BTS fans find comfort in ‘belonging’
Korean boy band BTS, vouch their stans, are like family and vice versa. They’ve created a bond with their fans, and constantly communicate with them
That the K-pop culture is all the rage right now, is no news. But what continues to be a surprise for fandoms everywhere is how closely knit the Korean boy band Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) and their fans, the ARMY, are.
By closely knit, we mean that BTS has been breaking their own records on the Hot 100 Billboard list for weeks at length. And it’s all the doing of their fans. They’ve remained a constant in trending topics across social media platforms. And of course, their fans never stop spamming your Instagram feeds with their new videos and pictures.
The popular boy band is back in the news this time for performing on the sidelines of the 76th United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20. BTS delivered a speech during the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Moment as the representatives of the youth and also performed ‘Permission to Dance’. South Korean President Moon Jae-in on September 14 officially named BTS the ‘Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture’.
Delhi-based stylist and photographer, Sanskriti Sharma, who has been an ARMY since last year, explains that ARMY is an abbreviation for ‘Adorable Representatives MC (mic controller) of Youth’. The fandom was created shortly after BTS had their debut, and it recently also celebrated its eighth birthday. As cheesy as it might sound, the boy band gave a new song, Permission to Dance, to their ARMY as a birthday gift.
Dimple Madaan, a Literature student, nods. She believes that BTS are more than just celebrities or artists, they’re her family, because they’ve opened up their personal lives to her and the entire fandom. “They release vlogs, behind the scenes, a show called Run BTS every week and come live for us, reply to us on WeVerse,” she says.
Madaan adds that the reason so many people find comfort in BTS is because they’re not elitist. They’ve created a bond with their fans, and they’re living up to it by constantly connecting and communicating with them. Sharma agrees, “This isn’t a one way relationship. We stan them, and they stan us.”
But though BTS makes music videos, that’s not all they have to offer. Madaan thinks that as a Literature student, BTS offered her psychology and mythology. Sharma thinks she found her home in them.
Shibani Krishnatraya, a spoken word artist from Assam, describes the process of becoming an ARMY in stages. The first is just stumbling upon BTS, entering a beautiful territory that you never knew existed.
The second stage is indulging in their songs, understanding what’s behind the words and in between the lines. This is also the point that people realize that the band’s popularity is more than just a marketing fluke. She says, “You might get attracted to them because of their popularity, but you stay because of the work that they are putting out.”
The third stage is exploring the culture of what makes BTS so unique. This is also where one tries to understand how and why they’re able to connect with the band. After all this is done, you realize what you were missing out on, and you are initiated into the fandom of the Bangtan Boys.
What Krishnatraya says about BTS connecting with the ARMY, is a sentiment echoed by the fandom. What made Sharma an ARMY was not only their incredible talent, but their kindness, their maturity in handling difficulties, their bond of conditional love with ARMYs as well as with each other, and their persistence in the face of all the hurdles.
Sharma says that the way BTS have climbed up their way in an industry deeply prejudiced against them has shown her what motivation and inspiration mean. Maurice, who hails from Germany, agrees. He says that the sole reason he is an ARMY is because of the passion with which BTS make music, and the way they connect with their fandom.
The fandom even shares an inside joke that they’ll all remain single because BTS has raised the standards for them. They’ve smashed patriarchy by wearing gender-neutral clothes, applying makeup, showing a brotherhood that goes beyond the toxic bro-code, and all of it with such subtlety.
BTS has opened the door to Korean culture for their fandom. In a Run BTS episode, they made their entire fandom learn a rhyme in Korean. It’s nothing important, but just a little secret they all share.
Madaan has started taking Korean classes at the Korean Cultural Center India. She cooks Korean food and often craves it. Sharma has started watching more and more Korean dramas. Their culture is not something they force on the ARMYs, but something the latter is trying to be a part of, out of their love for BTS.
BTS has been awarded the Cultural Order of Merit, which is the highest honour in South Korea for everything they’ve done for the country. They’ve portrayed their culture by performing at the National Museum, wearing their traditional clothes.
This Korean influence is what is known as the Hallyu Wave, Sharma says. She adds, “If you keep your prejudices aside for one moment and try to understand the message, try to understand who they are, believe me, you wouldn't want to not know them, Because they are such a life changing force.”
Maurice agrees with Sharma. He thinks that K-pop has opened a new culture up for the Western world, newer horizons to explore.
The ARMY also strongly believes that BTS is posing a challenge to the supremacy of the West, and bringing a shift in the global discourse.
The ARMY is of the opinion that the Western music industry has been unfair to BTS. And so has everyone else. Krishnatraya confesses that even though they belong to the same continent, she was late to understand BTS.
“We’ve grown up listening to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. We’ve internalized these power structures just because we’re closer on a linguistic level.” Krishnatraya now often questions why the Western values felt closer to home, more than the Asian values she shared with BTS.
But she’s glad she came across BTS in her own personal time and space. Because to understand BTS, you need a push inside you that leads you to healing, says she. “I always had to stretch my neck and look at Western artists for the benchmark, now I can just look sideways and find BTS,” smiles Krishnatraya.
The ARMY is also apparently angry at Grammys and other awards institutions that use BTS for clout without ever letting them win. After the Grammys incident, when BTS went live and told their fandom to not be sad and promised to work harder to win the next year, it broke the ARMYs heart. “We were sad because they didn’t win. But what made us sadder was that they were left with the lesson that they need to work harder, which isn’t fair,” said Krishnatraya.
The ARMY has a saying- “You don’t find BTS, they find you when you need it the most.” It couldn’t be any truer for Sharma. She says, “Last year was a really difficult time, probably my darkest hour - and they found me just in time and became my therapy. They have made our individual struggles a lot easier by providing unconditional support and comfort through their music, through their words, through their actions and their personalities.”
The only way Sharma can describe her love for BTS, is through their own words. She says, “They are like a warm blanket wrapped around me on a cold winter night”.
Madaan smiles. She mentions that BTS literally translates to Bulletproof Boy Scouts and that’s what BTS and ARMY are to each other, protecting each other, being a shield. This is interesting because the logo of BTS and ARMY together makes a shield as well.
She adds that a member of BTS has the word ARMY tattooed on his knuckles, and another wears a necklace with ARMY written on it. “Despite the language barrier, BTS talks to me,” says Madaan.
It’s also that no other artist in the world acknowledges their fandom as BTS does, says Krishnatraya. There’s no video, no interview where they haven’t appreciated the ARMY for providing them a safe space to exist and succeed.
Sharma feels that breaking each record and paving the way for BTS to reach the top is the only way that ARMYs can show their love and support for the boy band, who they say put in innumerable efforts for them.
Madaan agrees. She says that whatever the BTS has done for them in the past eight years, which includes practicing 18 hours a day and dancing with injuries, just to create content for the ARMY makes breaking every record worthwhile. Even if that means streaming their music videos for 24 hours straight, and having a headache the next day.
That is also the reason the ARMY comes together for charity. The fandom has donated millions of dollars for the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The ARMY has found all their answers in BTS, just one question remains unanswered. “How are they real?”