BTS, a phenomenon followed by hundreds of millions of people
A youth ministry expert explains the reasons for the boy band’s great following. For him, they are not “manufactured idols". They write their own songs and work out their own choreographies; they speak of pain, and yet are optimistic and push for involvement in society. Parents often introduce their children to BTS. What they do fits with what Pope Francis proposes.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – BTS,[*] the South Korean boy band group, has seen the value of their recently floated shares rise. They can count on hundreds of millions of followers around the world, people who travel to see them live at concerts or follow them via streaming.
For sociologists and Church youth ministry leaders, the BTS phenomenon raises some questions. For this reason, we asked Fr Martin Ho Sejeong, a youth ministry expert in the Diocese of Daejeon, for his opinion on the success of this group of seven young men. Here is what he wrote to us.
“It's authenticity and empathy!” Before writing this article, I sent a message to a young representative of ARMY, "the world army" of BTS fans, and asked him "Why do you like BTS?". His answer: "It's authenticity and empathy!" How can I explain this answer?
Many have tried to analyse the BTS phenomenon, but the South Korean music critic, Kim Youngdae, is the most reliable voice. Based on an historical, cultural and anthropological understanding of pop music, he has written a book on the BTS story: BTS the review. A Comprehensive Look at the Music of BTS. For ARMY, he is a true and credible music critic.
In Kim’s view, BTS as well as other K-pop groups are boy groups whose roots go back to United States of the 1950s. Brought to Japan in the 1980s, the musical genre flourished in Korea in the 1990s.
Assertive producers in major agencies are the main feature of this tradition. Such producers pick handsome young men who, for years, perform, sing and dance to tunes provided to them by producers. In such a system it is hard to avoid bubblegum pop, a musical genre suited for the age of neoliberalism, with music seen primarily as a commodity for sale, with no room to understand life or truth.
BTS are also identifiably a boy band, and their agency also has producers and experts. However, the agency was relatively small and did not belong to any major company; producers and experts limit their role to adding a touch professionalism to the band’s musical work and performances. This cannot be said about other groups and agencies; for this very reason, they are defined as "idol factories" manufacturing “factory idols".
By creating and performing their own music, BTS members can insert real life stories into their songs and dances. They are naturally empathetic with today’s youth. To be more precise, although they work with producers and experts, the band members own their creative work, talk about hardships and pains shared by their peers who live in the same neoliberal world that uses them as tools of production or profit maximisation.
When young people listen to their music and watch them, they feel they are taking a walk with BTS. This path also leads to service. Whilst singing about their suffering, BTS stresses optimism, not pessimism, highlighting, for example, work with UNICEF in a campaign to end bullying, or supporting UN campaigns. ARMY, which closely follows BTS's activities, also serves society.
This positive aspect brings parental support. Sometimes parents are BTS ‘s biggest fans and introduce their children to their work. Thus, the key to their success is the BTS’s journey, with the producer and ARMY tagging along.
Last October, news broke that their agency, Big Hit Entertainment, was going to go public on the Seoul Stock Exchange. Many articles and analyses followed on expected economic effects. However, listening to the news, I hope that the interests of shareholders won’t be an obstacle to the band’s authenticity and empathy.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Christus vivit, Pope Francis deepens the teaching on the subjectivity of young people, stating: “Young people can help keep her [the Church] young. They can stop her from becoming corrupt; they can keep her moving forward, prevent her from being proud and sectarian, help her to be poorer and to bear better witness, to take the side of the poor and the outcast, to fight for justice and humbly to let herself be challenged”(Christus vivit, n. 37).
Listening to BTS songs, words and activities, and to ARMY, we can see a certain harmony with the teachings of the Holy Father. The important thing is to understand and develop the subjectivity of young people.
[*] Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bulletproof Boy Scouts.