Special to The Hawai’i Herald
As I walked into the BTS Pop Up: Map of the Soul Showcase in Ala Moana Shopping Center’s mauka wing, my high-school self was all I had in mind. High-school me would never have believed me if I described the shop to her, with its colorful walls adorned with references to BTS’s music videos and concepts and selling official branded goods like bucket hats, makeup brushes and hair scrunchies. Even my current self could hardly believe what I was seeing. It felt surreal being in a physical store in my local mall dedicated solely to the seven boys I had loved so much four years ago.
However, perhaps it shouldn’t have felt this strange to me, given that BTS is, arguably, the biggest band on the planet right now. The South Korean boy group is composed of seven members – RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook – and has numerous noteworthy accomplishments under their belts, including two Grammy nominations, six No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and most recently, four sold-out shows at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, selling over 200,000 tickets in total for their “Permission To Dance On Stage” concert. Many fans from Hawai‘i flew to Los Angeles specifically to attend the biggest concert of the year.
I still remember when I watched BTS perform on the 2018 “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special for the first time. They were the first K-pop group to ever win a Billboard Music Award in May 2017, and the first K-pop group to ever perform on the American Music Awards that November. I was enthralled by their bright costumes and assorted hair colors, their sharp, effortless movements and smooth voices singing the words to a song in a language I didn’t understand.
The day after I watched their performance, I went to my uncle’s annual New Year’s Day party and spent the evening sitting by myself on the family couch, trying to commit the names and faces of the group’s members to my memory. After that, I moved on to learning everything I could about them, from each member’s hometown, full name and favorite food, to the nuances of their music videos and themes behind their songs’ lyrics. I spent my evenings doing my homework while watching live performance videos. I talked about BTS so much to my family and friends that before long, they could all easily identify Jungkook – my “bias,” a K-pop term referring to a fan’s favorite member. I remember waiting excitedly for new episodes of their variety show, “Run BTS,” which I’d watch every Tuesday at 2 a.m., an unfortunate consequence of the significant time difference between Hawai‘i and South Korea.
Never before had I been invested in something in the same way I was invested in BTS. Even after my obsession began to fade away four years later, I still can’t quite figure out what caused this interest to develop in the first place. Maybe it was the group’s ultra-synchronized dancing, their flawless hair and makeup or their elaborate costumes. Perhaps it was their philanthropic work, having spoken multiple times at the United Nations and donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter organization. Maybe it was their exploration of subjects like self-love and growth throughout their music – concepts that mirror the members’ own individual and group experiences.
I contemplated this on Nov. 27, sitting in my seat at SoFi Stadium alongside thousands of other fans — officially known as ARMY — as we waited for BTS’ first in-person concert since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to begin. Similar to the pop-up shop, my mind was filled with thoughts of my high school self, recalling the first time I had seen BTS at their “Love Yourself World Tour” in 2018. That version of myself would never have believed me if I described the show I saw three years later: a show on a much larger stage, with even grander sets, props and pyrotechnics and surrounded by exponentially more fans.
When I first became a fan of BTS, I had never imagined that I would witness the group performing in an American venue of this scale or grow into the worldwide phenomenon they are today. Having just begun to make a name for themselves in the xenophobic Western music industry, my high school self was so proud of everything the boy band from South Korea — who weren’t even signed under one of the “Big 3” Korean entertainment companies — had accomplished.
So as the lights went down and the concert began, I was struck by a strange feeling of nostalgia. Just like at the first BTS concert I went to, I waved my “ARMY Bomb,” the official name for the band’s lightstick, and sang all the words to each tune, old and new. I yelled each song’s respective fan chant, cheered each time a member said something to the crowd and screamed when Jungkook lifted his shirt in a strategically choreographed move in “Fake Love.” Yet, I couldn’t help feeling different this time.
It was then that I realized the reason behind my love for BTS was this feeling – a unique feeling of comfort and happiness that they can evoke in people, no matter how long they’ve been a fan of the group. They do this effortlessly, relying on the universal themes of their music, their work towards making a positive impact in the world and their values of humility and grace.
Somehow, whether it be through their raw lyrics or their journey to success as a group, BTS can relate to their listeners in a way that they can almost see bits and pieces of themselves in BTS’ story. I think about how BTS seemed to grow alongside me, becoming impossibly more successful and unstoppable as their career progressed over time – the same time in which I graduated high school and began to navigate new challenges as an undergraduate.
Although idealistic, I’d like to think that this feeling, coupled with their relatability, is behind BTS’ success on a global scale as well.
At the end of every concert, the seven members stand in a line and spend a few minutes each speaking directly to the crowd, expressing their love and thanks for the support of ARMY. With this concert being their first in-person event in over a year and a half, the members naturally spoke of how they felt to reunite with fans in person.
During his turn, Suga said, in Korean, “Finally, we are where we should be.” The fans around me cheered. Yet, I couldn’t help but think about where we would be going next.
Kacie Yamamoto is a K-pop fangirl and a Gosei attending the University of Southern California. She is a junior majoring in journalism and a former intern at The Hawai‘i Herald.