BTS live in LA: a euphoric return to live performance for the K-pop juggernauts

The South Korean band bring optimism, joy and their international fanbase to LA’s SoFi Stadium

The past year has been so huge for BTS that no superlative feels quite adequate, yet it’s still easy to forget just how large and diverse their fanbase actually is – until, of course, you come face to face with them. On Friday (November 26), 36-hours before BTS’ four-show run at Los Angeles’ SoFi stadium is slated to begin, lines already zig-zag through the venue’s massive parking lot. Fans, who rose early in the morning to queue up for merch, pass around water bottles as the Inglewood sun beats down; speakers are hoisted high.

Every so often, shrieks rise up through the crowd, signaling the much-anticipated meeting of long-distance friends. It’s just a taste of the swarm that descended upon LA in the past week, as the city becomes a convergence point for 200,000 of BTS’ global fans, referred to as ARMY. The biggest boyband in the world performing live for the first time in two years, it turns out, is an occasion meriting the hike.

Tonight’s show, November 28, is day two of their concerts here in LA, but that excitement has yet to wear off. Pyrotechnics, walls of flame and scores of dancers erupt onto the stage as all seven members of BTS power through an opening medley of some of their most pulse-spiking songs, made ravenous by their time away from live performance. “Put your motherfucking hands up!” yells RM at one point, swept up in the chaos and hype of ‘Idol’. For BTS, there’s no more time to waste by not giving every moment their all.

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bts permission to dance on stage live la review concert
BTS. Credit: Big Hit Music

Much of the setlist is repeated from October’s ‘Permission To Dance On Stage’ concert, performed at Seoul’s Jamsil Stadium but exclusively broadcast online. Yet booming through SoFi, paired with ear-splitting screams, the songs are nearly unrecognisable. The thumping EDM chorus of ‘Stay’, off last year’s ‘Be’ album, is practically built to be played in a stadium, easily bringing everyone to their feet (if they weren’t on them already). A lightning transition to buoyant predecessor ‘So What’ similarly encourages you to leave worries behind in favour of giving in to the euphoria of its pounding hook.

Unlike their previous tours, ‘Permission To Dance On Stage’ has no solo performances – all seven members remain on stage throughout, barring a few breaks for VCRs (or pre-recorded segments). As individuals, they’ve sharpened their own aesthetics, but after two years away, BTS turn the spotlight instead on the unique blend of alchemy they can only conjure as a full set.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on funky mix of old-school hip-hop and angst (a Bangtan trademark), ‘Dis-ease’. BTS’s rap line – RM, Suga and J-Hope – break into bilingual wordplay while their vocal line – Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook – groove like rock stars and bring the house down on the track’s bridge. Tonight, the more the merrier on SoFi’s stage, as a jittery Megan Thee Stallion struts its length in her stadium debut, shooting off her verse for the unadulterated joy that is the remix of ‘Butter’, before proclaiming, “I’m feeling like a hot girl every season!”

Old favourites get their time, too – even if that time is limited. “Now, the song everyone wants to see!” Jimin jokes, the group launching into a very brief rendition of ‘Blood Sweat & Tears’. While other songs find themselves extended – a finger-plucked instrumental and balletic choreography visible from the rafters introduce ‘Black Swan’ – or reinvented with new remixes. ‘I’m Fine’, absent from the online concert’s setlist, gets a serotonin-filled facelift fitting of the setlist’s bent toward breaking through anger and sadness to catharsis. This is the light of the end of the tunnel realised, after all.

bts permission to dance on stage live la review concert
BTS and Megan Thee Stallion. Credit: Big Hit Music

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“Yesterday, I asked myself, is this reality, or is this really a dream?” Suga reflected earlier in the day, during the group’s press conference. It’s a sentiment other members come to repeat, as well, facing the unreality of performing in front of fans after wanting it for so long. As 2020 stretched on, and the pandemic with it, hopes of coming together once again slowly dwindled to a faint wish for the future. Solo viewings of concerts from the living room couch became almost second nature. Now, being in a room flanked by 60,000 of all stripes comes as a shock to the system. In the dizzyingly loud stands, fanchants ring out erratically, rusty from their two years on the shelf.

BTS, too, initially seem to be finding their bearings. To close day one, five of the members gave short, prepared speeches in English (save for RM, the most fluent of the group, and Yoongi, who opted to speak in Korean), nerves flashing through. On day two, they’re looser, often speaking in their native language and clowning around with the weight of day one’s expectations off their shoulders. Jin bears tiny pigtails tied up in bows, pivoting his head around in imitation of Squid Game’s iconic animatronic doll, while J-Hope giddily yells, “Green light! Red light!” RM forgoes his usual tear-jerking speeches, instead summoning palpable dad energy to hit the “Woah” and show off his new hat.

As emotional as this four-day reunion promises to be, there were no tears either night, though J-Hope comes the closest as he tries to put the moment’s enormity to words: “I think this concert is going to be a big part of my own history, my life story, my memory.” Hopefully, he says, fans feel the same. “You and I, we’re making a movie together,” says Jin, eyes likewise sparkling as he looks out at the audience, who extend their phones in return. “This is a movie that we’ll continue to make until the very last day of our lives.”

All throughout the night, fans clutch their lightsticks overhead, rocking in time with the music while creating a spectacle themselves. Inside the cavernous stadium, each bulb is like an individual star lighting up the darkness, woven into constellations – brightening, dimming, and pulsing every colour of the rainbow. Amidst the joyful rave of ‘Boy With Luv’ and ‘Dynamite’, rainbows ripple through SoFi, turning it into a super-sized pride flag; during the raging ‘Fire’, everything is awash in brilliant reds.

bts permission to dance on stage live la review concert
BTS. Credit: Big Hit Music

Awaiting BTS’ return to the stage, ARMYs send swells of a Mexican wave this way and that, moving in tandem without direction from the boys. (That, as always, comes later in the night.) This is the magic of BTS, explained RM, who credited half their success to ARMY at the press conference. It’s not just the story of its seven members that make the band compelling, but the earnest engagement of their fans in the crafting of that story.

“Finally, spring has come to us,” the rapper says in between songs, heralding the warm winds and gatherings he wrote about in a letter to fans earlier in the month. “Life goes on, time goes on, everything goes on.” It’s a smooth segue into their 2020 hit ‘Life Goes On’ wherein Jungkook laments the changing of seasons without a changing of circumstances, but it also teases the inclusion of 2017’s ‘Spring Day’, which comes near the end of the setlist – a song that took on new meaning during the terrifying early days of quarantine, then even more so as the proverbial winter grew longer. “I want to go to the other side of Earth, holding your hand, put an end to winter,” RM raps in Korean as confetti flutters down around him and fans raise their voices in stunning synchronicity. “How much should my longings fall like snow / Before the days of spring return, friend?”

Back at home in Seoul, restrictions remain tight and in-person concerts impossible, but a potential world tour peeks through on the horizon for the seven boys. “In Korea, we’ll probably continue to shoot in front of a camera, perform in front of a camera,” says V to wrap up his encore speech. “But, you know, I don’t need any of that. I just want to come back here.” And when BTS duck off the stage, bringing this shining moment of togetherness to a close, it’s this promise that makes their goodbye feel anything but final.

bts permission to dance on stage live la review concert
BTS. Credit: Big Hit Music

BTS played:

‘ON’
‘Burning Up (Fire)’
‘Dope’
‘DNA’
‘Blue & Grey’
‘Black Swan’
‘Blood Sweat & Tears’
‘Fake Love’
‘Life Goes On’
‘Boy With Luv’
‘Dynamite’
‘Butter’
‘Airplane Pt 2’
‘Baepsae’
‘Dis-ease’
‘Telepathy’
‘Stay’
‘So What’
‘Save Me’
‘I’m Fine’
‘Idol’
‘Epilogue: Young Forever’
‘Spring Day’
‘Permission To Dance’

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