How K-pop band BTS is helping fans a world away navigate identity and hardship
7-member boy band, who sing and rap mostly in Korean, share messages of representation, self-esteem and hope
It's not a fandom that was born overnight. But it began seven years ago this month, on the stage of a Korean music show, as the seven members of BTS gave their debut performance.
Now the band, who sing and rap mostly in Korean, inspire the kind of global cultural influence that has people regularly comparing them to The Beatles. Last year, they accounted for an estimated $4.65 billion of South Korea's GDP. Their latest album, Map of the Soul: 7, is their fourth consecutive to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Artist 200 chart in the U.S.
BTS stands for Bangtan sonyeondan in Korean, which translates to "Bulletproof Boy Scouts," a reference to the resilience of youth. As with all K-pop acts, their fandom also has an official name: ARMY, an acronym for Adorable Representative M.C.s for Youth.
"The brand that BTS has is super interesting because it consists of a message more than a musical style or a visual aesthetic," said Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.
"Their core message continues to be one of a youthful struggle against an adult world that can feel intimidating, forbidding, and the way that young people can come together to overcome the stresses and challenges of growing up. As long as you stay true to yourself and you credit the community that you're a part of, which in BTS' case is the fandom community, the sky's the limit."
Though the message is youthful, its sincerity resonates with fans of all ages. This includes ARMY fans beyond Korea's borders who diligently search for translations of the lyrics as soon as new music drops. What they find — beyond a charisma generally reserved for the divine — is a coming-of-age story.
"It's more than, 'They're so cute!' And they have cool clothes and cool choreography. I mean, that's part of the appeal of the group," said Cho.
"But what fans will self-report… is that BTS has really helped them mentally and emotionally come back from difficult challenges or found them at moments where they needed encouragement."
Zaiyan Chowdhury, a Toronto-based ARMY, says that sentiment resonates with her. She grew up in Canada, immersed in predominantly white culture, anxious about her South Asian roots.
These feelings hit their peak in middle school when Chowdhury, then 11, visited an American mall wearing traditional Bangladeshi clothing.
"When my mom left me alone to wait on a seat while she went into a store, I saw these random people. They would directly look at me and would literally whisper about me, right in front of me," said Chowdhury, who is now an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto.
"From then on, I became very insecure about my culture. I even found myself wishing I was born white."
But she says BTS songs like Idol — with the hook "You can't stop me loving myself" — have completely changed her perspective.
"The message and the meaning behind that one sentence was them expressing that they are going to continue to sing their music completely in Korean. They're going to continue advertising and showing off their own cultural roots and that touched me personally because it also helped me get comfortable with my own culture," said Chowdhury.
"I realized, I want to be me. I'm very comfortable with my skin colour. I'm very comfortable with my features. I'm just very happy where I am. My mental state is so much better."
For Cho, who studies Korean popular culture, the rise of BTS has made an impact on her personally as well as professionally. As a Korean American born and raised in the Chicago area in the 1980s and 1990s, Cho was sometimes asked, "Oh, Korea, is that in China or Japan?"
"Seeing Korean popular culture find mainstream success in North America, in an environment where there really aren't many examples of Asian representation in popular culture, is moving to me in ways that I didn't even expect," she said.
"It's sort of a visceral feeling of, 'Wow, there are all these other possibilities for how to inhabit an Asian body that don't have to conform to stereotypes.'"
Her favourite song is Spring Day, a poignant ballad about growing apart from a friend.
Amelie Rols is an ARMY from France who is studying at McGill University. Her graduate thesis is about K-pop fans outside of Korea.
She discovered the BTS song Sea, a hidden track on the album Love Yourself: Her, while she was on an exchange in Japan and having a hard time coping with loneliness.
"In the song, they talk about that even if you go through hard times, reality just doesn't disappear, things don't magically get better. If there are hardships, then there must be hope as well. I realized that these two elements are really two sides of the same coin," she said.
"It was kind of my lifeline. I don't want to put everything on BTS. It's not like they cured my depression or anything. But they were a very important crutch, I would say."
When BTS promoted their latest album earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold of the world. The band performed their new single, On, on a series of South Korean music shows without an audience.
These shows had almost all the hallmarks of a BTS live stage — punishing choreography, dramatic production and styling and charisma for days. The one thing missing was the cheers of ARMY, competing decibel for decibel with the music.
With their world tour postponed, including a couple of planned stops in Toronto, BTS is hosting an online concert this month. Details are scarce, but you can bet that ARMY is on it.
This documentary was produced by Jane van Koeverden.