Emoji summary: 🥳 💫 🎉
Everything I know about BTS, I have learned mostly against my own will. My little sister is a stan; she gets the lil merch boxes in the post, her laptop screensaver is a BTS slideshow, and she’s got one of those light sticks that sync up with colours to match the songs. I went with her to see them at the O2 last year, and she cried though the entire concert, bopping her way to the front by the barriers. For me, it was a pretty surreal experience; and as a critic, I found it absolutely fucking fascinating. Lowkey, I’ve been wanting to write something about them for a while, because I am so Academically Interested in them and their position in ~global culture~. I should declare now, that (unfortunately) I am not a stan. I am an old hag who only listens to Kate Bush and lo-fi-beats-to-study-to. I have got chronic Bad Music Taste and I am ok with that. But, music aside, there’s something juicy underneath it all that tickles me, and I love having a root around in that weird soupy mix of important pop culture and my serious critical thoughts.
For those of you who don’t know who or what BTS is, pls let me explain.
BTS is a South Korean boy band made up of these 7 lads; RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V & Jungkook. They’ve been around for a while now; maybe 10 or so years, and in the past few years they’ve leaked into the West™️’s cultural landscape in a really interesting and highkey unprecedented way. They did a song with Halsey a few years ago, called Boy With Luv, and ngl lads… it’s a bop. They’re quite well known for having an enormous, powerfully dedicated and engaged fanbase (who they call ARMY); and, as with all things perceived as being well loved by young girls, they can kinda get flack for being ~just a boy band~ who make fluff content that is not very serious or meaningfully good. I don’t think that is true. I am writing this review, as a Non-Stan, because I think BTS are culturally and critically fucking fascinating.
BTS operate in this heightened realm, both unreal and hyper-real at the same time. They exist in this split and synchronised state: as projection, image and person. Their fans are intimately familiar with all three of those entities, and participate in this knowing interaction. I think it is all a kind of theatre; the creation of an all-encompassing system of liminal spaces, where both sides suspend disbelief, collapse those entities together, and enter into a two-way dynamic for the sake of the Spectacular. Going to see them at the O2 was surreal; not because I was in a crowd of Crazed Fans, witnessing an event operating on an insider logic that I was emotionally disengaged from; but because I was in the middle of this massive and spectacular participatory experiential artwork, slipping through a charged atmosphere and I didn’t know the steps to join in with it. That’s the word that keeps popping up to me when I try and describe them: spectacular. I think BTS operate at that scale, and I mean that in its truest sense; not as critical theory, but as arresting experience that resonates in your actual body and animal brain. Something that takes you, stops you, pulls you out of the space you’re in, makes reality dissolve into image right in front of your dazed blinking eyeballs. I think it’s a kind of maximalist magic - transformative and real.
While I would personally love to just write about BTS as a whole, I have got a specific aspect of their cultural output that I want to write about for right now. In this weird inside-inbetween, this lockdown limbo space of London only existing between the four walls of my home, and in my imagination; I have been turning towards little pockets of culture that simmer gently. Most evenings I’ll join my sister on the sofa, while she watches Run! BTS.
Run! BTS is the band’s web-show, where they do these cute lil challenges and just kinda bop around cracking jokes and being lads. It follows a format that I was unfamiliar with, and I’m not sure if it has an equivalent that I can point to in the uk. South Korea’s pop landscape includes variety shows; a vague catch-all term that is what it sounds like. Bands and artists will go on these shows and do little funny challenges, get involved in the grand narrative arc of it all. It’s a slippery, amorphous kind of content; part reality show, part game show, part celeb-special version of every show in existence. It combines the best of tv & youtube in its scale and embrace. Where tv is all so focused on rigid format and the trashy-goodness of celeb specials, it can get lost behind the walls set to contain it. There are firm limits to shows like Graham Norton, I’m a Celeb, Celeb Come Dine With Me; they are bound to the recognisable logic of what panel shows, game shows, chat shows can all do. And youtube has always been the Wild Wild West; it is chaos cut loose from the boundaries of broadcasting best practice. David Dobrik and Jake Paul; clickbait is a genre of its own now, and creators are rewarded by the algorithm for testing the boundary to breaking point. If tv is vanilla, then peak youtube chaos is a carolina reaper; and there’s only so much of it I can watch without feeling like my face is about to melt off.
Run! BTS seems to straddle both worlds; it’s like the best bits of everything has been cherry-picked, and it manages to find a balance that simmers away at just the right pace for me right now. It’s amorphous enough for it to be literally whatever shape it wants; but there’s still the consistency of Activities and characters filling out that shape. One episode just follows the band as they go around an arcade playing DDR and shooting games, one episode they’re playing jenga with chopsticks in a swimming pool, doing pottery classes, flower arranging, archery with shoes, making kimchi, camping trip, dog training, murder mystery in an abandoned theme park, zombie escape room. There’s a Christmas special from a few years ago, where they do a Santa scavenger hunt around a museum with pig balloons tied to their matching Dickies dungarees. My personal favourite is the episode where they do a 007-themed treasure hunt round an empty luxury shopping mall, and they all have to try and sabotage each other while finding as many little heart shaped cards as possible. It’s a complex and intricately constructed chaos, but gentle in its frenzy, wholesome rather than brain-rotting. It’s like soup in a mug, with little pasta shapes in it; the surprises are big enough for them to hit through, but small enough to feel intimate.
The show has a stable cast of characters: the band, the production team/crew, and the narrator (who only appears in the subtitles). The seven members of BTS all have these very distinct individual foibles that are never really explained, but the mythology of that infuses the show. RM is a klutz, and the camera zooms in and replays footage in slow mo when he breaks things. Jimin is baby, Jungkook is somehow just good at everything, Suga is an old man trapped in a k-pop idol’s body. The crew are an invisible hand guiding it all, acting as antagonist and ringmaster. The subtitles are interrupted by a sarcastic disembodied narrator; as with anything that exists in translation, the humour of this moves to a different rhythm. As it syncs up into English, it becomes a kind of celestial and unhinged humour in and of itself. These 3 entities that make up the cast all bleed into each other and interact; BTS break the 4th wall and address you as you’re watching, heckle the crew while the subtitles are taking the piss out of it all. All of it builds to this split scale: it is the clickbait face melt and also the steady chug of formula and format. The big challenges are broken down into these teeny little games that feel cosy and hand-sized, the smaller slow moments feel like background tv. Sometimes it moves too fast for you to read the subs and keep up; the chaos of it all just unfolds around you like a piece of surrealist cinema, absurdist or Dada or Ryan Trecartin; slippery and unwieldy just flying over your head and around you like a delirious cloud. Sometimes you’re just watching 20 minutes of them playing badminton in the mountains, with squeaky toy sound effects over the top. Even those slower moments are still engaging, because the group dynamics are like one person trying to herd a group of cats.
I literally don’t understand how it’s so good. It shouldn’t be this good. It sounds like the kind of show that’s only enjoyable if you’re emotionally invested in the band, but it is good tv in it’s own right. It’s a surreal climb along the craggy exterior of a contained spectacle; the same as their concert but in miniature. Watching as Not-a-Dedicated-Fan is still worth it. I am in the crowd, reeling. The eye of a storm whirls around me and I am watching as cars and lampposts fly past like confetti. It’s this groundswell of energy that implicates you as soon as you’re within arms reach; cynicism just evaporates as you’re buoyed along by its force. It is the only tv I can watch right now. Gentle simmer, wholesome chaos, lads on tour; I cannot believe it, but I’m spending my evenings watching BTS open packets of crisps with their feet.