"Is anyone here over 25?" a young woman asked a throng of people waiting on a Tribeca sidewalk, where at least a hundred people had gathered Tuesday night in anticipation of Korean pop juggernaut BTS's departure from the iHeartRadio studio. The increasingly anxious crowd, made up mostly of young women, climbed atop police barriers on Lispenard Street, breathlessly waiting near huge mounds of garbage from the Sheraton Tribeca.
"Uh... me," I said from my spot on the fringes. Then I added, "I'm 42."
"It's okay," the woman said. "I'm going to be 26 soon."
My BTS education began a week earlier, when I interviewed people—mostly women in their late teens and 20s—who were camping outside of Central Park (for days) ahead of BTS's Good Morning America performance. (Their devoted fans—known as ARMY [Adorable Representative of MC Youth; BTS stands for Beyond The Scene]— also camped outside of 30 Rock for their April appearance on Saturday Night Live.) Besides the music being tuneful and catchy, the fans pointed to the band's messages of empowerment and how hard the members—Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—worked over the years to succeed.
The ARMYs take as much pride in BTS's success—like three number one albums in one years, a record only shared with the Beatles—as they did in having, as one ARMY said, "one of the most diverse fanbase out of any fanbases," where fans befriend each other after meeting at concerts and even distribute supplies to others waiting on line for a concert, even if they don't have tickets themselves. (Note: other reporters haven't always had as much good luck with the ARMYs.)
I didn't only rely on those fans to understand BTS—there was also this feature on CBS Sunday Morning, which is basically an explainer for middle-aged people. Stephen Colbert also tried to make olds get what a big deal BTS is by leaning in with the Beatles allusions. When the band performed on Late Show right after their GMA stint, Colbert mimicked Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles to America while BTS's seven members wore mod suits to perform their recent hit, "Boy With Luv," in black-and-white set.
Then over the weekend, BTS brought their "Love Yourself: Speak Yourself" world tour to MetLife Stadium with possibly the most gloriously over-the-top show since Travis Scott's Astroworld concert at Madison Square Garden last year. From one review:
A set of Grecian columns onstage gave way to two tarpaulins, which quickly disappeared to reveal tour bus-sized plastic forms that inflated in seconds to become silver and black leopard balloons.... The combination of remarkable staging (during the song “Ampanman,” for example, a two-story bouncy house inflated from under the stage, and the band members performed while sliding down and climbing upon it), excellent video elements, pyrotechnics (during the encore, the fireworks show rivaled that of many small towns on the Fourth of July), quality lighting and audio (the volume at MetLife, while very high, was actually bearable) provided a firm foundation on which BTS could give a memorable performance.
Inflatable leopards! Bounce houses!
Another reviewer wrote, "The group really does come out of left field sometimes, which is not a bad thing. A video of RM and Jimin jumping up and down on a bed and playing catch with an orange preceded the live Jimin in a plastic bubble singing 'Serendipity.' A video of V in a fluorescent rose garden set-up his singing 'Singularity' in a bed that looked like it came from a Salvador Dali painting."
So when my colleagues Jen Carlson and Ben Yakas asked me if I was going to to see BTS in an "intimate Q&A to celebrate their recently released album, Map of the Soul: Persona" at iHeartRadio, I of course immediately said yes please, I must. I already knew about the ARMY and their strong community; I saw that Max Minghella was a BTS super-fan; and even the Empire State Building was purple in honor of their efforts! Now I needed my own first-hand knowledge.
The livestreamed Q&A, hosted by Z100's Elvis Duran, featured BTS sitting in the small and incredibly intimate iHeartRadio Theater (it's technically the "iHeartRadio Theater Presented by P.C. Richard & Son") to a couple hundred screaming ARMYs. Duran asked them who they'd like to collaborate with (Drake and... Coldplay), what their favorite city has been during the tour (New York, obviously, and they started to sing "Empire State of Mind"), and about those comparisons to the Beatles (RM acknowledged their debt to the Beatles, saying, "Every artist is under the inspiration of the Beatles").
— JIMIN BASE (@JiminBase) May 21, 2019
The Q&A then turned into listening party-slash-sing-along (though BTS did not perform) when a few songs from the new album were played, starting with "Mic Drop." The fans loudly sang lyrics and danced, literally shaking the theater's floor. At times, BTS members got up to sing and dance a little as well. "Mikrokosmos" followed, and, a special, surprise guest was then introduced: Halsey, who is featured in "Boy with Luv."
The singer-songwriter said she was "sad the last time I left them"—which was at the Billboard Awards, where they performed at the beginning of May—"because I didn't think I was gonna see them for a long time."
LIKE LOOK HOW HAPPY OUR BABIES BTS WERE ON IHEART RADIO WHEN HALSEY APPEARED. UGH BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE. pic.twitter.com/3QYb0jMqdU
— ً (@vuyeol) May 21, 2019
— 용감하십시오 (@itstime2bbrave) May 21, 2019
— EuphoriaWithLuv🌙💫 (@bangtans_Star) May 21, 2019
The Q&A continued for another 15 minutes after the iHeartRadio livestream ended, with a few more questions about which member is most likely to mess up a dance (Jungkook maintained, "We are perfect") and who was most likely to forget lyrics (there seemed to be a debate about that). When asked why they became performers, RM looked at the audience and said, "There are, what... 200 reasons right in front of us," leading the ARMYs to swoon. The band then gave a heartfelt thank you to the BTS ARMY before being whisked away for some rooftop pics:
— 옝_ARMYing (@SONE_ARMYing) May 22, 2019
— iHeartRadio (@iHeartRadio) May 21, 2019
— iHeartRadio (@iHeartRadio) May 22, 2019
Outside on Lispenard, fans staked out the exit waiting in hopes of seeing the boys depart. A large passenger van circled the block, and fans booed when various trucks threatened to obstruct their view. As we waited, I started to chat with some ARMYs who had spent at least part of the weekend seeing BTS at MetLife Stadium.
"Their music seems more genuine," Tricia McSherry, 22, said as she explained why she liked BTS so much. BTS tells us "to love ourselves," Eileen Guerrero, 19, added. "It's amazing to see how strong they are with their message...and how they haven't strayed from it, the way other artists might."
McSherry and Guerrero both confirmed the power of the BTS ARMY community. "We met today over Twitter!" McSherry said. "As an immigrant myself, BTS proves that music can transcend everything—it makes me so emotional," Guerrero confessed.
That is also probably part of why I've been so excited to learn about BTS: if you told an eight-year-old or even a 18-year-old Jen that the musical group dominating U.S. media was a band from Asia whose songs are mostly not in English, I wouldn't have believed it.