What does it mean to be in the BTS Army?

A breaking news account, a style index covering everything from a scarf to a shoelace, and an oddball whose BTS obsession landed him a spot on an American talkshow. What is it like to stan the world's most adored boy band?

A livestream hosted by K-pop superstars BTS, following the end of the Grammys ceremony in March, racked up ten million views. Only two million less than the prestigious awards show itself. On the night, BTS’ enormous fanbase eagerly awaited their performance, scheduled to air second last. Teasers were constantly thrown out to keep viewers watching, annoying the fans. Twitter was flooded with #scammys by the BTS Army.

A fandom, in today’s digital atmosphere, is similar to a cult. When it’s the BTS fandom in question, it is common knowledge that these fans will stop at nothing to support their boys. Army, short for “Adorable Representatives M.C for Youth”, has conquered the global digital space. Twitter – one of their primary haunts – is where the most action happens. They’re a sharply clever group, witty, funny and possessed of professional editing skills. A typical day’s work: cancelling celebrities, pontificating on world politics, funding charities and infiltrating hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter.

BTS is the fastest group to have achieved three Billboard No. 1 albums in one year since The Beatles. In 2021, they became the only South-Korean group to be nominated for a Grammy. The group, comprising of members RM, Jin, Suga, J-hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook, made history as the first Asian act to top the Billboard Hot 100 charts this year.

The first factor that attracted 15-year-old Fatma to the boys was their music. “They include other languages, such as having a full Japanese album and using some English words in their songs. This allows more people to understand their songs without having to translate, which I think is so cool,” says Fatma, who speaks to us through email. She lives in UAE, converses in English and is trying to learn Korean. It is unclear whether her grasp on the Asian languages is fluent enough to understand all their lyrics, but their music seems to transcend language barriers.

Fatma’s internet persona is under the alias styletaehyung on Instagram, which is devoted to reporting a corresponding BTS member’s wardrobe the moment a new image or video is released. From interviews, music videos, advertisements and even paparazzi shots, her goal is to hunt down the brands of the outfit to then post on Instagram for her 29k followers. The account is like a fashion directory for each BTS member, updated diligently by Fatma. “I check for details like a logo, a picture or words, which makes it easier to search for,” explains Fatma. “Then I describe how the item looks… or use retail websites that categorise and filter clothing to make it easier to find,” she says. It’s a game of observation and speed that kills the competition for her. The 10th grader squeezes all this research in between homework and exams.

“I usually post at a scheduled time if possible, and when I’m not working for school. I dedicate a lot of my time to my account,” says Fatma. No matter whether they can afford the brand names, the fans are curious to know every detail about the boy group as quickly as possible. “Because of the time zones, it can get difficult to keep up with the pace, so I find myself staying up at night almost every day. I’m trying my best to not only schedule a posting time, but also have time to focus more on school. But as of now, everything is all over the place,” she says.

Obsessed is one word to describe the millions of fans worldwide, who track their every move and remember the boys’ ever-changing appearances by dates. “2010/11 J-hope is my favourite,” reads one tweet, referring to one concert, using Korean dating format. Some fans take their passion for the group to extremes. UK-based Oli London is a reality TV personality who has undergone multiple plastic surgeries to look like Jimin. A controversial figure, who was trolled on the internet for his obsession, he was featured on US talk show Dr. Phil, Botched season 6, as well as British documentary series Hooked on the Look.

“It’s a work in progress. There are still so many things I need to do,” Oli tells me, over Zoom, about his first botched surgery and the procedures he plans to get done next. Oli’s obsession with Jimin started after he moved to South Korea in 2013 to teach English. Now back in London and releasing his own music, he has no regrets. “This happens to be my passion, but people seem to misinterpret it,” he says. Although Oli is reluctant to talk about his life before BTS, he reveals the hardships of being such a high-profile fan. At times the internet trolling has gotten to him. “When suddenly you’re on a TV show and there are millions of people saying something bad about you, it does affect you,” he admits. Has he ever questioned the choices he has made? “Yes, I did think about it at times,” he agrees, with a laugh, “I thought, ‘God, I was very brave to share my story with the world.’ But maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Like many others, Oli also found escapism in BTS’ music. “I used to get bullied a lot and I had no self-confidence, so when I look at BTS and their devotion to their music, it would inspire me,” he says. “I may be a bit of an extreme fan compared to other people, but I want to promote their message,” he says matter-of-factly. He also wants to share K-pop culture with the world by using his media presence and hopes to be noticed by the group. “I’m doing these shows and interviews so they must have seen me. Maybe I do it in an unusual way, but sometimes it’s the only way to get their attention,” he confesses.

There is a sense of responsibility that comes with being an Army, which is evident in the way the fans speak about their experience. “I became an Army in December 2019, although I’ve been listening to their songs since 2017,” says Fatma. According to her, to be considered a true fan, one must take part in fandom activities such as streaming and voting, as well as having “endless love” for the group.

Apps like VLive are used by groups and artists to interact with their audience by live streaming. Another common practice is to have episodic vlog-style content on their own channels. BigHit Entertainment, BTS’ managing company (which announced this month that it is rebranding itself as Hybe, an ‘entertainment lifestyle platform’), provides an app specifically created for the boys and other K-pop groups on its roster. By comparison with artists in the Western music industry, BTS release a surge of content at a much faster pace. It’s not just behind-the-scenes clips of music videos: there are multiple variety show style series with weekly episodes, and movies created using tour footage. “We get a lot of updates daily, which keeps us on our toes, but every second is worth it,” says Yamileth, the nineteen-year-old stan account holder.

For a fan, watching the huge volume of content that is released requires discipline – building a routine and a schedule. This gives them a sense of familiarity with the boys. Let’s not discount the fancams that are edited and put out in the social media space. Voyeuristic in nature, the unsuspecting victims that happen to stumble upon this rabbit hole of BTS edits will be compelled to look at the simplest of dance moves – or even a glance at the camera by the group – in a whole new light. All this interaction with fans through lives and their social media app Weverse elevates the bond of artist and fan. It becomes personal – as if addressing a friend, family member or lover.

A study conducted by St. Thomas University in 2016 suggested that the interaction between musician and the fan through social media is not one-sided. It amplifies the connection between them. The docu-series that BTS releases and their game show series Run BTS project parasocial behaviour to viewers, placing them in an unreachable bubble. When they reply to fans on Weverse, the experience feels larger than life. American channel MTV’s research from 2013 showed that 53 per cent of millennials feel closer to artists who are active on social media.

Meanwhile, the numbers just keep on growing. When BTS member Jimin hosted a live video on his birthday, it received nine million views in half an hour. That’s approximately 4 million more views than the digitally hosted Billboard Music Awards. BTS are a truly global phenomenon. And they represent a cultural reset – the emergence of Korea as a global cultural influencer.

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