled upon my first BTS video three years ago – during the height of my depression, back in my parents’ house, while recovering from a major mental breakdown. The seven members, in their sailor outfits dancing along in perfect sync to a mash-up of “Rollin’” by Limp Bizkit and becoming a human-made machine gun, were the first people to make me feel anything other than the dread and tiredness I’d become so familiar with for the previous two years. Today, sitting here at the concert, at nearly 25 and with my multiple tattoos, I’m wearing a self-made “Goths love Jin” lapel pin and keeping a sign with SUGA’s face on it inside of my bag. I have watched thousands of hours’ worth of BTS videos and interviews and yes, I have them as the background on my phone.
Like me, there are many others around at the O2 arena tonight waiting for the performance. A noticeably diverse group of people – with a distinct young feminine majority, but including all genders and ages – who have found a haven of safety not only in BTS’ music, but their distinct personalities, intense work ethos, amazing chemistry and, above all, openness in their communication with fans. And that feels like something rare, not only when it comes to a K-Pop group, but in the world of celebrities in general.
“I read this tweet that said ‘BTS comes into your life when you need them the most’, and I couldn’t stress that more”, says Charlie, 30, who has been a BTS fan for a year. “When me [and my friend Em] started getting into them, we were in a slump – going through a quarter-life crisis, and it just put so much positivity into our lives. I think there’s something really nice about focusing your time and energy into something like music, like BTS, that doesn’t make you feel bad about your appearance, it doesn’t make you feel bad about how much stuff you need buy. And I think for young people today, that’s really important too.”
When the concert is about to start, it is announced that Jungkook has hurt his foot and will not be able to follow choreography, which is promptly followed by a crowd chant of “It’s OK” and his name, echoing before they take to the stage – the fans’ way of reassuring the youngest member. As they reach the end of the performance, he bursts into tears twice, and at Jimin’s command, the whole arena screams, “I LOVE YOU JUNGKOOK”. Being there, it feels a lot like a conversation between an enormous group of friends looking out for each other.
The show begins, and it’s as if all in attendance are in a trance – cheering at every comment, every video, every “let’s get it”, every detail of the intricately built stage. Showmanship and talent aside, it’s insanely hard to ignore the power that comes with a crowd of nearly 20,000 people screaming “You can’t stop me loving myself” at the top of their lungs as the chorus of “IDOL”, the star single of Love Yourself: Answer is performed by the boys in their prince-like jackets following furious choreography.
The same effect happens during Jin’s solo performance – the vocalist brought on stage in a suit dripping with roses, playing the piano and softly singing the melancholic ballad of self-love “Epiphany”, a highlight of their latest album. Be it in a tone of unabashed celebration or soft, caring words like Jimin’s “Serendipity”, self-love and staying true to yourself have always been a continuous theme in BTS’ ethos, which cannot be ignored.
Classic songs like “DOPE (쩔어)”, “Baebsae (뱁새)”, “FIRE (불타오르네)” and “Attack on Bangtan (진격의 방탄)” are performed in succession, whipping the crowd into a singalong frenzy. But something that stands out: the mix of “SAVE ME”, from 2016’s The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever, with “I’m Fine,” its direct response song released this year. Yes, the one from that ‘turn it upside down for a surprise’ image that graced so many angsty Tumblrs in about 2010.
This mix fulfils a storyline that the band has been weaving together, either intentionally or unintentionally, since way before the Love Yourself series was even announced to the public – a story of youth, trying your best at what you love and of finding yourself despite all the pressures that might come with life, something which clearly transcends boundaries like location and language.
As BTS approach the end of the concert, the chorus of “Answer: Love Myself” rings particularly true. When the members sing, “you’ve shown me I have reasons I should love myself”, showered in confetti and looking every bit as ethereal as they do on the internet, thousands of voices echo in loving response. A sea of blue flickering lights greet the band head on, each of them a “star in their galaxy” as they are affectionately called by V, representing just how many people found a connection to their words. And so, now you know.
You can find Biju on Twitter.