How BTS Rocked My Asian-American World
Maverick Mondays are back for another season! Weekly posts about what it’s like to live in the US as a woman of color, as the daughter of Filipino immigrants, as a spiritualist, as a witch, as a poet-writer, and as a mom to three young women. I like to call out shit that, in the past, I was told to keep quiet about. Here, I’m going Maverick and breaking those silences. Read on!!
Over the weekend, I took my youngest daughter-who is 12- to see her favorite boy band, BTS, in concert. In a movie theater. Earlier in the day, the group performed at a stadium in Seoul for their third show in a 3-show concert series called Permission to Dance-On Stage, which was then broadcast in theaters across the US. We were fortunate enough to score tickets. My two older daughters also came. They are fans but not quite at the status of ARMY, the name of the band’s most devoted fans. (For those not in the know, ARMY stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth. There are other meanings/layers to the name, so if you’re really curious, search it up. Just be forewarned: you might find yourself falling into a rabbit hole. Hah!) My youngest? TOTAL ARMY girl.
I, on the other hand, am just the mom who indulges her by listening to the music with her in the car and listening to her rattle off biographical details of the members or the latest social media post. I even knew when some of them got c*vid. Not that I needed to know that, but she was genuinely concerned for their health.
I’m enjoying watching her go through the typical boy band phase of the middle school years. The excitement she has, the way her eyes light up when she talks about them, the begging for certain merchandise (okay, I’m not exactly enjoying that last one — haha!)
Going to a concert in a theater was a new concept for us. We didn’t know what it would be like. Would we say seated and reclined in our movie theater armchairs? Would we be allowed to cheer? To sing along? Or would it be more like just watching a movie?
When we arrived, the screen already had the stage on, people milling about, people seated. It was like we were there, in the stadium, waiting for the show to start. I watched as more young girls (and their accompanying adults) came into the theater, taking their seats, carrying their ARMY Bombs, a globe-shaped light on a wand — something that you bring to the concert to participate. The bombs light up with certain colors and rhythms according to the songs they’re performing during the concert. I’ve seen videos — it’s a very cool effect. But in a movie theater? We shall see.
Here’s one thing to note about ARMY: they span across generations. For real. There are adults who are just obsessed about BTS as their teenybopper fans. One woman I met said it was actually better to be a kid in ARMY because as a “resourced adult” she can’t help but spend all of her money on merchandise. And that’s saying something. Their merch ranges from little $10 keychains to $200 pieces of jewelry.
(I’ve been thinking about this: the world of merchandising and supply & demand and money, which probably needs a separate piece of its own. Stay tuned!)
My youngest daughter’s friend and her mother, who is also hardcore ARMY, came with us. The three of them had their ARMY bombs at the ready, lit up and waiting.
I had no idea what I was in for.
The theater lights dimmed. And then the concert began with a black and white video of the band in an interrogation room, handcuffed, imprisoned. The camera focused on each member one by one, and the fans couldn’t help themselves. They quietly squealed in delight for their favorite guy. We all still weren’t sure of the implied rules of engagement for this experience. Then, when the camera landed on the final member, he slowly opened his mouth to reveal a paperclip on his tongue, which they would use to unlock their handcuffs. Omg. The entire theater screamed in that fainting kind of way. The sensuality of that shot set everyone off.
The gloves were off. No one was going to be quiet in this theater.
I laughed, saying, “Stop it! Stop it!” Haha! Then thinking: oh god, these boy bands! I will admit that I was tickled by all of this.
The video ended with them “escaping” and one member holds up a sign to the camera “We Don’t Need Permission”. Then the concert began. Lights flashing, music pumping, and a big “prison” was revealed. BTS was behind bars and as soon as they started singing, the prison was lifted and they “broke out” dancing.
The experience was very much like a concert. Lots of scream-singing, shouting of “fan chants”, waving of Army bombs (which looked very cool, btw, even if it wasn’t synchronized to the music), and of course, the tween/teen-girl squealing. It wouldn’t be a complete boy band concert without it!
During the show, I turned to my middle daughter, who is 14, and kept asking her: who’s that? And that? I was working on matching their faces with their names. (And for the record, prior to this event, we established that Jin is my bias. Haha! Jimin might be my bias-wrecker. Might.)
But here’s what was different from what you might expect of a boy band concert (and what rocked my Asian-American teenage self):
BTS is not your typical boy band. I don’t even know if it’s accurate to call them a boy band.
From the outsider’s perspective, this might be true. And that is what I prepared myself for. Seven visually appealing guys singing and dancing in synchronized choreography. All wearing hip-hop styled outfits with equally styled product-heavy hair. At least for that first number.
Well, there are a lot of layers here, a lot of things happening at once.
For one number, “Black Swan”, it was a visually striking performance of dancers dressed in black with white sleeves that resembled the soft down of feathers. Collectively, they -band members and dancers-moved in expressive, contemporary dance to mimic the movements of wings and swans and water. It was beautiful. Who knew that boy bands could move (and sing) with such grace and emotion?
In “Fake Love”, a song that brought the movie theater crowd to their feet and set off the loudest fan chants of the night, the members, dressed in all black, moved and grooved in sensual ways that would make any girl swoon. While totally part of the choreography, every girl and woman there still squealed during what’s known as the “ab flash”. It happened three times. This was where I was like, Wait. What? Girls think these Asian boys are hot? They’re ? That “Asian man” and “desirable” can be in the same sentence?
Let me explain.
For me, growing up, Asian boys and men were seen as family, and so never considered as sexually desirable. I had one or two crushes who were Filipino, but for the most part, I didn’t see Asian men as boyfriend material. And this isn’t by accident.
American culture has sent us the message that Asian men are asexual, castrated of their masculinity (I’m aware of the new conversations around gender identity and fluidity. Bear with me. I’m getting to that.). Look at how Asian men are depicted in film… Often as a servant, someone stupid, or as brute force (see: Bruce Lee or any kung fu movie for that matter). (Do we have to bring up Breakfast at Tiffany’s?) But here, BTS was flaunting their desirability with suggestive body language and innuendo. I will note here that I appreciate that fine line they are walking (and successfully at that) between suggestion and outright sexual gestures, given the age range of their audience.
I was beside myself.
Not just because of this idea that Asian men can be seen as sexually desirable, but because I actually SAW their desirability. Which is something I hadn’t seen before. The posters in my daughter’s room are typical boy band photos-the seven of them standing in various poses, splashed with color- where I didn’t give them a second glance. Now, I was seeing them in a new light. In large part due to the energy of the crowd. How they were responding to BTS sparked an energy in the theater that helped me see this desirability. It was wild!
Every ab flash got wild screams. I swear someone must have fainted somewhere! Hahaha!
And then things shifted.
After another video interlude where the members were shooting pool and acting out some secret mission/spy narrative, they had a costume change. This time, they were dressed in pastel colored trench coats. With a few individual touches of flair. One member’s shirt beneath the trench coat had a wide ruffled collar on one side. He also wore these huggy black pants that flared at the bottom with similar ruffles. An outfit I would want to wear, actually. Haha!
And this happened throughout the concert. Costumes and details that evoked femininity. One member wore sparkly dangling earrings on both ears. All of their microphones were studded in rhinestones. (Clearly, they’re all about the sparkle! Just like me! Hah!)
But it didn’t stay there. Their outfits flowed between masculine and feminine and somewhere in between.
It’s clear they are secure in their identities. They are not afraid to present a certain way, a certain gender. They are all about fluidity. One minute, they are masculine sex objects (haha); the next, they are sweet crooners, singing about the real stuff of life (lyrics dealing with things like anxiety and depression, while also promoting self-love).
This was a lot for me to take in! Asian men as sexually desirable? But then Asian men celebrating gender fluidity? And all of this happening at once??
It was stunning and beautiful and authentic. The evidence was in the energy of their performance. The fun they were having on stage. The comradery between them and the connection they had with their fans.
I may not be an Army member, but with this appreciation for what they are doing with their very public, very popular, global platform, I am now definitely a fan. A big fan.
Originally published at https://www.suryagian.com on March 14, 2022.