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[Grace Kao] What are American BTS Army events like?

By Korea Herald

Published : March 12, 2024 - 05:19

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“BTS finds you when you need them most.”

Army, the name of BTS’ fandom, is likely the largest and most devoted fandom in K-pop. While non-K-pop fans may envision Army as primarily young women who scream and cheer at concerts, fans in fact come from many backgrounds. This is particularly true of American BTS fans, who also find comfort both through the community of fans and the content BTS provides.

Earlier this year, I attended two BTS Army cup sleeve events in Connecticut, a state wedged against New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. I’m a fan of BTS, so it was easy for me to socialize with the attendees. The fans I saw were aged from about 20s-70s, and at the first event, about half were over 40. They were from diverse racial backgrounds (white, Black, Hispanic, Asian and others). Unsurprisingly, they were mostly women, but there were a few men.

The first was held on a Sunday afternoon at a cafe/brewery. For $5 and the purchase of a beverage (to support the cafe), participants received a cup sleeve celebrating BTS members V and Jin’s birthdays as well as other swag. There was a raffle for large gift baskets. Photo cards were sold to support a charity. There was a table where a family of BTS fans hosted trivia games, and another table where a few members provided beads and other materials for making BTS-themed bracelets. There was a large photo of BTS members and BTS videos playing in the background – I saw the music video for “Daydream” by member J-Hope from 2018. There was even a scene from “Euphoria: Theme of Love Yourself Wonder” (2018). I can count on one hand the number of people I know who are familiar with this content, and here I was in a room full of people in Connecticut who knew it.

At most parties in the US, one would ask each other for their names, followed by their occupations, and perhaps how they know the host. Here, after learning someone’s name, the next question was something like, “What era Army are you?” Some would say, “Dynamite-era Army” or “I first saw them at their New Year’s Eve performance” (referring to the NYC show in 2019).” I don’t think anyone asked me about my occupation (although the host introduced me to a couple of people as “that Yale professor who teaches about K-pop”). Everyone highlighted the parts of their outfit that were BTS-themed and shared stories of their favorite performances, memories of concerts and funny behind-the-scenes stories from the vast library of videos on YouTube. People talked about how much they missed BTS now that the members were in the military, but somehow they were still present in their lives. I met some groups of friends. I later found out that they met at previous BTS Army events and became friends afterwards.

The second event was at a cafe near Yale University and organized by several young women. They also distributed cup sleeves and photo cards, and you could buy tickets for a raffle or photo cards. At this cup sleeve meeting, I saw a few familiar faces. I heard one of my favorite BTS songs “Like” (2013). Everyone was extremely friendly and kind. Like the last event, many people handed out gifts. I got a CD of Jungkook's single “Seven” and a Tata (BT21 character associated with V) pin.

Some people I met described how BTS helped them through major life challenges such as the death of a pet, the passing of their spouse, mental and physical health issues they or a loved one faced, etc. Many people expressed the following sentiment to me when describing their love of BTS: “BTS finds you when you need them the most.” People named specific songs (for example, “Mikrokosmos”) that helped them grieve for a pet or simply that the world of BTS was a great reprieve from their everyday lives. In fact, a Yale School of Public Health student recently wrote an MA Thesis about the mental health benefits BTS fans receive from consuming their content.

Attendees also enjoyed the community of other Army who understood not only their love of BTS, but for K-pop more generally. Many people also watched K-dramas, and we exchanged titles of our favorite shows. Like my students, those who became K-pop fans usually began with BTS. While most of the people I met had never been to Korea, for many it was on their bucket list. Everyone I talked to was interested in Hallyu more generally. Many were trying to learn Korean. While people in their regular social circles might judge or tolerate their “strange obsession with a boy group from Korea,” everyone at the cup sleeve event shared the same hobby.

What is different about American BTS fans compared to Korean fans is not their love of BTS, but that they have to work harder to find their content and other fans. Cup sleeve events might be common in South Korea, but they are less so here. At each event, there were people that drove up to two hours to attend. In Seoul, it’s relatively easy to go to fan meetings that may take place outside KBS’s “Music Bank'' on Fridays or MBC’s “Show! Music Core” on Saturdays. Lesser-known groups might busk in Itaewon or other neighborhoods. In the US, however, being a fan of K-pop can be an isolating hobby, and fans find comfort in the company of other fans. The sense of community, camaraderie and belonging was palpable at the events I attended. After all, what could be better than sipping a taro shake and listening to “Boy with Luv” with fellow fans on a Saturday afternoon?

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. -- Ed.