On Friday night, I sent my husband to bed, gave the cat so much food she wouldn’t dare bother me for more, and prepared to do what any self-respecting ARMY member would: gather enough provisions to stay awake for as long as possible. I made sure I had plenty of water, lots of snacks and, of course, my ARMY bomb, the official light stick of BTS, the biggest band in the world. On April 17 at 3 p.m. KST, (or April 16 at 11 p.m. in Los Angeles) BTS kicked off Bang Bang Con 2021, a livestream of their previous performances with other tidbits, like music videos and recordings of their dance practices, scattered in between. BTS—aka RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—already did this once before, with Bang Bang Con 2020, a 24-hour livestream. But this year was my first time watching, and I genuinely had no idea what to expect. I made it five hours, until about 4 a.m. But, with the help of ARMY, I still got to watch the final leg of Bang Bang Con through, shall we say, other internet means that I will not disclose because BTS’s label might read this.
On the surface, the whole concept is very straightforward: When you’re BTS, and you’ve got a massive back catalogue of your own work, why not throw some up on YouTube for your fans and make it fun? But BTS wasn’t just willy-nilly throwing up content. This was BTS telling their own story, directly to their fans, about how they started out as a little-known group on a small label that struggled financially and grew into a global sensation: selling out stadiums across the world, topping the vaunted Billboard Hot 100, performing at the Grammys, and hitting No. 1 at a pace that puts them on par with the Beatles. They even told their story in three acts, just like a Hollywood movie, using three concerts.
Bang Bang Con 2021 began with BTS Live Trilogy Ep.1 BTS Begins (Memories of 2015). The concert was filmed in Seoul as the group wrapped up its School Trilogy, a series of early albums about the hopes, fears, and anxieties of being a teenager. The first thing I thought as they appeared on my TV, was, “Oh goodness, they were so young.” Not just in the sense that time has passed or the storyline from the concert was youthful (BTS at one point takes on an overbearing, controlling teacher, and they take the stage wearing backpacks). I had forgotten the actual ages of BTS members when they first launched. In March of 2015, they were just two years removed from their debut album. The oldest member, Jin, was 22. The youngest, Jungkook, was 17. No matter how expertly they rap, sing, and dance—and they do so with the precision expected of a top K-pop band—it’s impossible to ignore the youth on their faces, the roundness in the cheeks. Their eyes look wider. They wear a lot of streetwear, but it’s more generic, not easily recognizable designer streetwear, let alone the custom designs done for them, they’d sport a few years later. There’s a lot of black and white, heavy chains, and RM is sporting a faux hawk with all the hair smoothed over to one side in a look that he has since, wisely, abandoned. I have no choice but to believe BTS looks at their early concerts the same way I look at every photo of me before 24: filled with awe and just a touch of embarrassment that I ever thought it was a good idea for to wear that.
And yet they absolutely nail the performance. For all the analysis of BTS and words spilled over the past several years trying to figure out why this Korean band is breaking through in this moment, the answer is always simple: The songs are so good. In the first concert, they perform “We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2,” “Attack on Bangtan,” and “No More Dream”: all songs they still perform at concerts today. There are hints of what’s to come—energetic, impossible to look away choreography, live singing and rapping that never misses a beat, creative interstitial videos that tell a story between performances, all the members making each other laugh. But they aren’t there, not yet. These are still young men figuring things out.
My favorite moment is when the band introduces a new song, “Converse High,” off their upcoming album, The Most Beautiful Moment In Life, Pt. 1. “That was our new song,” j-hope tells the cheering crowd. “How was ‘Converse High’?” The crowd screams their approval, and again after j-hope asks, “Do you like the song?” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 1 wouldn’t be just any album. It would be the first in a trilogy that would help break them in the United States. The sequel, The Most Beautiful Moment In Life, Pt. 2, would crack the Billboard 200. They were so close in that 2015 concert to reaching an entirely new level, and yet they had no idea. It’s like watching early LeBron James highlights. Half the magic is in how good they already are, but the other half is realizing they are still so early in their development. They have so much further to go.
Where BTS Live Trilogy Ep.1 BTS Begins (Memories of 2015) felt like an introduction to the band, the second concert, BTS 5th Muster (Magic Shop) in Busan, is BTS on their path to greatness. The rules of storytelling say that this is the second act, where BTS goes on their journey. The year is 2019 and BTS is part of their way through their Love Yourself world tour. But during the tour they take what I’d call a working break for a fan meeting that will include a concert (in BTS parlance these fan meetings are called a muster, which is why that’s in the concert title). And this one is not held in Seoul, but Busan, the hometown of two BTS members, Jimin and Jungkook.
It’s four years later, and it is impossible not to notice just how much they have grown as performers and as people. Jungkook is 22 now. There are no more backpacks and the idea of a theme involving classrooms and teachers is laughable. Instead, the theme is healing and taking care of each other. The show is packed with hit songs. The performances aren’t just highly choreographed, they look easy, all their bodies moving with the lithe and smooth ease of performers who now instinctually know how to perform. At one point, they perform the rap song “DDaeng” but, instead of the rappers performing it, the vocal line—Jin, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—take over the duties and they nail it. OK, yes, I’m saying that even thought there is the moment when Jimin starts giggling uncontrollably during one of his verses and falls down because, I believe, he is overcome with a stupid kind of happiness over it all.
Because this is a fan event. It’s not about BTS conquering the world. It’s about telling ARMY how much they love them. Near the beginning, the members have an event called tea time where they pick which BTS songs bring them the most comfort. The interstitial videos between performances are of a story about Jungkook seeking healing and his journey toward finding it with the help of the rest of the members. There are no solo stages, all the songs are either the entire group together or features all the rappers (rap line) or the singers (vocal line). They close the concert with “Best of Me,” a song about loving a person so much you become the best version of yourself. This is one big hug to ARMY, a warm, fuzzy, thank you.
But remember that world tour they took a break from? The final concert takes viewers right back there: BTS World Tour Speak Yourself: São Paulo. This is act three: BTS on the final stage of their journey. They are literally on the other side of the globe, in a country where it’s reasonable to expect very few people to speak Korean, and yet they have sold out an international soccer stadium with screaming fans all holding and waving what I have, an ARMY bomb. They have now reached the point in their careers where their shows include not just group performances but also solo songs by each member. The stages now includes medleys where BTS actually abandons some of its choreography to just dance freely, run around the stage, and mug for the cameras. And oh, dear God, do they know how to mug for the cameras. They are such pros now. They know exactly how to smile, how to raise an eyebrow, how to tease each other to send thousands of ARMY into rapturous screams. And they do this. Often. In custom Dior.
There is also the technical marvel of it all. Jungkook flies over the crowd in a harness while singing “Euphoria.” Jimin emerges in a giant snow globe-like bubble filled with flowers that he then bursts to perform “Serendipity.” J-Hope’s “Just Dance” isn’t just about his mind-blowing dancing but the spectacle of him dancing while different parts of the stage rise and fall. RM’s “Love” includes laser hearts. V’s “Singularity” brims will cool and slinky choreography and visuals. Suga’s “Seesaw” features a glass door. And because nothing is on accident with BTS, this all builds toward Jin’s solo song, “Epiphany,” where the stillness of him playing the piano cuts through it all and lands like an emotional bomb. By the time it concludes with BTS thanking the crowd I felt like, “No, BTS. Thank you. Thank you for existing in the same moment of time as myself.”
Which, naturally, means that BTS achieved exactly what they intended. I left Bang Bang Con 2021 ready for more, which might be coming soon as there are rumors of another BTS album on the way. Whenever that next album comes, every ARMY member knows, it will bring with it a flurry of stories trying to explain BTS. Why is this band so popular? Why do they sell so many albums and tickets? Why is ARMY so passionate? And all over a band mostly singing in Korean?
But BTS has already answered the question for you. It’s right here in Bang Bang Con 2021: Because BTS is a great band, with great songs, great performances and they know how to tell a story.