Editor’s Note: Rani Neutill is a professor of creative writing and Asian American literature at Emerson College and Harvard University. She is working on a memoir about fractured identity and her relationship with her immigrant mother. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinions on CNN.
Thursday night, BTS released their summer single, “Butter.” The single hit 21 million views within one hour on YouTube, shattering records. I am 30 of those views, probably more by now. I am also 43 and an enthusiastic member of the BTS ARMY.
Hear me out.
It’s not that I’m trying to relive my teen-aged years. The truth is that I am bipolar and have an anxiety disorder. And somehow, this singing, dancing K-pop boy band is a salve for my itchy mental wounds.
Should I feel embarrassed about being a fangirl? Should I think of them as a guilty pleasure? The answer to both questions is absolutely not.
Over the last six months I have tried to explore what makes BTS’s fandom so special, as I am a recent convert. It’s hard to articulate. It’s like they’ve created an alternate world that you just want to escape into, particularly now.
My own fandom started last fall when I was teaching an Asian American literature and film class. A few of my students kept mentioning BTS. They were citing the rise of BTS’s popularity as a positive shift away from the dominant American cultural imagination of Asian American men as either the submissive Charlie Chan or the threatening Fu Man Chu, stereotypes that led to the de-sexualization of the Asian American male in popular American consciousness (think of Long Duk Dong in the film “Sixteen Candles”).
I had a vague idea about what K-pop was and had heard of BTS slightly but had never bothered to listen. I had initially dismissed their popularity as a teeny bopper, what-could-possible-be-great-about-a-seven-member-boy-band phenomenon. But when my students kept mentioning them, I thought: Maybe I should give a quick listen, see what all the hype’s about.
The first thing that I found in my Google search was their hit, “Dynamite.” I clicked. Six boys popped up on my screen, dressed in pastels. When the six walked away, one appeared, pointing his index finger out, gently shooting me straight through the heart. The 808 claps were constant. At 110 BPMs, and with a funk guitar that slides through the whole song, I found myself involuntarily dancing. A rainbow of fireworks shot into the sky at the end. These kids were pure joy. By the end, I was smiling.
That was a curious feeling. I had to wonder: How could BTS make me forget about all the things that are going wrong in the world for three minutes and 43 seconds?
I quickly learned their names and talents. RM, the sort of leader of the crew who speaks English (he taught himself by watching “Friends”) and rhymes. There is Suga (a hip-hop artist whose solo work goes under the name Agust D) and J-Hope (the best dancer), who rap, Jungkook and Jimin, the falsettos, and Jin and V (Tae-hyung), who are able to scale down to alto. They write their own music and choreograph their shows. They are attractive young men who regularly change their hair color, are fashionable and funny. Above all else, they are profoundly talented.
After watching “Dynamite,” I went down a YouTube rabbit hole. I found out how they donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement and a video of them promoting their campaign, LOVE MYSELF, at the United Nations. I started watching their variety show and every single live performance I could find. I’ve binged their carpool karaoke at least 20 times and it still makes me laugh. I’ve made friends with people on social media. A group of women I went to grad school with included me in their BTS text thread where we send each other videos and photos every day. I tell my classes how much I love BTS and now my students send me pictures of the group and playlists.
Almost overnight, BTS has become a fixture in my everyday life. Whenever I feel upset, I watch them and they immediately alter my mood. I’m not gonna lie. I do dance around my kitchen and try to mimic their moves – that’s definitely the 13-year-old in me trying to get out.
Throughout the pandemic, BTS has managed to thrive. The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz beautifully chronicled how their success goes beyond their showmanship. Their popularity also lies in their ability to be vulnerable and in the intimate relationships they have forged with their fans through social media. They constantly create content to give a sense that they are really there for you.
Many dismiss their popularity, like I once did, or ignore them because much of their music isn’t in English. BTS has been subject to racism. Recently, when a German radio host called their cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You” sacrilege, he illuminated the xenophobic attitudes towards Asians that have helped fuel the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
These comments and others BTS has faced also signals the colonialist attitudes that folks have about the music industry, which is dominated by English. Maybe this is changing in a world where Bad Bunny and BTS are leading the music charts. I don’t know. But it should make us question why many dismiss music in the United States that isn’t made in English – a language that is, among other things, a reminder of a violent, colonial past.
For me, what has been most important is that BTS is my salve. I am not embarrassed to be a fangirl. If I saw them live, I would scream along with all the Gen-Zers. They are an antidepressant during this time of isolation, bringing me up from depressive lows. For a few hours a day after binging their videos, my anxiety is quelled as they allow me into their colorful, musical world.
BTS has given me what we can’t have during the pandemic: a sense of closeness. And everyone should go and stream the new single, “Butter.” It is pure sunshine-summer joy.