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Embodiment, Performativity and Subjectivity: The Best of BTS’s Music Award Show Stages

BTS at Melon Music Awards 2018

Winning end-of-year music award shows is important for Korean idols and groups as it helps to cement their importance and popularity not only in Korea but across East and South East Asia. This is demonstrated by the fact that MAMA 2018 – one of the biggest music shows – took place across multiple countries with awards given out over three days.  For idols, these are the culmination of a year’s hard work of constant promotion including appearances on music shows, tours, fan meetings, social media interactions including VLive streaming, and in the case of BTS, a packed overseas schedule. Appearing on music shows is crucial to a successful ‘comeback’ so that many acts spend approximately two weeks of active promotion (if their company can afford it of course),  appearing on one show after the next, with only Monday off. The week starts with The Show (SBS MTV) on Tuesday, Show Champion (MBC Music) on Wednesday, M Countdown (Mnet) on Thursday, Friday is Music Bank (KBS), then Music Core (MBC) on Saturday and finally Inkigayo (SBS), Show! On Sunday. Of course, winning such shows is a bonus and tends to factor in to the end-of-year music show awards.

There are two types of awards given at end-of-year award shows: Bonsangs and Daesangs or the Main Prize and the Grand Prize. Bonsangs are given to more than one act in a given category, while Daesangs are only given to one act in applicable categories. The Daesang is the ultimate prize for any act as it signifies that they are the best of the best. Competition is fierce especially as many awards rely in part or solely on votes from the public. In such cases, it is almost guaranteed that one of the biggest fandoms will win as other fandoms cannot compete on the same level. For Daesangs, the votes of industry professionals and year-end sales carry the most weight. While such award shows have been accused of giving awards for attendance in the past, this is usually by disgruntled fans and there is little to support it especially with regards to this year’s awards. And for those who belittle the awards it is clear from winner’s reactions to receiving Daesangs that such awards are meaningful to artists, especially to those who waited patiently while acts from the big 3 (SM / YG / JYP) South Korean music companies divided up the awards between them.

There are currently 10 main end-of-year shows: Asia Artist Awards (AAA); Melon Music Awards (MMA), Golden Disc Awards (GDA), MBC Plus x Genie Music Awards (MGA); Gaon Chart Music Awards (GCMA), Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA), Seoul Music Awards (SMA), Soribada Best K-Music Awards (SOBA), Korean Popular Music Awards (KPMA) and Korean Music Awards (KMA). BTS attended and performed at 7 of these: AAA, SOBA, MMA, GDA, MAMA, MGA and SMA. The KMA took place on 26 February and despite reports that they would not be attending, they were in fact present to pick up awards for Musician of the Year and Album of the Year for Love Yourself 結 Answer, while “Fake Love” won both Song of the Year and Best Pop Song.

BTS Universe - Save Me graphic

In terms of songs, BTS performed “Fake Love” and “IDOL” at all the shows. For GMA, Jungkook and Charlie Puth duetted on “See You Again”. Puth also joined BTS on a stripped back version of “Fake Love”. BTS later performed “Save Me/I’m Fine” followed by “IDOL”. For MAMA, BTS added “Anpanman”, “Airplane Part 2” and O!RUL8,2? LY Remix to their stages across the two days (they attended two of the three MAMA days). Interestingly enough, and one would suspect deliberately, BTS ended their music show schedule with pared back performances of “Fake Love” and “IDOL” at SOBA. All the stages had elements of nostalgia to them which was mainly expressed using embedded VCRs featuring snippets of BTS’s past performances and achievements, from their debut in 2013 onwards. There was a circularity to their stages, as if in order to move forward, it was necessary to look back, but within a temporality of coexistence rather than erasure of pastness. The recent webtoon Save Me also participates in this temporal revisioning and revisiting by extending the existing narratives of boyhood constructed throughout the BTS’s Universe. Connected to this is ARMYPEDIA which encourages fans to participate in an act of collective worldbuilding through memorialization. Considering this project, it is no surprise that “pastness” figured predominately in these end-of-year stages, drawing a line under the “Love Yourself” era and preparing the way for the next one. The “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” stadium tour can be interpreted as a transitionary stage between the current era and the next one, Map of the Soul. BTS’s end-of-year award stages exemplify the rich tapestry of the performative that is the scaffolding for BTS’s Universe. I have chosen to discuss three of these: “Fake Love” at MAMA Japan, “Airplane: Part 2” at MAMA Hong Kong, and the “IDOL” stage at MMA, as representing their best stages of 2018/2019 and explore how the themes of embodiment, performativity and subjectivity are expressed at an audiovisual level.

“Fake Love” at MAMA Japan

BTS Fake Love image

Of all the special stages of “Fake Love”, this one struck me as particularly iconic especially in terms of the use of mise-en-abyme and mise-en-scene. In the “E” concept photos for Love Yourself Answer, BTS are depicted as marionettes, whose broken bodies can only be kept upright by ribbon, desubjectifying the members and constructing them as passive objects of the [male] controlling gaze. In most of the end-of-year awards special stage performances of “Fake Love”, mise-en-abyme was used to emphasize this theme by beginning with the members trapped in glass boxes, connoting isolation and alienation as can be seen in the “Intro” to the “Fake Love” Special Stage at the 2019 GDA.

BTS Fake Love in Japan

Significantly the “Intro” at MAMA 2018: Fan’s Choice in Japan was staged differently. Instead of having the members in boxes, it begins with them standing in a circle around V (Taehyung) with their backs to him. V turns around and faces the camera. Then they move into a vertical line with RM (Kim Namjoon) on the farthest right and Suga (Min Yoongi) on the farthest left. Reflections of the members dressed in black hooded robes are directly in front of them. Each member in turn holds out their left hand towards their mirror image, unmasking their reflection who then disappears into vapour. Once their shadow has disappeared, they line up behind V whose image is the last one to take of his mask. The mask is one of the main motifs of the “Love Yourself’ era, used not only to highlight duplicity but also to suggest identity as multiplicity, always caught up in an eternal becoming through difference and repetition.

Fake Love in Japan

Just as with mise-en-abyme, mise-en-scene is used to mirror, reflect and foreground the puppeteer metaphor and interplay between power and powerlessness that it encompasses. This is most visibly evident in the large sculpted hands which reach down towards the members and frame the special stage. The use of the harness as an addition to their stage outfits also foregrounds the theme of power, constraint, manipulation and agency that underpins the “Love Yourself” series.  The dance break is important in making visible the invisible strings of the puppeteers. Like elsewhere across Asia, Korea has a rich history of puppetry including string puppets, glove puppets and rod puppets, the roots of which are thought to trace back to before the end of the 4th century (WEPA, 2019).

It is important to note that traditional culture figures strongly in BTS’s work especially in their most recent work. At the same time, mirrors, reflections, and marionettes can be read as technologies of the Uncanny especially in terms of the cognitive dissonance between the human and the mechanical. In Jentsch’s analysis of Hoffman’s “The Sandman”, the undecidability of Clara’s status (is she an automaton or is she human?) is at the very crux of the Uncanny. While Freud also stresses ambivalence and uncertainty as key to the Uncanny, he sees the double as linked to primary narcissism and the castration complex. Even without theorization, it is obvious that the use of marionette imagery in performances of “Fake Love” can also be related to the set of injunctions that is constitutive of the idol industry in South Korea in which idols sign contracts which constrain their actions for a period of 7 years (the typical contract length). One only has to consider the fact that a dating scandal could end an idol’s career, even when they are well into their twenties, to see how central the image of perfection is to the industry which markets of idols using discourses of purity to stress their idealized status. The staccato moves of the dance break can be interpreted as embodying the parasocial nature of the Idol industry where industrial injunctions determine the construction and constitution of the subject fulfilling the fan’s expectations. According to Rachael Wenona Guy, puppets are mimetic objects or existential mirrors who have the ‘capacity to affirm our selves as living subjects, or to unsettle or destabilize our concept of self by reflecting aspects of the human condition in ways that are disquieting’ (2013, pp. 1 – 2.), while for Kenneth Gross ‘They are what we project onto them; they also project onto us’ (2011). Here costume and choreography are used to deliberately draw attention to the performativity of the subject through the marionette as uncanny double. Blue lighting adds to the uncanniness of the “Fake Love” stage especially through its metaphorical relation to the supernatural and the gothic, while mise-en-scene and mise-en-abyme are used to foreground the disjunction between the performance of being and being-in-itself.

Airplane Part 2: Mama in Hong Kong

Airplane Part 2 in Hong Kong

“Airplane: Part 2” has a Latin vibe and is in keeping the influence of Latin America on contemporary Korean popular music. While the lyrics are less meaningful than those of “Fake Love” and other songs in the “Love Yourself” series, the song’s inherent performativity lends itself particularly well to a Special Stage. While “Fake Love” draws on well-worn elements of the gothic including a tendency towards pessimism within a despair that is critical of societal norms and the dominant ideology associated with them, “Airplane: Part 2” is an example of stylized Gothic as Camp. In “Gothic Covers: Music Subculture and Ideology”, Charles Mueller situates Camp as a permutation of Gothic subculture. He writes: ‘Camp, with its emphasis on the ephemeral and the hysterical, represents an assault on masculine values. Neutralizing or subverting masculine power is one of goth’s primary objectives’ (Mueller, 2010, paragraph 10). From the white suits, including V’s jacket cape, the poses and postures as exemplified by Jungkook’s strut down the runway, and the fluidity of the choreography, “Airplane: Part 2” is a lesson in camp as creativity. For Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp”, Camp is an aesthetic sensibility closely linked to decadence. The artifice and stylization of Camp, for Sontag, mean that as an aesthetic formation, it is at best apolitical and worst disengaged and depoliticized (Sontag, 1964). Linked to the theatrical and “Being-as-playing-a-role”, Camp is the art of quotation, and that which distances itself from the good/bad binary distinction. Both Mueller and Sontag view Camp as not only aligned with the Gothic but also as subversive of gender norms.

The excessively expressive performance of “Airplane: Part 2” with its fluid movements is very different to the hauntingly restrained performance of “Fake Love” and its jerky, marionette choreography. While “Fake Love” is all about interiority, “Airplane: Part 2” is exteriority made manifest. The fluidity of movement is emphasized through the flowing fabric of the white stage outfits. The first performer is V who is wearing a cape over a white shirt with an upturned frilled collar. V’s red hair visually contrasts the stark white of his outfit as well as mirroring the red backdrop to the main performance. The “Intro” highlights each performer’s ability and identity: the fluidity of Park Jimin’s tabletop dance is in stark contrast to the subsequent energetic, 1940’s American musical duo segment by J-hope (Jung Hoseak) and Suga. Jin (Seokjin Kim) and RM are next to be briefly introduced to the audience before the group takes seats in front of a draped red curtain. When the curtain opens, it reveals a long runway. At the far end of it, Jungkook stands with the spotlight focused on him. He struts down the runway like a top model at a leading fashion show. While the raps of J-hope, RM and Suga inject some masculine power into the performance, the excessive styling emphasizes artifice as does the feminine choreography. As Sontag writes: ‘Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex (Sontag, 1964). For McClary (1991) the dancing body (McClary, 1991) can be considered as political especially through the subversion of technologies of gender at the intersection of music and performance. As such this stage continues BTS’s interrogation of gender norms and appropriate masculinity and femininity challenging the heteronormativity of the KPOP industry.



While “Fake Love” emphasized masculine fragility and “Airplane: Part 2” gender fluidity, the performance of “IDOL” at MMA foregrounded cultural specificity as an important element in the construction of identity. Widely regarded as the best special stage of 2018, “IDOL” emphasized Korean traditional dance including buchaechum/부채춤 (Fan dance) and Talchum/탈춤 (Mask dance). In her analysis of Jungkook’s GCF (Golden Closet Film) of the MMAs, Deana Guyln Kim writes:

[o]ther traditional dance performances during this MMA stage included samgomu (삼고무), Korean drum dance, sajachum (사자춤), Lion dance, and samul nori (사물놀이), Korean traditional percussion music: all of which have been designated as elements of South Korea’s intangible cultural property (무형문화재) (2018).

Widely seen as a response to criticism of BTS becoming too Westernized, this performance of “IDOL” makes it clear BTS remain committed to disseminating Korean culture globally and thereby retaining “Koreanness” as a distinctive characteristic of their music. The “Intro” to “IDOL” here makes the implicit links to traditional Korean culture in the music video explicit.

The stage begins with J-hope and fourteen female dancers performing the Korean three drum dance (samgomu) while being restricted by partitions in a glass box that measures 3 down by 5 across with J-hope in the centre of the box, flanked by female dancers on either side and below and above him. This celebratory court dance can be dated back to the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) and the rhythm of the dance is one which gets progressively faster with more complex moves as it reaches its climax. Traditionally the dance is restricted to the upper part of the body but J-hope uses his whole body stretching it to the limits within the restricted space of the box. With a flick of a fan towards the left, the camera moves to Jimin (Park Jimin) who is surrounded by dancers with fans. The buchaechum dance, which is a traditional fan dance, is said to have originated from ancient Shamanistic rituals, and the focus here is on the placement and movement of the fans rather than the body of the dancer and the use of formations to represent elements of the natural world, e.g. butterflies and flowers. As with the samgomu dance, this is a dance which is traditionally performed by an all women troupe. Buchaechum was ‘formally developed and recognized during the Joseon Dynasty’ (Beatty, nda). A court dance, the buchaechum is made up of precise and elegant movements. Jimin’s training as a contemporary dancer is highlighted here in his delicate and powerful moves – In February 2019, Jimin received an award from the Kim Baek Bong Korean Fan Dance Conservation Society (the buchaechum is no 3 on the list of Korean Intangible Cultural Property) – for this performance. The final BTS dancer in the “Intro” is Jungkook who performs the mask dance (Talchum). This dramatic dance was popular in the Joseon Period (1392-1910) and originates from the Hwanghae Province. Unlike the courtly dances performed by J-hope and Jimin, the talchum is associated with ordinary people and is in essence a carnivalesque dance as shown by this description from ‘Across the country, the talchum was commonly performed to sharply criticize contemporary society and create humorous satire that depicted the falsehoods and hypocrisies of the upper classes.’   The use of masks allowed the working classes to temporarily subvert class and gender hierarchies through satire. Jungkook’s costume includes long white sleeve extensions (hansam) whose purpose is to ‘create dynamic and spectacular movements’ ( as well as connecting the earth to the heavens.

In this “Intro”, courtly dances are juxtaposed with folk dances, but yet the movement between the two is not staccato but rather fluid with the fan and the mask as objects of exchange. The visual, linguistic and audio references to traditional Korean culture and arts in this special stage can be interpreted as a transgression of norms as is the emphasis on unmasking. In his discussion of the political dimensions of Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, Andrew Robinson writes:

On an affective level, it creates a particularly intense feeling of immanence and unity – of being part of a historically immortal and uninterrupted process of becoming. It is a lived, bodily utopianism distinct from utopianisms of inner experience or abstract thought, a ‘bodily participation in the potentiality of another world’. The golden age is lived, not through inner thought or experience, but by the whole person, in thought and body. (2019)

This special stage embodies the co-temporality of the past and the present through the audiovisual presentation of traditional Korean culture as constitutive of the construction of the modern subject. As a narrative of the self, this stage calls into the centrality of binary distinctions as fundamental to the operation of gender by having J-hope and Jimin perform ‘female’ troupe dances while critiquing class and other distinctions through the juxtaposition of court and folk dances. At the end of the stage, all the performers are present at once with BTS on the circular platform, the samgomu dancers at the back and the mask dancers, including the lion dancers, at the foreground. Unlike other Kpop initiatives, BTS refuse to conform to the dicates of Westernization, and the removal of cultural and racial identity that this entails. Iwabuchi talks about this is terms of cultural odour. Discussing the transnational flow of Japanese culture in the 1990s, Koichi Iwabuchi argues that the lack of cultural odour, or mukokuseki, accounts for its success in the West. He suggests that it is the ‘mukokuseki nature (that is, the racially, ethnically and culturally unembeddedness) of Japanese animation that is responsible for its popularity worldwide’ (Iwabuchi, 2002, p. 60). Iwabuchi uses the term “cultural odor” ‘to refer to the way in which cultural features of a country of origin and images or ideas, often stereotypical, of its way of life are associated with a particular product in the consumption process’ (Iwabuchi, 2002, p. 61). Iwabuchi distinguishes between products which display “cultural odor” – those that are embedded with ‘racial and bodily images of the country of origin’ – and those products in which “cultural odor” has been transformed into “cultural fragrance”. The later relates not to any inherent quality but ‘rather to the image of the country from which they emanate (Iwabuchi, 2002, p.63). Many of the attempts, past and present, by the leading players in the KPOP industry (SM, YG and JYP) render the music and/or the performance of it, culturally odorless through linguistic dispossession. Recent attempts to break through the Western market, particularly those that center on the US, have translated local and regional features of the music into English by offering English versions of hit songs. Despite this pressure, BTS have steadfastly refused to write or record songs in English and indeed “IDOL”, the lead track from the last album in the #LoveYourself series, offers us linguistic, sonic and visual images that construct a postmodern hybrid Koreanness that rather than being odourless or merely fragrant, is deeply embedded in its context. The performance at MMA constructs an embodied subjectivity which is as much local as it is global.

Conclusion: from “Love Yourself” to “Speak Yourself” and beyond

BTS at MMA 2018

BTS’s special stages at end-of-year award shows bring their “Love Yourself” series to an end. The final stage, at SMA on 15 January 2019, was a stripped back performance of “Fake Love” and “IDOL” in total contrast to the excessiveness of their early stages.  This can be read metaphorically in terms of a revelation of the face under the mask which means that there is no longer any need for a disguise to conceal one’s actual (or authentic) self. While their upcoming sold out stadium world tour is called “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself”, it is more appropriate to think of this as a bridge between the end of one series and the beginning of the next. The concept of “Speak Yourself” is evident in the ARMYPEDIA project in which fans are asked to submit their memories of key dates in BTS’s past. If the ARMYPEDIA project represents the end of an era through the collection and circulation of memories, the next era, which begins with Map Of the Soul: Persona, is about generating new memories through the revelation of the inner self. Their comeback is now less than 3 weeks to go and the first performance of their new song/songs will be on SNL (Saturday Night Live). I am so glad that I will have the opportunity to see them perform these songs live – despite paying a small fortune for tickets – on 1 June 2019 at their debut UK stadium concert at Wembley.

Special Stages

“Fake Love” Special Stage @2018 MAMA, Mnet, 12th December 2018

“Airplane: Part 2” Special Stage, @2018 MAMA in HONG KONG, Mnet K-POP, 18th December 2018

“IDOL” Special Stage @ 2018 MMA, BangtanTV, 10th December 2018


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One thought on “Embodiment, Performativity and Subjectivity: The Best of BTS’s Music Award Show Stages

  1. I loved the article and its information it makes me admire BTS more not only as singers but performers and their love and connection to their fans (ARMY)

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