BTS successfully concluded its “Permission to Dance on Stage — Las Vegas” concert,” which painted the city of Las Vegas its signature color purple. Four runs of the concert were sold-out hits, as were various BTS-related pop-ups that fans lined up for, turning the entertainment capital of the world into “Borahaegas” (a portmanteau of ARMY’s catchphrase “Borahae (I purple you)” and the city).
BTS’s rise to global fame is attributed to many factors, but one thing is clear: it would not have been possible without its legion of loyal fans dubbed ARMY.
With an estimated tens of millions of members dispersed all around the world, the fandom is known to be as formidable as its name. Described as “unrivaled” in not only size but also organization, ARMY has been the driving force behind BTS’s million-sellers, Billboard No. 1s and Grammy nominations.
Numerous K-pop acts have large international fan bases, but none have quite reached the level of BTS’s ARMY. So what’s so special about BTS that makes global ARMY next-level loyal? Fans and experts say a distinct star-fan dynamic is what makes the fundamental difference.
“Thank you for saving me”
Mental health is a key phrase when BTS fans discuss the boy band. While K-pop idols largely maintain a bubbly image and refrain from discussing more serious topics, BTS has been vocal on such subject matters from early on. Through song lyrics and personal stories, members have shared their struggles with anxiety and depression — an unconventional feat considering that openly talking about mental health problems is still relatively taboo in Korean society, even more so years ago. The fact that BTS does not forget to add a message of hope is what makes its music not only relatable but also consoling to fans.
“Dawn before sunrise is the darkest / Wherever you are now, you’re just taking a break / Don’t give up” (‘Tomorrow’ ); “It’s okay to stop / You don’t have to run without knowing why” (‘Paradise’ ); “Loving myself is harder / than loving someone else […] Your standards are stricter on yourself / So let’s forgive ourselves now” (‘Answer: Love Myself’ ) are some of BTS’s lyrics that fans cite as words of healing.
Apart from talking about songs or music videos, fans actively discuss online how BTS has positively influenced their mental health. Signs like “Because of you I was able to live this far” and “Thank you 4 saving me” were spotted during the Las Vegas concerts and shared among ARMY.
“In the most difficult moments of my life, I turn to BTS songs,” said Kristina Kaplunovskaya, a 23-year-old ARMY living in Taganrog, Russia. “They help me tune in and understand that you should not give up and you always need to move on to achieve your goals. BTS’s message and emotions are a big part of its music. When you read the lyrics of BTS’s songs, you find philosophical thoughts that help you develop as a person and find peace.”
“What makes BTS stand out is that they do such a good job of connecting with its fandom by being authentic,” said Jeanie Yu-Gin Chang, a licensed therapist and certified clinical trauma professional. “They’re not just there to entertain them and say, ‘Look at me, I’m good-looking and talented,’ which is what a lot of American pop stars and K-pop stars do with their fans. BTS goes one step further and promotes interpersonal relationships with ARMY.”
Chang, a Korean-American, frequently incorporates elements from K-content into her mental health-related material.
“BTS is the first K-pop band I can think of that broke through that wall, showing their true colors and sharing ‘I really struggle with this.’ I work with lots of clients who love BTS, and they’ve told me that when they translate BTS’s lyrics and hear them sing about mental health struggles in simple everyday language, they really appreciate it.”
Groupies, but equal
BTS’s candidness may be unique in the K-pop scene. But raw, often dark lyrics about mental struggles is not so new in the West, where pop stars express their personal struggles even more explicitly. Chang points out that the fundamental difference is how such candidness is used to connect with fans.
“American singers do share their struggles through music, but it’s not about promoting a mutual relationship,” Chang said. “It’s more about expressing their pain, often with a glamorous image. They’re not seeking to equate themselves with fans and build a connection by doing so. There’s still the idea that ‘I’m the star, you’re my fan.’”
K-pop fandoms, including ARMY, are often likened to groupies — a concept which arose in the 1960s with Beatlemania and the age of rock bands. In the sense of being predominantly young females who zealously follow their favorite boy band, ARMY seems to fit the description. However, according to Chang, the lack of hierarchy is what sets BTS and ARMY’s relationship apart from the West’s idea of groupies.
“What BTS keeps conveying is, ‘We’re famous, we know that too, but we are also real people that power through struggles just like you,’” she said. “Fans want to see real people. ARMY genuinely wishes them [BTS members] well because they’re that authentic. They’d do everything they can to protect BTS. What we get is this mutual relationship; a reciprocity of kindness, generosity and collective action. It’s not ‘We’re BTS and you’re our groupies’; they’re all in this collective community together, regardless of their celebrity status. This can be very refreshing to fans who are used to the Western star-fan dynamic.”
“Men of virtue”
Jung Ho-jai, an author and researcher of comparative Asia studies at the National University of Singapore likens the enthusiasm of K-pop fandoms to religion. Being a fan of a K-pop idol means more than enjoying the artist’s music; it comes with elements of fandom culture and a certain way of life. Specifically, in BTS’s case, Jung summarizes the boy band as a “Confucian idol.”
“BTS members serve as role models, representing what we call ‘men of virtue’ in our Confucian society,” he said. “A ‘virtuous’ pop star is a very Confucian idea, but it turned out to be a revolutionary concept in the pop scene. In Western pop music, it’s harder to find songs that don’t contain any sexually explicit lyrics or visual elements. Meanwhile, BTS sings about drinking milk in the morning and starting your day in ‘Dynamite’ . Not only are they good-looking young men who can sing and dance, but they also behave the ‘right’ way.”
Jung says this is what sets BTS apart from other K-pop artists and especially from Western pop acts, who are not considered as moral role models for their fans nor try to be. BTS represents ideal virtues that fans should strive to practice in real life, which makes ARMY so devout and organized to the point of being likened to a cult.
“They’re still desirable values for a role model to have, which gives BTS a sort of universal appeal,” he said.
BTS has been building on this universality by promoting good causes, such as drawing attention to climate change and sustainable development during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September. The band’s 2021 hit “Permission to Dance” incorporated American Sign Language into its choreography, receiving praise from ARMY who are hearing-impaired. They said it meant so much to “be represented and feel seen.”
Fans take after their favorite boy band, hoping to spread BTS’s message as well as make good use of their numbers and organization. K-pop fandoms in general are known for their large fundraising efforts to celebrate an idol singer’s birthday with billboards and gifts — ARMY, on top of those, is known for widespread charity efforts held in honor of BTS members. ARMY’s presence around the world means fans can do charity work that fits the local situation.
One example is Hobi Philippines, a Filipino fan club of BTS member J-Hope. Last year, the club launched its “I’m Your Hope in a Bottle” fundraiser in celebration of J-Hope’s birthday, selling bottles of water with specially designed BTS-inspired labels. All proceeds are going toward the construction of a public school classroom, which the Philippines is currently short of.
“So far, we were able to sell 20,400 water bottles through ARMY, who purchased water for personal consumption or donation purposes,” said 29-year-old Ariel who runs the project from Manila. “The organization has raised 24,000,000 won [$19,350]. The profit is being directed to building the classroom, including the purchase of the land where it will be built. We expect to reach our goal within the year so that the classroom will be built before his 30th Korean age birthday in February 2023.”
Ariel says although launching and leading the project has been quite a task, it was “truly a labor of love” driven by her fanhood.
“It was an overflow of love and emotion I had for the group that I somehow had to express,” she said. “J-Hope being a ray of light during the pandemic made me want to do something for others, as a way to pay it forward. J-Hope truly changed the way I love because now that I love myself, I learned how to love others better.”
Other groups of ARMY around the world have also been hosting various charity projects in honor of members’ birthdays, ranging from BTS dance classes for people with developmental disabilities to raising money for homeless children or surgeries for babies with birth defects.
“What surprises me is how BTS’s message has transcended from its music and unceasingly shapes a world where people strive for social justice,” Ariel added. “ARMY backs up the causes BTS stands for by rolling out projects to double the impact. BTS’s sincerity through the way it acts, speaks and sings holds the bond among ARMY more tightly and form a solid connection, making people speak a single language called love.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]