BTS is bigger than you think
The dissection of my devotion draws out something surprising
It’s been so easy for so many people to brush aside BTS as just another successful K-pop export. But the biggest band in the world didn’t get there by accident or by following a mold. Through almost a decade of persistent and consistent work, they’ve amassed a following called ARMY — millions of dedicated fans that follow their every move, are devoted to what they say and do, and walk their talk by spending money on branded merchandise, concert tickets, and many others. Over the course of this pandemic, many more were added to this mass. I’m proud to say I’m one of them, and a card-carrying one at that.
I will admit, though, that I was one of those that swiftly dismissed them earlier. One look at their made up faces and colorful hair, the outlandish costumes and formulaic performances and didn’t pay them any more mind. Even when a lot of my friends suddenly “turned” and would declare their love for BTS so fervently, I resisted. My Spotify year-end recaps were always consistent anyway: I listened to the same acts year after year, almost down to the same songs on rotation. My musical tastes were set, like many other things in my life, it didn’t need disruption. But being cooped up at home alone these past two years can make anyone curious. So it was then over the course of one evening, I decided to finally get to the bottom of BTS.
The black hole that is YouTube proved effective, with its algorithm consistently feeding me content. The fan-made edits were cute and amusing, even if I wasn’t aware of all the inside jokes they contained. There were also amateur documentaries about the boys’ journey, each providing different insights and perspectives. Until finally when all this wasn’t enough, and I was given access to the more official BTS-made videos. It was right around the time their summer single, “Butter”, debuted and I was swept away in all the yellow happy goodness. I streamed the song for days and bought the single to support the band. And finally I swiped my card for ARMY membership, jumped through the rabbit hole, and have not looked back since.
Many articles and personalities would’ve articulated it better than me. But what I found were seven very distinct individuals that seemed destined to meet in a joyful mishmash of willingness, earnestness, commitment, and determination. It was difficult not to cry along when I watched videos of them accepting their first big awards tearfully, or be amazed at how they overcame the challenges they described. Yes, it’s easy to dismiss them as another K-pop act because they’re actually really excellent at being that, but I was also won over by how hard they worked, how they wore their hearts on their sleeves, and even displayed how differently manhood can look like now. And reading through their translated lyrics that they wrote themselves, also showed me there was so much more there than I realized.
It’s only been a few months but as is my personality when I’m into something, I’m deeply into it. I dove in and bought merch almost every week, feeling like I had to make up for the many years I didn’t know them. It was pretty easy to amass, even if my credit cards were screeching every time. And, of course, there was the massive discography — hundreds of songs going back years, with B-sides, and other hidden tracks that needed research. On top of the videos that needed watching, too (their self-produced variety show, Run BTS, is free to access on VLive and is a great place to start). I listened to and watched them constantly and it got to the point where I felt I knew them so intimately. Before long I started looking for opportunities to sneak and weave them into conversations with friends. Maybe I wanted them to make sense of this fever and fervor: do you agree too, do you approve, I’m not alone right, would you like to join and keep me company? I only have the world to blame for the complex that told me as a 40-year old senior executive, that all this wasn’t a good look nor a great use of my time.
Of course, I know now this isn’t true. I’ve met so many new acquaintances and refreshed old friendships because of the ARMY bonds. Moms and grandmothers, young kids and teens, even men. Different races, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, occupations. I’m always blown away how the ARMY group chat I’m part of on Twitter can keep going while I sleep, for those awake on the other side of the world. There’s always something new to discover, share, and discuss.
But I did have my reservations that I chose not to share to fellow ARMY friends. I wondered if BTS and the fandom they’ve encouraged was a by-product of something bigger. I finally discussed my suspicions with a friend (non-ARMY but with lots of ARMY friends like me) and she grounded my thoughts this way, in that it does feel like BTS was a response to what we’ve been witnessing now for many years as a failure of the traditional concept of manhood. The Me Too Movement and the reckoning (and demand to punish) against toxic masculinity has certainly sped this up, but all over the world, there has generally been tremendous backlash against the expectations of what men should be. Strength needed to be redefined. And these younger generations, as a response, have Harry Styles and BTS prominently among them, who appear gender-bending and comfortable in that gray space. The feminine is also changing into something more fluid, not exactly androgynous, still soft but ever-questioning, recalibrating expectations on what society can actually rely on them for. But we see this in fashion (the “romantic” vibe is still going strong), art and visuals (millennial pink was the de rigeur color for a while), and entertainment (even here in the Philippines, for many years now, independent films continue to focus on LGBTQ issues or even cis-centric romances). The kinds of stories being produced as TV shows and movies also seem to be following a similar pattern: South Korea is also ground zero for this. But it wasn’t that long ago when the hits were almost all made of Bruce Willis-type bravado. Where are the action films that used to reign supreme?
BTS is easy to lambast because they’re so huge. But they also seem to have gotten very good at handling obstacles in their own way. They continue to do what they’ve done: sing and dance and wear makeup and clothes that anyone would look good wearing. They have gotten comfortable occupying this space of candor and honesty, of curiosity and daring, of refusing to be pigeon-holed. Spend a day in their world and it will be really difficult to come out of it unchanged.
Drawing this out is not a criticism of BTS or its fans, of which I’m firmly and proudly part. I think it was just important for me to understand the context where this sensation lives. To make sense, more for me, about the part BTS is meant to play in the grander scheme of things. There is a bit of concern there as I reveal this that, as BTS seems to be a reaction, they too will cause another. My worry is that toxic masculinity will refuse to die and wreak vengeance harder than before. I think the greater work that’s needed is to guard the softness that’s arisen, the courage to be vulnerable, the inability to care for pretense, the refusal to follow heteronormative rules. It feels like a battle, to be honest. Maybe it’s fortunate then that ARMY is called such. As hard as they’ve been fighting for the boys, many of them probably don’t know they’re fighting this bigger battle too.
For now, ARMY gets a bit of a reprieve. The boys are on an extended period of rest (although by normal people standards, two months is hardly enough) and they’re keeping us busy through premiering their own individual Instagram accounts, selling merch they designed themselves, and keeping all of us on our toes with every infinitesimal movement and inaction. Whatever BTS chooses to do next, I for one will be waiting with bated breath, ready to wave my ARMY bomb like a banshee, scream and dance my heart out to their next hit song, and maybe bring down the patriarchy while I’m at it.