BTS 10 years on: Superfans make pilgrimage to Seoul to celebrate the K-pop band that conquered the globe

Friends Rowan Joss and Katie Myles’ recent trip to South Korea included beaches, bus stops, and buildings – anywhere with a link to BTS, the K-pop megastars who are celebrating 10 years of their journey to becoming the biggest boy band in the world.

The university students traveled thousands of miles from Scotland to Seoul to bathe in the aura of the seven-member band, and they’re not the only ones – thousands of fans are flocking to the city to join the festivities while millions more are celebrating online.

“It’s emotional, you’re happy, but it’s very much like ‘Oh, my God, this is real?’” said Joss, 23, after visiting HYBE, the high-rise management agency tower, home to the group’s recording studios.

For fans like Joss and Myles, 20, this week has a special resonance.

It marks 10 years since BTS was first unveiled as a band, and started their ascent to become a truly international phenomenon, racking up more than 20 Guinness World Records, netting several global awards, championing Asian representation in the global music industry and paving the way for other K-pop acts to follow in their footsteps.

When the band released their debut music video “No More Dream” in June 2013, they were underdogs from a struggling music label in a competitive K-pop industry dominated by much larger labels.

The group, comprised of Kim Tae-hyung (better known as V), Jung Ho-seok (J-Hope), Kim Nam-joon (RM), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Park Ji-min (Jimin), Jeon Jung-kook (Jungkook), and Min Yoon-gi (Suga), initially presented themselves as rebellious “bad boys,” sporting gold chains and heavy black eyeliner.

Multiple K-pop artists had tried to break into international markets before; a year earlier, Psy’s hit “Gangnam Style” became the first to hit one billion views on YouTube.

But it was BTS who truly broke into the global mainstream – and stayed there.

Over the years, their style evolved from angsty hip hop beats, exploring a host of other music genres as their lyrics shifted from youth rebellion towards introspection and self-love – which many BTS fans – known as the “ARMY” (Adorable Representative MC for Youth)say is what resonates with them the most.

CedarBough Saeji, assistant professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University, said BTS’s ability to grow comfortable with vulnerability in front of their fans, mostly through live-streamed behind-the-scenes content, makes their followers feel like they are going through life with the band.

“What many members of ARMY have responded to the most is a feeling that they are seeing the authentic heart of these seven remarkable young men,” Saeji said.

A walk with the K-pop stars

The rise of South Korean cultural exports since the 1990s, dubbed the Hallyu Wave, has exploded in the last decade, with major breakout bands like BTS and Blackpink – who made history headlining Coachella last year – playing a major role.

Korean content exports, which includes K-pop, dramas, films, beauty products and the study of the Korean language worldwide, reached an all-time high of $12.4 billion in 2021, according to a government study from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

BTS is currently on a temporary hiatus, with two of its members doing their mandatory military service, but that hasn’t stopped local authorities and tour operations from treating the anniversary as a festival of national pride.

Parts of Seoul have been lit up in purple, the official color of BTS, including the Namsan Tower, the 123-story Lotte World Tower and several Han River bridges. South Korea’s postal service even released special commemorative stamps, and Seoul’s city government created an official map highlighting 13 landmarks where BTS made a mark.

Wherever BTS left a trail, whether it’s a music video location or the stars’ hometown, dozens of guided tours and itineraries have popped up for fans to walk in the footsteps of the group.

If it wasn’t for BTS, Lisa Trinh, 33, and Diana Phung, 44, said they wouldn’t have spent the past seven months planning their trip to South Korea from California, coincidentally timing it with the boy band’s anniversary.

“We want to just, you know, eat the food that they eat – and they must have really good taste – and just be in places where they’ve been… Just to breathe the same air that they breathe,” Trinh said.

They joined a BTS Beach Tour in Gangwon province with operator Startrip, where the shoreline has become known for the album photos of “Butter” – the English-language summer pop song by BTS that was nominated for a Grammy last year.

Trinh said they’ll be spending seven days in Seoul and two nights in Busan, the latter being the hometown of members Jimin and Jungkook.

Since it’s impossible for BTS to meet each fan in person, fans feel a sense of connection by going to places the group has done shoots or something meaningful with when they visit Korea, said Hwang Young-in, CEO and co-founder of Startrip.

In Busan, Gamcheon Culture Village has been a tourist destination for its colorful village houses for years but a mural of Jimin and Jungkook took its popularity to new heights, and if gets too crowded there, fans can enjoy a coffee at Cafe Magnate, which is owned by Jimin’s dad.

Some package tours also take fans to the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, where BTS performed live for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon during the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurants like Yoojung Sikdang, where BTS spent their pre-debut years stopping in for hearty meals, are now plastered with posters and notes from fans who want a taste of the band’s life before they reached stardom.

The ARMY base

It’s difficult to overstate how international BTS have become.

Guinness World Records lists a number of firsts, becoming at various times in their career the most streamed band on Spotify, the most followed on Instagram, the most viewers for a music video premiere on YouTube and the most tickets sold for a livestream concert.

BTS officially became bigger than Justin Bieber when the power of the septet’s fandom submitted more than 300 million votes in the fan-voted Top Social Artist in 2017, beating other musical juggernauts that included Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes in that category.

Their 2020 all-English track “Dynamite” made BTS the first South Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100.

For many ARMY members, it’s not just new songs that keep fans engaged. There is a decade of behind the scenes content online, with band members exchanging banter during rehearsals and sharing deep conversations as they devour Korean barbecue.

“The biggest draw and the reason why people are so attached to the group and continue to show their support, even though they’re not currently active as a full seven-member group at the moment, is because they have succeeded in creating such strong parasocial bonds through their social media presence and the distribution of behind the scenes content, where fans get an opportunity to interact with the idols,” said Michelle Cho, a professor of East Asian Studies at University of Toronto.

The group has also set the precedent for what K-pop can achieve in the global music scene as it gained attention from viewers who resonate with their struggles with racial discrimination.

“Being in America and not seeing that much of Asian representation, when I saw that seven Asian guys were trending … that totally like piqued my interest immediately. And just to see how far they’ve come. It’s been a joy to watch and amazing and I’m just so happy to be along for the ride,” BTS fan Phung said.

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