“Every moment in life, from when you were a child to when you’re old, can be The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, if you allow it to be.”
My friend’s words were quickly followed by silence until the only thing I could say was, “That’s beautiful.” She was talking about the BTS series of extended plays, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life.
It was about an hour in chatting with her in a cold yet warmly lit coffee shop, and what started out as a research interview about Korean boy band BTS had suddenly turned quite existential. “They really changed me,” she adds, and pauses to hold back tears. “I’m gonna cry!”
Needless to say, my friend is a huge BTS fan. She’s an ARMY, which is what the BTS fandom is called. I approached her, because, as I told her, there were three things I wanted to understand: 1. Why BTS is so famous, 2. why she (like the rest of the ARMY) loves the band that much, and 3. why fans are saying that BTS saves lives.
I watched her intently throughout our interview, and found myself feeling moved by how passionate she was talking about this band she loves. Without whipping any copies out, she would recite lyrics of the songs to me, and repeat lovely, profound messages said by band members. I just sat there listening to lyrics she would recite like love poems, quotes, and fans’ real life stories of survival, love, and redemption through the band’s music. It had all started to become quite intense. Very personal. Very riveting. So much so that the unexpected happened—
I started crying, too.
Image: Teen Vogue
Who is BTS and why are they so big right now?
In case you have been living under a rock and haven’t heard of this pop band who’s currently taking over the world, BTS (short for Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bulletproof Boyscouts) is a Korean pop band consisting of seven members—Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, Jungkook, V, and the lead, RM. They debuted in Seoul in June 2013 with their very first single, 2 Kool 4 Skool. Since then, the band has released five EPs and six full-length albums, including three Japanese ones.
The band is produced by entertainment company BigHit, a “no-name” company that certainly doesn’t rival the line-ups of the “Big Three” producers in South Korea: SM, YG, and JYP Entertainments. Those big K-Pop band names you know? They’re from the “Big Three”. But that’s the thing. BTS came from nowhere and is rising to the top, arguably beating all the other ones. And people love a good underdog story.
I’ve been hearing about them, sure. But I only started to really take notice when the world did. BTS somehow made the jump from breaking through to not just the Asian market, but global, too. They first appeared on international TV during the Billboard Music Awards in May 2017, when they became the first ever K-Pop group to win an award at the BBMAs. They were awarded Top Social Artist for two years in a row, first in 2017 then 2018.
Following their first appearance in BBMAs were invitations to various US talk shows. They made appearances to a bunch of programs including The Late Late Show with James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Ellen Show. (You know you’ve made it when you make it to Ellen, right?) And in November 2017, they made their debut on international stage with their performance at the American Music Awards.
This international recognition rocketed BTS into a place where no other K-Pop group has ever gone before. Other fandoms argue that bands before BTS were the ones who paved the way for K-Pop to break into the international music scene, which is true, but no one else has made it this far.
And as to why? One can argue that it’s sheer talent, genius marketing, or perhaps just a dash of luck, but the truth is, no artist can go so far without this one vital ingredient: fans.
And BTS has an ARMY.
BTS ARMY: The culture, the love, the stories.
“Why do you love BTS?” was my single most important question.
I see the devotion. The passion. The genuine love, even, from the ARMY towards the band. Where is this coming from? Is it really possible to feel this much adoration for a pop band? For many outsiders, like me and the rest of the world who aren’t so into the K-Pop scene, it’s quite hard to understand. Or at least I thought it was, until my friend answered my query with this: “Because they really changed me.”
She told me about the band’s songs and the universal theme behind their music and artistry. You won’t believe it—it’s self-love.
She explained it this way. That BTS’ entire discography is like one ongoing novel. All songs are connected, very intricate, detailed, packed with stories within stories, but ultimately just delivering one very important message: you got to love yourself. “[It’s] the story of youth, the journey towards loving yourself,” she tells me.
“[It’s] the story of youth, the journey towards loving yourself.”
So simple, but at the same time not the easiest to achieve, isn’t it? It’s a universal source of unhappiness—we don’t know how to love ourselves. But the band is helping change that through their music.
My friend goes on to tell me why BTS saves lives—many fans have shared their stories of depression, anxiety, and self-harm, and how the K-Pop band’s music helped them heal. She told me the story of her own battle as well. At this point, my eyes were just wet with tears.
In the band’s latest album, Love Yourself: Tear, released in May 2018, the song Magic Shop tells of a door inside oneself where you can run to on days you feel hate or want to disappear. That there is a safe place waiting inside of you, for you. The band refers to the “Magic Shop” as a place where you can go to exchange your feelings of fear for love. All you have to do is come back to yourself.
Clearly more than just pop music.
In their songs, BTS writes about their own stories—their humble beginnings and struggles in the industry—to bigger things like social issues and mental health. Unlike many other K-Pop bands, BTS writes their own songs, which makes their art much more personal. Much more relatable. These Bangtan Boys are working hard to become so much more than just another manufactured K-Pop band that’s a product of carefully formulated pop songs, costumes, and (almost) a lifetime of training. These Bulletproof Boyscouts, protector of the youth’s dreams, are bringing soul back into K-Pop music. And the world is taking notice.
Perhaps this is why the band has such a huge following. What they’re doing right is they’re filling the gaps by answering to a basic human need—the need to simply be ourselves. After all, in a world where people live vicariously in picture perfect photos, likes and follows, always glued to tiny screens, there is, more and more, everyday, a growing human need to connect at a heartfelt level and, just ultimately, come back home within. To truly, finally, irrevocably, love ourselves.
As for the exact reason how this whole BTS phenomenon really happened, however, who knows. There doesn’t seem to be one straight, correct answer. Just a string of stories from people whose lives have been changed. But if you ask me, I see it more than just being a well-manufactured formula. Not just marketing. Not just years of K-Pop training. There’s a little bit of magic going on here, and perhaps it’s because, as we now know, they have a little “Magic Shop” they run to for luck.
Listen to Magic Shop here:
Special thanks to my friend, Em Urquiola, for giving me her time and sitting down with me for a three-hour interview on BTS and the ARMY culture, on a rainy night in a very cold coffee shop. I am honored to be worthy of hearing your story.