We are delighted to have NYT's bestselling author, and former contributor (check our her piece here on Who is BTS: the Biggest Band on the Planet) S. Jae Jones, back again to share about the set of shows BTS did at the So-Fi Stadium in LA this month.
JESUS IN THE DESERT
I was seven years old when a pastor made me cry about Jesus for the first time.
It was the summer between 1st and 2nd grades, and my Korean Presbyterian church had carted busloads of us kids out somewhere in the desert regions of southern California for VBS, or Vacation Bible School. Probably Riverside or San Bernardino County, but my grasp of geography as a child was limited at best.
I used to love VBS; it was as close to sleep-away camp as the child of an immigrant could get back then. My favorite activity used to be when the Sunday school teachers would recreate the Stations of the Cross, one of which involved us splashing in the small creek running alongside the trail beneath the scorching summer sun. What did that have to do with Jesus? No idea, but it sure was refreshing.
In the evenings, after a cheap dinner of plain white rice, eggs, and kimchi, we would be trotted off to a concrete building in the middle of nowhere for the pièce de résistance: a sermon about the Crucifixion by the youth pastor, complete with transparencies and a projector. For some reason, we always looked forward to this presentation, clustered together in groups of threes and fours on the industrial carpeted floor, huddled together against the chill of the desert in the dark.
Pastor Paul was an unassuming man, probably younger than I am now, although in my memory he is a man grown. Soft-spoken and gentle, we loved him for his kindness and his way of making us feel loved by God. His ministry was about communion, about uplifting his flock, encouraging our gifts, and giving us free rein to play Sardines through the church while our parents were at choir practice.
But once a year, at Vacation Bible School, Pastor Paul would unleash the Holy Spirit upon us. Lightning would flash from his eyes, thunder from his voice, and we children would cower ever closer together on the floor, both terrified and thrilled by the display of power and passion rumbling from the pulpit. Rage, fear, sorrow, and despair, we were made to understand in our bones—our very souls—the nature of sin and the dreadfulness of damnation. Pastor Paul was not a particularly gifted speaker, but when the spirit moved him, it didn’t matter.
We loved it.
We loved it the way we loved riding roller coasters, the terror of near-death mitigated by safety harnesses and Jesus’s sacrifice. After the storm of sin and doom subsided, Pastor Paul would return to his usual mild-mannered tone, speaking to us of salvation, and a rush of tears would follow. Purged of our fear, we could now openly weep with relief, filled with love for those of us who had survived this experience together, bonded by the trauma we had undergone. I would turn to look at the child sitting a cluster away, our shining eyes meeting with a force of connection and understanding and, yes, love. I did not know this child, and I loved them and they loved me, because we had shared this.
BTS AT SO-FI STADIUM
I stopped going to church when I was nine years old, mostly because I never felt that sense of communion again. I’m not especially religious, even though I genuinely felt a call to ministry as a child. It wasn’t Jesus or God or a higher power that moved me, but that feeling of connectedness, compassion, community, the warm embrace of feeling cherished. That was church to me, not Christianity. I’m an atheist now, and I have no real angst about it, but I do miss the sensation of being in the presence of something sacred. Something holy.
I found it again when I went to see BTS perform their Permission to Dance: On Stage concert in Los Angeles.
There are those who accuse BTS’s fandom of being cultish, and unfortunately I can’t entirely refute those claims, especially when I’m sitting in a stadium with 50K other worshippers of these seven idols from South Korea, chanting their given names in order like some sort of liturgy. (And there is a correct order—starting with the leader, then going down in order of birth.) BTS’s fans, called ARMY, are practically evangelical about their love for the group and will try to convert the general public any chance they get. Have you heard of our music industry kings and saviors, BTS? No? Why not try one of these songs? And for most of us, pilgrimage to a BTS concert will be a once-in-a-lifetime event, as it’s easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than tickets to one of their tour dates.
I happened to be one of the lucky few this time—doubly blessed, as I managed to get tickets on the first and last nights at SoFi Stadium. My friends told me that a BTS concert live has to be experienced to be believed, and I took them at their word. Twice.
And they were right, of course. I’d seen BTS’s online concerts (including the same setlist they performed for cameras before coming to the United States) and they’re always thrilling, but nothing can match seeing them in person. On screen, they seem human. Incredibly talented, incredibly attractive humans, but humans nonetheless. Mortal. This impression is only reinforced by their variety show, their travel shows, and even their chaotic little behind-the-scenes candid videos they upload to their personal YouTube channel. They are seven silly siblings choosing chaos on a daily basis, and it’s very endearing.
But on stage, they are gods.
What an online concert cannot possibly convey is the sheer charisma and magnetism of these individuals in person. Everything about them is almost blindingly unreal—their beauty, their charm, their smiles, their energy. You can’t look away; they are like supernovas in a night sky.
The ways in which the members of BTS can command attention are vast and varied. In high energy numbers like ON and Burning Up (Fire), they can execute incredibly intricate and difficult choreography in sync, all while singing and rapping at the same time. In more contemplative numbers like Blue & Grey and Black Swan, they push artistic expression to the limits with mirrors and classical ballet moves. And in more hype numbers like So What and Stay, they play with the audience and each other in a loose, unscripted manner, gamboling back and forth, shooting smoke cannons into the crowd, and trolling the other members. Like chameleons, the members of BTS can turn intense, moody, playful, thoughtful, and more, all depending on the song being performed.
On all four nights, all seven members of BTS performed 23-25 ensemble songs together. On previous tours, each member would have a solo number or perform unit songs of 3-4, which allowed the others to have a bit of a breather from all the intense choreography. But this time around, they said they wanted to perform songs that showcased all seven of them together. For close to three hours, BTS performed nearly non-stop, and during the same time frame, I had to take several seats to catch my breath from all the screaming I’d been doing. Gods, indeed.
The first night, my view of BTS was from an executive suite, but on the last night, I was in the nosebleeds. ARMY says there is no bad seat at a BTS concert, and I can confirm this is true. To some extent, I actually preferred my nosebleed view because I could see the entire stage at once and what was happening, instead of being overwhelmed by trying to take in each individual member simultaneously. Being in the presence of these seven otherworldly, superhuman beings must be like Moses before the burning bush, or any Old Testament encounter with angels—awful, awesome, and awe-inspiring. It breaks the mind to witness something so extraordinary, so terrible, and so great, especially up close.
BTS closes each concert with a few remarks (called ments, short for “comments” in Korean), letting the audience know how they’re feeling, what’s on their minds, etc. BTS has always had a rather unusual relationship with their fandom in that the way they speak to and ARMY is more akin to that of a friend than an audience. When not performing (which has been BTS’s life the past two years, the exact time frame I’ve been ARMY), the members stay in contact with their fans, play games with them (sometimes literally on PUBG or League of Legends), give them little gifts in the form of free music, song covers, and more. In return, ARMY gives them space, allows the members to be human. We castigate other fans who post unsanctioned photos of BTS during private time, tell people not to speculate about their lives. Post-concert, the members of BTS have gone on vacation for the first time in two and a half years, and they’ve come onto social media to thank us for not approaching them during downtime and making them feel comfortable existing in the world. They are kind and loving toward ARMY, and they receive kindness and love in return.
All I could think about as they spoke was Pastor Paul.
In between bouts of fire and brimstone, he was the kindest, more caring person in the world. He knew the power of grace, and was nothing more than gentle, loving, and encouraging of me and my gifts. In music. In art. In words. He taught me that love came from loving myself, and that loving myself was akin to loving God, for it was God who made me.
And then I realized that BTS has told me the same thing.
Koreans, as a whole, are not a Christian nation, and while we don’t know the religious affiliations of any of the members except RM, who is an atheist, BTS nevertheless do have a gospel they preach: love yourself. All of BTS’s musical output has been loosely organized concepts of growing up, coming of age, understanding yourself, and loving yourself. They’ve always been remarkably introspective and self-aware as a band, making music with intention about the stage of life they are living in, and the conclusion they come to over and over again is that the only way to cope and survive and thrive is to love themselves as they are and who they are.
ARMY IN THE MOMENT
There is always a moment during a BTS concert that isn’t about them, but about ARMY.
After the main setlist and before the encore, BTS goes backstage for an outfit change and for fifteen minutes or so, it’s just us in the stadium. 50,000 people with light sticks (called ARMY bombs) sitting together and communing. Sometimes we sing. Sometimes we get a wave going for several laps. Often we get the fanchant going, chanting the members’ names in ritual order—Kim Namjoon, Kim Seokjin, Min Yoongi, Jung Hoseok, Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung, Jeon Jungkook. A liturgy, a rosary, a spell, as though our calling their names could summon them from the ether. But it’s not a summoning, not really. It’s ARMY gathered together in one place, meeting each other’s gazes, our eyes shining with connection and understanding and love. We do not know each other, but we share love. We are love—for ourselves, for each other, and for BTS.
There is another reason I preferred sitting in the nosebleeds. High in the rafters above the stage, I could see the sea of lights like stars in the night sky. On the last night, ARMY surprised Jin with a little coordinated birthday gift: covering the ARMY bombs with moon-shaped filters (for his solo song Moon) and singing him happy birthday while the lights (connected to some wizard in the booth) spelled out his name. His eyes sparkled like the sea of lights around me as he saw us, tears shimmering and spilling down his cheeks. We cried with him, a tide of feeling swelling around us like an actual wave, and I understood that this—this—is why we go see BTS in concert. It is them, it is us, it is communion.
(Thanks to EARPEACE earplugs for concerts providing hearing protection without getting in the way of that incredible experience)
S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the New York Times bestselling author of Wintersong and Shadowsong. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives on the wrong coast, where she can’t believe she has to deal with winter every year. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, her newsletter, and her website.