For BTS Diehards, the K-Pop Group’s Live Return in Los Angeles Was a Religious Experience
BTS's four-night Permission To Dance On Stage residency brought the band and their fans together for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Hours before the first of four concerts that South Korean mega-stars BTS would perform live in front of a crowd since the pandemic began, tens of thousands of fans gathered outside So-Fi Stadium in Los Angeles. “Many people have camped out since Thanksgiving,” shared Wendy Flores, who had arrived at 9am herself. Between November 27 through December 2, following their performance and win for Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards, BTS hosted Permission To Dance On Stage, a stadium residency so well-attended it toppled Bruce Springsteen's 10-show run in New Jersey in 2003 to become the best-selling single-venue concert event of the last 10 years.
Outside of late-night gigs and awards shows, it was the first time the band stood in front of a ticketed audience in the United States since their 2020 record Map of the Soul: 7 broke worldwide sales records and follow-up English-language singles "Dynamite," "Butter," "Permission to Dance," and "My Universe" (featuring Coldplay's Chris Martin) began dominating radio airwaves. Because BTS was never able to tour on Map of the Soul: 7, to describe this string of shows as highly anticipated would be sorely understated. “We’re very excited. We’ve been waiting forever,” said Mariana Rendon, who was attending with family. “It’s honestly so overwhelming just being here.” Her sister Ashley added, “It’s barely hitting right now that we’re here. I can feel the excitement slowly building up.”
Ahead of each show, the fandom, called ARMY, turned the pavement between the parking lot and the stadium into the site of an all-day BTS fan convention. Booths sold BTS merch and hosted crafting sessions to decorate BTS-specific light sticks, called ARMY bombs, with birthday hearts for Jin, the oldest member of the group born, as most ARMY know, on December 4. (Every member's birthday is practically a holiday to ARMY.) Fans snapped photos next to a six-foot tall "Permission to Dance On Stage" logo statue. McDonald’s, with whom BTS recently collaborated for a meal deal, dispensed complimentary hashbrowns and coffee. ARMYs sang along to BTS songs blasting over portable speakers and exchanged everything from photocards to TikTok handles. After all, everyone in attendance knew how lucky they were to be there: All four Permission to Dance On Stage concerts sold out—a first in the stadium’s history—during the four-phase registered fan presale in early October, and never even went on sale to the general public. Demand to see the septet was so high that BTS decided to simultaneously stream each performance at the adjacent YouTube Theater.
Few artists could expect their fans to purchase tickets to livestream a concert literally happening next door, but BTS already has a track record of massively attended live streaming events. To stay connected with fans during the pandemic, BTS hosted two major online broadcasts, BANG BANG CON and Muster Sowoozoo, which streamed exclusively on their label-hosted fansite WeVerse, netting 2.7 million and 1.33 million viewers, respectively. For BTS, hosting online events isn’t just about making money (they’ve found thousands of other ways to do that, reporting a collective net worth of $100 million); it’s about building friendship and community. While American pop stars tend to understand their fans as consumers of their work, Korean pop artists see their fans as crucial supporters of their mission—and, as such, BTS frequently addresses their fans on a personal level and encourages them to support each other as well.
“It’s been two years since I’ve seen them, and it got me emotional that day," Flores said. "It was nice seeing familiar ARMYs again, as well as making new friends. We were all there to have a good time and try to make the best of it! Hearing others doing the chants with me felt like a rewarding experience again.” By “chants,” Flores is referring to both designated singalong lines in the band’s most popular songs and the main fan chat, which lists the members’ Korean names like a poem, beginning with leader, RM, and descending from the oldest to the youngest: "Kim Namjoon, Kim Seokjin, Min Yoongi, Jung Hoseok, Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung, Jeon Jungkook, BTS, BTS, BTS!" If you go to a BTS concert, you're expected to participate, because a BTS concert is not just a performance—it is an immersive BTS experience.
Tidily on time at 7:30pm on November 28, the date I attended, the lights dimmed, and the crowd of 50,000 ARMYs transformed into a dreamlike landscape of glowing orbs with the help of ARMY bombs, which are bluetooth-enabled and paired with your exact seat to create a stadium-wide lightshow. Stadium shows can often feel impersonal or distant with many entertainers, but BTS utilizes the format to their advantage, employing enormous screens that serve as both scenery backdrop and a live feed of their polished performances. BTS shows are designed so that the people sitting in the back have as enjoyable of an experience as the people sitting near the stage.
BTS began with announcing what ARMYs already know: These “bulletproof boy scouts” are grown-ass, sexy men. Pairing mugshot imagery borrowed from the "Butter" music video with live feed of the members serving smoldering looks from behind bars, BTS blasted off with the aggressive, heart rate-heightening “On,” one of the singles from Map of the Soul: 7. They dressed in all-white, but their dance moves were downright sinful, with fans erupting in screams at every flirtatious pelvic thrust. Fan Isabella Le, who attended multiple nights, gushed, “Park Jimin looks like a freaking angel! When that man is in front of your eyes, he literally sparkles.”
As the members were released from their cage, they were joined by dozens of background dancers. Suddenly, the arena flooded with red and orange light, and the 2016 song “Fire” began with flames lighting up the stage. BTS strut to the far end of the extended stage where they performed 2015's equally high energy “Dope,” followed by 2017's “DNA” before pausing to address the massive audience. “You could tell the energy was so good. They really miss being on stage, and it was so nice to see everybody just be so happy,” reported concert attendee Joan Layug. Over the next two hours, BTS performed fan favorites from their ever-growing catalogue since their debut in 2013, including “Black Swan,” “Fake Love,” “Boy With Luv,” and their first fully English single, “Dynamite.”
Those lucky enough to attend on November 28 were treated to a special cameo by Megan Thee Stallion during their summer hit “Butter.” (On the final evening, Chris Martin appeared for an encore performance of “My Universe,” a grand finale that ARMYs anticipated after Megan’s guest appearance.) RM praised the rapper, saying, “Your existence makes the stage perfect.” Of course, to ARMYs, the stage was perfect already. “BTS have honestly given me one of the greatest experiences and memories that I’ve had throughout my life,” beamed Flores.
Near the end of the show, each member took time to return ARMY’s love, individually sharing how much the concert meant to them. Crooner V closed the short speeches, cajoling ARMY, “In Korea, we will probably continue to shoot in front of a camera… But I don’t need any of that, I just want to come back here… I’m going to go back with all of your emotions, your passion, your eyes, everything that I saw performing. I think I’m going to have another concert tonight in my dreams.”
As I sat among the people who had gathered here to adore seven Korean men, seven worldwide icons, I experienced catharsis. Growing up, Asian Millennials were seldom allowed participation in American pop culture, unless we were performing Orientalism—either as honorable “kung fu” masters or objects of seduction who promised to “love you long time.” In fact, when I first heard about BTS, I shrugged them off as another fetishistic object of Western desire, appropriated and admired by a society who primarily enjoyed them for the cultural biases that it imposed upon them. In a way, I didn’t believe that BTS existed.
Never in my wildest dreams did I dare to imagine that the faces of people who look like me might be gazed upon with reverence and awe. Of course I couldn’t; I grew up here. But BTS could because, growing up, the members had access to the confidence of those who know the feeling of, to quote Fresh Off The Boat’s Louis Huang, what it’s like to be “the white people of here.” In Korea, no one thinks that being Asian and male renders one undesirable. There, the biases of American culture could not temper these Asian hunks’ swagger.
For Asian Americans, BTS’s meteoric rise to fame is meaningful, not only in terms of media representation, but also in light of the rise in Asian hate crimes. And, for Korean Los Angelenos, the band’s choice to hold the concert series in Inglewood is significant, too. Los Angeles County is home to the largest population of Koreans outside Korea, and many Koreans living here still have family in the mothercountry who they have been unable to see due to COVID as quarantine and vaccination restrictions continue to be a hurdle for entry. So, for Korean fans here, BTS’s visit means that a bit of Korea was brought to us.
BTS concluded their November 28 show with an enthusiastic rendition of the tour's namesake, “Permission to Dance,” but I knew my evening wasn’t over when the music stopped: Leaving a BTS concert is a notoriously lengthy, hours-long mass exodus. But ARMY is known for being a particularly conscientious crowd, and fans left the stadium as neatly as they arrived, even toting their trash to its proper receptacle—further evidence that ARMY views itself more as a caring community than a group of fans. To call oneself an ARMY is not only to boast admiration for, arguably, the most popular musicians in the world, but also to pledge yourself to creating a safer, more inclusive, and more optimistic world around you. “BTS is something pretty special. The thing about BTS is their connection—you’re a part of their story," said Le. "They said they represent [and] give people a voice. And they really do accomplish that. That is something really cool and rare.”