In 'We Need To Talk About...', the new weekly column from NME's Jordan Bassett, J-to-the-B vents his spleen on the topical issues that matter the most (or the least, if it happens to be a slow news day). This week: why K-pop phenomenon BTS' fans – dubbed the BTS Army – preach a message of exclusion and intolerance that is the opposite of the band's ambition
BTS are, clearly, a wonderful thing. In her glowing review of the K-pop band’s stellar show at New York’s Citi Field, NME writer Rhian Daly paid tribute to an “explosion of love” that saw the group emphasise the importance of kindness, inclusivity and empathy. The first Korean group to really break through to a worldwide audience – without using much English or kowtowing to Western trends – they exemplify the ongoing softening of pop culture, as young people utilize greater understanding of mental health and self-care than previous generations did.
That the seven-piece has become the biggest thing since One Direction, inspiring Beatlemania-style devotion, is undeniable. In August, BTS’ latest album, ‘Love Yourself: Answer’, reached Number One in the American charts and hit Number 14 over here – and you can bet the next one will do much better, given the onslaught of frenzied media coverage that they’ve recently received. Young fans, enamoured with the group’s sensitivity, call themselves the ARMY, which stands for ‘Adorable Representative M.C for Youth’. As the group has been exposed to even greater outside forces, their ARMY has become weaponised.
Last month, radio host Roman Kemp, who presents Capital Breakfast, a studiously inoffensive show that curries favour with celebrity guests to preserve relationships with their teams and fans, managed to make himself an enemy of the ARMY. He jokingly called the BTS and Nicki Minaj track ‘Idol’ “noise”, before adding, “I thought there [were] construction workers outside.” He’d previously been vaguely dismissive of the band in an interview with Metro – and this, combined with his small joke, sent the ARMY into an online offensive.
Kemp was inundated with messages on Twitter. One wrote: “DO YOU THINK THIS IS ACCEPTABLE, YOUNG MAN? Do you think you want to be remembered from people with the disrespect and mockery you’re showing? Your future children will be disgusted by your behavior!” The account BTS UK ARMY UNITE referred to the entire Capital station as “racists”. Complaints were even made to Ofcom.
25-year-old Kemp has been moved to apologise – for what, exactly, remains unclear – though his subsequent interview with BTS, which he promised would air on the show last Wednesday, seems to have been axed. The thing people forget about receiving abuse on Twitter is that you can just fucking log off it, but the fact remains that it must be deeply troubling to be called “racist” for revealing that you don’t happen to like a song by a boyband.
The BTS ARMY strike online whenever they feel that the group is under threat, or that their achievements are being undermined. A couple of weeks ago, The Times ran a BTS interview that expressed concerns at the band’s punishing workload, with writer Richard Lloyd Parry noting, “In conversation they come across as bright, gentle, earnest and resigned to lives of hard work.”
Parry continued: “None of them has a girlfriend, or the prospect of finding one. There are lonely, overworked boys everywhere, of course, but [they] are not obscure victims of alienation and the gig economy. They are among the most successful and desired young men in the world.” It’s true that BTS are committed young fellows – when, during their NME Q&A, the band members were asked to sum themselves up in three words, Yoongi replied: “Eat. Sleep. Work.”
The Times article acknowledged that K-pop groups are under enormous pressure to deliver (two successful young South Korean pop stars have died in the past two years – 33-year-old Seo Min-woo suffered a heart attack, while Jonghyun committed suicide). Again, the BTS ARMY was ruthless in online condemnation of the piece, tweeting that the writer shouldn’t have strayed from the band’s established narrative. Well, that’s often the point of journalism – to interrogate party lines, to follow angles that are relevant or in the public interest. Otherwise, read the press release.
Richard Lloyd Parry, too, was accused of being racist towards one member of BTS. One Twitter user wrote: “an interviewer actually had the audacity to criticize namjoon’s english. namjoon taught himself english… he didn’t have to do that. that shows his dedication. now he speaks better english than most native english speakers. ugh i feel sick.” In the passage in question, the writer claims that the singer has “occasionally baffling syntax”. It was an insensitive, crass comment, no doubt, but surely a stretch to brand it full-blown racism.
A powerful weapon in the online age: brand someone with an -ist or -ism, justified or not, and they’re dead in the water.
Kim Nam-joon (aka RM)’s speech is quoted in full – repetition, non-sequiturs and all. As a reader, I took from this that Parry was drawing attention to the vapid nature of the musician’s aphorisms about hard work and dedication. Like the author of the article, I like BTS, their music and their message, but can recognise PR fluff for what it is, and can separate this from my admiration of the band.
The BTS ARMY is incapable of such a distinction. Every mention of BTS must be glowing, every piece a uniform celebration. Freelance writer Douglas Greenwood, who pens a weekly pop column for NME, reviewed BTS’ live London show for The Independent and, amid glowing praise, called the band “sugary”. The BTS ARMY militarised once more, flooding the writer and publication with complaints via Twitter, one reply summing up the response: “It’s more than sugary pop music and crazed teen Fangirls.” Actually, the piece didn’t mention gender.
And BTS are sugary. That is part of their unbridled joy and appeal. They’re a wholesome bunch, preaching a wholesome sermon, one of acceptance and understanding and unity and peace. It’s not a message of threats, of aggression, of erroneously branding people “racist” because their opinion subtly differs from your own. Somehow, the BTS ARMY has managed to spread a message that is almost entirely at odds with that of their idols. Won’t anyone think of Roman Kemp?
BTS fans are young, and youthful adoration isn’t meant to be measured or sensible. Those teenagers you see in floods of tears at Beatles concerts? Not measured, but joyous and warm, a life-affirming testament to the power of pop culture. But that passion, combined with the facelessness of social media, has given rise to something ugly and extreme, aggression that sullies the band’s name. The BTS ARMY marches on a message that is exclusionary, intolerant of others. You wonder if BTS are fearful of their own, intense fanbase.