Before BTS started performing in earnest at Citi Field in Queens, New York on Saturday night, one of the group’s members offered a brief cautionary note: “For your safety, please be mindful of your neighbors,” RM said.
There aren’t many shows that open with safety advisories, but then again, there aren’t many groups like BTS. By successfully breaking into the American market, this seven-member group has boldly gone where no K-pop ensemble has gone before. They’ve set several chart records, racked up multiple Hot 100 hits — including “Fake Love,” which reached Number 10 in May — and released two Number One albums in the U.S. this year alone. Love Yourself: Answer sold 185,000 units opening week, a tally that only the biggest Anglo stars can hope to match.
BTS have achieved this through both old-fashioned showbiz power and hyper-modern social-media savvy. All seven members are athletic dancers, sharp and angled at the elbows but gooey at the knees; in the studio, they sing with breathy, melismatic flair and rap with brusque authority, scavenging from decades of U.S. pop and recombining the source material in dynamic songs that zip from R&B to boom bap to Top 40-friendly dance music.
At the same time, it’s their cultivation of, and connection with, a fervent fanbase thousands of miles away that has helped them fill arenas here. “I’ve been listening to K-pop for more than ten years, ever since I was a teenager,” says Carolina, 29, who came up from North Carolina to catch BTS at Citi Field. “I’ve connected with BTS in a way that I haven’t connected with other bands before. All the content they put out, it’s very nice and relatable.”
Several concertgoers — most attendees were women, with a few men playing the role of chaperone or supportive partner — described a gradual descent into BTS fandom. It all starts with a great chorus or a dashing look, often from group member Jimin, who seemed particularly admired in Queens. (Admittedly that’s based on a small sample size.) “The first thing that caught my attention was how good-looking they were,” says Dimitria, 16. “Then I realized the music was really good and I couldn’t stop listening.”
Bianca, 35, who flew all the way from Colorado for a rare opportunity to see BTS stateside, was drawn to the group’s “catchy beats.” “Then I started researching,” she adds. “It’s like a trap. You learn everything to get hooked in.” “You start off with one member that you really like,” notes Ashley, 20, visiting from New Jersey. “Then the more you watch interviews, practices, music videos, it changes.”
Many BTS songs are sung largely in Korean, but no one seems to mind. “You can look up the Korean lyrics on YouTube, read it in English and try and learn it,” Dimitria says. The partial language barrier may even add to the music’s appeal. “It’s sort of a mystery until you see the lyrics,” says Nivedita, 18, another New Jersey fan. “And then you realize what the emotion is behind it.” (She’s part of Team Jimin too: “Consider me smitten!” she says.)
Fans present BTS as a force for self-acceptance. Emily, 18, moved from Texas to Boston for college. “I was feeling down, especially as a person of color, in a very white place,” she says. “I was listening to [Jin’s] interviews, and he talks about how to accept yourself. And I’m like, I’m doing the best that I can.” She brings up President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on Mexicans and Mexican Americans. “Especially as a Mexican, that made me second-guess myself,” Emily continues. “But [BTS’] message is really beautiful: Maybe I am worth it.”
Taking all this into account, it’s no wonder that some fans had been camping out for a week in the parking lot outside Citi Field. Bianca joined friends in the camping area on Thursday night; the morning of the show, her group mobilized around 4 a.m. to prepare to get in a series of lines that would lead them to a highly coveted admissions bracelet and, many hours later, to a spot on the floor close to the group. Fans were finally allowed into the arena at 4 p.m. By the time the show began at 7 p.m., Bianca said three girls had fainted.
The concert was aggressively adorable, like one long, very safe flirtation between BTS and the crowd. The group’s members would flash coquettish looks — huge cheer! — then brood beautifully moments later: Huger cheer! When Jimin cried, seemingly overwhelmed by the significance of playing at his final U.S. stadium show (for now), the crowd erupted. If any group member pulled up his shirt to reveal just a smidgeon of skin, Queens shook.
BTS worked through all their big hits as a full ensemble: “Idol,” a squawking, yelpy rap number that earned a Nicki Minaj remix; “Fake Love,” an emo-rap miracle that generates an earthquake of call-and-response when performed live; “Mic Drop,” a slinking, thwacking hip-hop posse cut that was remixed by Steve Aoki; “DNA,” a jauntily strummed pop tune; “I Need U” a buzzing trap-meets-trance mishmash; “I’m Fine,” which is one long gallop towards self-affirmation. When all seven members are onstage, they continually converge into a fierce phalanx and then splinter off into kinetic constellations, relying on moves that will be familiar to anyone well-versed in Ne-Yo and Missy Elliott videos.
Seven people is a lot to keep track of at any given moment, so BTS shrewdly gave each member a solo spotlight, and those were some of the brightest moments at the Citi Field performance. V delivered “Singularity,” a throbbing R&B cut that Tevin Campbell could have recorded in 1993, as a soft tornado of yearning; the ballad moves in 6/8 time, but the singer danced purposefully too fast, as if he couldn’t contain his own body. Jimin serenaded Citi Field with “Serendipity,” which is a spot-on imitation of Kendrick Lamar’s “Love,” tracing the outline of his body with rapid hand movements and pulling at his sparkly shirt. Jin sat behind the piano as he started the lighters-up power ballad “Epiphany;” in a nice touch, he literally climbed a staircase before leaning into the gut-busting final hook.
After a tight 90-ish minute set and an encore, BTS prepared to make their exit. Jimin started to cry, while RM saluted New York as “the place where the music that changed my life was first born” and reminded fans that they were witnessing “the first Korean musicians ever in a U.S. stadium.”
“It’s never intended, but it feels like I’m using you guys to love myself,” the rapper added. “Please use me.” And they did.