The life-changing magic of falling down the BTS rabbit hole

The Korean boyband are reflecting on their first nine years with ‘Proof’, a chapter that’s altered the existences of millions

October 6, 2018 wasn’t supposed to be anything out of the ordinary. It was an average day in New York and my night was to be spent, like many others in the life of a music journalist, at a gig. The only thing a little less than typical was that, instead of watching indie bands in a sticky-floored small venue in Brooklyn, I’d be witnessing a Korean pop group in a stadium in Queens.

BTS had only just come onto my radar a few weeks prior to their Citi Field show and I was both intrigued and impressed that a band who largely didn’t sing in English could sell out a 40,000-seat venue in Trump-era America. As I stepped onto the venue’s balcony to find my seat and was enveloped in a sensory overload of passionate voices and the effervescent glow of rows upon rows of ARMY bombs, though, I was oblivious to the impact that concert would have on me. Even as I headed home on the subway after, mind blown and feeling like a whole new world had just opened up for me, I didn’t consider what might happen next.

At 27, I had presumed I was well beyond the point in my existence where a band could change my life. But falling down the BTS rabbit hole, as ARMYs term it, has done just that for millions of people since the seven-piece debuted as Big Hit Entertainment’s underdogs in 2013. For me, it’s had a more seismic effect on me than any one other artist ever before – and its timing couldn’t have been better.

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In 2018, the band were on their ‘Love Yourself’ tour and the message of that era worked subliminal magic on my beyond poor mental health and self-esteem. While many artists at the time and since put similar sentiments into their music, sometimes those efforts felt hollow once you dug beneath the surface; a command hollered out into the world but with no thought on how to go beyond those two words. Seeing BTS share their own struggles and journeys in that area, though, was refreshingly helpful – a reminder that it’s not the quick, easy process the commercialisation of mental health wants it to be and acknowledgment that the path isn’t necessarily a linear one.

Even beyond that era, the band’s openness has continued to positively influence my life. When Jin released his solo song ‘Abyss’ on his birthday in 2020, it arrived at a time when I was back in a deep depression that felt like a dark, bottomless gulf similar to the song’s title. In a note with the track, he wrote about feelings of burn out and imposter syndrome, both of which I could relate to. When he wrote about receiving counselling or advice “to talk about my current state of mind”, a well of courage filled up within me and I booked my first therapy session – still scared and anxious and unsure how to tell a stranger about this all-pervading sadness, but hopeful.

Watching BTS co-exist and the way they support each other has showed me deep, genuine friendships with boundaries that are respected, and in the process given me not only a new standard for how I want to be as a friend but for how I want others to treat me. Those aims clarified in my mind, friendships I’ve made since have been healthier and happier, not least with the group of ARMYs I met at Permission To Dance On Stage in Las Vegas, who instantly accepted me and give me that unicorn of a bond – a safe, judgement-free space to be fully myself.

Becoming a BTS fan has also made me challenge my entire worldview. Consuming content and discourse around the band has taken me down a path of recognising and reckoning with the white, western perspective I grew up with (and the ingrained biases that come with that). It’s helped me take the colour out of the rose-tinted glasses I used to (mostly) view the US through and dismantle its romanticised, fantasy feel in my head. Being exposed to more Korean culture and history through the band has made me more aware than ever that, where I used to think I understood the world, I only understood a small fragment of it, viewed through the lens of one particular group of people.

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The band have always challenged ideas that are entrenched in society and, with ‘Proof’’s new tracks, they’re continuing to do so – and, thus, continuing to alter lives too. That ‘Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)’ posits that the best moments in life are still on the horizon is incredibly powerful, particularly coming from a group at the level they are now. It says that career success, recognition and reaching milestones doesn’t dictate our peaks, nor do we have to settle for a singular highest point in life. As a woman in her early thirties and the expectations society places on that demographic, that feels like a revelation; a reminder that you don’t need to conform to anyone else’s views or judgements of how your life should be lived or, after a certain age, given up on.

“If I never met you / Who would I be, baby?” Jungkook, V and Jin sing on ‘For Youth’, another new ‘Proof’ track. It’s a question that’s crossed my mind often when wondering where I’d be if I’d never fallen down that rabbit hole. Because I did, though, BTS have opened up my world and made it richer, brighter and better. Regardless of what this next chapter holds for them, that impact on not just me, but so many other people around the world will always be a shining part of their illustrious legacy.

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