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BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists SPECIAL FEATURE 3 ARMY: The First Fandom of its Kind

Behind the rise of BTS is a powerful global fandom called ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth). Unrivalled in its organization, dedication and pride, the fandom itself is a distinct sociocultural phenomenon. What sets the ARMY apart is the way the fans internalize the narrative and message of BTS.

Some 5,000 fans loudly sing along to “Boy With Luv” and “Fire” in BTS’ opening performance for ABC’s “Good Morning America Summer Concert,” held on May 15, 2019 in Central Park, New York. Thousands of fans braved bad weather to camp overnight at the venue to see the concert.

On May 21 this year, the top part of the Empire State Building in New York was lit up in a dazzling purple for BTS in honor of the band’s visit. The LED light show was a rare sight, usually reserved for national holidays or celebrations of major events like the Olympic Games.

Following suit, during the band’s “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour with concerts held at notable venues, including London’s Wembley Stadium, the Stade de France in Paris and the Yanmar Stadium Nagai in Osaka, the cities illuminated their iconic landmarks in BTS’ signature color purple. It was in recognition and honor of the “cultural icon” of our times, as well as an acknowledgement of ARMY as their citizens.

Seoullo 7017, a Seoul landmark, is illuminated in purple, BTS’ signature color, for the band’s fan meeting in the capital on June 22, 2019.

Famous landmarks in major cities are bathed in purple light to welcome BTS and ARMY, who converge from near and far for the band’s concerts or fan meetings. From top: Empire State Building, New York; Tower Bridge, London; and Eiffel Tower, Paris.

Formidable Influence
BTS’ major breakthrough in the global music scene came in 2017. They made a big splash that year, winning an award and performing at the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards, two of the big three music award shows in America. This year, the band not only scored a Grammy nomination but was also invited to attend the awards ceremony as presenters.

If, in 2017, global media outlets were asking, “Who on earth are BTS?” in 2018, they were wondering, “What is the reason behind their immense popularity?” and in 2019, they are predicting that “their popularity will last.” There is good reason to believe that BTS’ popularity is neither a transient phenomenon, nor a hype that exists only in the online world: they have the strong backing of a huge fan base who willingly consumes everything to do with the group, from albums, concerts and movies to mobile games, books and merchandise, driving astronomical sales.

The popularity of BTS, which many once shrugged off as nothing but a social media frenzy, has been proven in numbers — the second best-selling album worldwide in 2018, all shows on their world tour sold out in a matter of hours, estimated to be worth trillions of won to the Korean economy annually. ARMY’s influence in the music industry is such that it cannot be taken lightly. Moreover, it is fiercely protective, ready to pounce on any perceived mistreatment of BTS — and getting results.

For example, in June this year, the Australian TV show “20 to One” that airs on Channel Nine came under fire for its “Greatest Global Crazes” segment. The hosts introduced BTS as “the biggest band you’ve never heard of,” commenting on their chart-topping success in America as “even more impressive because only one band member actually speaks English.”

Comparing their explosive popularity to a nuclear bomb, one guest remarked, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried. So, I guess, it could’ve been worse — but not much worse,” while another mocked that at least one of the seven members must be gay because “it’s just math.” Of the speech delivered by member RM at the UN General Assembly to mark the launch of “Generation Unlimited,” they ridiculed that it was probably about “hair products.”

Outraged fans around the world accused the hosts of expressing animosity laden with xenophobic and racist overtones. ARMY pressured network sponsors to pull advertisements and filed complaints with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Caving in to the pressure, the show issued an apology on social media: “We apologise for any disrespect and offence taken.”

Celebrating the successes of BTS like their own, sharing their sorrows and, at times, standing up to the media, public opinion and domestic and foreign political forces — it would not be far-fetched to say that ARMY is at the core of the BTS phenomenon.

“They are the source of motivation and vigor
which I lacked in my life, making me want to dream,
to live a fuller life, to change.”

A fan shakes a placard in excitement in front of the Stade de France for the BTS concert held on June 7, 2019, the Paris leg of the “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour.

Fans from overseas take selfies in front of the Olympic Gymnastics Arena at the Olympic Park, southern Seoul, where the fan meeting “BTS 5th Muster: Magic Shop” was held on June 23, 2019.

Fans pose for a photo in a parking lot near Citi Field, New York, where they began camping almost a week before BTS’ concert. The final concert on the group’s U.S. leg of the “Love Yourself” tour, held on October 6, 2018, was reportedly sold out in minutes.

The BTS online fan café Bangtan Imodan (“Bangtan Aunty Brigade”), consisting of female fans in their 30s to 50s, assist Pinwheel Supporters, which is operated by the Independent Support Group for Children. Like BTS who take social responsibility seriously, their fans also engage in a variety of social contribution activities.

Growing Together
ARMY is characterized by an extraordinary communal solidarity. The fans, in particular, find a common bond in the narrative of growth that has been a consistent theme of BTS albums, which tells the coming-of-age story of young, insecure boys who pursued their dreams with unswerving determination, overcoming self-doubt. Their desire to reach greater artistic heights, the strong bond the members share and their consideration for one another have resonated with fans around the world, transcending borders and generations.

Fans are not just inspired by BTS’ music; they closely identify with the members’ growth story. “BTS makes me realize I shouldn’t live my life half-heartedly,” many fans say. “They are the source of motivation and vigor which I lacked in my life, making me want to dream, to live a fuller life, to change.”

This desire to change extends beyond a personal level to a yearning for effecting social change. The fans state emphatically, “Individual happiness is attained through positive changes in our society of which we are all members. That is why we feel the need to play our part in bringing about meaningful change.” From consumers of popular music, the fandom has evolved to become a positive force for social change, conducting fandom campaigns, engaging in philanthropic efforts and voicing their opinions on political agendas.

Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth

Angel GonzalezAge 18,

Q. How did you get to know BTS?
A. It was on the day BTS attended the 2017 Billboard Music Awards. On Twitter, I found an article about BTS’ fan base voting over 300 million times for them. I was amazed, so I turned on my TV to watch the awards. Then I went to YouTube, watched the “Blood Sweat & Tears” music video and listened to the “Wings” album afterwards. I was completely captivated to say the least, and the rest is history.

Q. What specifically about BTS made you a passionate fanboy?
A. Before BTS, I had completely stayed away from boy bands. But BTS was so exceptional. Besides being very gifted and talented, they are sincere and modest young men. BTS have made me do things I have never done before. Since I joined the fandom, I have participated in mass-voting, streaming projects and album buying promotions, and am sharing news about BTS on a daily basis. I want to lift BTS higher and higher and ensure that they continue to succeed and accomplish all of their dreams.

Q. What do you think is special about the ARMY fandom?
A. It is the most hardworking, kindest, dedicated, persistent and optimistic fandom I have ever seen. One thing I have learned from other ARMYs is that once they have set a goal, they will accomplish it by all means. Outsiders often say, “Why BTS? Other groups also work just as hard.” They don’t realize that BTS has grown this big due to the special connection ARMYs have with them!

Kim Su-binAge 21,
South Korea

Q. In what way has BTS influenced you?
A. When I was in high school, I used to read Nietzsche’s books and dreamed of becoming a philosophical writer. But no one supported me and I was feeling lost and discouraged. That’s when I came across the song “Tomorrow.” I didn’t know who the singer was at first, but felt comforted by it. Soon I started listening to other songs by BTS and was hooked. Their tireless pursuit of their dreams and passion greatly inspired me. Since our life is not a one-act play, I’m sure I’ll continue to face more trials and tribulations down the road. But I am determined to plow through nonetheless, embracing my wounds, with BTS and their music as my motivation.

Q. What differentiates BTS from other boy bands?
A. They don’t feel like stars who shine only on stage but ordinary people who live in the same world as us. When I reflect on their lyrics, I can sense that each of the members have had to confront many obstacles and challenges that stood in the way of their dreams and it feels as though they are trying to reach out to people who have been hurt like me.

Q. How is ARMY different from other fandoms?
A. The relationship that BTS and ARMY have nurtured is not simply that of stars and fans, but something far more intimate. Our worlds may be completely different, but their heartfelt music is a source of great comfort and strength to each and every one of us.

Bae Min-yeong Age 34,
South Korea

Q. What significance does BTS have in your life?
A. I was always ashamed of myself for not making it to the university or studying the major I had wanted to. I studied hard and eventually got a master’s degree and a stable job, but I was never able to shake off my inferiority complex. Then I came upon BTS. Their dedication and efforts made me realize, “They’re not just good at what they do, but love what they do.” I began exploring the things I liked and enjoyed, and gradually developed a better understanding of myself and my traits. I was finally able to find a sense of direction in my life.

Q. What special experiences have you had as an ARMY?
A. I once went to a BTS fan meeting by myself. I felt awkward and nervous being alone. Then a young girl who appeared to be in middle school began talking to me, asking me if it was my first BTS event, who my favorite member was and whether I had brought binoculars. I felt my nervousness melt away by her friendliness, treating me as a fellow ARMY. Respect for diversity is a big strength of the fandom.

Q. How do you feel about the new image of masculinity that BTS portray?
A. I think their music is shifting towards a more gender-neutral tone. Hence their musical style has become more varied and easier to listen to. BTS have helped me realize that gender is just one of the many aspects of an individual rather than a criterion by which we judge or classify others.

Colette Balmain Age 57,
United Kingdom

Q. How did you discover BTS?
A. I had been using K-pop videos in my teaching [at Kingston University, London], although I never really listened to it outside of work. I remember seeing the music video for “Blood Sweat & Tears” in October 2016, soon after it was released. As someone who specializes in East Asian popular culture and, in particular, the Gothic and horror genres, I was drawn to the visual and aural aesthetics of BTS and their multiple intermedial references to the European Gothic.

Q. What is the most striking feature of BTS as artists?
A. BTS’ artistry is one of their most striking features and is shown both in their extensive discography and the manner in which they continue to develop their music without losing the essential “Koreanness.” Their popularity is not despite the fact they are Korean but rather because they are Korean.

Q. BTS have many intellectual fans, such as professors and scientists. Why?
A. BTS’ music and associated transmedia content erase the distinction between “high” and “mass” culture and encourage fans to be active participants and makers of meaning rather than passive consumers of content. At the same time, there are direct references to painting, photography, literature, philosophy and psychology in their work. I have seen fans reading Deleuze and Guattari, whose theories are very difficult, because they have been referred to by BTS. As we live in a rapidly globalizing world, I would suggest that BTS are the object par excellence of that world and thus worth studying.

Lee Jee-heng Lecturer, School of Performing Arts and Media, Chung-Ang University; Member, Film Rating Subcommittee, Korea Media Rating Board


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