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My very first encounter with BTS can be told in three acts, connected but distinct. First a photograph, then an interview, followed by a performance, each act raising eyebrows, eliciting questions, and prodding me to learn more. Throughout, my emotions were a mixed bag of curiosity and skepticism, but also wonder and excitement. I remember saying to myself, “Something’s going on here. I don’t quite know what, but I’m dying to find out.”
The first act involves an image of seven Korean men, smooth-skinned and slim, projected on screen during a random entertainment news program I happened to catch on YouTube one day in November, 2017. (I no longer recall which program this was.) The anchor announced that for the very first time in history, K-pop band BTS would be performing at the 45th Annual American Music Awards (also known as the AMAs) to be broadcast live on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California, on November 19, 2017. That was the first time I had ever heard of BTS.
The world of K-pop so rarely crosses my radar even if I live in the Philippines, already steeped in everything K-culture for many years now. Yes, I had heard of past big names like Psy, Big Bang, 2NE1, the Wonder Girls, but only through the prism of their presence in the West. But K-pop seemed like an altogether alien world, one that I felt was never meant for someone like me, a middle-aged woman whose music fandom days were well behind her. I didn’t know anyone in my circle who listened to K-pop outside of a few twentysomethings and college interns at the office. Even my own children steered clear of K-pop.
We all know about the dearth of well-known Asian musicians in the Western (and therefore global) popular music scene. Knowing the abundance of musical talent and new ideas on this side of the Pacific, I’ve always been on the lookout for Filipinos or any Asians who have broken through that barrier, ready to support and cheer them on. I remember celebrating Psy’s viral success in 2012, going out of my way to appreciate the clever satire behind his brilliantly absurd music video “Gangnam Style,” but getting a bit disappointed by the public’s fixation on just his funny dance moves. So, when I caught that news report of another South Korean musical act appearing on mainstream American TV, I was intrigued enough and made a mental note to check out their performance the following day.
The second act of my BTS encounter happened at the AMAs red carpet. While I no longer recall which one of the many TV red carpet interviews I had watched, I can still hear BTS leader RM’s American-accented English in his deep, charismatic tone, while the other members looked on smiling for the cameras. I may not remember his exact answers, but I was impressed by his confidence and poise. However, the interview still felt strange. The American entertainment reporter’s overly energetic repartee — perhaps “normal” when interviewing native English speakers — felt awkward when faced with the BTS members. The scene reminded me of those old Star Trek episodes where Captain Kirk and his crew would meet an alien for the first time. Here were seven fastidiously groomed men, decked out in sparkly fashion, like the universe’s most alluring extraterrestrials descending on planet Hollywood.
At this point, I still wasn’t altogether sold on BTS. I found their red carpet style too feminized (“Those dangling earrings are for girls!” “What’s with the hair!?”) and their features too refined (“Oh, have they had plastic surgery?”). I was still saddled with my own prejudices about masculinity and the perceived artificiality of K-pop. Despite those misguided views, however, I was drawn to them as a fellow Asian who has always yearned for more Asian representation in popular music and culture. I asked myself: How did these guys get to be invited to the AMAs? Are they really that good? Will they be taken seriously? I couldn’t help feeling strangely giddy, as if something new and earth shattering was about to happen, even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet.
Act 3 of my BTS encounter was seeing them at their very best: singing and rapping live while dancing to the rapturous cheers of their beloved ARMY. Just before the performance started, I remember feeling nervous, worried the audience would mock them, asking “Who the hell are these Asian boys?” I still had no idea how popular they already were or that it was thanks to ARMY that they were even invited to that stage. BTS were about to perform on a major American award show that had always been off limits to artists like them. And without having heard a single note or seen a single dance step, I was silently rooting for them to wow the public, myself included.
As soon as The Chainsmokers introduced BTS, declaring them “international superstars,” a surging roar from the audience drowned out their voices while the camera panned to seven figures standing immobile on a darkened stage. The now familiar guitar riffs followed by V’s deep soulful voice introduced “DNA,” the title track off BTS’s 2017 Love Yourself: Her album. As my first ever listen of a BTS song, I remember finding it fun and danceable, very much in tune with whatever felt current musically at that time. There was nothing strange or “foreign” about it except for that one unmistakable element: they were singing and rapping in Korean. It was hard, though, to focus solely on the song as I was mesmerized by their dance moves, synchronized and precise, especially that DNA helix formation with joined hands. No comedic moves à la “Gangnam Style.” No jarring transitions between members’ singing or rapping. No over-the-top theatrics. Instead, their dance, vocals, style all came together for a performance that was pure cool, charismatic energy.
It wasn’t just the performance itself that shocked and delighted me. I was surprised by the very enthusiastic audience response, with a multiracial crowd of men and women clapping and dancing along, some even mouthing the lyrics in Korean, and look, there was celebrity actor Ansel Elgort fanboying as well. A few days later, I clicked on some fancams (videos taken by members of the audience and uploaded on YouTube) of the performance that show how loud and boisterous the cheering for BTS really was. It seemed like a sizable chunk of the audience was shouting in unison and in sync with the song. (They’re called fanchants, I learned later on.) ARMY were inside the theater in full force and they made sure BTS heard them loud and clear. The fancams also showed the non-ARMYs in the audience looking a bit lost, incredulous that BTS were getting the loudest cheers, and probably wondering, “What’s going on?” and “How have I never heard of them?” I felt just as incredulous, but also ecstatic that these seven Korean men had managed to slip through the staunch defenses of Western pop culture to get their four minutes to win over the world. Well played, BTS.
What happened next is a familiar journey for most ARMYs. After the AMAs, I caught BTS’s other TV appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Late Show With James Corden, and The Ellen Show, followed by the obligatory Wikipedia search to learn their names and history. Then it was onto a deep, deep dive into the group’s discography, music videos, lyric translations, highlight reels, dance practices, not to mention the ancillary world of reaction and compilation videos, and eventually to Twitter and the rest of their content.
More than three years later, now fully steeped in BTS lore, I look back on those few days of first contact in November and appreciate how momentous that event was for BTS as well as for me. That AMAs performance was a major step forward in BTS’s eventual domination of US and global charts, likely converting millions of folks like me into full-fledged ARMYhood. That same performance also signified a major internal shift in me, one that shed dusty old biases and preconceptions, and swept away my cynicism to embrace a little more hope for the world again, and to learn to love myself a little bit more every day. But that’s a whole other story.
A media professional on hiatus (Philippines).
Illustration By: Mala Yumi Aleluh Ramos, @lemonpopppp
Entertainment Tonight. (2017, November 20). BTS Say They Don’t Need Girlfriends When They Have Fan Army (Exclusive) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qN1_nEdly7I
E! Red Carpet & Award Shows. (2017, November 20). BTS Talks Emojis and More at the 2017 AMAs [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9Gc_g638C8
Kookies And Cream. (2017, November 20). BTS on AMA’s Performing DNA [Video capture of live ABC broadcast on November 19, 2017]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH1PVvFj8cE
supersonicwings. (2017, November 22). FANCAM 171119 BTS 방탄소년단 AMA’s 2017 DNA Full Performance [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9JbD0QX9u4
CrW_EAo. (2017, November 23). BTS AT THE AMAs Best Fancam 4k [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIAVGgjeJHk
annetan. (2021). First Contact: My BTS Origin Story in Three Acts. The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , (3). https://ther3journal.com/issue-3/first-contact-my-bts-origin-story-in-three-acts.
annetan. “First Contact: My BTS Origin Story in Three Acts.” The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , no. 3, 2021, https://ther3journal.com/issue-3/first-contact-my-bts-origin-story-in-three-acts.
First Contact: My BTS Origin Story in Three Acts by annetan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.