This is the part in the romantic comedy when I realize I’ve been wrong about them the whole time.
They were right there, for so long, and I just didn’t see it. I was foolish and I was prideful and I locked my heart away in the name of artistic integrity and I was wrong about all of it.
And now I’m just a girl, standing in front of a KPop group, asking them to keep making music and videos and art and concerts.
There are people in my life who love fiercely and bravely, without shame or pretense. I want to love like that. So this is my love letter to BTS.
They've been around since 2013, but didn't come into my life until the end of last year, when my roommate Ali showed us their Tiny Desk concert, shortly after her own love began to develop. For weeks (months?), she sent me and K memes and clips, showed us episodes of Run BTS. And I was definitely charmed. Of course each member is gorgeous and talented, and the few songs I heard were catchy. But in my hipster head, it was K-Pop. I was raised on Queen and Mozart and the Beatles. My iTunes is full of Tom Waits and Spoon and Fiona Apple. “Real” music. I thought of K-Pop as pastel bubble gum corporate nonsense, with a fandom of screaming teenage girls, in a world I had no connection to.
This is the part of the story where I admit that I was a fool.
I don't know how or when the switch happened. I can't point to the exact moment when I fell in love. But somehow the memes Ali was sending me started to get under my skin, and I thought, "Well, I just want to learn their names."
Famous last words. (This is literally a joke in the fandom. We all start by just wanting to know their names.) And then I fell hard and fast.
First of all, before I get any further into it, anything I have to say, this Esquire article says better, so feel free to just read that. Or this older article from Entertainment Weekly. But for my own personal thoughts, read on.
KPop is an intense industry in Korea—there are trainee programs that churn out pop groups every few years and promote them while training the next ones. The idols and groups that populate the stages of Korea are marketed products. And part of the reason I love BTS so much is because while they occupy that space of being products, they also seem to subvert and defy the industry in many ways, just by being so deeply and genuinely THEMSELVES.
Lemme introduce you to the boys.
From left to right:
Suga (Min Yoongi, Yoongi, solo work under Agust-D). Rap line. Probably one of the best rappers of our generation? Dry humor exterior, deeply caring interior. (Check out the music video for his solo track Daechwita, with cameos by fellow BTS members Jin and Jungkook.)
J-Hope (Jung Hoseok, Hoseok, Hobi). Dancer, rap line. Human sunshine. Everyone, including me, saw him during Carpool Karaoke and asked “Who’s the guy in the middle?”
Jin (Kim Seokjin, Seokjinnie, Jinnie, “World Wide Handsome”). Vocals, visual. Oldest of the group. Caring older brother, king of dad jokes.
Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook, Kookie, JK, “Golden Maknae”). Vocals, dancer, visual. The youngest of the group, or the “maknae.” Good at almost everything he tries.
RM (Kim Namjoon, Namjoon, Rap Monster, “God of Destruction”). Rap line, incredible lyricist. Leader of the group. (Also spokesperson and translator, since he’s the most fluent in English.)
Jimin (Park Jimin, Jiminie). Dancer, vocals, visual. Astonishingly talented dancer. Besties with V.
V (Kim Taehyung, Taehyung, Tae). Vocals, dancer, visual. Breathy and ethereal vocals, incredible fashion sense. Besties with Jimin.
The seven boys have practically grown up together—they each joined the trainee program as teenagers, and Jungkook was only 14 when he started. When they debuted in 2013, their ages ranged from 16 to 21. And after all those years together, their friendship is so deeply evident in all of the HOURS of content available to watch (concert footage, Run BTS, Bon Voyage, In the Soop, V-Lives, fancams, BTS bombs, and memes and clips from all of the above). They care so much about each other and it’s my favorite thing. (Leader RM has said that the members think of each other as something between friends and family, and the editor of the Japanese magazine CREA once said "BTS love each other so much they don't know what to do.")
And the music. Oh dear readers, the music. I came to BTS in a weird sort of backwards way—I became a fan just from watching other content, and listened to hardly any of their music for weeks. And then I listened to “Love Yourself: Tear” front to back and it was over.
I could spend a bunch of time listing all of their record-shattering stats on Billboard and album sales. I could go into detail about KPop trainee programs and their vigorous schedules and how hard these boys have worked to get where they are. I could tell you how quickly they sell out stadiums. I could tell you about all the social media records they've shattered, and then shattered again. But you can Google all that.
Instead I’ll just extol the hard-hitting synchronization of the dance rehearsal for No More Dream. (This video is from the year they debuted, so Jungkook is only 15 here.) Or the enthusiasm and passion in the dance rehearsal for On. The stunning vocals and desperation of the track House of Cards. The lyrical sensuality of the choreo in Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The classical beauty of the music video for Black Swan. The dark sexiness of Jimin performing Filter live. The playfulness of the dance rehearsal for Baepsae. And good night, the enormous, over-the-top intensity of Dionysus at the 2019 MMA awards. (The entire performance is like 40 minutes long—start at 29:14 to see Dionysus; FLASH/STROBE WARNING from 34:16 - 36:05.)
The boys in BTS are also big ole goofballs, which is effing delightful. But even more beautiful to me is the genuine love the members BTS have for not only each other, but for their fans. It’s evident in their TinyTan videos like this one for Dream On. In the way they always thank ARMY (what BTS fans call themselves) in every album and every concert and every interview. And words fall short for the hope and beauty I feel watching the music video for Life Goes On. It feels like a such a gift. It’s this lovely poignant look at this pandemic-driven moment in history. Watching it, I felt so deeply that we belong to each other, we human beings, and that the future holds beauty for us all. (Also, the music video was directed by BTS’ own golden maknae, Jungkook, because he’s wondrous.)
I think part of the reason I love BTS is because watching them reminds me of what it’s like to be with a bunch of theatre kids. It makes me feel the same way I did hanging out with cast-mates in Yellowstone during Playmill summers, or talking in the parking lot after a show at a theatre somewhere, or sitting at a cast party and laughing about everything that went wrong during the run of a show, or messing around in the greenroom before curtain or backstage. Watching BTS perform feels familiar too—sharing the stage with people you care about, doing what you love together, hyping each other up and celebrating each other's success, and having moments to shine yourself, and having SO MUCH FUN while doing it.
I also love that they’re challenging some toxic masculinity in the rest of the world just by being themselves. In Korea, men and boys are much more physically affectionate with one another—arms around shoulders, hugs, shoulder rubs, sitting on each other’s laps, etc. There’s even a name for this kind of affection…“skinship.” A lot of this kind of behavior is coded as “homosexual” or “girly” or “weak” in America, and therefore unacceptable for many straight men. (One time in college, two guys I knew accidentally brushed hands while passing food to one another and one of them recoiled and said emphatically “No contacting man-flesh!”) By comparison, members of BTS share beds when they travel and cuddle up on couches together and slap butts regularly. A lot of Americans/non-Koreans see this and make assumptions about sexual orientation, but these KPop boys are literally just being their affectionate selves.
And while we’re on the subject of breaking gender norms, GIVE ME BOYS IN MAKEUP ALWAYS. Have you seen these boys rocking lipstick and eye shadow?! Life-changing. For concerts and photo-shoots and occasionally everyday life, the boys don lace and chokers and bracelets and earrings and eyeliner and I am here for all of it.
The K-Pop industry isn’t without its issues. Despite all of the makeup and same-sex touching, Korea is still homophobic. There’s an obsession with personal appearance that pushes folks into disordered eating. The trainee programs for idols can be grueling and overly controlling and downright abusive. The music industry in Korea can be exploitative (see "fan service"). There are legitimate reasons to criticize Kpop as an industry. But sometimes our reasons for dismissing KPop (and BTS) have more to do with internalized bullshit that doesn't hold up to any real scrutiny. That Esquire article I linked above really said it best:
I originally intended to convert you all with this blog. But you're under no obligation to love or even be interested in BTS. Like Ali said to me once, people come to the boys if and when they’re ready. It took me a while to come to them. There’s a whole wealth of knowledge, an entire vocabulary, a slew of inside jokes that you learn as you become an ARMY. You may make a few incorrect assumptions because of your American perspective at first, like I did. (This article is a helpful guide in giving context to Korean media.) If you do come to the boys, be forewarned that they will probably come for you, one after another. You’ll cycle through a specific phase of love for each of them.
One of my other original intentions in writing this blog was to defend myself and my love for the boys, to get ahead of the shaming or teasing I anticipate (perhaps falsely). But I don’t want to do that either. I just want to love them. Fiercely and bravely.
Yes, BTS can be a distraction from the woes of our current timeline (pandemic, lack of COVID-safe theatre work, financial worries, recent breakup). But BTS is more than that. They offer hope and light and music and love in a world that’s uncertain, pandemic or not. I know it's cheesy, but I thank the universe that I'm alive on earth at the same time as BTS, and that Ali found the boys and then shared them with me.
I love BTS because of their talent, their humor, their individual quirks, their attractiveness, their friendship. We stan a group that stans their fans and each other. When we see BTS performing on stage, or doing an episode of Run BTS, or traveling for Bon Voyage, we’re watching people spend their time with people they love and belong to, people who work hard at their jobs, and people who humbly show gratitude for the people who have given them what they have.
I love BTS because they have what so many of us long for—to love our jobs and be good at them, a chosen family who can laugh and work together and encourage each other along the way.
And by loving them, I find myself a part of a chosen family, too. One of millions of ARMYs who love these boys, fiercely and bravely, and are lucky enough to be loved back.