“You’re going to LA?” my family and friends asked, shocked that I, who had willingly not seen most of them in the two years since the pandemic started, was planning to board a plane.
“Yeah,” I admitted nervously. “But I’m only doing it for BTS.”
The official announcement and the ticket sales all happened in quick succession, just two months before the four-day show. It felt like the culmination of the past two years, the end of an era, and for me, the last chance I’d have to watch all seven of them together on stage.
In a V live after the first day, Nov. 27, Jimin and Taehyung (V) talked about how they spent the last two years trying to figure out where they could tour. “We were planning on doing the tour in Barcelona,” said Taehyung. “Also, there were a lot of other ones scheduled too, but it was scheduled and cancelled several times,” added Jimin. They tried for other cities in both Korea and the United States, too, but the pieces never quite fit, and all other shows were cancelled. In the end, Los Angeles was the only venue that worked. I guess it felt safer, too, since 64.2% of the Californian population is vaccinated.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Even pre-pandemic, I hated crowds — a hatred now amplified by a justified right to ask a stranger for personal space. I can even count the number of concerts I’ve been to with two hands. But when it came to BTS, it was like a magnet was clasped around my waist, pulling me with full force. I needed to watch them. I felt that need when they came to Manila for the WINGS tour in 2017, when I was ready to fly to D.C. to watch a Map of the Soul tour show in 2019, and now, two years after, to watch Permission to Dance in L.A.
This need has been building up since the five years I’d become an ARMY. Though I watched their debut stage in 2013, I was too consumed by Luhan’s departure from EXO to get into another group. Two years later, I mentioned to my cousin in passing that “Fire” had come up on as a recommended video and that Jimin was even cuter than I remembered. “You should watch “American Hustle Life,” she suggested, and that was it from there.
Anything BTS put out after that had, almost too conveniently, become exactly what I needed at that time of my life. Weekly “Run” — and for a while, “BTS Gayo” — variety show episodes got me through months poring over my thesis. I watched the “DNA” music video at a random tonkatsu restaurant in Hongdae, Seoul where I celebrated my first birthday since graduating college.
Being an ARMY, for me, is more personal than I’d like to admit. That's probably why the need to watch them has built up into something strong enough to get me on a plane, double masked, and praying the vaccine would do its job.
As a Map of the Soul tour ticket holder, I was sent a code for the second day presale. Describing ticket buying as a “shitshow” would be an understatement. Ticketmaster automatically flagged me as a bot whenever I used my Wi-Fi, forcing me to rely on my data. Then, it wouldn’t even let me join the queue, despite using the correct registered email. In the end, it all boiled down to luck and the goodwill of others. From that day up until we landed in Los Angeles itself, we were being offered tickets — almost like the universe was apologizing for the bloodiness and trauma from the MOTS presale. I watched three out of the four show days — Nov. 28, Dec. 1, and Dec. 2, and I acknowledge that I am lucky enough to have had these many chances to watch them again, and I am grateful for the experience.
Traveling isn’t like it was before. COVID-19 has doubled the required paperwork you need to fill up, much of which were health declaration forms, and you need to make an appointment with the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) to get an official vaccination card, a thin yellow booklet roughly the size of your passport with the World Health Organization logo printed on the front.
On the day of our flight, we got to the airport three hours earlier than boarding time but because they checked for our vaccination cards and negative COVID-19 test results at every checkpoint, we got to our gate just 20 minutes shy of boarding. Interviews with immigration officers ran a little longer, too. “You’re the 1005th person I’ve talked to today that’s leaving for the BTS concert,” one told me.
The same strict protocols carried over to watching the concert itself. You needed to remain masked throughout the show and to present either proof of vaccination two weeks prior to the event or a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of the show upon entering. You needed official government identification, too. This contributed to the slowness at which lines moved. By my second day (which was the third show), there were ushers and booths who distributed bright orange wristbands to signify you had already been checked to try and speed up the process.
SoFi Stadium, which has a capacity of 70,240 (though they sold 50,000 tickets per show), felt like a small amusement park on show days. In the three days I spent there, I always ended up somewhere new, with some kind of new attraction. The lines to get a photo taken at a Permission to Dance booth, merch, albums, and special edition Permission to Dance photocards were separate, even though they braided together like a large pretzel. The only thing that didn’t have lines were these small stalls selling bacon-wrapped hotdogs that punctuated every entryway.
When I first got into BTS, I didn’t know many others who liked them — or none I felt comfortable enough to express my most unfiltered thoughts to. I tried and failed, again and again, to get my closest friends to at least try to like them. In the end, only two had listened, and both have since moved on, either to other groups or in life in general.
So when the pandemic brought in both “Dynamite” and an influx of new fans, I was overwhelmed by how many people were now willing to listen to me talk about BTS. Close friends had now become best friends, and I was connecting to people I’d met for the first time on a deeper level than I could explain.
For the first weekend, five of us stayed at a hotel near SoFi Stadium and LAX airport. Most of them had only flown in for the show. The lobby looked like an ARMY convention. Entering, I saw a group with transparent bags and all-purple outfits, another in BT21 pajamas, and yet another decked head to toe in Permission to Dance merchandise. On Nov. 28, we rode a pre-booked Rally bus from the hotel to the stadium. We left at 3:45 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. show. 50 people each played their choice of BTS song, creating a glorious mix of chaos and excitement.
Even if I’ve only been to a handful of concerts, one thing about BTS concerts that really stood out to me was how nice the crowds were. Usually, other fans just minded their own business. At the worst of mania, I watched a friend get stepped on by a throng of people at an A$AP Rocky show. Here, ARMY handed out candies, chocolates, photocards, foldable fans, and the folded paper moon for Jin’s birthday event. One even taught my friend how to sync her ARMY Bomb. Another group helped navigate traffic around the stadium.
On the last day, my friend and I were at SoFi Stadium at 12 noon for merch, which we thought was early until we found ourselves faced with enough people to fill a school fair. “Some people were here at 5 a.m.,” a fellow ARMY informed us. In the end, we’d gained a thin diamond scarf, Map of the Soul ARMY Bombs, small body bags (of which only Suga, RM, Jin, and V were left), "Permission to Dance" stickers, and a new friend from Minnesota we now have a group chat with. Like me, she has a BTS highlight on her Instagram.
But the presence of such large crowds, no matter how friendly, was definitely not great. Since the venue lacked signs, and the ushers were clearly new hires who had no idea how to properly direct people where to go, I felt I was always at the edge of an impending stampede. Inside the arena, we were seated right next to each other, with no semblance of social distancing. The only thing that indicated a pandemic were the masks. Otherwise, it was like a regular concert.
On the Dec. 1 show, I kept getting pings that somebody in the area tested positive for COVID-19 but I had no idea how near or far they were to me. Despite all that, because of how different Los Angeles was to Manila, I did not feel the need to panic. People were more relaxed, more vaccinated. For a week before the show, I walked around the city, went to restaurants and bars, met new people — I could even safely remove my mask just to breathe. I felt normal. And, thankfully, I’ve tested negative on all my PCR tests since.
Taking all this into account, the stress, the exhaustion, and the hours spent waiting in the cold on an empty stomach, as cliché as it is to say, it was all worth it.
The songs per day didn’t really change, except for in the final set, where they sang “Spring Day” and “Love Yourself” on one day, and “Mikrokosmos” and “Home” on another. The show always started with “ON,” “Save Me” always transitioned into “I’m Fine,” and “Dynamite” to “Butter.” But while the overall skeleton remained firm, the nuances, however few, were enough to segment each day cleanly in my memories. At the Nov. 28 show, when Megan Thee Stallion surprised us during “Butter,” Jin danced around in pigtails, and RM congratulated his throat for getting through the performances.
At the December 1 show, Jimin responded to being called “JM” by spelling his name, “J-I-M-I-N, that is my name,” he repeated, and when V stepped out as a “Squid Game” guard for the final set, a stark pink figure dancing, falling, and kicking balloons during “Permission to Dance.” At the final show, Jin cried seeing the moons and signs for his birthday, and I cried when “My Universe” played because I was fully convinced the show was already over.
The flight back to Manila felt so ordinary it made the entire trip feel like a dream. Since arriving, the boys have made Instagrams, while I’ve eased back into a more regular work-from-home schedule while in mandatory quarantine. If you asked me now if I’d warmed up to crowds or if I’d like going outside again, the answer would still be a resounding no. I am still scared of the pandemic. But at ungodly hours of the morning when jet lag won, I scrolled through my gallery, reliving the concert to relax myself back into sleep. I replayed the final moment from every show — balloons bouncing through the crowd as they sang "Permission to Dance" — a soft purple light emanating from my phone screen.