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My assessment of BTS is unabashedly biased. I’m what you call “pandemic ARMY,” becoming a fan shortly after the first lockdown, among over a 100 million fans who watched their October “Map of the Soul: ON:E” online concerts. Hell, I even filmed my own unboxing of their new album, BE, my first CD purchase in 15 years, and have hanging in my new home office a wall and desk calendar procured from their just-distributed Seasons Greetings holiday package. Why am I throwing all my money at these men? God, I wish I could tell you. But I think it is partly because I value their documented work, much of which is concerned with relationship building, which extends to their fandom. This reciprocates its own unique form of online collaboration and collective care. 

Kim Namjoon, Kim Seokjin, Min Yoonji, Jung Hoseok, Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung, Jeon Jungkook: so goes the fan chant roll call of the seven members that are the K-pop group BTS. Coming up on the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems necessary to re-assess the band’s momentum at a time when most of the world paused, or more accurately, struggled with its debilitations. Their Grammy-nominated single “Dynamite” — frothy, effervescent disco pop more delightful than the institution deserves — made them the first K-pop group to have a number one on the Billboard charts. In November, they released BE, an attuned and diaristic entry in the emerging pandemic concept album genre, which led to another Billboard number one for its single, “Life Goes On.” But there was also the cancellation (or COVID-19 postponement) of their Map of the Soul world tour, and a global Connect, BTS public art project diminished by the early lockdown closures of museums and galleries. This “comeback” — a K-pop concept encompassing not just a new album but its entire promotional cycle entailing teasers, music videos, comeback stages, dance practices and even behind-the-scenes footage — was a massive pivot. 

As a commercial art form, K-pop has somehow been better able to process a pandemic reality, glittering and sparkling, clogging Twitter trends with fancams and hashtags like #JUNGKOOKGOODBOY. And if ever there has been a pop cultural entity that has managed to spin out variations upon variations of this pandemic reality, it’s been BTS: early lockdown studio livestreams, multiple music video edits and single remixes and even TikTok arts and crafts. These digital artifacts, indexed by hashtagged curation, contextualize the work-in-progress formation of this unexpected comeback.

A BE concept clip focusing on the band’s individual shelter-in-place personas (courtesy Big Hit Entertainment)

The hashtagged curation of this BTS pandemic reality began with #StayConnected, appending a YouTube series tracking in apparent real time their active role in BE’s album-making process as not just artists, but project managers and directors. The videos and streams revel in mundane arts administrative labor: music video treatment brainstorms, the florid typing of emails to a label’s A&R. Fast forward to the fall, in the lead up to their album’s release, and #Curated_by_BTS affirmed how this endlessly documented process reflected a pandemic work-in-progress flow but also aesthetic. The hashtag was used to frame the Twitter distribution of BE’s concept photography — a teaser of the comeback’s aesthetic — dropping on a daily basis individual member’s sheltering-in-place personas

As open interpretative frameworks, #StayConnected and #Curated_by_BTS re-circulate back and forth exchanges of visual content and meanings between BTS and its fandom. While ARMY’s meme production can sometimes engage in the unthinking reproduction of culture — remember, K-pop is a commercial art form — it can also be oppositional. This is why taking more seriously and holding accountable an online communal space like ARMY can help us better understand how socially-conscious gatherings and movements can emerge from new information cultures. 

Admittedly, unchecked online communal spaces can fall prey to the algorithms of misinformation, resulting in Q-Anon, anti-Vaxxers, and Proud Boys. Within the K-pop fandom alone, there are your expected fan wars, not to mention lingering issues surrounding the acknowledgement of K-pop’s roots in Black culture, and its history of cultural appropriation. As K-pop becomes more widely regarded as a mainstream global pop culture — and BTS its leading export — these fannish microstructures and boundaries reconfigure and morph. And within ARMY, the biggest K-pop fandom today, despite there being both affinities and tensions, it seems at the very least a better alternate pandemic reality of what being in relation means. This echoes the current English translation of the band’s acronym, “Beyond The Scene,” a phrase described by their label Big Hit Entertainment as “symbolizing youth who don’t settle for their current reality and instead open the door and go forward to achieve growth.” This refusal isn’t escapist: much of BTS’s music focuses on self-love, acceptance, and self-discovery, and is socially conscious. (The band has spoken twice at the United Nations General Assembly in support of youth development.)

The so-called ARMY version of BTS’s “Life Goes On” music video, one of four official music videos produced for the BE single. The music video was an edit of fan-submitted TikToks participating in the band’s arts and crafts TikTok challenge (courtesy BANGTANTV)

While BTS frequently invites comparison to the Beatles, it’s worth comparing the band and their horizontal relationship to their fandom with the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead’s modelling of anti-establishment collaboration shaped the Deadhead subculture. Granted, calling a Korean boy band “anti-establishment” is a stretch, but their “baepsae” underdog status has long been formed by subversive lyrics and visuals critiquing the Korean school system, millennial conspicuous consumption, and even their own fandom’s obsessive tendencies. This lyrical self-reflection is augmented by reality and variety show content, documenting these young men engaging in backstage conflict resolution, or calling themselves each other’s soul mates. As Dr. Candace Epps-Robertson pointed out in her lecture on BTS’s transcultural fandom for a Fall 2019 Indiana University webinar series, these sentiments are “invitationals,” allowing fans to respond accordingly.

Within the same webinar series, Korean contemporary culture scholar CedarBough Saeji noted that K-pop isn’t just a music genre but a mode of production strategically embracing cultural difference. The emphasis on presentation, style, and performance often substitute for lyrics in the listeners’ language. While K-pop idols are fantasy constructs, they are also “parasocial kin” who constantly express their gratitude to fans. (This is what’s called “fan service.”) The “you” in much of BTS’s music is ARMY — their fandom. This service creates a call and response dynamic. In June, when the band made a $1 million dollar donation to Black Lives Matter, ARMY quickly matched it, largely through the distribution of a #MatchAMillion Twitter hashtag steered by One In An ARMY, a fan collective that organizes charity campaigns. BTS’s collaboration, then, is often extended and expanded by the fandom, a sprawling mycelial-like network producing collective actions and meanings within pervasive digital infrastructures.

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The painting created during Min Yoongi’s #StayConnected Youtube stream inspired his BE concept photography (courtesy Big Hit Entertainment)

One of the most memed #StayConnected Youtube logs features BTS rapper and producer SUGA (Min Yoongi) painting a white canvas with an emotive Rothko-like blue wash. This durational livestream performance informed his own BE concept photography, distilling the band’s engagement with visual art but also mental health and masculinity.

BTS have long been cohesive in their comeback’s conceptual arcs aligning with their own growth and development. The “Blood, Sweat and Tears” music video, from their Wings (2016) era — where the peroxide-blonde vocalist V (Kim Taehyung) ever so casually slides off a balcony into the seawaters of Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1560) — weaving together Western mythological references with Hermann Hesse’s bildungsroman Demian for an era preoccupied with youthful excess. Jungian psychology informed their last era, Map of the Soul.

Art meme accounts like artansonyeondan dig into the parallels between BTS and visual art. Maintained by a New York-based art historian/fan, the popular Twitter is peak Pinterest curation of museum and blue chip gallery works. In her analysis of Yoongi’s BE concept photo, she makes obvious Photoshop eyedropper tool connections, like the aforementioned Rothko blues

BTS’s December 2019 performance of the 2019 hit “Dionysus” during their comeback stage at the Melon Music Awards, a major awards show held annually in South Korea (courtesy BANGTANTV)

BTS critically engages with Western art historical narratives as a means of grappling with representation. “There’s a piercing delight in watching BTS […] take on Dionysus, a fixture of classical mythology, a god who constantly reinvents himself, and turn him into a Korean folk figure,” writes Eidolon’s Yung In Chae. She’s referring to a refrain from the Map of the Soul: 7 song where the band swaggers about being drunk on art, but still manage to “sing ongheya” — a Korean folk music phrase found in barley-threshing labor songs, bringing historical context to these extended wordplaying ruminations on yesul (art) and sul (alcohol). Indeed, when the band kicked off a week of performances on The Tonight Show last fall, their remote performance of their 2018 hit “Idol” was staged outside Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, a defiant holding down of their Korean heritage on the world stage. 

This critical position regarding representation is lightly scattered across artansonyeondan’s curation; it’s unwittingly “no theory account!” neutrality echoes museum status quo systems. Based on color and composition alone, it suffices to compare the muted distant landscape seen through Jung Hoseok’s airplane window seat to Lawren Harris’s “Lake Superior III (circa 1923-24).” But the 20th-century Canadian painter is known for his northern Canadian landscapes, abstracting expansive open skies and rock formations. The algorithmically reproduceable omits this spiritualist visual language. A curator or historian might interpret the shared northern climes of Canada and South Korea, or poke at how this attests to Harris’s predominant gift shop presence in Canadian institutions. Instead, the work remains a museum art rental backdrop for the BTS dance leader and rapper, otherwise known as J-Hope, to seemingly catching up on his post-airplane mode smartphone notifications.

The absence of contextual detail in artansonyeondan’s feed is felt most keenly in her comparison of a still from the band’s “Dynamite” music video to Barkley L. Hendricks’s “What’s Going On” (1974). I’m assuming the connection is between the style of Hendrick’s postmodern Black portraiture and the band’s 1970s-esque tailoring. Herein lies the challenges in interpreting only skin-deep color and composition alone: you’re engaging in the transparencies Édouard Glissant railed against: The brown here becomes essentialized, the cultural difference normalized. There’s no “right to opacity” in this. 

A meme responding to the BE concept for BTS member Jimin (courtesy stonerjungcock)

This form of networked curation is symptomatic of how screen-based visual consumption can flatten the contours of artistic provenance and output. We are too conditioned to see ourselves as “a brand” engaging with “other brands.” If that’s truly the case, then why should we care if the corporate Bagel Bites Twitter account all of sudden went ARMY in an attempt to garner followers and click follow-throughs? And if we’re all participating in the BE hashtag, then what’s the big deal about a Philippines Museum’s Twitter thread of youth artworks produced by an education program funded by Shell that recall BTS songs? Should we, ARMY, favor a sweet sentiment from an unexpected source instead of critiquing said source’s oil money funding?

But ARMY subversion and critique still thrives. On Instagram, you have stonerjungcock. Its name alone — a thirst trapping 4/20 wordplay on the name of BTS’s youngest member and vocalist Jungkook — filters a facet of fandom that’s weird and unruly. The Instagram account is maintained by users acetaminophentai, beel.expertise, greenboytime, groverbeans, jagooopy, kkdirge, and males_are_cancelled. Scattered across five different countries, these fan-creators collaborate via groupchat, utilizing DIY socialist meme aesthetics to queer BTS’s parasocial kinship. The K-pop idols, then, become avatars for a pandemic reality iterating Muñoz’s queer utopias and futures. Where most meme accounts steer clear of art critique, stonerjungcock brings critical feminist and queer analysis of BTS’s soft masculinity.

Stonerjungcock is also funny. The overgrown wildflowers of Jimin’s BE concept photo are replaced by pot plants. A still from the “Dynamite” music video photoshops Jin’s “Staying Alive” pose in front of a burning NYPD cop car, transposing the song’s “set the night alight” lyrics to last summer’s ACAB and defund-the-police BLM protests. There is even self-awareness in stonerjungcock’s satirizing its embrace of socialist meme production, especially at a time when BTS rack up global partnerships with brands like Coca-Cola and Samsung, and these corporate ambassador synergies brush up against their music’s socially-conscious lyrics.

A meme responding to a behind-the-scenes photograph taken during the band’s “Dynamite” performance for the 2020 MTV VMA’s featuring members Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) and Jeon Jungkook (courtesy stonerjungcock)

When “Dynamite” was still number one on the Billboard charts during the second week of September, BTS’s leader and rapper RM (Kim Namjoon) celebrated his 26 birthday by donating 100 million won ($90,000) to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Foundation. The philanthropic gift funded the production and distribution of restored art books to South Korea’s public schools and libraries. The titles, some originally out-of-print, survey modern and contemporary Korean artists like the abstract painters Kim Whan-Ki and Yun Hyong-keun; for art-savvy ARMY, these are familiar artists seen in the BTS leader and rapper’s frequent art gallery and museum selfies. When a box of art books finally arrived at one library only a couple months later, it included a hand-written note penned by Kim Namjoon himself: “I too still talk to many artists through books, and often feel like they’re living right next to us,” so began a translation of the note from modooborahae, a prominent ARMY fan and translation account. “Art is not hard. It’s right next to us.”

This overflowing of care and sincerity is why BTS’s pandemic-networked curatorial strategy resonates. These young Korean men, unshakeable in their commitment to themselves and ARMY, convene and stir generative, large-scale, online social experiences sorely missing at this time.

Yet screen-based attentions still fuel the for-profit monopolies of our digital platforms, and it remains to be seen how BTS will navigate these greater forces afoot in 2021. Their label Big Hit is now public, having raised $840 million in its initial October 15 public offering. It was South Korea’s largest in three years. As expected, the band is centralizing their online engagement, programming, and concerts via Big Hit’s social platform, Weverse, and taking more direct action against illegal streamers. While South Korea’s parliament passed a December 1 bill allowing high-profile, male K-pop stars like BTS to postpone their mandatory military service until the age of 30, by the end of 2021, its oldest member Kim Seokjin may have to enlist. This frenetic documented and livestreamed pace and consumption will inevitably slow down, potentially evolving into post-dated content. 

Granted, I and others could just be falling for the “fan service” public figures like K-pop idols are expected to perform, circulating actions and gestures from constructed personas bought and sold through online concerts, limited edition CD boxed sets, or even Season’s Greetings holiday packages. Yet there are multitudes contained in this cascading documentation, repetitions and movements marking the mutable boundaries separating real and virtual selfhoods and communities. In this proliferation, a sense of collaborative ARMY authorship emerges, even if the scaling of its criticality shift and bend in dialogue. Learning, but also (un)learning, is all part of the ongoing process — especially during a pandemic. And like most online communal spaces, BTS and ARMY are stumbling their way through it.

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Rea McNamara

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator and public programmer based in Toronto. She is currently the Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellow for Curators at Hyperallergic.