Being a BTS fan in 2020

Melanie Wong

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In the last five years, BTS has skyrocketed fromK-pop underdogs to global superstars. The group debuted in 2013 with seven members: RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. From handing out free concert tickets to amassing a Twitter following of 27.7 million at the date of writing, these seven South Korean men have undoubtedly made their mark on the world. But stepping back from the glamour and the music and the sold-out stadium tours, what exactly makes a BTS stan, or ARMY, tick? I’m giving you an up-close and personal chat with one of them: me.

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First, a bit of background information on BTS themselves. Bangtan Sonyeon-dan are under the Korean entertainment agency of Bighit Entertainment, a smaller company than the more well known SM, JYP, and YG Entertainment.  This is, in part, what made their rise so shocking to the general population, as well as successful; everyone loves an underdog. They have released nineteen Korean and Japanese albums, EPs, and compilation albums, each one containing a different message and a plethora of genres that include loving tributes from the band to their fans. With iconic phrases such as “I purple you”, coined by Kim Taehyung (V), and their inter-active use of social media platforms such as Twitter, BTS is accessible and popular to their millions of fans. In fact, BTS contributed a whopping $4.65 billion to the South Korean GDP in 2019 alone. It comes as no surprise that they were awarded the South Korean Cultural Merit Award in 2018 for their work. BTS are undoubtably a part of the Korean cultural wave that’s been lapping at the shores of Western culture since the early 2000s, but part of their fan appeal is the flawed humanity of the members in an industry of manufactured, exploited idols. With their own variety shows (RUN! BTS, Bon Voyage) and a number of movies and documentaries that explore the intensity of a world tour and its harrowing impact on the members, BTS have gone to painful extremes to deliver their music and the behind-the-scenes of their journey to the world.

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That’s not to say that BTS’s music is completely removed from K-pop norms – far from it. But BTS have worked hard to create their own name and global brand, with collabor-ations across the music industry, fashion world, and even with UNICEF. Beginning with their Love Myself campaign, which advocated for ending global violence against child-ren, BTS’s leader Kim Namjoon, or RM, gave a speech at UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited campaign, throwing BTS onto the global political stage and distinguishing themselves from the idea of being just another boyband.

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Being a BTS stan is to be one amongst millions. But despite the idea of fandom being around for decades, influencing both individual lives and the course of history, perceptions of fans, and especially K-pop stans, are simplistic and un-nervingly negative. From the pervasive and comparatively innocent assumption that most K-pop stans are manic teenagers obsessed with various celebrities of assorted talents that they will probably never meet, to the frankly ridiculous description of ‘radical protestors’ after K-pop stans ruined a Trump rally in Tulsa, fans of K-pop have been subjected to a lot of unnecessary hate. While some criticisms ring true, such as the existence of female stalker fans, sasaengs, broad generalisations have given K-pop a pretty bad reputation.

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Now, having been well and truly immersed into the world of K-pop Twitter, I know that most stereotypes are untrue. Plenty of fans are not teenagers. In fact, I see constant tweets of BTS fans saying that they just got accepted into law school, just got a promotion, just had their first child, or taught their kids the choreography of a new BTS song while in lockdown.

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BTS fans come from all walks of life.

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They are like you, like me, like teenage girls infatuated with their first boyband and like adults, finding a safe space to express their love for BTS’s music. I’ll be the first to admit that I used to look down on K-pop with similar disdain, back when I was a high schooler surrounded by people with the same opinions. It just goes to show how much we are a product of our environment; as soon as I graduated, I fell headfirst down the rabbit hole of the BTS fandom. To be fair, I was largely influenced by two of my best friends, but despite my newfound appreciation for BTS: music, performances, and genuine talent, there was a constant niggling sensation in the back of my mind that made me keep this passion a secret.

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Unlike many other fans, who can pinpoint the exact date they became a stan, I fell into their music slowly, then all at once. I was beginning a strange new episode of my life called university. My life had split into two distinct categories: the reality of studying full time, working, and navigating new social circles, and the safety of listening to BTS music, learning the meanings behind the Korean lyrics, and unravelling the storylines behind their music videos.

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For a long time, only my best friends from high school knew that I liked BTS – not even my family were aware, and certainly not the tentative new friendships I had formed with my university friends. I was so afraid of being classed as the manic teenage fan and of not being taken seriously. Perhaps, I was afraid that people would take my safe space and comfort and turn it into the worst and weakest part of me.

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Why was it such a big deal anyway, to love this group and this music and find comfort in it? 

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People did the same with sports teams all the time. Now, I realise that it may not even have been the industry or the groups or the manufactured music that people criticised. Maybe it was just the teenage girls.

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There’s a funny anecdote that almost every K-pop fan can attest to. I just wanted to learn their names, you always start. In the beginning, their changing hair colours and fashion styles and even eye colours are confusing. Distinguishing their individual quirks and traits is the first step. The second is identifying their individual voices. The third is making a Twitter stan account. The rest is history.

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There is a strange, distinct comfort of meeting someone who likes the same group as you. It’s almost a meme, to put a small symbol of that group on your clothes, on your phone, your laptop background, and seeing who notices and knows. There is a moment when you lock eyes and see the symbol or the word or the photo and you think, ah. I know you. Whether it’s a stranger on Twitter or on the street, you know that you can be yourself and not be judged for liking a particular brand of music.

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I’ve made online friendships based on a mutual love of BTS that have lasted longer than relationships I’ve had in real life. Two of my good friends live in England. I’ve never met them in real life but, for a period of time, spoke to them every single day. We started off talking about BTS. We told each other who our biases (favourite members of the group) were. We analysed their lyrics and videos together. Then we sent each other birthday cards. We video-called. We told each other about our lives and our dreams and I found people halfway across the world who knew me better than some people I saw in class every week. Now, we speak to each other less and talk about BTS less. But we still send each other birthday cards.

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It’s been almost three years since I first clicked onto one of their music videos. 

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Now, I don’t immediately go on Twitter when they post a new photo, I don’t stay up till twelve a.m. Korean Standard Time waiting for an announcement that might not actually happen and I don’t listen exclusively to their music. I don’t track how many #1’s their new album gets on iTunes. I don’t stream their music videos on the day they are released. I have stopped following them almost religiously.

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But something that BTS fans believe is that you find BTS when you need their message the most, whether that be about telling capitalism to fuck off, learning how to love yourself, or finding your own dreams and way in life. At the end of 2017, BTS had just released their new album, Love Yourself: Her, and that was when my mental health had taken a nosedive three years in the making. I cannot say that BTS saved my life, because that’s not quite true and is much more dramatic than I’m accustomed to being.

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But there is a reason that music therapy exists; BTS’s music threw me a lifeline and a distraction and a hug all in one. 

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It was a reminder to keep living at a time when I didn’t want to, a reminder to reach out to friends and find people in my life who would love me despite everything and not judge me. Even though I no longer watch their music show performances and every single episode of their variety show, being a BTS ARMY has changed my personality in more ways than one.

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Now, at the tender age of 20, all the people I love most know about how important that group has been to me. Because I am not in the habit of befriending people who are assholes, being a BTS stan is just another one of my hobbies to them. Some people will still laugh at me; they will ask me why I spent my time and money on something so trivial.

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But BTS’s music was a soundtrack to my life at some of its best and worst moments, so I will be both unapologetic and unrepentant.

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In saying all this, some perceptions of BTS fans have been true for me. There was that time when two of my friends and I learnt the chorus choreography of “Blood, Sweat and Tears” while drunk at two a.m. Another time, when my best friend and I were in Korea, we definitely lined up and went to the House of BTS, a pop-up merch store, just to take photos and spend an inordinate amount of money. I admit that my mother lamented the loss of my hard-earned income over the multiple albums of ‘those Korean boys’. However, in life, I have learnt to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. In this case, I will ask for neither.