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Two days total immersion in BTS at Kingston: a report from the Global Interdisciplinary Conference Project

Kingston University
The queue for registration starts to form shortly after 8am on the morning of Saturday 4 January

When I told someone at the (virtually empty) office on the first Friday of the new decade that I would be spending the weekend at a two-day conference on BTS, he at first looked blank. I had to explain to him that they’re a K-pop boy band, at which he grinned and urged me to enjoy my time in the company of so many teenaged girls.

Reality check: it would seem that BTS is not, still, a household name in some circles, despite their huge global success, their two sold-out Wembley stadium concerts and appearance on prime time chat shows. And of course, the view that K-pop is something that appeals to teenaged girls and is therefore something that other demographics should not find interesting or enjoyable is a common preconception, to which I’ll return later.

Colette Balmain and Helen Julia Minors
Colette Balmain (right) and Helen Julia Minors introduce the conference

First, let me say that I write this article and attended the conference as someone who respects the boys’ talent, dedication and hard work, who enjoys the visuals and some of the music in their videos, and who can appreciate (thanks in part to Colette’s learned articles for this site) that there are layers of cultural references in their work that can engage with the most sophisticated and mature of minds. And I can also appreciate that their messages in support of mental health and loving yourself are timely and positive. But I am not an ARMY (and for those such as my work colleague who know nothing about BTS, an ARMY is a card-carrying BTS fan). My interest in BTS is as an observer of a Korean cultural phenomenon. I know enough about them to know they are important, but I don’t know all their names and certainly not their birthdays.

At the conference, I was therefore struggling to keep up in some of the talks, in which there was a level of assumed knowledge that was way beyond my own BTS-basic level. But I didn’t feel excluded on that account. That is not what ARMYs do. Besides, at every academic conference I’ve been to there’s a level of assumed knowledge, and you live with it. You can still learn new things even if your background knowledge is sketchy.

Group photo of conference attendees
Group photo of conference attendees, presenters and organisers taken at the end of the conference

The conference brought together around 140 scholars and enthusiasts from a huge range of disciplines, backgrounds and 30 different countries, and we all learned from each other. Yes, as you can see from the group photo taken at the very end of the conference, the majority of those present were female, but the age range went from mid twenties (at a guess) to an age where it is not polite to ask.

As is often the case at conferences, there were too many papers to fit in the time available: one hundred papers doesn’t fit into two days without multiple parallel streams. All this meant that, other than the three big keynote talks, you could only listen in to around one fifth of the sessions.

Koreana BTS issue
The Autumn 2019 issue of Koreana, with a special focus on BTS, was handed out at the conference

One of the sessions I didn’t make it to was one that asked the question: “can BTS (still) be considered K-pop?” So, going back to the preconception highlighted at the start of this article, even if the audience of a typical K-pop boy band are teenage girls, that’s no reason to conclude that BTS fandom is the same. Anyhow, why should the fact that a band appeals to teenage girls mean that it is somehow inferior to, or less worthy of attention than, a band that appeals to middle aged men? And expand that to “middle-aged white, straight, men” and you ignite even more of a discussion on gender equality that chimes with much of BTS’s message of resisting established hierarchies and prejudices. As stated in the conference materials, “This ethos of this conference is to bring together academics, fans and practitioners in a supportive and inclusive space to talk, debate and to share ideas about BTS. This is a hierarchy-free space in which everyone’s views are valued equally.” These objectives of the conference were taken to heart by participants. As one presenter tweeted afterwards:

The three keynote speakers, all of whom I could have listened to for most of the morning, came at BTS from very different angles. Lee Jiyoung, author of BTS: Art Revolution talked about the interconnectedness of the BTS Universe of albums, videos, TV shows, and other BTS-sponsored and -related content. It’s a universe in which many have got themselves totally immersed; other conference attendees likened it to disappearing down a rabbit-hole.

Kim Youngmi, Organiser of the BTS Insight Forum (Behind and Beyond BTS) held in Seoul in the summer of 2019, explained how she came to BTS from the world of marketing. To make a brand succeed in today’s online world a company has to turn its customers into fans of its products: and BTS’s relations with its fans are second to none. But in case anyone thought that such an “angle” on BTS meant that the band is just a cynical creation of a slick entertainment company, Launa Saurensen turned the spotlight on Bit Hit’s business goals and showed that it is possible to be successful without being evil.

Launa Saurenson on Big Hit
photo credit: @ResearchBTS tweet

The third keynote speaker was Jin Youngsun, author of Nam June Paik, a Global Artist. She found many echoes of Nam June Paik’s world in the BTS Universe.

Video fish
Dr Jin Youngsun compares works by Nam June Paik and BTS

What I found most unusual about the conference was the level of audience interaction. Particularly during Lee Jiyoung’s keynote, I noticed people nodding agreement at various points, even making involuntary noises of assent. It felt, in a very mild way, like the sort of response you might get from members of the congregation when listening to the sermon of a charismatic preacher at an evangelical church. By chance, later in the day there was a panel session on BTS and religion, which included a presentation by a university chaplain. If you browse the stories under the Twitter hashtag  #BTSisNotYourAverageBoyBand you will come across brief testimonies of how BTS has changed the lives of many fans – stories which sound a little like conversion testimonies. Sun Yong Lee analysed how aspects of BTS fandom share some of the characteristics of a religion in terms of giving fans a shared purpose, cohesion and focus of devotion. One question that arose, that was impossible to answer, was what would happen to the ARMY community in the event that BTS disbands (as, one must assume, is likely to happen one day). One attendee speculated that true ARMYs have in some ways been changed by their fandom, and thus BTS’s positive impacts in terms of respect and inclusivity would not be lost.

Other panels looked at gender and LGBTQ themes in BTS; BTS as a vehicle for promoting South Korean soft power, tourism, traditional culture and language; the online charitable work done by ARMYs; BTS fanfiction; BTS and various philosophers (I gave Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari a miss, but showed up for Laozi and Zhuangzi). There was a dance workshop. And those who delight in identifying and deciphering all the clues in a BTS video enjoyed the BTS Escape Room challenge in which their skills and knowledge were put to good use. The conference truly lived up to its objectives of appealing to a wide range of interests.

As if all the above were not reason enough to make one think of ARMYs as not just another group of K-pop fans, and BTS as not your average boy band, there was also a couple of sessions that tried to answer the question of why BTS was so popular – what makes them different from other boy bands? Apart from all the above attractions, Mi-Young Kim (“Because They Are Good Boys”) and Haekyung Um (“BTS Authenticity, Fandom and the Importance of Audience Authentication”) highlighted their genuineness and humility along with their constant communication with fans.

Haekyung Um presentation
A slide from Haekyung Um’s presentation

I skipped the presentation by Jeeheng Lee (Fandom in New Media Age) on the basis that she was giving what I assume was an extended version of her talk at the KCC the day after the conference, at which she provided a useful recap of some of the material from the conference and introduced themes from her book BTS and Army Culture. Her talk also emphasised the co-ordinated online activities of BTS fandom, whether in terms of charity work, hashtag use, or various initiatives to police hostile discourse. One concern that might present itself to a non-ARMY observer is that there can be a fine line between passionate and legitimate support on the one hand and over-sensitivity verging on cyber-bullying on the other. Lee mentioned in passing the brief slot about BTS in the Australian entertainment show 20 to One: what comes across as light-hearted banter to a typical viewer of that show offended other constituencies, and ARMYs managed to get a half-hearted apology from the TV channel responsible. Trawling briefly through the Twitterstorm (under the #Channel9Apologise hashtag), I couldn’t find many, if any, tweets that could be construed as bullying. Apart from some hostile responses to an offensive tweet by the show’s presenter, ARMY messages respectfully pointed out the inappropriateness of some of the quips in the show, thus abiding by the code of ethics expected of ARMY members.

Jeeheng Lee at the KCC
Jeeheng Lee talks at the KCC on 6 January 2020

Back to the Kingston conference, the lectures on Sunday ended with a performance by the Shilla Ensemble covering three BTS tracks: Idol, Fake Love and DNA. Having heard rather too many bland Beatles covers played on the gayageum, I was rather nervous in advance of this final session. I need not have worried. The Shilla’s BTS arrangements were classy and rounded the proceedings off perfectly. Here’s a brief clip of DNA:

Colette Balmain, mastermind behind the conference, summarised the two days thus:

And how did I feel, as a non-ARMY, after two days’ total immersion in the BTS Universe? Well, you don’t have to be a Christian to go to church or to a retreat at a monastery, or to be a Buddhist to go on a templestay, and nevertheless you can come away from such experiences having absorbed some of the sentiments and philosophies of those religions, maybe even feeling a better person. So, after two days in Kingston I’m not about to become an ARMY (I still don’t like their music enough), but I’m more certain than before that the BTS phenomenon is something that deserves respect. The recent announcement of their global art project in which luminaries such as Antony Gormley are participating is further evidence that BTS is not your average boyband. And two days of mixing with ARMYs, and hearing presentations on diversity, respect, inclusion, philosophy, gender, aesthetics, choreography and so many other topics besides was mind expanding and good for the soul too. I might even have come away as a better person. More than anything else though I came away with a sense of admiration for Colette and the team for pulling this thing together. I look forward to the book of presentations which is promised in due course.


Note: some of the above photos are mine. Others are sourced from the Twitter hashtag #BTSandKU – which has rather a lot of tweets and retweets. Where possible I’ve credited the original user. If one of the photos is yours and you want a credit, or you’d rather the photo is not used, leave a comment below and I’ll take appropriate action.

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