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Reporting Live From the Center of the Pop Universe: a BTS Concert

The K-pop boy band are a worldwide music phenomenon—and their concerts help explain why

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Outside of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, I blink six or seven times to regain my vision. Have you ever stared directly at a lightbulb for too long? Try staring at 19,000 of them for two and a half hours. Looking around, many are in some state of crying—puffy eyes abound, tears still streaming in several cases. There’s a ringing in my ears; I feel a bit woozy, as blood finally departs from my brain and returns to where it should be. It’s like a flash-bang grenade went off, over and over and over again. But this isn’t a war zone. This is just what it looks like leaving a BTS concert.

For those who don’t know (an increasingly small group to whom the rest of us say, “HOW DARE YOU?”), BTS—also known as Beyond the Scene, and the Bangtan Boys—are a K-pop boy band from Seoul composed of seven objectively beautiful guys ranging from 21 to 25 in age: RM (my favorite, because “RM” stands for his former stage name Rap Monster, which is just the coolest), Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. The guys’ real names are—as the initiated will frequently chant during songs, unprompted and in unison—Kim Nam-joon, Kim Seok-jin, Min Yoon-gi, Jung Ho-seok, Park Ji-min, Kim Tae-hyung, and Jeon Jung-kook. BTS are not the first, and not the only, K-pop boy band, but they are by far the most successful. Their résumé is a list of firsts and onlys for Korean musicians: the first Korean act to ever be certified gold, the only Korean act to have an album debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the only Korean act to win a Billboard Music Award. They have 16.5 million followers on Twitter; in 2017, Bloomberg reported that the band was tweeted about more than any other celebrity in the world. Their October 6 show at Citi Field in New York—the last stop on the North American leg of the Love Yourself World Tour and the first time a Korean act has ever played a stadium in the U.S.—sold out in minutes. BTS are an all-out phenomenon; the Beatles of the 21st century, inspiring as much mania and devotion, if not more.

A BTS concert doesn’t start when the seven members of the group take the stage—it starts two and a half hours before that, when the doors of the arena open. Walking to my seat (while others were running to theirs) just minutes after the Prudential Center officially opened, I heard a bass drop and the unmistakable sound of teens screaming. Are they still sound-checking, I thought. That makes no sense. The screams acted like a mating call for other fans, who blitzed past food vendors and merch tables with urgency, following the sound into the arena. Upon making it to Section 109, what I saw was unlike anything I’d seen before: Fans had filled the general admission section on the floor, gathering around a vacant stage to watch two screens that were playing BTS videos. Each time one of the band members appeared for the first time, a loud, high-pitched roar would erupt. Every time a video ended and a new one began, more screams. The loudest reception was bestowed upon a commercial BTS shot for the LG G7 ThinQ Boombox Speaker.

It went like this for almost three hours, the fans never losing enthusiasm or the will to destroy their vocal cords. “I would join chorus again if we could do one of these songs,” a teen boy sitting behind me energetically told the girl friends he was with.

This was my introduction to BTS Army, the extremely vigilant fans of BTS. They are the lifeblood of the group, the reason BTS has won the Top Social Artist Award back to back years at the BBMAs; the reason BTS has been able to cross over more successfully than any Korean act before them. They are dedicated, and they are many. (Members of the Army are adorably, nonsensically, called Armys.) It’s not hard to see that the Army is a community unto itself, one that exists in real life and online and provides a sense of connection for a group of people—mostly teens—who might struggle to find that in more traditional ways. The Army is one overwhelmingly inclusive body, the only requirement to entry being an unflinching desire to support—and oftentimes, defend—BTS.

BTS’s actual performance begins by trying to induce seizure. (To wit: Before the show began, a video played throughout the arena warning that “some elements of the show may surprise you.”) A hurricane of neon lights ricochet through the venue; balls of fire ignite from the stage floor; a wall of sound blares, matched only by the Army’s roar. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in the crowd has BTS-branded, Bluetooth-equipped light sticks, orbs that change color in unison with the on-stage light show. You’re surrounded in an ocean of pulsating sound and color, which funnels toward a delta of sensory explosion.

With all of your senses properly obliterated, the members of BTS ascend from beneath the stage in matching black-and-gold matador jackets—the K-pop version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as if the Beatles comparisons weren’t already evident. The group barrels through the opening number, “Idol,” their most recent single that furthers BTS’s overall message of self-esteem. (“You can’t stop me lovin’ myself,” the chorus emphatically repeats.) The Army yells every word, including the Korean ones, as the band leaps and kicks and spins through one of the most cardio-intensive choreography routines I’ve ever seen.

It’s a true spectacle—imagine if the Super Bowl halftime show was two and a half hours long—with built-in respites and corresponding bursts back into overdrive. Every three songs or so, BTS disappear under the stage—presumably to rest, change clothes, get some water, and maybe eat a couple of Doritos or something. While they’re gone, interstitial videos made specifically for the concert play on the giant screens. They vary in tone, color, and sex appeal, depending on which members of the group they feature. The first video of the night showed J-Hope and Jungkook in cheeky polo shirts, just generally goofing off against sparse, vivid, Instagram-friendly backgrounds. (This made the teens scream.) Another interstitial was far more sultry, showing Jimin and RM in different-but-somehow-connected rooms, holding oranges and preening at the camera in a way that made me reconsider if I had gone my whole life underestimating the sex appeal of fruit. (This, too, made the teens scream.) The videos were followed by solo performances by members of BTS—showcases, but also allotted time during which each subset of the Army could express their appreciation—after which the entire band reunited for another run of songs.

Musically speaking, BTS is fascinating—as though they were told to do a book report on the entirety of popular music, and to put it in song form. In their music, you can hear Drake (“Trivia: Love”), the Chainsmokers (“Trivia: Just Dance”), Avicii (“DNA”), Daddy Yankee (“Idol”), Reputation-era Taylor Swift (“Fake Love”), and even Linkin Park (“Mic Drop”). A BTS concert is Now That’s What I Call Music! live, performed by seven unbelievably talented, undeniably attractive guys.

More importantly, though, BTS is unmistakably Korean. Even during a concert in New Jersey, the group in no way Americanizes themselves. Their songs effortlessly vacillate between Korean and English, emphasizing their ethnic identity while at the same time flattening the barriers between cultures. It’s clear they do not view themselves as a K-pop band trying to make it in the States; they are not a novelty. Rather, they’re a band from South Korea with a proudly global audience more focused on what unites them (read: BTS) than what divides them.

That is why BTS is one of the biggest acts in the world, on their way to becoming the biggest act. To join the Army is to renounce the many ways in which society singles out people as different—race, language, ethnicity, gender, sexuality—and instead celebrate commonality, a trade-off I can only imagine feels utterly life-affirming for teenagers growing up in an increasingly harsh, divisive world. And once within this BTS-driven community, the lingua franca is self-love. Less than a week before the concert at the Prudential Center, RM and the rest of BTS stood before the U.N. to encourage the world’s young people to find their inner confidence. “No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color or gender identity, speak for yourself. Find your name and find your voice by speaking for yourself,” he said. The message was reiterated time and again in concert.

The most striking part of seeing BTS perform wasn’t the assault on the senses, or the costume changes (from matador jackets to silk white shirts of varying Prince-ness to black bondage outfits), or the fact V did a dance routine with a coat rack (which was, however, dope)—it was how emotionally connected the group seems to be to its fans. “I am your hope. You are my hope,” J-Hope told them after the opening song. “This song is for you,” was a common pre-song refrain. “We breathe the same air,” RM professed during the group’s extended goodbye. The group speaks to its fans with a pointed intimacy, and the fans listen without a shred of cynicism.

I should add that BTS is also a tremendously impressive, efficient financial scam. The aforementioned light sticks cost $55, and not having one is barely an option. I didn’t, and I feel my lack of participation in the audience light show was duly noted by everyone around me. Also, the light sticks for the Love Yourself Tour are the third version of BTS light sticks, meaning that the next time BTS comes to the States, they will likely be defunct, and fans will likely have to fork over another $55 (if not more) for Version 4. And that’s just the light sticks. The merch tent was also selling a $30 light stick case, a $30 towel, a $40 phone case, a $90 hoodie, and $55 T-shirts, which all sold out Friday, the night of the band’s first concert in Newark. Unrelated to the Love Yourself Tour, BTS also has teamed up with the company Line Friends to create its own Hello Kitty–esque line of merchandise. Each member of the band has his own character—V’s is a curious little guy with a heart-shaped head, Jimin’s is a puppy in a yellow hoodie, and so on. Professing your love for a specific member of BTS means buying all of the Line Friends merch—stuffed animals, shoes, coffee mugs, notepads, almost anything you can think of. No doubt, BTS is a business, targeting teenagers and, more specifically, parents who don’t have the heart to say no. (Big Hit Entertainment, the company that manages BTS, generated about $86 million in 2017.)

But does that even matter? To the dad mumbling, “Another light stick?” as he fishes his credit card out of his wallet, maybe. But to the people actually listening to BTS—the ones who know every word to every song and who yelled themselves hoarse Saturday night—the grift of it all is beside the point, barely even noticeable. All that matters is that for one night, they all got to be together, and feel what it’s like to belong to something.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Kim Nam-joon’s name.