Is there an act on the planet that combines the musical excellence and iconic status of The Beatles with the precision choreography and group-centric power of North Korea’s Mass Games?
On Tuesday night in Seoul, Asia’s hottest popsters delivered a landmark performance. In the city’s 1988 Olympic Stadium, BTS blasted out the final concert in their Love Yourself world tour.
Love Yourself was the triple album and collateral global tour – which kicked off in Seoul in August 2018 – that propelled BTS from good to great.
All three albums topped the Billboard charts, exploding in a market that other Korean-speaking K-pop acts had failed to ignite. The global tour reportedly reached 20 million fans, shaking such renowned stadia as New York’s Citi Field and London’s Wembley.
BTS’ status among the greats of modern music has been confirmed not just by their vast ARMY of fans, but by disinterested professionals. Both music pundits and American talk show hosts have compared the Korean septet – without irony – to The Beatles.
Seoul City got into the swing of things. The city’s landmark Seoul Tower, on the landmark Mount Namsan – which normally changes color according to air pollution levels – was set on purple, the band’s landmark color, for the evening.
The concert proved a seamless blend of music and dance, of human performance and high technology, of personality and spectacle. It was also a masterpiece of stage management. The glow sticks held up by fans were centrally controlled, enabling coordinated rainbow light effects to ripple and roll across the stadium. Drone cameras focused in on both performers and audience members.
However, the show was also marked by the Bangtan Boys’ signature quality: Their apparently real, heartfelt connection to their audience.
Eastern eyes, Western eyes
Asia Times spoke to two first-time BTS concertgoers who were in Tuesday’s audience, one a 50-something Korean female translator, the other a 40-something male American journalist.
The first attended with her 20-something daughter, the other attended at the invitation of BTS’ label, Big Hit entertainment.
The following day the two concertgoers – the first a hardcore ARMY member, the second a curious observer – made strikingly similar observations, despite speaking separately to Asia Times.
In the heart of the crowd
“I understand the appeal – which is the incredible production value of the music and the spectacle, it is shiny and new and youthful and exciting, though it is not the type of music I usually listen to,” said Thomas Maresca, who describes his musical taste as being Anglo-American rock, Indie rock and hip hop.
“Seeing the show live, and the reaction of the audience, was an incredible spectacle: Vegas meets Disney meets North Korea’s Mass Games,” he added.
North Korea’s famed Mass Games are a feat of human choreography that – in a nation known for mass performances and marches – astounds even the most cynical visitors.
Thousands of performers, trained to operate in perfect unison, hold up a series of colored panels, creating a vast, ever-shifting panorama of images – all generated by human, rather than digital power.
While Eom Yeong-seon– who has watched multiple livestreams of BTS shows, “often at 3:00am or 4:00am,” but admitted that Tuesday was her first time seeing them live – did not reference North Korea, she did make clear the hypnotic and unifying power of the band over the crowd, who danced and sang along.
“You feel you are participating,” she said of the group dancing that took place across the stadium. “You feel like you are in the same group – it’s beautiful! You have a sense of belonging.”
While the attraction of dissolving the self into the crowd is an experience available at, say, a US rock concert, a European trance club or an English football match, both BTS audience members suggested something more powerful was at work in the Korean setting.
“I have been to Korean baseball games and there is something similar in the way fans get into it, with their moves and their chants,” said Maresca.
Unprompted, Eom also made the same comparison to the crowd experience of Korean baseball games – but also referenced British rock ban Queen, one of the pioneering bands encouraging “sing-along,clap-along” audience participation.
A unique allure
So what is it that makes BTS different from the average band – or the average, perfectly coiffured, perfectly choreographed K-pop band?
“I don’t know whether I can smartly answer that,” Eom, who said she also enjoys musicals and classical music, mused. However, she went on to cite BTS’ authenticity – their prioritization of professionalism over image.
“As anyone who enjoys performances and professionalism, I appreciate their efforts for perfection in their dances,” she continued. “Initially, I thought they were not that good looking – I guess the selection criteria of Big Hit is different than other [labels] – it is not about how tall or good looking they are, it is more about musical talent, effort and enthusiasm.”
On Tuesday, the band did more than sing and dance. BTS is known for constant social media updates aimed at the ARMY, and in their live show, the band gelled with their fans in a way few performers do from the stage: With non-performed (and possibly unscripted) verbal communication.
“Before the big finale, each band member gave a heartfelt talk to the audience,” said Maresca. “I think that is something meaningful, something beyond the hype: There is a genuine-ness to the relationship between the bands and their fans.”
“They were sharing their learnings and mistakes and frustrations and just about everything,” said Eom. “I could feel that they were like my friends – I felt I could understand them.”
A chapter closes, another opens
Now, with the door closing on Love Yourself, it is not clear what direction the Bangtan Boys will head in.
“This is the end of the ‘Love Yourself, Speak Yourself’ theme, definitely,” said Eom. “Their songs under the theme saved lives – preventing suicides – and helped others in difficult times. They served their purpose.”
What the next move will be is a subject of considerable speculation among the ARMY, but Eom is convinced BTS is poised for greater things.
“Now, their songs should – and I have no doubt that they will – reach a new level, beyond a theme of consolation and giving support,’ she said.
“It did have a feel of a ‘This is the end of whatever phase of BTS is at’ about it,” Maresca said of Tuesday’s experience. “I would not describe myself as a boy band fan, but I definitely came away more impressed than I had expected to be.”