The Thing About BTS
Updated: Sep 1
It’s a tenet of faith amongst supergroup BTS’ most loyal fans that you discover the band at precisely the moment you most need them. This would explain why BTS moved from the periphery to the centre of my consciousness precisely one month ago. I’d recently tested positive for COVID, interpreted the symptoms as being innocuous and had tried to use my time in isolation ‘productively.’ That went as well as anyone could have expected, setting the stage for a prolonged bout of deep fatigue and mental fogginess.
It only took a single morning to feel like I’d completely lost the capacity to string thoughts together. What was I to do? The pile of non-fiction books I’d promised to read seemed absurdly intimidating. Movies and dramas demanded far too much emotional investment, as did the one sitcom I’d grown to tolerate. Social media (whose effects I believed I’d long neutralized) was sparking an almost childish envy for everyone who was ‘out there’ while I was ‘in here,’ forced to drop anchor in my bedroom.
That was when I chanced upon my first BTS Reel. I knew the group was a septet; I knew they had legions of devoted fans, including a cohort of young strategists on my team who’d insisted on leading a two-hour immersion into BTS’ global dominance under the gauzy veneer of ‘trend-spotting;’ I knew they thought of themselves as a force for good and had recently visited the White House; I’d heard Butter and Dynamite, had heard of Namjoon and Jimin.
But BTS’ charm cut through my inches-deep ignorance and lassitude, one fan-curated video at a time. I quickly became familiar with names, faces and personalities. Every member sparkled, including the unconvincingly grouchy Suga. Watching these little snippets felt like watching sketch comedy, except that the characters were real and the scenes were moments from their admittedly singular lives.
How much do you know about BTS? I’ve learnt that they’ve broken all kinds of records, accomplished huge firsts, made billions of dollars for their company and the South Korean economy, championed important causes with sincerity, boast of the world’s most engaged, passionate and protective fanbase - A.R.M.Y. (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth). They’re consummate performers, ferociously talented and incredibly hard-working. All of this is the point, but it’s also besides the point. My own affection for them grew almost by stealth - I had become fond of them before I’d heard a single track.
I’m not given to fandom. I have never had ‘favourite’ actors, musicians, artists or writers. I’m often described as the person least likely to recognize a celebrity. But even I was taken in by BTS’ palpable niceness - the seven members radiate affection for each other and are unfailingly courteous to everyone else. They take their work much more seriously than they take their success, and they seem to consistently delight in the fact that they get to experience all of this together. They have an incredible gift for comic timing, except that it isn’t a gift as much as it is the profound familiarity that’s characteristic of families and old, comfortable friendships.
There’s rampant speculation about the group’s inner workings and dynamics, predictable debates (and verdicts) about each member’s sexuality and dating history. Judging by all the hashtags my Instagram feed now throws up, fans have set multiple ‘ships’ afloat, the permutations and combinations of which are numerous and varied. What I find more cynical - and interesting - are allegations that BTS’ friendships are largely performative, engines that drive a multi-billion dollar content empire that currently includes variety entertainment shows, live-streams, independent albums and games.
My familiarity with the band’s romantic mythology is minimal. Could there be truth to the rumors? Of course. But common sense suggests that it’s impossible for seven people to cycle through all of these pairings without imploding under a cloud of drama and mutual resentment. Common sense also suggests that it’s impossible to sustainably ‘pretend’ at friendship for over a decade, especially when you are being constantly, consistently watched.
BTS is subject to relentless scrutiny and impossible standards. There are thousands of followers who parse their every gesture and glance for hidden significance, posting long-length analyses of postures and gazes on YouTube; there are cameras following them everywhere - including into their bedrooms, so that people have the option of gushing over them as they hug pillows and perhaps each other. Even their government can’t seem to resist the allure of their star power, with ministers promising the public that BTS will stage concerts during their mandatory military service.
It’s moving, almost, that these seven men have responded to being hyper-visible and almost entirely commoditized by relying on each other, on their beloved ‘A.R.M.Y.’, by creating and sharing meaning through music and by showing up as their work-in-progress selves. Their performances are electric, their live-streams have a shambolic, intimate quality that reminds me of conversations between a tight knot of friends after a big party has wound down. BTS is always looking for something of value to say, always looking to delight their fans and each other.
The group had announced a hiatus in early July, talking openly about burnout and exhaustion, setting in motion outpourings of sorrow and wistfulness but also ripples of empathy. Yet it seems they will have to show up, day in and day out, in service of a global community that can’t get enough of them, even as they negotiate individual paths and try to build separate lives after years of sharing a home.
It says something about audiences, consumption culture and our habit for cynicism that we cannot take at face value the things we claim to cherish - authenticity, humility, warmth, earnestness. BTS are the superstars we’ve always said we wanted - talented, undeniably likeable, genuinely nice. And even this isn’t enough to inoculate them against our innate scepticism, our need for novelty, for more.
I’m no A.R.M.Y., and my brush with the band might end as abruptly as it began. But I know that we’re lucky to have BTS, to be able to bask in their serotonin-infused glow. For once, the good guys have finished first - it would be wonderful if we could only let it stay that way.