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Just before embarking on its current “official extended period of rest,” BTS flew from Seoul to Los Angeles for a tightly packed two-week engagement in the City of Angels, including its first in-person shows since the pandemic began, that exemplifies where the peerless seven-man outfit finds itself — artistically, culturally and in the zeitgeist — at this stage in its career.
In the past year and a half, the already-famous group has ascended to a new stratosphere of worldwide stardom reached by very few figures in the pop culture pantheon, and certainly not by artists of Asian descent. And when you become as famous as Bangtan has — that is to say, unprecedentedly, globally, unimaginably famous — your image often becomes not your own.
Pop musicians (especially Kpop idols) already are among the category of celebrity most subject to suspected image manipulation: by their own company handlers, by U.S. radio label execs and radio programmers, by advertisers and other business associates, and by members of the media machine, which includes everyone from talk show producers to journalists. And as the cultural theorist Stuart Hall might have said, there are myriad lenses through which to decode each of BTS’ prolific moves, depending on the diverse social contexts of the audience — and in 2021, the group reached a bigger audience than ever. These parties — both active participants in the Bangtan industrial complex and passive consumers — bring differing expectations and definitions of what pop music (in particular, so-called boy bands) should sound like as well as how young Asian men should look, dance and comport themselves for our entertainment. All the more reason why BTS’ last flurry of activity before embarking on its “new chapter” emphasized a reclamation of identity and a desire to be seen and experienced directly, without the filters of middlemen, and in full.
This objective could be seen in the contrast between the group’s Western media appearances — sweeping the Nov. 22 American Music Awards (Favorite Pop Duo/Group, Favorite Pop Song and Artist of the Year), stopping traffic on The Late Late Show With James Corden two days later and opening the Dec. 4 Jingle Ball — and its sold-out four-night residency at SoFi Stadium.
Whenever it shared the bill during its L.A. stay, BTS stuck to its English-language trilogy, the poppy and peppy pandemic-era releases (“Dynamite,” “Butter” and “Permission to Dance”) that have broken nearly every conceivable chart precedent even as they seem to break from the musical self-stylings and incisive social commentary that made Bangtan so beloved and so globally dominant in the first place. There’s dissension among Army, BTS’ sprawling and ever-expanding fan base, over how accurately the trio of songs represent the group — its ambitions, artistry and authenticity — but there’s little denying that the all-English numbers have reached even farther and wider than anything the group has done before. Even in 2021’s fragmented media landscape, BTS might have felt somewhat ubiquitous to the casual American pop culture consumer who learned to recognize the hook to “Dynamite” or “Butter” from Good Morning America, The Tonight Show or a McDonald’s ad. Yet those three tunes belie the eight-year-old group’s lengthy and diverse discography, and its full-length solo shows at SoFi — so essential to fully comprehending a worldwide act operating outside of its native market — combined songs from various eras to create groupings by vibe, conveying the impression that BTS has always contained musical multitudes.
There was the high-octane opening section, which proved that the group has still got it when it comes to demanding choreography, and later a delightfully funky medley of B-sides that hearkened to BTS’ hip-hop roots. There was also, yes, a run-through at the concert’s midpoint of the straightforward pop chart-toppers that mark BTS’ past two years as a bona fide crossover artist.
During the stage banter between sets, BTS mostly stuck to English. Although an increasing number of Kpop groups nowadays are assembled with at least one native English speaker, BTS has none, with only leader RM approaching a conversational level of fluency. As such, the stage banter vacillated between careful teleprompter readings and endearingly awkward simple exchanges, a departure from the organic spontaneity and eloquence the members conveyed with their bodies and voices through song.
That expressiveness was most keenly articulated during the emotive set that represented the biggest contrast in image for those who might only know of BTS from Jimmy Fallon’s couch. With their backs to the audiences and facing video-recorded “mirrors” of themselves whose movements subtly deviated from those of their flesh-and-blood counterparts (it’s a metaphor!), the seven sang the contemplative, melancholy “Blue & Grey,” co-written and co-produced by member V.
“The tears reflected in the mirror mean my colors are hidden in laughter,” V and Jungkook delicately crooned, in Korean.
As “Blue & Grey” drew to a close, winged backup dancers took the stage and swarmed the group, creating elaborate, angelic formations against an orchestral swell. This is BTS at its most avant-garde, as the corps de ballet parted to reveal the members launching into their 2020 single “Black Swan,” an existential gayageum-and-trap meditation on the fear of losing one’s passion for art.
“The heart no longer races when the music starts to play,” Suga rapped. “That would be my first death I’ve been always afraid of.”
It’s tempting to read between the lines of the angsty lyrics and presume how the seven men of BTS feel about the rarefied air they now breathe, but onstage before 50,000-plus each night they appeared in their element, evinced nothing but joy and relief at being able to perform for an in-person crowd instead of a silent flank of cameras for the first time in 21 months.
With COVID-19 restricting public activities in Korea and their biggest hits now in English, BTS as a brand feels more global but also more stateless than ever. Its English trilogy is steeped in classic Americana, from the disco pastiche of “Dynamite” to the denim get-ups of “Permission to Dance.” Yet as the evening wore on, the group’s cultural roots — an enduring point of pride for the members themselves — increasingly seeped through, with Korean lyrics appearing on the massive projection screen and the final video package, which featured the group’s most recent appearance at the United Nations in September, playing footage of their speeches in Korean, without any English subtitles.
As the members delivered their closing comments one by one, Jungkook was the first to deliver his thoughts in their native tongue. “I’m not that eloquent, but I want to share my sincere thoughts with you. That’s why I want to speak in Korean,” he said.
Since their fortnight in L.A., which turned out to be a mere reprieve for artists and fans alike before the advent of the Omicron variant, the seven members of BTS have temporarily gone their separate ways (RM, Jin and Suga each tested positive for COVID upon their respective returns from the States). But even on hiatus, the members has prepared new ways to make themselves known and understood, free from packaging by others. For the first time in their careers, they have launched personal social media accounts (unsurprisingly amassing more than 20 million Instagram followers each). Given the twin specters of military enlistment and disbandment that haunt idol groups at their age, it’s tempting to read into the sudden reversal of practice. But rather than perceiving the separate accounts — and the solo covers and in-depth interviews that recently dropped on Vogue Korea and GQ Korea — as acts of individuation, perhaps there is another interpretation:
BTS’ most recent studio album, last November’s Be, received relatively little crossover attention compared to their English singles but was the group’s most hands-on creation yet, with all seven members involved in various aspects of production, from songwriting to visual design. “Dynamite,” “Butter” and “Permission to Dance” may have drawn the most fanfare at the L.A. shows, but everyone who went to SoFi was treated to live performances of nearly all of Be‘s tracks as well.
So perhaps that’s what BTS’ recent moves are all about: the seven artists at the heart of the Bangtan industrial complex pushing for new ways to present themselves — on their own terms.
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