BTS, the K-pop group currently conquering the world, are not yet due on stage at New York’s Citi Field, but already the screams have started. They can be heard outside the minute you step off the train, distant but clearly present, each new chorus causing the swarm of exiting fans to hurry along the platform at Mets-Willets Point and down the stairs, eager to get inside the stadium just in case they’re missing something. The noise is so loud as you get closer it seems entirely possible the stage times posted on the event site were wrong and the band have already begun their performance.
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Inside, that is not the case. Instead, in lieu of a support act, BTS’ music videos are being played on the big screens either side of the stage. The start of each one heralds a new burst of ear-piercing shrieks, as does the appearance of each individual member in the clips, certain dance moves or facial expressions – any notable detail, basically. Between screams, there are chants, one of which finds the fans, known as ARMY, running through each of the seven members’ real names. It is all a glorious, ground-shaking wall of sound that envelopes you as soon as you emerge from the stadium’s outer shell, but it is nothing compared to the noise that comes when the band step off the screens and onto the stage.
Today (October 6) is a historic day for BTS. The last day of their current North American tour, it’s also the first time they – or any Korean musicians – have ever played a stadium on this continent. It’s an impressive achievement, reaching a level of this kind while performing songs whose lyrics are largely in Korean to an audience of all races, and one that, aside from the quality of the songs themselves, can be put down to the effects of social media and globalisation. Like the chart-topping, omnipresent success of ‘Despacito’ last year, so the K-pop stars have benefitted from a world where borders are blurrier and culture moves at lightning pace. That their big, record-breaking gig is taking place in a venue as all-American as a baseball stadium feels like fitting evidence of that in action.
There’s another striking thing about the band’s show tonight – it is being witnessed by all kinds of people, of all ages, genders, backgrounds. It feels like the exact opposite of what some in America’s government are telling the world, that those who are different from you are somehow bad or be treated as less than you. “Our neighbours are our friends,” RM says at one point in the show, reminding everyone to look after each other, and that sentiment feels like it extends beyond his intended safety message. The atmosphere is inclusive, equal, and full of love, and setting an example of how to make a better world even beyond the stadium walls.
The gig itself is a classic stadium spectacular. The band arrive for opener ‘IDOL’, a choppy pace-setter full of whistles and clarion call melodies, rising up through a trapdoor in the stage. After, they each take a minute to introduce themselves, blowing kisses to the camera and removing their in-ear monitors to hear their ARMY’s response all the better. Then the show really gets going – a rush of slick choreography, sparkly costume changes, pyrotechnics, and fireworks. There are pre-recorded videos of them playing around with water pistols and dogs or transplanted into artful scenery between songs. Through it all, the audience reaction remains consistent – an incredibly loud display of pure, unbridled joy and excitement that is heart-warmingly infectious.
On some songs, BTS give solo performances, each playing to their own strengths. Jimin finds romantic satisfaction on the pillow-soft, swooning pop of ‘Serendipity’, while RM creates a low-key party anthem in ‘Trivia: Love’. V begins yearning slow jam ‘Singularity’ with one arm through a red jacket on a coat hanger, his hand on his own shoulder, creating the illusion that it belongs to someone else. Jin’s turn comes in ‘Epiphany’, where he sits at a piano before moving to a raised plinth for a climactic end in which he puts so much feeling into his emotive cries you can see the veins in his neck popping out. Suga’s ‘Trivia: Seesaw’ is smooth, mellow rap, Jungkook’s ‘Euphoria’ is crystalline, elegant pop at its best, and Jhope’s ‘Trivia: Just Dance’ is as it’s title suggests – a vibrant dance track that lets the musician show off his footwork.
On other tracks they are united. ‘Fake Love’ is a darker mix of rap and a solid gold pop hook that could set radios ablaze. Jungkook, Jimin, Jin, and V trade parts on the emotional ‘The Truth Untold’ like a boyband in the classic stand-up-for-the-key-change sense of the word. ‘MIC Drop’, meanwhile, uncovers part of the magic of BTS’ music – the rhythm of their words is often enough to pull you in, even if you don’t understand what they’re actually saying.
The whole time the show is happening, the stands and floor are lit by fans’ BTS-branded light sticks – luminescent bubbles on black staffs that flash red, white, purple, and more, and make the venue look like it’s been taken over by technicolour fireflies. While there’s a break before the encore, the crowd entertain themselves, using the lights to create a dazzling Mexican wave in the dark, rippling back and forth, back and forth. In that moment they become not just fun gimmicks to make the venue look more impressive, but something that seamlessly unifies all 40,000 people in attendance.
Later, as they prepare to bring the show to an end, BTS pause to one-by-one share their feelings about the night. There are expected messages of gratitude and love, heart-melting moments like V declaring the ARMY “the brightest stars in my universe” and plenty of laugh-out-loud comments too. It’s RM’s speech, though, that bears the most gravitas right now.
“It feels like I’m using you guys to love myself,” he says of his experience of the tour, appropriately titled ‘Love Yourself’. He adds an invitation for the audience to reciprocate in kind: “Please use me, please use BTS to love yourself.” It’s a sentiment that reflects the show’s whole undertone – that we can become better people together through sharing experiences and sharing music.
Throughout the show, planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport can be seen ascending into the sky, which has been turned a murky brown where the glow from the LED screens below have met the black of night. Normally, everything in the city looks magical from above – breathtaking in miniature, somehow still so bright and warm from far away – but you can’t help but feel sorry for the people witnessing this scene from 20,000 feet up in the sky. It might look beautiful but it can never be as beautiful as being right in the thick of it, experiencing this explosion of love, which has, by now, reduced many to tears, including a sobbing Jimin. BTS have already made history but, as they tell their fans, this is really just the beginning.
‘Trivia: Just Dance’
‘I Need U’
‘Boyz With Fun’/’Attack On Bangtan’/’Fire’/’Bapsae’/’Dope’
‘Airplane pt. 2’
‘The Truth Untold’
‘Answer: Love Myself’