정, or how I became a member of BTS ARMY

The tender affection of wanting to feed seven very good-looking young men some snacks

난 숨쉬고 싶어 이 밤이 싫어
I want to breathe, I hate this night

이젠 깨고 싶어 꿈속이 싫어
I want to wake up, I hate being within dreams

내 안에 갇혀서 난 죽어있어
Imprisoned within myself, I’m dying

Don’t wanna be lonely
Just wanna be yours1

Save Me


The very first band I ever fell in love with was The Libertines.

A lot of people have very romantic stories about how they discovered their favorite band—browsing through the vinyl bins of their local secondhand music shop (back when physical music shops still existed), hearing a song on the radio during a significant emotional point of their lives, discovering it on a mixtape (or mix CD if you’re a geriatric millennial like me) given to them by a loved one, etc.—but I discovered The Libertines in the most appropriately fangirl way.

Because Daniel Radcliffe introduced me to them.

The year was 2002, I was an enormous Potterhead, and the second Harry Potter movie adaptation had just come out. The main Trio were going around the circuit and doing press at the time—including, for some reason, Total Request Live on MTV. (Back when TRL was relevant, but even by 2002, its relevance was fading rapidly.)

By my teenage years, MTV was hardly a music channel anymore. Most of its programming seemed to be—even back then—a mishmash hodgepodge of reality TV, variety shows, competitions, and a lot of stuff that wasn’t music-related. Not that it mattered much to me; at 16, I was both insufferably pretentious and a manic pixie dream girl character from a Wes Anderson film. I wasn’t really into contemporary pop, rock, or hiphop then, I was into film scores, classical music, David Bowie, and by extension, the entire glam rock era of early 1970s Britain, so I never watched anything on MTV.

But at 16, I was also an enormous Potterhead, which meant that I dutifully came home and turned switched the TV on to right channel as I sat down at the kitchen table to start my homework. (I am nothing if not loyal and diligent when it comes to fandom.) I listened to three barely-pubescent British children talk about their favorite bands and albums with half an ear, focused more on my calculus homework, when Daniel Radcliffe mentioned T.Rex’s Electric Warrior.

I immediately sat up straighter in my chair beside the kitchen table where I did my homework and turned around to fully face the TV. He must have been only 12 or so at the time, but I was impressed that he even knew who Marc Bolan was, let alone appreciate his genius. (I was just as pretentious as 16 as I am at 36.)

Carson Daly was asking them all who their favorite bands were. I can’t remember what Rupert Grint or Emma Watson said, but I remembered Daniel Radcliffe’s answer very clearly.

“The Libertines,” he said excitedly. “Absolutely. They’re terrific.”

Well, I thought, returning to my homework, Maybe I’ll check them out.

I did.

And Daniel Radcliffe was right; The Libertines were terrific, but it wasn’t because of their music. Or rather, it wasn’t solely because of their music. They only ever put out two albums, but they had an outsized impact on the the British indie rock scene in the early to mid 2000s.

And my heart.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t have personal connections to musicians before. (Ask me about my prepubescent crush on Mozart, specifically the version of Mozart as played by Tom Hulce in Amadeus.) I’d always loved David Bowie, but my love for Bowie was always more on the intellectual than emotional side. My love for Bowie came from a fascination about his personas, the masks and guises he wore to express his art. I suppose my love for Bowie was more about my love for his point of view than the man himself.

But my love for The Libertines was for them. The people they were, not necessarily their view of the world as expressed through song. I loved Pete, a little boy lost, a soft-spoken poet lost to the brown. I loved Carl, the stoic one, the steady one, the one who would ever tear out his own heart before he hurt the ones he loved most.

But it was Pete-and-Carl I loved best, the duo bound together by shared dreams of rockstar celebrity and fame. I loved their fights, their make ups, the homoerotic frisson elicited by photographs of them sharing a microphone at a concert, and the very real way they shredded each other’s souls and patched them back together again both on and off-stage. I fell in love with the narrative of their love for each other, and I was swept up and bound by this strange intimacy I felt toward two complete strangers on the other side of the pond.

I fell in love with The Libertines the way I fall in love with books—emotionally entangled in the stories they tell me.


Loving BTS probably started with loving The Lord of the Rings.

It was November 2002, and the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring was finally available in stores. I’d saved up enough to buy the DVD box set from Target ($70, an exorbitant sum for a 16-year-old without an allowance), and promptly came home from school to watch all 800 hours of content.

Everything was fantastic, especially for a Tolkien nerd like me who taught herself both Quenya and Sindarin from the Ardalambion, but my favorite thing across all six discs was the cast commentary.

It wasn’t the behind-the-scenes information they shared so much as the camaraderie between them that came through in every little interaction or story they told. These actors were, as cheesy as it sounds, a fellowship. A real one. The story the hobbits (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, and Billy Boyd) told of playing the made up game Tig while filming Weathertop still makes me howl with laughter.

ELIJAH: Speaking of game-making, what was the name of the fake game that y'all tried to get me into?

BILLY, DOM, SEAN: Oh, Tig! Tag? Tig! Tig! (laughter)

ELIJAH: Oh my God.

BILLY: Tig was when we were filming Weathertop, and myself and Dom just started tigging each other, you know just touching each other, going "Tig! Tig!" Just for like, no reason. And then, Sean came over, and he started doing it as well. And then we'd say, "Tigtig, tigtag" like, for no reason. And then Elijah came over and said, "What are you guys doing?" We said, "Oh, we're playing a game called Tig." He says, "Well how do you play?" And we spent like the next two hours making up rules.

ELIJAH: And trying to teach me, and of course, I was getting everything wrong.

SEAN: He couldn't follow the game, and the three of us were forever frustrated that he wasn't following these new rules that we continued to make up.

DOM: So we, the three of us, were constantly getting it right, and every time Elijah tried a new way of tigging, we'd say, "No, Elijah, you can't tig on a tog, you can't tag on a tig, you have to do an elephant impression if you're gonna tig Billy, if Billy's gonna tig you back, you have to get on your knees and take your trousers down..." 

BILLY: How many times, Elijah, you can't double-tig a tag! (laughter)

DOM: And for like three weeks, he was saying how much he enjoyed playing Tig.

SEAN: And he wanted to get the rule book! 

BILLY: And remember we forgot to say it was a wind-up! So a year later he says, "Why do we never play Tig?" (laughter)

ELIJAH: And then they finally let the cat out of the bag. My whole world came shattering down on me when they told me that that was a lie. For a whole year, I believed it was a real game, and then they told me.

It’s strange to consider that these actors weren’t much older than teenaged me at the time—Elijah Wood especially—but listening to these commentaries again, it’s so clear that they’re young men in their twenties (Billy Boyd was 30, but close enough), forming once-in-a-lifetime bonds with each other during a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I both admired and wanted this sort of bond; my dad still talks about and talks to his frat brothers from college, and he’s closer to 70 than 60 now.

As it was with The Libertines, it was the bond between these people that I connected with. It’s not for nothing that Found Family is my absolute favorite trope in fiction, and the fact that the actors from The Fellowship of the Ring are still friends (and making podcasts together!) warms the cockles of my heart.


The first time I tried to understand what BTS was all about was in 2018. Shadowsong had just been published and I was seeing people all over Twitter with Asian faces as avatars (or “pfps” as the youth say nowadays) and names written in Hangeul. I was very confused, wondering how my book had found its way to Korea when I realized these accounts were teenagers who were fans of kpop, and the most popular group seemed to be called BTS.

I was already vaguely aware of them; I saw posters of their faces in shops and stores in Koreatown whenever I went back home to LA to see my parents or went back to Seoul with my mother. I think too, that I saw their name mentioned here and there online with regards to their growing popularity within the United States. Kpop is one place I am decidedly behind the curve in terms of pop culture, probably out of spite. When I was a teenager, it was deeply uncool to be caught listening to it, and my knee-jerk revulsion probably stems from deeper, unexamined issues of racial self-loathing than any actual dislike of the genre.

Still, this BTS group seemed to be incredibly popular, so I thought I would give them a whirl. In the first half of 2018, BTS’s major single was “Fake Love” from the Love Yourself: Tear album, so naturally it was the track I played first when I opened my Spotify.

I didn’t like it.

In hindsight, I think I disliked it more because it completely defied how I expected a Kpop song to sound than because I actually disliked it. (Because “Fake Love” is one of my favorite tracks of theirs now.) The Kpop I grew up with was bubblegum sweet, the lyrics simplistic and easy to understand for my second-generation diasporic ear, and this…this was hard. It was hard and complex and difficult and so unlike anything I was expecting, I shut off Spotify and didn’t try BTS again for a full year.


It was Marie Lu who eventually convinced me to give BTS another try.

I’d known Marie was ARMY for a while; she was frequently recommending that I watch their (free and subtitled!) variety show, Run BTS (달려라 방탄), to which I would mostly say, “Sure, sure, when I have time” without actually intending to watch. I’m sort of a hard sell on a lot of things; you have to know me very, very well in order to find the right pitch to give me.2

Marie knows me pretty well.

She described the boys of BTS as “seven adorable puppies doing cute things and eating lots of good Korean food” which…if you wanted to appeal to my Cancer sun and fourth house north node, this is exactly how you do it.

And she wasn’t wrong. The first episode I watched was one of the ones filmed in Toronto, probably while they had been on tour. As far as Content™ goes, it wasn’t terribly interesting. It was nothing like American reality TV with its manufactured drama and gross displays of wealth. Instead, you had an hour of seven young men playing camp fire games, figuring out how to share four bedrooms between them all in their AirBnb, buying clothes for each other, buying groceries, cooking, and just…hanging out.

I was charmed.

On a surface, “universal” level, it’s hard not to be charmed by the members of BTS. They’re handsome, charismatic, talented, and very, very wholesome in a way that’s pure and sweet. They get awed by the Niagara Falls. They play the Korean equivalent of playground games, the sorts of games I used to play with my Girl Scout troop members on our long, interminable road trips to whatever camping destination we had picked for that month. Number games, rhythm games, hand clapping games, word games, watching an episode of 달방 felt very much like spending time at a sleepover with friends that are family. The boys even cuddled and laughed in the same thoughtless ways that only the truly intimate and comfortable can be with each other. The ways in which only family can be intimate and comfortable.

But on a deeper, more specific level, I felt 정.

It’s sort of hard to explain the concept of (jeong), as it doesn’t have a direct translation in English. 정 is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character 情, which loosely translates to “feeling, sentiment, affection.” But 정 is more than mere affection; it indicates a sort of bone-deep, marrow-deep connection between souls, the sensation you get from protecting something precious, from being loved but also from the act of loving itself. Watching these seven boys interact with each other, I felt an immediate sense of recognition in a way that goes beyond mere words.

정 makes people feel seen.

And BTS made me feel seen as a Korean person.

It was so, so small and so, so minute. It was the way they called each other 형 (hyeong, or older brother to a younger boy), the way they doted on their 막내 (maknae, or youngest), the way they all fell in line by age the way family members do in Korea. Age hierarchy is hard to explain to westerners—especially to westerners who aren’t instilled with a sense of collective responsibility—but in Korea, knowing how old you are in relation to someone else is crucial in establishing social interaction. Americans instinctively balk at hierarchies because Americans tend to view hierarchies in terms of oppression and power, but Korean cultures tend more toward the idea of responsibility and respect. The elder (or more senior person in role or rank) is deferred to, but said elder also bears all the responsibility for the younger people in their social sphere. If you are the older person in a relationship, then you are responsible for the wellbeing of those younger than you. Your role is to love the younger person, to care for them, and make them feel seen.

BTS are so, so, so Korean.


정 is not the same thing as love.

And I didn’t love BTS, not yet. Personality-wise, I was on board, but musically I was still coming around to them. It didn’t help that the biggest hit of theirs in 2019 was “Boy with Luv", probably one of my least favorite songs in their entire discography. If “Fake Love” was too sonically and lyrically complex for me to immediately sink my teeth into, “Boy with Luv” was a little too pop for my tastes. And I like pop. I just didn’t love this pop song.

And then came “Black Swan.”

In early 2020, the boys had already come out with their ON: Kinetic Manifesto video, which I watched and was impressed by the dancing, but it wasn’t until they released this melancholy, electronica and trap-infused R&B track that I finally understood that BTS were artists.

A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.
—Martha Graham

“Black Swan” is a song about depression, about creative burnout, about the fear of losing your passion for the one thing you live your life for. Inspired by the Martha Graham quote, the song can be a metaphor for any sort of slow death, but it’s painfully clear that in this context, BTS is talking about music. I was aware that BTS—unlike most other Korean idol groups, and most other pop artists in general—wrote and produced all their own music, but I hadn’t realized just how much of themselves they put into their songs.

Something about this realization unlocked the rest of their discography for me. I think that perhaps, subconsciously, I had been expecting to be spoon-fed something mild and palatable by a so-called “boy band.” “Boy with Luv” did very little to dispel this notion for me, and I will admit to not having taken much time to dive into their discography before Map of the Soul: 7. And I discovered, much like David Bowie, BTS explores a concept and tells a story throughout each of their albums.

The first three, called the School trilogy, explore the feelings that come from school and being stifled by society and expectations. The next three, called the Youth trilogy, explore ideas of coming-of-age, mental health, and the importance of friendship at this critical juncture in your life. Wings and You Never Walk Alone are about adulthood, and the process of adulteration that accompanies it—temptation, darkness, angst. The Love Yourself albums—Her, Tear, and Answer—tell a story in three parts: falling love, realizing that subsuming your identity for that love is toxic, then coming to understand that you have to love yourself first before you can love anyone else.

As I listened, slowly, but surely, like falling in love with a book, I was falling in love with them.


It wasn’t until Marie bought us Map of the Soul: 7 concert tickets ㅠㅠ that I decided it was probably time to actually get to know who the members of BTS were. At this point in my ARMY journey, I knew the names of all seven members, although I wasn’t very good at matching them to the correct face yet—except for Jimin, who I could recognize immediately due to his beautiful dancing and monolidded eye smile, and RM, who was the leader.

As of late May 2020, to me, the members of BTS were:

  1. RM

  2. The scrappy one3

  3. The best all-rounder with the punchable face4

  4. Jimin

  5. The good-looking one without charisma5

  6. The good-looking one with charisma6

  7. The one with the WHOA DEEP VOICE7

I still wasn’t watching 달려라! 방탄; I spent a lot of time watching their dance practice videos instead. As far as dance skills go, they were quite good, but then again, nearly all idol groups train for years in dance. No, what caught my eye, over and over, was this sense of unison in their choreography, of being literally in sync. And now that I know them better, I can immediately recognize the differences in their styles and skill levels, but they give off the first impression of a single organism somehow—not because their steps are exact and identical, but because of their chemistry.

I’d forgotten, honestly, just how good Kpop dancing was until BTS reminded me. Dance is not particularly emphasized in western pop acts, not even in white boy bands. NSYNC couldn’t hold candle to the level of choreo required of an idol group these days. And One Direction? Forget it.

As far as craft went, I was all in on BTS. Singing, rapping, songwriting, producing, and dancing, they were the “real deal.” But love? I wasn’t there. Not yet.

Not until they saved my life.


CW: Mental health, bipolar disorder

They have a saying amongst BTS ARMY: You find BTS when you most need them.

And I can’t deny that I found them when I most needed them as well.

I’ve written elsewhere about the mental breakdown I had in June 2020 that required a visit to a crisis center and anti-psychotic meds. Needless to say, I had a rough patch last summer, and I was completely unable to function except to sit on my Blue Couch of Depression and mainline BTS content. For a suicidal bipolar person, the boys of 방탄소년단 were the exact antidote to the hell in which my brain wrapped itself like an anti-gravity blanket—wholesome, pure, loving. They really are Very Good Bois. While I enjoy 달려라 방탄! to bits, it was their travel show Bon Voyage that really and truly cemented my love for the members themselves.

I loved their love for each other.

Watching them take trips as a family—sharing a camping van, deciding how to divvy up bunk beds, splitting cooking and grocery shopping duties—was incredibly healing in a way that’s hard to articulate. Some of it was the sense that I was spending time with my family, my Korean family. They eat the same foods, they complain about the same things when traveling abroad, they are just so goddamned familiar it’s incredibly comfortable and comforting.

But another part was just how refreshingly free of toxic masculinity the boys are. Korea in general doesn’t really have the same standards for masculinity as the US does; men and mascs regularly wear makeup, male groups are also unafraid of expressing affection—physical or verbal—for their male friends. But even so, the level of love and support these boys have for each other seems above and beyond Korean culture norms. They bend over backwards to make each other’s lives just a little bit better, they perform countless mindless acts of kindness for one another, even if it’s something as small as playing along with someone (usually Taehyung)’s silly idea of the day. They are utterly unselfconscious in their love for one another, and unafraid of being vulnerable.

If there are two concepts that I would say characterize the Korean spirit, they would be 정 and 눈치 (nunchi). 눈치 may be an even more difficult concept to explain than 정, but in short, 눈치 is the ability to read a room. Emotional intelligence. Unlike Americans, Koreans are collective-conscious, always attuned to the mood of a group, generally seeking harmony. They are taught from a young age to be alert for non-verbal cues; there is even a playground game called the 눈치 game, in which groups of people attempt to count from one to ten without planning the order of who speaks. If two or more people speak at the same time, the game resets and you start over from one. This forces you to read the room, to step back when you see someone is about to speak, but it also teaches you initiative, to speak up when you know you ought to seize the opportunity.

The members of BTS may be some of the most emotionally intelligent people on the planet. 눈치 in spades.

It’s probably why they’re the biggest music group in the world.

Connection with the members of BTS feels easy and natural because they connect so easily with people. Stories abound of their niceness, their kindness, their charity, their generosity, their overall goodness. They’re like the Keanu Reeves of the music world, content to keep doing what they do and being decent people along the way. It sounds like it should be boring, but it’s not. Or maybe that’s the American in me speaking. Growing up in the States, I’ve been primed to expect interpersonal drama in music groups, to instinctively look for the ego instead of the whole. The Justin Timberlake or the Beyoncé or the Harry Styles. To find The Star, for whom this whole group thing was merely a stepping stone to a solo career (whether or not that narrative is actually true).

But that is not BTS in the slightest. They might put out solo mixtapes, but they remain committed to the band and each other, even joking (but not really joking) about living together into old age, raising their children collectively in a village. They love each other to death, and they’re not afraid to show it.

And because of that I’m not afraid to show how much I love them either.


I’ve said before that I fall in with bands and the stories they tell the way I fall in love with my favorite books. BTS, like The Red Tent, like Kushiel’s Dart, are my go-to reads, the pages to which I return over and over again for both emotional catharsis and comfort. I found them exactly when I needed them, and hopefully, some of you out there will too.

사랑해,
JJ

1

I took some slight poetic license and it still sounds a lot more poetic in Korean, but as always, things get lost in translation.

2

For example, Roshani Chokshi finally convinced me to read Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples by texting me a pictures of Ghüs and saying, “Look, there’s a White-Harp in it.”

3

Suga

4

J-Hope (I’m so sorry, Hobi ㅠㅠ I love you so much bb I didn’t mean it)

5

Jin (I’m so sorry, World-wide Handsome, you’re my bias-wrecker now!)

6

Jungkook

7

V