In which I dust off this blog with a fun summer song
It’s been almost a year since I posted here. What happened? Well, there was this pandemic…. COVID-19 stopped in-person live events cold, and this blog was set up to highlight live performances and gallery shows as a way to get me out of the house.
Local arts companies eventually found their way online, adapting pre-planned shows, including interactive ones, such as last May’s Tracks: Message Received. Soon, shows were entirely written, performed, and presented during the pandemic. Some productions went live to air; others were live to tape; some combined film, dance, and post-production decisions. I enjoyed many of these. Although they did not get me out of the house, or even my living room, they did give me the feeling of being in attendance. The entire field of the performing arts pivoted and took viewers and participants like me along with them as they explored expanded definitions of “liveness”.
I first came across the concept of “liveness” in the book K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance by UCLA theatre professor Suk-Young Kim. She wrote: “This book is mainly concerned with a more theoretical investigation of ‘liveness’ as a technological, ideological, and affective mode in which human subjects interact with other human and nonhuman subjects in the digital age.” The book was published in pandemic-free 2018, but I found it indispensable for understanding the new virtual environment in which performing art was presented during the pandemic of 2020 and 2021.
The reason I read the book was to understand the reason I never ran out of entertainment during the pandemic: BTS.
I had been aware of the group for a few years, but only started to to pay attention in early 2020 when images and songs from their just-released new album were being circulated by fans of the mega-popular Chinese series, The Untamed. I was already a few months late to that show, but made up for it over the Christmas/New Year season of 2019-20. Numerous fans wondered if The Untamed zombie character Wen Ning had inspired the look sported by BTS’s V in the music video for the single, “ON”. There was also a popular Untamed fanvid set to the album cut, “Moon”. With so many collisions in this fandom, something was clearly up.
I promised friends that I would check out BTS “when I had time.” Then the pandemic hit, and along with it, semi-lockdown orders. It seemed like a good time to look into BTS. What was the worse that could happen?
Cut to: today. I have an ARMY membership, several albums, streaming playlists, hours of Run BTS! logged, an ARMY bomb, a season’s greeting stationery set, and a cupsleeve from a local ARMY event to celebrate the December birthdays of Jin and V.
Coming late to a fandom can be daunting. In its eight years since debut, BTS has produced hundreds of songs (in three languages) and thousands of music videos, live performances, dance practices, and spontaneous live videos through which members spoke directly with fans.
So to become a BTS fan at this late stage of their eight-year career is to experience all their live events to catch up on BTS now is to experience all their work and events simultaneously. And because I’ve experienced this while being advised to stay-at-home, I did not go out to see their movie; I did not hang around to chat at the cupsleeve event; I did not organize a birthday party with a BTS soundtrack. Almost all of my interaction with their work is through my computer. They’re here, all live, all the time, of all times.
Which brings me to “Butter”
“Butter” is BTS’s second all-English single, following on their first U.S. radio hit, “Dynamite”. BTS has actually been very popular in the U.S. for years. In 2014, hundreds of fans lined up for their first U.S. showcase. In 2015, BTS landed an album on the main Billboard chart. In 2019, they charted three #1 album debuts, the first group to do so since the Beatles.
BTS should need no introduction now, but they do. The success of “Dynamite” and “Butter” seems to prove that they’ve been kept off mainstream radio in Canada and the U.S. because their songs are mostly in Korean. (They also have enough Japanese songs to issue this month’s BTS: The Best compilation of Japanese hits.)
RM has said that “Butter” has no heavy message, but the song and the video are still meaningful. It’s a more in-depth introduction to the band, a statement of their purpose, and their history. To me, “Dynamite” is the musical equivalent of the band’s iconic group greeting to audiences and interviewers, which translates to: “Two, three, we are BTS!” In this analogy, “Butter” is the part when each member states his name.
Before I get to my notes on “Butter”, I was influenced by interpretations posted by columnist Lainey Liu and the tweeter GM Cantave. Liu noted that the colour of butter is yellow, a word that’s been used to shame Asians, but the biggest band on the planet has now reclaimed it. Cantave wrote about the three storylines in “Butter”: BTS flirts with the listener, comments on the music industry, and sends a love letter to ARMY. I am simplifying, so please check out the links. Liu and Cantave’s well articulated ideas were in the back of my mind as I made note of my responses to “Butter”.
Notes on “Butter”
“Butter” opens with beats that reminded me and many others of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust’, and is followed by the lines, “Smooth like butter/Like a criminal undercover”, which was reminiscent of “Criminal” by Michael Jackson. These reverential references to Queen and Michael Jackson invite listeners to compare BTS to those superstars. As a child of the 70s, I have no trouble placing BTS in the same bracket as Queen and Michael Jackson. My first memory of Michael Jackson was from Jackson 5ive cartoons on Saturday morning. I never imaged that he would become a solo star as iconic as Elvis Presley. When I first heard Queen on Top 40 radio, I thought they were a curiosity, but they proved to have massive mainstream appeal. I did not know about BTS when they started. I imagine there are a lot of people who are surprised that this group that was atypical of hip hop or idol groups have become the biggest band on the planet. But I do know that by the time BTS, Michael Jackson, and Queen held multiple-night concerts at Wembley Stadium (to choose just one milestone of success), they all had deep, bestselling catalogues and a global presence.
V’s entire section here is both a tease and a taunt. He’s flirting with the listener and flexing at an industry that underestimated BTS. By saying “I owe it all to my mother”, V brags about his natural gifts as a singer and visual, and pushes back against negative preconceptions about both idol singers and Asians. K-pop scene performers are often stereotyped as being inauthentic and “made” by plastic surgery, auto-tune, and a “factory” system. It’s a form of techno-orientalism, the association of Asian people with robots or synthetic life-forms, and Asian culture with unindividuated cogs in an efficient machine. These are stereotypes that this sexy, dishevelled, born-of-woman V defies.
Who’s sweating? The industry? ARMY? Probably both, but for different values of “like that”. Btw, I’ve made a YouTube playlist of V’s lollipop trilogy.
Jin then sings the pre-chorus: “Oh when I look in the mirror / I’ll melt your heart into 2 / I got that superstar glow so”. This amused me because it reminds me of Jin’s “Worldwide Handsome” persona, which is basically a comedic bit in which he acts like an unrepentant narcissist. He gave an amazing in-character anger to Indian interviewer Sakshma Srivastav when she asked recently if his looks overshadowed his talent.
After their mugshots, the chorus begins, and the boys are on stage in full colour (I think of this as a subtle allusion to the pandemic: they’re fine on their own, but they live in full colour when they’re on stage). In this section, Jung Kook plants a kiss on the back of his hand, where he has a tattoo of a purple heart, a significant symbol for BTS and ARMY. When he sings “high like the moon”, I think about how it’s canon in the BTS universe, the band is the moon and ARMY is the Earth. You can see it in Jin’s performance of “Moon” at the Map of the Soul: ON:E concert and in the poster for their Muster Sowoozoo concerts on June 13 and 14. In the Sowoozoo poster, the boys hold what appear to be balloons in the likeness of the planets in our solar system. The only planet missing is the Earth, which is their foundation.
When Jimin sings, “Let me show you ’cause talk is cheap”, it’s hard not to think of the high-octane, shows they’ve put on, even for three-minute appearances on U.S. award shows. But rather than a demonstrative gesture that indicates he’s showing something, he puts his finger to his lips in the international gesture for “be quiet”. He’s dancing and singing; it’s up to the audience to really look and listen.
V makes a reference to Usher’s hit, “U Got It Bad “, bringing the nostalgic vibes up to 2009. It’s a line that has entertained everyone, including Usher, who took on the BTS “Butter” challenge on Tik Tok. This scene is nostalgic for ARMY, too. The last time V was in an elevator, in the video for “Dope”, he was literally in short pants.
“Dope” was a 2015 single which was also an introductory anthem. It was a bigger hit globally than it was in Korea, and the band followed up its success with their first international tour. In “Dope”, V took the elevator down to join the others, who all seem to be gathering after their day jobs to commiserate/perform/excel together. Six years later, in “Butter”, V takes the elevator up to meet ARMY.
During the dance break section, each member is shown alone in the elevator freestyling. It’s a great way for each member to show (because talk is cheap) an aspect of his personality through dance. Jimin’s moves are sleek and confident. RM powers through his section. V went for comedy. Jung Kook is dramatic. j-hope takes up the whole space and dances with every fibre of his body. SUGA sways with cool vibes. Jin’s larger-than-life World Wide Handsome personality has larger-than-life moves.
SUGA raps, “No ice on my wrist”, and to prove it, shows his wrists, which are devoid of expensive watches, but festooned with friendship bracelets. He doesn’t need flashy accoutrements, not when he has “that right body and that right mind”. SUGA came from humble beginnings, and joined a company in its lean days. But sheer talent and determination drove their success.
Many bands have loyal fans, but who else can say they have an ARMY? Okay, KISS had one. It was the only fan club I remember being spoken about by name. However, it was not like ARMY (which stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth). The relationship between BTS and ARMY is fascinating. I loved learning about it. First, I learned that it is common for Korean idol groups to name their fan clubs, and to have a high level of engagement with them through fan meetings and the like. However, because BTS came from a small company which was on the verge of bankruptcy in BTS’s early years, the band survived with the support of ARMY, who voted, streamed, and bought music and concert tickets to keep the band going. ARMYs could also relate to BTS, who regularly sang about the pressures felt by Korea’s “sampo generation”, which is mentioned in “Dope” (international millennial and Generation Z could also relate). ARMY is often mischaracterized as being screaming teens, and harshly judged for it, but BTS never fall for the “crazy fan” questions the Western media loves to ask them. ARMY feels that BTS understands them, and BTS feels that they would be alone it it weren’t for ARMY. So after BTS introduces themselves to the general public in “Butter”, they literally spell out the importance of ARMY as part of the band.
To be honest, I had misgivings about the line, “We don’t stop.” I grew up with the stereotype of scary Asian invasions in comics, on TV, and in the news (specifically, the effects of geopolitical domino theory on Asia, which had a very real effect on BTS’s homeland, Korea). But j-hope sings this line with a welcoming smile, and leads a group of individuals we have now met through their dancing, rapping, singing, and style.
BTS does not stop. They have persevered through near-bankruptcy, industry disrespect, local media indifference, international media intransigence, racism, and a global pandemic. BTS is a remarkable group, and the members and ARMY seem to be remarkable people. I wish I had gotten to them sooner, but as SUGA once said, “Don’t feel regretful that you weren’t there since our debut, because every moment feels just like when we first debuted. The day when you first met us, is the day we debuted.”
BTS has expanded the concept of “liveness” in this respect, too.