I always find myself lamenting that I wish I had gotten into BTS earlier. I knew of them for a while (who doesn’t?), and one of my best friends has been a fan since 2014. I was just never into any form of Korean pop culture. As a fan girl though, I was curious as to why and how BTS cultivated an ever-growing group of fans who not only loved them strongly, but also loudly and proudly. But I stood firm that K-pop was not my cup of tea and it would take too much time and effort to get into them, anyway.
Hah, past Ira was an idiot.
But there’s something you often hear from long-time fans – BTS finds you when you need them the most. And, as I found out, for good reason, too. It’s no coincidence that “how BTS changed my life” is one of their top search terms, and a common topic among fans is sharing stories of how BTS saved them. So this is mine.
The world was thick in the midst of the pandemic, and for many, mental health deteriorated to a point of all-time low. I was honestly struggling as well – the last 2 years were easily the worst of my life: I lost my younger sister and my 12-year old cat quite suddenly within the span of 3 months. I was in a non-relationship that ruined my self-esteem and peaked my anxiety and turned me into the worst version of myself. I had unexpected break-ups with 2 of my close friends. And when the lockdown happened in April, I couldn’t even leave the house for my usual distractions and de-stressing activities.
I was in bed 20 hours a day yet slept so little. I put on so much weight and hated looking at myself on Zoom and in the mirror. I stopped playing Animal Crossing, which was my crutch for the first few months of lockdown (seriously, I racked up 400 hours in 3 months). I was just scrolling through social media most days, barely being productive for work, and hating myself for it. I hated how much time I had to spend inside my head. I hated that the dark somehow managed to get darker, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But mostly, I hated how trivial my issues were compared to other people facing real problems during the pandemic and generally felt like a fraud for feeling this way. So I tried to focus on others when I could muster the energy. I knew my best friend was going through a bad period and would withdraw whenever anyone asked how he was. But something happened during one of our conversations where I was asking people to guess my all-time favourite song.
I knew that feeling of having a comfort song. Suddenly, I knew the best way to connect with him and not let him withdraw was with BTS. As I started plotting, by fate or algorithm, Youtube recommended me the Dynamite MV, which was released the day before.
It was so bright, so fun, so cheery – so unlike how I was feeling. But it made me smile. I texted my friend, “Who is the dude with the blue hair?” and I asked him to link me his top 10 BTS songs, including some by this RM person.
He sent me 20 (because “it is very BTS to be extra and unapologetic about it”).
He even wrote a whole paragraph to introduce each song and either explained their significance or why he loved it. So the next day I started clicking through every link to watch the MVs or live performances. The performances were all impressive as expected, and the music and lyrics were either poetic, relatable, or meaningful – many times all three. I had worried the language barrier was going to take a lot of effort to overcome because I’m very much a lyrics person and I would need to look up the translations, so having the visual and subtitles from the get-go helped immensely.
But what really caught my attention was my friend linking RM’s forever rain and said that his mono. mixtape was comforting. I listened to each song while reading the lyrics and felt something shift inside me.
난 여전히 삶의 인질forever rain, rm
I’m still the hostage of life
죽지 못해 살진 않지만
I don’t live because I can’t die
But I’m chained to something
This was a kick in the gut because of how much I understood it. Having lost my sister to suicide after her long-fought battle, I’m well-acquainted with how someone can feel like they don’t want to live anymore but continue doing so despite not always knowing the reason why. A hostage of life.
And then I heard everythingoes.
Everything is temporary, and that includes the bad. And instead of giving empty words of toxic positivity, it just repeats the simple fact that it shall pass someday. It was cathartic, and I understood for the first time why ARMY kept saying BTS is healing. Someone had commented that mono. felt like a hug from a friend, and I felt it.
힘내란 뿌연 말 대신lyric translation by doolsetbangtan
instead of those vague words to cheer me up,
다 그렇다는 거짓말 대신
instead of those lies that this is how it is supposed to be,
그저 이 모든 바람 바람처럼 지나가길 I pray
I pray that it shall pass just like all these winds.
And so began my (happy) spiral down the BTS rabbit hole.
Fan Girls and Boy Bands
It’s not uncommon to hear that someone becomes a BTS fan overnight (like me). With over 200 songs over the past 9 years of their career, and having 3 rappers and 4 vocalists who each have their own distinct style, they have experimented with so many genres that you could surely find a song to match every mood in the year. On top of their stellar discography, they have at least 10 TV and web series (these are their shows/the ones focused solely on them), 3 full-length films, and hundreds of hours of concert and live performances, behind the scenes, and informal live-streamed chats (V Lives). But it’s not the overwhelming amount of content that automatically converts you into a fan. It’s Them; they are honestly easy to love.
But it’s difficult for an outsider to fathom what BTS is and does that creates such a passionate following. Before I was a fan, I heard every negative description of ARMY possible to discredit them, from “cult-like” to “obsessed over good-looking guys” and “hysterical”. Not to mention more recently, by a certain late night talkshow host who claims to be a friend of BTS, “15-year-old girls”. As usual, the underlying misogyny of these statements are not lost on me (and many) – the description of the diverse fandom as being a mindless obsessed army who “waste” their money on a manufactured boyband, who are somehow reduced to their outward appearance and industry, instead of their talent or hard work? Would they say the same of a man who is a football fan? Is he automatically a mindless, obsessed fan who inherited his father’s love for the club (cult-like) wastes money on jerseys (merch) that he wears all the time and fights with other fans of rivalling teams (hysterical)? Would you assume he watches football because the players are hot (obsessed over good-looking guys)? I hardly think so.
In a (poorly-researched) interview, B!llboard insinuated that BTS and ARMY engage in chart manipulation and mass buying to keep Butter at #1 on the Top 100 for over 10 weeks. But they glossed over the fact that ARMY itself is massive and they buy/stream – a key difference from the narrative they tried to push for. For their 2-day paid virtual Muster 소우주 event in June 2021, they saw over 1.33 million viewers tune in from 195 regions around the globe. They broke their own World Record for most viewers for a music concert livestream, which previously stood at 993,000 viewers across 191 regions for their Map of the Soul ON:E concert in October 2020. So when B!llboard asked Namjoon about the allegations of chart manipulations by their fans, his reply echoed ARMY’s tired thoughts;
If there is a conversation inside B!llboard about what being No. 1 should represent, then it’s up to them to change the rules and make streaming weigh more on the ranking. Slamming us or our fans for getting to No. 1 with physical sales and downloads, I don’t know if that’s right... It just feels like we’re easy targets because we’re a boy band, a K-pop act, and we have this high fan loyalty.
This indicates Namjoon and BTS’s clear and heartbreaking awareness of the industry and society at large; that groups with a predominant female fan base are not seen as credible, because (young) female fans are treated as the lowest denominator of music fans whose enthusiasm are treated as “hysteria” and thus they cannot discern what is “real” music, when they really are the backbone of the music industry. And I say heartbreaking because they do not deserve to be easy targets. Their music has brought so much comfort, acceptance and hope for many. They have saved so many lives. But the higher you go, the more people scrutinise you and try to pull you down.
But unlike 5SOS or Mothxr who leaned into the narrative that they want more male fans “to prove themselves as a real band”, BTS embraces all of ARMY, and this love and inclusivity is a strong part of what inspires their ride-or-die fan base.
Entering the Magic Shop
So what is it actually like to be part of ARMY? What makes the fans feel so connected with BTS?
I think by now, many are aware of the term “parasocial relationship” though it gets quite a bad reputation. While it is any relationship with a media figure, it is classically defined by its unilateral nature as they are unable to return that love to you on an individual level (your relationship to them is personal, but their relationship to you is not). It has been historically pathologised, especially in the case of female fan bases (as we have established earlier).
More recent studies however argue that establishing parasocial attachments is a normal and even inevitable function of the brain (attachment through interaction). Parasocial relationships are just another form of interpersonal relationship, and like any other, it can yield psychological benefits. As part of ARMY, you are not a passive; you do a lot in the relationship (listen/stream, buy, promote/talk about them, draw, write, seek out communities to be part of), and there is a lot to be gained and achieved from it – for example: hobbies, euphoria, friendships, a will to live.
On BTS’ end – they work to subvert the classical “parasocial” definition. They reconfigure the unilateral direction of the parasocial relationship, through exercises of relational labour. In doing so, they foster intimacy with their fans, who feel like they are being given something back. Simply put, they show a keen awareness of what goes on in the fandom, and acknowledge the work put in by fans by creating a safe space, and sharing more of themselves through their message, music and content. Sometimes subtly, sometimes through whole songs they wrote for us.
And in turn, ARMY will show appreciation in return by helping them reach greater heights. It’s a neverending cycle we’re blessed to be in and are happy to put the work into, and there is no need to feel ashamed of feeling so deeply for them, because our emotional experiences with these 7 men are real and that’s really all that matters.
Namjoon makes me appreciate the little things in life so much more now. Seokjin reminds me that it’s okay to rest and not do anything; there’s no need to run at full speed all the time. Yoongi gives me so much emotional support with his gems like “Giving up decisively also counts as courage”. Hoseok inspires me to power through life defiantly with a smile and laugh unrestrainedly in spite of all the darkness. Jimin makes me feel comforted knowing I am never alone and always loved even if I don’t love myself. The way Taehyung sees the world is so refreshing and reminds me that being different is a gift and strength. Jungkook’s devotion to the things he loves make me want to be a better person, and do more, love more. And their collective message of learning to love myself gives me something to live for and work towards.
Maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me. I am who I am today, with all of my faults. Tomorrow I might be a tiny bit wiser, and that’s me, too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I was, who I am, and who I hope to become.Namjoon’s speech at the 2018 United Nations general assembly
And as long as they still to inspire small parts of my life or bring me pockets of joy in my tired days, I will always love them and be thankful to every bit of the universe that led me to them – even if it took me a little while to get there.
(Speaking of which, I started writing this post on Namjoon’s birthday last year, but gave up when I couldn’t finish it on time. Finally revisited it now 9 months later, after so much more crap life has thrown, and reading back I realise my feeling hasn’t changed one bit. So I finally forced myself to finish this. Ah well, as Namjoon said, “Done is better than perfect”, right?)
Anyway happy comeback day! PROOF comes out in less than 12 hours, which includes 3 new songs and their lead single Yet To Come. Do give them a listen, and feel free to approach me if you need help navigating through their discography (I have a whole spreadsheet ready, which has already converted 10 friends into fans hehe).
How did you get into BTS? Feel free to share your story ♡