IT’S the late end of a working day, and I need to unwind, so I search YouTube for music videos of BTS, depending on my mood of the moment.
I need to chill? There’s the ultra-cool Make It Right, or the Latin-inspired Airplane Part 2. If I’m feeling sentimental, I search for Spring Day or the soul-wrenching The Truth Untold. If I’m still high-energy and want to hear dance music and gawk at choreography, I look for Mic Drop or the oldies like Danger and Boy In Love. If I just want to smile, I most certainly will, after seeing seven cute Korean guys in neon-colored outfits, jumping like jellybeans to Anpanman.
Or, I just search through hundreds of reality show episodes, funny fan-made memes, and videos of the seven members of the Korean superband who are, without a doubt, the biggest and most influential group in the world at the moment. There are clips of Jungkook eating everything in sight, Yoongi falling asleep, or RM literally breaking something. There’s Hobi laughing hysterically, Jimin falling off a chair, V squatting by a faucet and scrubbing a filthy wok, or Jin delivering a dad joke and sounding like a windshield wiper when he guffaws. Or I can also watch videos of them rehearsing, sweating, jumping, and then sprawling exhausted on the studio floor after the long hours of work that have gotten the boys to where they are today.
Yes, boys, because as group leader Kim Namjoon, also known as RM, said in the first documentary on the group, Burn The Stage, “I’m also just a kid”—they all are. They’re boys between the ages of 23 and 28, who also happen to be shattering all kinds of glass ceilings, records, and stereotypes in the world of music, with a message that has transcended nationalities and age groups.
I really should know. If you told me a year ago that I would become an earnest fan of the seven-member Korean band BTS, a.k.a. Bangtan Sonyeondan (or Bulletproof Boy Scouts, and of late, Beyond The Scene, although I much prefer their original name), I would have rolled my eyes. I wasn’t even fond of anything Korean, and had never considered visiting Seoul. I thought K-pop idols sang and danced well, but dismissed the genre as something for the kids. After all, I’m a 56-year-old writer and (jaded?) survivor who has never fan-girled over anybody in her life. I even managed to dodge the K-drama bug, while friends around me were spewing out the unpronounceable names of their favorite actors.
But here we are. As of this writing, BTS has held their two-day online concert, “Map of the Soul: ON:E,” last Oct 10 and 11, and smashed their own records with a massive paying viewership of 993,000, in 191 countries. This was just over a month after they realized a long-expressed dream: to top the US Billboard Hot 100, which they did on August 31, the day before the 23rd birthday of youngest member Jeon Jungkook.
“BTS continues to push the envelope for what’s possible for virtual concerts in the era of COVID-19 and beyond,” read a statement by Mike Schabel, CEO of the US-based streaming technology platform Kiswe, which worked with BTS management Big Hit Entertainment to stage the concert. “We’re excited to help loyal fans around the globe experience their music in new and ever-more immersive ways.”
“Immersive” is too subtle a word for how fans take the experience to heart. Members of Army, BTS’ powerful fandom that includes some of the most proactive, vocal, influential, adoring, and yes, lunatic people I’ve ever seen, wave their Army bombs, light sticks that synch with the music, at every event. I bought a ticket for Sunday the 11th, and was setting up my laptop, HDMI cable, and speakers a good hour before the show began. It eventually became a family affair of sorts, with my niece, brother, and sister-in-law joining in. Mind you, my brother is a 72-year-old government official, and he was riveted for a while. “Nakakatuwa naman panoorin, the energy is so high,” he remarked. (We lost him when the ballads started, but hey—he sat through five songs.)
My favorite, Min Yoongi, used to joke that the Big Hit founder lied to him, and told him he could just be a rapper; he never realized he’d have to work so hard on dancing.
RIOT OF A PAGE
I am not an anomaly at all, however. Recent research has revealed that, next to the 20-something demographic that makes up the bulk of BTS’ most die-hard fans, the biggest number of Armys are aged 30-40. Those aren’t mindless, star-struck teenyboppers anymore. Recently, a friend, a career government employee who’s married to a lawyer, invited me to join an online Facebook group exclusively for “Army titas.” The only requirements: that you are non-judgmental, and that you are older than the oldest member of the group, Jin, who was born in 1992.
It’s an absolute riot of a page, because members—which include lawyers, doctors, company executives, communications professionals, celebrities, and more—aren’t ashamed to say it like it is, in the most hilarious ways. Every time a Tita whips out a credit card to purchase premium-priced official merchandise (P2,000 baseball caps, anyone?), we say, “Ay, na-Budol Sonyeondan ako”—happily robbed by Big Hit. Even funnier is how Titas react when a meme, a performance, or a picture of any of the boys awakens lustful feelings in these older women; immediate penance is jokingly demanded, a “Mop of the Soul,” taken from their Map of the Soul album series title.
Because yes, a lustful Tita is completely expected; it would be hypocritical to say otherwise when confronted with mighty fine young men with poreless complexions and ripped abs, performing hip-thrusting choreography in leather pants with zippers and buttons working desperately to keep things together. Even American singer Shawn Mendes was stunned upon meeting BTS for the first time: “They’re probably the most beautiful guys I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said in a YouTube interview.
My friend, Broadway star and national treasure Lea Salonga, who delighted Filipino Armys when she came out as a BTS fan in her newspaper column, put it quite diplomatically when she sent me a video of her favorite, Kim Taehyung a.k.a. V, dancing in almost sheer loose pants. “These boys!” she exclaimed, with badly-hidden delight. “How absolutely rude!”
Quite honestly, however—and I’m not trying to rationalize sounding like a cougar, because BTS Titas are beyond caring what other people think—tempered lust is just one very small part of it. No, I don’t want to marry any of these boys or bear their children (ancient biological history, FYI). What I feel are fascination at a showbiz success story, delight at their songs, talent, and no-filter personalities—and sheer admiration for these kids who worked so hard for what they wanted, saw their dreams come true on a truly global scale, and somehow managed to stay grounded, wholesome, and deeply inspiring.
If I sound like the boys lived next door to me, that’s thanks to BTS’ master stroke—or rather, that of their management. BTS connect with fans in an unprecedented way, engaging them regularly and extensively on social media and allowing them intimate views of their life on the road. Most recently, fans joined them in an eight-episode post-quarantine reality show set in a lakeside house outside Seoul, In The Soop. Of course what we see is edited, but as friends point out, you can only edit so much of what comes out of the boys’ mouths. For every stage performance featuring BTS in straight-off-the-runway Gucci and Dior and heavy stage makeup, there’s a reality show episode where they cook, wash plates, and play ping-pong, bare-faced, in pyjamas and flip-flops. And no, you cannot “direct” that absolutely sleepy look on Jimin’s face.
I have to go back to the beginning, however. It was my former boss and long-time friend, Thelma San Juan, herself a belated passenger on the K-drama train, who recommended watching BTS as—direct quote here—“a stress reliever.” I couldn’t imagine watching K-dramas, because I get impatient waiting for the story to progress, and I no longer enjoy getting involved in even fabricated complications.
I also love watching good dance performances, from Broadway musicals and So You Think You Can Dance reruns, to Michael Jackson videos, and yes, even Sarah Geronimo doing Tala. Thus, when I finally gave in, my very first BTS experience was their May 2019 appearance on The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert. The band had just broken the record set by none other than the Beatles, of having three no. 1 albums in less than a year. Quite ingeniously, host Colbert decided to recreate the British band’s first US appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, with Colbert channelling Sullivan, the boys in Beatles-style tight black suits with skinny pants, and the entire performance aired in black and white.
I remember thinking, how can a K-pop group pull this off without the colors, lights, and special effects? Well, they did. Wonderfully. I couldn’t get over the choreography of Boy With Luv, the catchy melody, and—even if I still couldn’t tell them apart—those gorgeous faces.
I remember posting on Facebook that I had discovered BTS, and watching them was so much fun. “Welcome to the rabbit hole,” commented a friend, an actress who shares Armyhood with her 20-something daughter. “And it’s a deep, deep hole.” It didn’t take me long to understand what she meant.
I started with helpful online videos introducing each of the members, and learned more about them by watching their reality shows. Kim Namjoon is the first name in the fan chant, a rapper and the group’s designated leader with a genius IQ. Eldest member Kim Seokjin, a.k.a. Jin, was a film major, discovered when he was getting off a bus, a wry but very caring older brother (called hyung) to the boys.
My favorite, Min Yoongi, a.k.a. Suga, used to joke that Big Hit’s founder and chairman Bang Si-hyuk lied to him and told him he could just be a rapper in the group; he never realized he would have to work so hard on dancing. Suga is a gifted rapper, producer, and songwriter, and won my lifelong allegiance when he admitted to having mental health issues, namely anxiety and depression, in his song The Last.
Jung Hoseok’s moniker is J-Hope; discovered as a street dancer, he is, hands down, the best dancer in the group. He also has the loudest laugh and the sunniest disposition. Park Jimin, a trained dancer and the smallest member of BTS at 5-foot-8, is a veritable angel, solicitous about his bandmates. Kim Taehyung is arguably the most stunning member of the band, and has probably lost track of how many “World’s Most Handsome Men” lists he’s topped. He also has a soulful voice and formidable dance skills, but is actually just a big kid.
Finally, there’s the Golden Maknae (youngest), who was only 15 when he finished school and began training with BTS. Jungkook has famously said that his hyung raised him, and his personality is a manifestation of all their traits. He’s the band’s best singer and a fantastic dancer. Fans who have followed the puffy-cheeked boy with a fondness for banana milk were culture-shocked at the recent MOTS ON:E concert, where the very buff “baby” dressed up in provocative clothes and danced in an overtly sexual way. It’s like watching your little nephew suddenly develop raging hormones, some Titas wailed. (Not that we didn’t enjoy it).
I EAT KIMCHI NOW
So this Tita has graduated from not being able to tell them apart, to recognizing the boys even in silhouette, from the back, and by the sound of their voices on song tracks. I thought I would be forced to watch Netflix (which I don’t subscribe to) during the pandemic, but BTS made it unnecessary. I would spend a couple of hours watching anything related to the band, and I’d be happy. (I also eat kimchi now, and want to visit Seoul with Thelma when we can fly again.)
I think it’s because being a BTS fan is a simple, straightforward preoccupation. There’s little need for over-analysis or complicated emotions, if you’re fine with letting that go—which comes with, well, the wisdom of Tita-hood. (Note: Yet, BTS’ most common critics seem to be older Western women who fancy themselves intellectuals. The poor, unevolved things.)
Theirs is the ultimate underdog story, and they’re still on the rise, still reaping the rewards of 10-hour rehearsal days. They’re light years away from a tough start in a cramped dormitory, and when they had to wear T-shirts with their names on them so the media and public would know who they were—but they haven’t stopped soaring, and it’s thrilling to be here for the ride.
It would be naïve for anyone to think that the music industry is without its politics and influence peddling. Even as the band’s first all-English song, Dynamite, the Billboard topper, seems bound for a Grammy—Suga’s long-time dream, by the way—I wouldn’t be surprised if other interests prevail, and if BTS is still seen as a “little Korean band” trying to usurp the music establishment.
No matter what critics hurl at them, though, this Tita will always associate the Bangtan boys with sweetness and light. When Namjoon read his eloquent speech in 2018 at the United Nations General Assembly, when BTS was invited to address the world’s youth, he delivered the simple message for everyone to “Love yourself, speak yourself.” In a world hostaged by a pandemic and fraught with complications, can you blame people for placing their bets on today’s most positive, sparkling, gorgeous heroes?
I’m working late at night again, and my friend and fellow BTS tita Tiffany messages me that she has a friend willing to ship BTS merchandise over to Manila from Seoul, via Singapore. Oops, “Budol Sonyeondan” time, I think—and put in an order for a Tiny Tan figure, based on the animated versions of the band members.
This unapologetic #ArmyTita is hoping the absolutely useless, adorable, four-inch cartoon likeness of a frowning Suga will be here by Christmas. Just a little piece of BTS—but if it’s enough to make me happy, why not? I love myself.