Cotabato City (CNN Philippines Life) — On a Monday, at 3:00 a.m. I stayed up for a live stream hosted by YouTube, a “virtual graduation” for the graduates of 2020 who are stuck at home. Speakers and performers included Barack and Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Malala Yousafzai, Lizzo, Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys But the only part I was waiting for was the speech of Kim Namjoon (RM), Kim Seokjin (Jin), Min Yoongi (Suga), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope), Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung (V), and Jeon Jungkook — seven men who are popularly known as Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS).
The direct eye contact with the camera made it feel like each one of them was really addressing me. I tried to hold back tears as Seokjin told me not to rush just because I feel pressured or lost in the face of uncertainty. Yoongi, on the other hand, addressed the loneliness I’ve been feeling because of the quarantine. He advised me to let go of things I can’t control and focus on what I can change. At some point, Jimin, said that if ever I feel lonely, “remember there is a person here in Korea, in the city of Seoul, who understands you.”
I then broke down in sobs, knowing every word was not just addressed to the graduates of 2020. They know the influence they hold, and everything they say or do is not just for a select few. “I’m not much different from you,” Hoseok said. “Sometimes, my mind is bleached white and I can hardly take a step forward,” but then he is quick to remind himself, “just this once,” and he picks himself back up.
Before the quarantine period, not a lot of people — not even my friends — knew that I counted myself part of the BTS fandom, popularly known as ARMY (Adorable Representative MC for Youth). I’m not proud to admit that I used to feel a bit of shame about it, especially that I was no longer the college student who shared a boarding house with friends who loved K-pop as much as I did.
I first listened to BTS in late 2013 and liked how their first album referenced Epik High, a Korean hip-hop trio that the group counts as one of their strongest influences and remains one of my favorite Korean acts. The connection is so strong that both BTS and Epik High actually sample the same instructional disco record in the first tracks of their respective debut albums.
However, I only started to stan BTS when I was in my mid-twenties, a few months after saying goodbye to a beloved and having made a career shift.
It may seem ridiculous to others how invested I am in a group many have so openly dismissed as just a Korean boy band, but there was something about their 2015 EPs, “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life (HYYH) Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” that resonated with me so deeply, and had me looking for the best possible translations of their songs. Fans often refer to Doolset Bangtan, a blog owned by a Korean ARMY based in the U.S. Apart from English translations, it also points out Korean wordplay and provides context in relation to BTS’ Korean roots. In Dope, for example, BTS highlights 쩔다 which is slang for “freaking awesome,” and is an accentuated form of 절다 which translates to being marinated in salt, or in BTS’ case, being drenched in sweat (땀에 쩔다) or drenched in fatigue (피곤에 쩔다).
But out of all the songs from the “HYYH” era, my favorite has to be “Baepsae.” BTS never shied away from singing about social issues and the struggles of the youth, and “Baepsae” is a pointed critique of a society that thrives on exploitation and inequality. In the song, they disavow the narrative that describes the youth as lazy, while calling for collective action in changing a system that benefits only the privileged few.
My favorite part of the track, as explained by Danny Kim of DKDKTV, is the last line, where BTS pronounces baepsae (뱁새) in a way that sounds like a Korean curse word (개새야), as if cursing against those who choose to maintain the status quo.
BTS had a rough start, coming from a small agency called Big Hit Entertainment. Some of their live performances on music shows were cut short, if not entirely edited out. These days it’s not surprising to see them wearing brands like Gucci, Dior, or Chanel, but during their first TV appearance they wore shirts bearing their names so that the production staff and crew can identify them — something that no group from a bigger, more established agency had to do. The industry was cut-throat, and hard work was not enough to ensure a group’s longevity.
Seven years later, all the groups that debuted with them in 2013 have disbanded.
However, BTS, from the very beginning, had always acknowledged that their success was not theirs alone. With every career milestone, BTS has tweeted “teamwork makes the dream work,” and with every award, #우리아미상받았네 -- “ARMY won an award.” When they topped the Billboard Hot 100 with their latest hit, Dynamite, BTS tweeted these slogans separately, in between earnest tweets from every member of the group. ARMY Twitter was flooded with quote tweets, many of them about how far BTS has come from their first music show win, their first perfect all-kill, their first Daesang.
Both BTS and ARMY knew that it was something they achieved together.
For every ARMY, their relationship with BTS can be very personal. Mine started with watching their video blogs called Bangtan Logs which they were uploading to YouTube early in their career. Out of the seven members, it was Namjoon’s logs that first caught my attention. He was just 19 when they debuted as a group, but he sounded like an old soul that has already lived a hundred lives. He would sometimes talk about happiness, the need to prove his worth, and his attempts to enjoy the little things.
In one of his logs, he shared his thoughts about “Hwejajeongri Geojapilban,” an old Korean proverb which says “people who meet must part and people who part will meet again.” He can’t keep people tied close to him forever, Namjoon said, and he will send them off if he must. But it would be great if he could see them again.
I first discovered BTS almost a year after I relocated to pursue human rights work in Mindanao, with hardly anyone to talk to about my personal interests. I conveniently forgot about them while rooting for other groups. In 2015, BTS caught up with me, and they came into my life when I needed them the most.
With BTS’ success is a tenacity that even the members now acknowledge as something that might have registered to their early audiences as “desperate.” While the pressure to make it has been lifted off their backs, it has been replaced with a constant questioning about what lies ahead. In their latest album, “Map of the Soul (MOTS):7,” they confess a fear of their “first death,” when the music that excites and moves them suddenly fails to inspire anything from them, while also emphasizing that this same fear reminds them of what music genuinely means to them as artists with an intense desire to create.
And create, they did. All about the self-journey, BTS is known for grand narrative arcs. Albums flow towards the next in the same way book chapters do. Their first three albums, also known as the School Trilogy, take on the perspective of schoolboys and features songs about dreams, happiness, and love, while their albums from the HYYH era are about the triumphs and struggles of the youth as they find their place in society. The “Love Yourself” albums tell the story of falling in love, having one’s heart broken, and realizing the need to love one’s self through all of it. The “Map of the Soul” albums, on the other hand, are heavily influenced by Carl Jung and analytical psychology, with the full-length album “Map of the Soul: 7” bookended by the tracks “Intro:Persona” and “Outro:Ego.” Every project is a personal endeavor as members compose songs, write lyrics, and participate in album production, often in collaboration with Big Hit producers Adora, Pdogg, hiss noise, and slow rabbit, as well as the company CEO Bang Si-hyuk who is credited in albums as “Hitman” Bang.
But a global health pandemic and the quarantine that came with it was not a part of the plan. Around the world, people, myself included, had to suddenly change course and cancel plans as social distancing became the norm. BTS had to postpone the entire album world tour, after cancelling the first four concerts in Korea in late February.
I was planning to buy tickets for a Fukuoka stop when BTS announced the concert dates in January, ready to ask a friend or two who are based in Japan for some help since tickets are usually first sold to Japanese fanclub members and might even require an address or phone number in Japan. That changed when I realized how serious the pandemic was, as some Chinese-Filipino friends decided to cancel their Chinese New Year trips to China and Hong Kong. In the last ten minutes of a live stream posted on the V LIVE platform last March, Namjoon talked about feeling angry and frustrated over not being able to perform in front of ARMY and feeling powerless following the cancellation of their concerts in Korea. “Being the book left unread is the saddest thing,” he said.
But through it all, he thought, “we can’t lose our strength.” It was something he repeated to himself and the other members because he knew that ARMY needed them in the same way they needed to see and feel ARMY’s presence during their performances. “I don’t know what kind of life you’re living right now,” he said, “but I hope our sincerity can be helpful to you. We’re living in this world together, helping each other.”
It was BTS that I constantly turned to whenever things got too difficult during the quarantine. I found myself on WeVerse on one too many late nights, amused by Taehyung’s replies to posts by ARMY. I re-watched all episodes of Run BTS, still surprised by how good Jungkook is at literally everything. I made BTS playlists on Spotify and realized that Hoseok’s voice is actually my favorite, given how effortlessly he transitions from rapping to singing.
During their 2018 Mnet Asian Music Awards acceptance speech for Artist of the Year, Hoseok cried within the first couple of minutes as the other members looked on, trying to hold back their own tears. Seokjin eventually reveals that they have had a difficult year and considered disbanding, but they were fortunate enough to continue working together towards good results. He thanked the other BTS members who helped him make it through, and the ARMYs whose love sustains them.
This willingness to share a raw moment of vulnerability is what has always endeared BTS to ARMY, and why so many of us believe them when they say they understand the burdens we carry.
Apart from personal struggles, BTS has also spoken on mental health issues, gender equality, and social justice, and has made personal donations to various organizations working on different causes. ARMY, on the other hand, has monthly projects facilitated by One in an ARMY, apart from local projects funded by ARMY around the world
Last June, shortly after the George Floyd protests began in the United States, BTS donated a million dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement. ARMY then launched #MatchAMillion and matched BTS’ donation in just a little over 24 hours.
I hardly ever bought stuff online, let alone BTS items, but since my travel plans have been canceled I started buying official merchandise that I liked, along with BTS-related enamel pins I could add to my pin collection. It has now gotten to a point where I know online shop owners in the Philippines and enamel pin artists in Southeast Asia and the United States, with whom conversation always flowed freely because of a shared love for our one true seven. We start knowing nothing but each other’s names and shipping addresses, the challenge of sending a package during a pandemic, but it never ends up being just a transaction. There’s always a shared understanding, a moment of concern for the other, in the same way that BTS songs are not just songs but letters we end up reading when we need their assurance the most.
One time, I found myself talking to a woman who was selling her copy of the 2018 BTS Exhibition Book. As I paid for the item, she mentioned that she was happy to know the book will end up with a fellow ARMY who was also a Christian like her, but she was sad about having to sell it. Her family has been having financial difficulties, and I asked if I could pray for her. She then opened up about her health problems and I insisted that she consult with a doctor, as she sent me videos of the book’s condition and showed me how carefully she secured it with bubble wrap before sending it off to a courier.
Despite the lockdown, I found myself still able to build these types of relationships with fellow ARMYs online, especially after a friend suggested that I open an ARMY Twitter account so I could freely talk about BTS without the anxieties I have come to associate with public Twitter. But as BTS content found itself spilling over to my main account, friends and acquaintances who found themselves joining the ARMY started to open up to me and asked me for BTS song recommendations. Once, a friend sent a BTS-related tweet to me and an acquaintance, not knowing that she created a group conversation. After being pleasantly surprised by our shared love for BTS that we previously didn’t know about, we were suddenly close, talking about them every day during our free time, sending memes that only ARMYs would understand, and links to the latest BTS interviews and performances.
Some ARMYs, who joined at the height of BTS’ popularity, wonder if they’re late to the party. “You find them when you need them the most,” we tell each other, not just because it’s a popular quote among ARMY but because we genuinely believe it to be true. The members of BTS themselves do not mind if we were ARMY since 2013 or have just discovered them because of “Dynamite.” In their 2020 BTS Festa video, Namjoon acknowledges those who just recently became part of ARMY and how it doesn’t really matter when people decide to love them. “We are always thankful for your love,” he says, because “it is your love that makes us glow.”
In our search for genuine, human connections, finding BTS and joining the ARMY is not just a matter of discovering good music. It is a matter of finding each other despite the odds stacked against us, and building a family by being honest and open about our shared struggles during the past seven years and beyond.