Michael He

June 11, 2022

In This For Life

Today I am doing something stupid but personally significant.

I am writing about BTS.

Recommended music: Yet to Come (2022)


It's impossible to fully capture who BTS is and what they mean to the world, but it doesn't stop "experts" from trying. Many of them fail for obvious reasons: bias, prejudice, not understanding relevant contexts (i.e. BTS history, Korean language/culture, and the music itself), and most importantly, a lack of sincerity in approaching BTS and ARMYs as authentic and genuine human beings. When you only focus on abstract ideas and theories instead of real people those ideas attempt to describe, chances are you won't write something substantial nor worthwhile. (I wrote an essay on this topic, but editing will take time.)

It is so easy to label BTS as a global sensation, a boy group/band, and what have you. It's also easy to label ARMYs as loud, Internet active, and in a very wrong way, "crazy teenagers". We tell our children to never judge a book by its cover, yet many people judge seven talented musicians and millions of their fans (who come from a very diverse background) without ever considering the irony.

If we take a step back, the natural question then becomes "Why is BTS so successful?"

There are talented musicians around the world. The K-pop industry machine has been cranking out artists (or shall I dare say products/merchandise, given how some industry executives treat their artists) for years. Yet very few artists have amassed the commercial success, critical acclaim, and most importantly, the close connection BTS has with millions of ARMYs. What makes them so different?

Sometimes the answer is hidden in plain sight. We just need to look at it.

Lenika Cruz is my favorite writer when it comes to BTS (and it's not only because I fell in love with her after meeting her!). When I read her recent words on writing about BTS, things suddenly made sense: how her experience as an ARMY felt refreshing yet relatable or how her review of BE (2020) was poetic yet nuanced. Many people shared that reading Lenika felt like a moment of epiphany (2018): this is exactly what I was feeling, but I couldn't really describe it with words until I read her piece! 

But I've found that the most interesting insights come from treating BTS with great specificity - that is, from looking at the group in terms of its own origins, trajectory, artistic development, and relationship with fans, rather than largely viewing it through the lenses of the K-pop industry, boy bands, general fandom culture, and South Korean soft power. Some writers, in their eagerness to connect BTS to bigger trends and themes, end up looking past the fascinating and unprecedented story right in front of them. (Lenika Cruz)

Look at the contexts. Look at the people involved and less of the "grand patterns". We are writing biographies here, not history textbooks.

I thought back to my experience.

I finished the essay on Agust D's People right before reading Lenika's words above. The essay was about the song and Min Yoongi's (Suga/Agust D) life philosophy. It was only the second public piece I published on BTS, my first one being an essay for Yoongi's birthday. In reality thousands of words existed before I clicked submit, but I never shared those pieces (and probably never will).

The writing process was very scary. I was self-critical to the point I couldn't move my fingers on the keyword. When I printed out rough drafts, the red ink splattered everywhere after revision. What makes me think that I have something special (or anything at all) to say about BTS? What if people don't like what I write and I embarrass myself in public? 

But then I remembered: if Bangtan (BTS) fails, they fail in public, so they don't fail. They work their butt off and polish their work, so only constructive criticism is acceptable. In fact, this is why so much hostility against BTS  is unsubstantiated and far-fetched (even today, which is truly bizarre). You have to make up things to smear a clean person.

At the same time, their attention to music is why BTS songs from years ago still sound so good. Even as rookies songs like Just One Day (2014), Tomorrow (2014), and N.O (2014) scream different emotions: shy puppy love, anxiety towards one's future, and the rebellious spirit against an unjust system. 

I took the lesson to heart. I wrote about things that interested me, so ARMYs might also find them interesting. I focused on word choice and style. I repeated the same songs to get myself back into the mood when I first had those ideas. I thought about how Michael from the future would read this essay and feel. I didn't want to be disappointed in my past writing. I stayed up late at night when I was the most sentimental. I revised paragraphs word by word, catching grammatical errors and improving the reading flow (which taught me more about writing than any English class in college). 

The results? I wrote something authentic, heartfelt, and pleasant (in terms of reading). I still feel fulfilled when I re-read those words.

I did exactly what Lenika said without realizing the lesson at the time. I just focused on Suga and his music, the granular. By honing in I naturally zoomed out. You can't talk about People without considering how Yoongi came to write the song and his experience during those eventful years. We are not reading a dead poem. It is alive and vibrant.

And that is what I want to do. I want to write about BTS deeply. If I zoom in on the specifics, then perhaps I will find some patterns behind the microscopic. Many of us know that, which is why we share our thoughts and emotions online and offline, in public and in private.

I am still scared of writing about BTS. After all, BTS is more than seven members. It’s also the team that weathered the storm with them: Bang Si-Hyuk (Hitman Bang), producers (especially Pdogg), Big Hit Entertainment staff, and of course, millions of ARMYs. No one can encapsulate everything about BTS in one book, let alone an article. We are still journeying together without knowing our final destination.

And that is fine. We are in this for life, right?

Here is one thing I do know. I don't need to write everything about BTS. I just have to write about one thing, and then another, and then another. Things I can put into words. Things I can convey to ARMYs (and hopefully non-ARMYs). The words will connect and weave beautiful tapestry. I just know they will.

But telling my story with BTS is really difficult. This is my fourth attempt to do so.

I have been an ARMY since 2016 (Wings). For years I just listened to music and kept my thoughts to myself. But when the pandemic happened, I realized how big of a role BTS plays in my life. I was laughing with them, crying when things were hard, and living one day at a time. If I wanted to hold on to my precious memories, I had to properly include Bangtan. Doing a podcast on NPR unleashed that wish deep down.

In many ways, talking about BTS is a way for me to reflect on my past, my memories, and Ma City (2015). It is full body contact, where I must confront my past, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Add in the time and energy needed to produce decent writing and the difficulty in getting everything lined up (i.e schedule, mood, and readiness), no wonder I've been writing and scrapping my BTS writing since PTD LA.

Yet I cannot procrastinate anymore. 

With the release of Proof (2022), it's been nine years since Bangtan's debut and six years since my journey with them. I was then just a kid trying to make it in a foreign country. I was on my own physically, mentally, and socially. I had all sorts of prejudice against K-pop, just like how some people judged me unfairly. It was irony in hindsight. I was the narrow-minded person today’s Michael would disapprove.

Still, I grew just like BTS (though under very little spotlight and pressure).

I recently finished a major chapter in life and transitioned into the next one. It would be a shame to not document the beautiful moments from the past. Many BTS songs remind me of a specific place, a specific person, a specific event, a specific emotion, or a combination of them. I long to be in that state of mind again. Those fleeting thoughts collectively guided me and defined who I am today.

There is now a #MyBTStory campaign on YouTube. Instead of short videos, I am telling my stories (and some about BTS) in words. I will write whatever that comes to my mind while listening to songs on repeat.

When I listened to Yet to Come (2022) today, I couldn't help but notice all the motifs from past music videos, such as Spring Day (2017). Then I realized it's been five years since Spring Day. The moment when I first listened to it and actually understood the song still felt so fresh.

I've never really moved on from the past, yet we grew all the same. Maybe we don't need a clean break with our past to enjoy the present and look forward to the future. Maybe there is another way, a simpler way, to happiness and a life full of love.

Who else would I want to do this life thing with other than BTS?

Welcome to my Proof. It's not Hope World (2018), but we can enjoy Hope World together.

A beautiful picture @cicnm.


Stream Proof now on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Melon, or wherever you listen to music!

P.S: if you are interested please read my Tomorrow X Together newsletter. I use my experience as an ARMY and a MOA to explore what makes music tick. My essay on Beomgyu and my essays on Our Summer & Ghosting are quite good according to readers. 

P.P.S: here are some songs I will most definitely write about: Moving On, Seoul, Yet to Come, Spring Day, Seesaw, and Zero'o Clock. Stay tuned.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.