For 20 months, I was haunted by two fears: that some things (the pandemic, isolation, anxiety) would last forever, and that others (dreams, loved ones, entire years) would be lost forever. Time warped around me, as it did for so many people. Some days, it moved like molasses. On others, like when I saw family and friends, it seemed to flow like a river that I couldn't stop or outrun.
Then, for two weeks at the end of 2021, I tried to control time for myself.
In September, as live music was returning in earnest, the South Korean pop group BTS announced their first in-person concerts in two years. They'd play four nights at the open-air SoFi Stadium, in Los Angeles, where the Super Bowl would be held in 2022. (Mask wearing and proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test would be required.) Knowing that demand was bound to be fierce, I hoped to attend once; after a lot of planning, stress, and luck, I had tickets to all four dates. For one week, I'd share hotel rooms with dear friends, attend shows, and blast BTS's extensive, genre-melding discography while carpooling in L.A. traffic. And for the first time in months, I smiled at the idea of time standing still.
By all appearances, time had been kind to the seven members of BTS. Already global superstars before the pandemic, RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook had only gotten bigger since 2020. They'd released three albums and scored six Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 songs, in both English and Korean. They won millions of new fans and became the first K-pop act to receive a Grammy nomination last year for their single "Dynamite" (followed by another nomination this year for "Butter"). This fall, they spoke at the United Nations General Assembly for the third time, accompanying South Korean President Moon Jae-in as special envoys. So when the group finally took the stage in Los Angeles in late November and early December, the shows might have seemed like a simple victory lap. In truth, they also served as a kind of vindication of BTS--of their talent, authenticity, reach, and emotional connection with fans. All of those things had been called into question by critics, or at times by the artists themselves, in 2021. The four nights were loud, ecstatic, and poignant proof that they had all been wrong.
BTS shows are legendary affairs, known for elaborate production design, pairing demanding choreography with live vocals, goofy banter, sincere speeches, inside jokes, and a high level of crowd participation by their fans, known as ARMY. I had experienced all of this as a brand-new (and somewhat intimidated) ARMY attending my first BTS concert in May 2019, but I still felt unprepared for the L.A. shows, which were named for the band's latest single, "Permission to Dance." In the preceding weeks, I couldn't conceive of spectacles of sound, movement, and community after spending much of the past two years in silence, stillness, and solitude.
Imagine some 50,000 people gathered in the dark as lights blink around them like stars. They're dancing like one body, singing with a single voice in a language that may not be their own. Many of the people in this little universe understand how easily their happiness at seeing a "boy band" or a "K-pop sensation" could be derided as trivial or childish. But that condescension has no place here. As the night goes on, thoughts of what they've suffered or lost recently grow dimmer, and the strangers around them start to look like family.
This is the spell that a BTS concert can cast. When the group opened the first show in L.A. with their inaugural in-person performance of the adrenaline-pumping "ON," the air crackled. When the beginning notes of the moody gem "Black Swan" started, the stadium seemed to hold its breath. The group members staged a gorgeously choreographed sequence, alongside white-feathered dancers, that seemed to belong in a baroque theater rather than a pop concert. The back-to-back, live-band renditions of their smash singles "Dynamite" and "Butter" were like aural serotonin, particularly on day two, when an effervescent Megan Thee Stallion strutted out to rap her verse in the "Butter" remix.
Watching these two performances in particular, I thought of the critics who had accused BTS of abandoning their identity as Korean artists--all for releasing three songs in English. As the show continued, I watched BTS perform Korean tracks from their largely self-written 2020 record BE, including their Hot 100 No. 1 single "Life Goes On." The set list reaffirmed the group's roots as they performed many of the Korean-language tracks ("DNA," "Blood Sweat & Tears," "I Need U," "Idol") that had helped them break out. And when BTS paused between songs, many members abandoned the English remarks they had practiced and instead shared their feelings in their native tongue. The shows, especially coming weeks after the group's official appearances as cultural ambassadors for South Korea, seemed to obviate any lingering questions about their authenticity.
Alongside complaints about their supposedly waning Koreanness, BTS have faced renewed criticism about how popular they really are. Some American critics admit to the group's enormous appeal, while also trying to undercut it. "If you look at the charts ... you're going to get a completely distorted idea of how popular BTS actually are," declared a Stereogum piece that accused fans of "gaming the system" for organizing streaming and buying campaigns to support the group's music. The piece also lamented the death of "organic popularity" in pop music, even though BTS came from a tiny label and slowly earned a following through social media and word of mouth. A June cover story by Billboard questioned whether BTS's grassroots fan efforts were being secretly coordinated by their own label; BTS and their record label's parent company, Hybe, denied this. "It just feels like we're easy targets because we're a boy band, a K-pop act, and we have this high fan loyalty," the group's leader, RM, said at the time.
In interviews ahead of the SoFi shows, RM took further aim at attempts to shade BTS's success and fans, subtly mocking the notion that ARMYs were bots or just 15-year-old girls. At the concerts, I was stunned and heartened by the sheer diversity of the attendees: older women with purple highlights and tattoos, couples wearing matching BTS headbands, young people conversing excitedly in French or Japanese, middle-aged men in T-shirts emblazoned with Jungkook or Jimin, and friends carrying Pride flags. While waiting in the hours-long lines to get in, people played BTS songs on their phones and danced to BTS routines. I overheard some attendees telling new friends how they had gotten into the music--through a friend, a child, a YouTube link from a co-worker, a late-night TV performance caught by chance. All of this looked like organic fandom to me.
The impermanence of beauty, the beauty of impermanence--these are things BTS understand well. Their lyrics are full of self-aware references to the ephemerality of both fame and contentment. Take the 2016 song "Epilogue: Young Forever": "The huge applause can't be mine forever ... even if there is no everlasting audience, I will sing." As artists who debuted in 2013 with little industry support, BTS were surprised enough by their rise to be always, on some level, imagining the moment when everything might evaporate.
At a press conference with BTS the day after their first concert, I asked how their performances at the American Music Awards a week earlier--where they picked up three awards, including Artist of the Year--compared with the show at SoFi. Through a translator, Jungkook spoke of how the cheers from ARMYs at the AMAs had given them energy that they then carried into the concerts--as though the pandemic had trained them to have a scarcity mindset when it came to absorbing their fans' voices. That energy radiated from each member under the hot lights of the stadium: RM's fierce and authoritative presence, Jin's bottomless vocal virtuosity, Suga's effortlessly charismatic cool, J-Hope's peerless dance mastery, Jimin's intoxicating command of movement, V's singular vocals and aura, and Jungkook's tireless domination of the stage. When they moved together, you could not look away.
Still, on the final night, BTS again offered a window into the looming sense of expiration they feel. During the final speeches, an emotional V said in Korean that they "had doubts if there would be any ARMYs left" after two years. Through tears, RM said in English that he spent much of the pandemic being afraid of their future, wondering, "What if I got too old to do this, to dance like I was 23 or 25, when we were so new and fresh?" He talked about working out for the past two years just to prepare for these four concerts, and admitted that though they had no idea when they could perform again, he was now less scared. "I promise that ... I'll be even better when I'm 30, or 35, or 40," he said.
By the end of it all, I had arrived at a similar realization. None of us could stop time, but we didn't need to. The performances that BTS delivered, and the community with whom I shared those experiences, made me less afraid of holding moments of joy gently, and then letting them go. They reminded me that the future would bring joy again. That night, BTS sang the fan favorite "Home," whose lyrics are about feeling brave enough to go out into the world, because you know you have somewhere, and someone, safe to return to.
After the shows ended, I learned that BTS grossed $33.3 million and sold more than 200,000 tickets; their SoFi run is one of the best-selling concert runs at a single venue in history. But those numbers don't capture everything. The image that stays with me is of people's hands reaching up in unison, through the fluttering confetti, toward the sky. Eyes wide, as if in disbelief. As if nobody had told them that going to a concert could feel like coming home.