Late to the ARMY Party: Confession of a BTS Obsession
“Sometimes there is a whole universe alongside your own, bursting with color you’re too stubborn to see, bouncing with joy you think is for someone else, with a beat you thought you were finished dancing to.”
~ Dave Holmes, The Boundless Optimism of BTS, Esquire Magazine, November 2020
I don’t remember fangirling when I was younger. Those were the days before you could take a phone out of your pocket and Google anyone’s Instagram, Spotify, YouTube, etc. in a second. My TigerBeat and BOP magazines were not to obsess over any stars in particular and the makeup tips didn’t make sense for my Asian eyes.
Growing up as a KAD (Korean American Adoptee) between two worlds blurred my cultural identity, coloring my self perceptions with fuzzy lines. When my Asian friends spoke to their parents, they switched rapidly back and forth between English and Cantonese, Mandarin or Hindi. The intent and feelings of the conversations seemed clear even though the words were not.
Babies can perceive emotions even in the womb, before they have language to describe them. And if you travel around the world to live away from the language of where you were born, it can be even harder to describe things that are locked away in the past. But the body remembers.
In the few times I went to Korean restaurants growing up, I barely noticed the K-Pop playing in the background. It was like elevator music you don’t pay particular attention to. I didn’t feel like it applied to me.
So, when a fellow KAD enthusiastically told me about BTS a few years ago I was perplexed. It surprised me to hear that an Asian group was getting so much wild international attention, drawing people from all around the world to pack into their shows and sing lyrics in Korean.
What was going on? Why was everyone so fascinated with these seven guys?
And then one day I didn’t need to understand the words when at 54 seconds into one of their songs, the progression from one musical note to another suddenly made me cry. As the soulful melody soared on, I yearned for something I couldn’t place. The unknowable words washed over me, leaving me surprised and shaken in a way I’m not able to explain.
When I looked up the translation of the lyrics, it was a call to love yourself, even with your past, all of your missteps and flaws.
One regret I have is that it took far too long to fall in love with Asian men, but I can admit when I’m wrong.
My first Korean boyfriend was tall, dark and handsome, standing out in the middle of the the Great Hall at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where we met back in 2014. The lobby was so crowded with visitors I couldn’t even see in front of me until I got to the Information Desk and: BAM. It happened.
My KAD girlfriends call it The Switch turning on, enlightening you to open your eyes and see the Asian man right in front of you.
I’ve heard chemistry defined as perceiving similarity and it was just like that: I felt like I was looking back at a part of myself.
It was a game changer. Korea was calling me.
I told the story of our relationship at a live performance and I was hooked. People seemed attentive, interested and understanding.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to re-tell a different story at a gala and wanted to surprise everyone this time by singing in Korean.
It took forever to learn only 2 lines from the song that had originally captivated me. I wrote out the romanized lyrics, separated them into segments that made sense to my American brain, taped the phrases to my bathroom mirror and tried to sing along.
At the performance I wondered what my accent and pronunciation must have sounded like to Korean Americans and Korean Koreans; like I child I supposed. But I admitted to the audience that it had been hard to learn and the applause felt like a vindication.
As I listened to more BTS music, read their lyrics, watched their choreography and learned more about them as a team, and as individuals, they became an inspiration and a comfort, hands to virtually hold during a pandemic where I’d never spent so much time alone. At least the face mask kept me warm and no one could tell I was singing while walking down the street.
They were about much more than their recent bubbly award winning pop.
And then what I never thought would ever happen did: I found members of my birth family.
I’d tried long ago to make peace with the hole in my heart and history, to not wonder too much about things that could never be found.
Suddenly my name was Park Mi-sook, 박미숙, and I had Aunts, an Uncle, Cousins and half siblings; kind and welcoming people related to me by blood who had missed me, or never known about me. They were happy to try and fill in the blanks of things I’d never dared to be curious about.
“Listening to BTS’s music and lyrics, and getting to know the members, I began to feel a sense of belonging, kinship, and understanding. The more I fell into the fandom the more I felt a connection and pride with my birth country. Add to that the amazing community that is ARMY, in particular KAD ARMY, which is unique and significant because we are connected by loss. We know what it means to walk between worlds and belong to neither. With BTS we have found comfort, belonging, humor,
and an amazing community of support.”
~ KT Kim, KAD, ARMY
Korea was beckoning even louder now, holding onto me as it always had been, invisibly at times, but always there, calling me to come back home,
I blasted this song in my office, alone at 3 a.m. startled, grateful, scared and excited.
If I’d stayed, who would I have been?
If I’d had Asian role models like BTS, what would I be?
So, I’ve jumped down the BTS rabbit hole and every time I think I’m done falling, the bottom drops out and there’s further to go. And I’m in deep.
There are way more comprehensive sources that detail their origins and challenging road to smashing success, growing from boys to men.
Perhaps the most organized, mobilized, loyal and appreciative fandom ever, the worldwide ARMY (including members I didn’t expect) has created far superior tweets, memes, lyric translations, documentaries, gifs and summaries of awards, streams, sales, Guinness Book of World Records, live appearances, songs on TV, K-Dramas and movies for adults and kids, their humor, glee, collaborations with other artists, solo tracks, reality TV and web series, empowering philanthropy and social consciousness, dissections of the intriguing storyline running through their music videos, webtoons and a game, inside jokes, a dictionary and recently, each member’s personally created products, which crash servers and sell out in seconds and inspire ARMY to make their own.
As the friend who introduced me to them says: “There is not enough time in one’s life to see all the good BTS videos.”
There isn’t much I can add to the lexicon, except my own story of getting to know and love them, their incredible talent and drive as singers, songwriters, dancers and producers who craft authentic and relatable music and dance with diverse international styles, poetic lyrics (in more languages than just Korean and English) about romance, fear, anger, rebellion and above all, a profound encouragement to love yourself and speak yourself passionately and earnestly.
They generously share their day to day lives in group activities and personal livestreams that feel genuine, sincere and charming, baring their unmade up faces, rehearsals, clumsiness, pets and plant babies, along with feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy, depression and even accidents and serious injuries, all while looking right at and engaging with viewers, at ease like a private conversation, and often hilariously showing their bond as a group and how they take care of each other.
Their live shows dazzle thousands with their tireless athleticism (just try one of their dance routines), confetti, fireworks, flying, art and literary references, traditional Korean costumes and dances and respect for the directors, cinematographers, producers, publicists, managers, lyricists, composers, choreographers, camera and lighting technicians, electricians, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe and set designers, editors and all of the people who make them look and sound exceptional.
Just forget the stereotype of Asian men as marginalized, emasculated or not desirable and sexy. I’m thrilled for my male Asian friends and their children to have a bountiful amount of proof flourishing around the world.
We’re in a new era: global, inclusive and fluid in cultures, genres, languages, races, genders and sexual identities, where we can be our authentic selves and wear whatever makeup, jewelry, hair and eye color we want; an androgeny that I find particularly attractive.
“Standing in Sofi stadium with 70,000 people from all backgrounds, I was in awe of how everyone could sing the lyrics in Korean. The audience was the most diverse group, from African American, Latinx, Asian American, and White. BTS’s messages of love and respect really resonate with me and millions of their fans, and the crowd at the concert was so kind and looked out for each other.”
~ Jennifer Brower, KAD, ARMY and lucky concertgoer
We can all join the party, and it’s such a welcoming one.
Plus they work so damn hard. They didn’t happen overnight. It’s been nine years since their debut in 2013, and three years of training prior to that.
If you’ve gotten this far, the list of their accomplishments will already be outdated.
How are they still so modest, grateful and humble enough to recognize that this could all go away for them at any time? Will they ever win a Grammy, get married and have kids, have to join the military despite adding $5 billion to the South Korean economy each year?
And when do they sleep?
I lose myself in their voices, sometimes soft and sweet, sometimes aggressive, that remind me to love myself and their choreography that embodies the righteous anger I was never allowed to feel.
The sound of the Korean language sometimes breaks my heart, and then the lyrics segue into English as my childhood friends did and I wait for a sudden understanding, as if I’ve solved the Rosetta Stone.
And bonus: my favorite accent ever is a native Korean speaking English.
Their words may still be foreign to me, but the themes they symbolize are universal: you don’t have to be perfect to be loved, or in person to feel connected.
I’m so proud of them. I’m so proud of being Korean. They’re my ambassadors of hope and acceptance from my birth country and the pure joy we all need right now.
Thank you, BTS; we’ll all be watching.
Selected excerpts are included from performances in The Moth Community Program with Also-Known-As, Inc. and the Korean American Story ROAR Story Slam and Gala