The Cult of BTS

Chris Tharp
Jun 27, 2019 · 6 min read

Earlier this week, British funnyman and one-liner extraordinaire Jimmy Carr did a very dangerous thing: he cracked a joke about global K-pop sensation BTS. Normally, a comedian taking a pot-shot at a massively popular musical act wouldn’t be news, but these, of course, are not normal times. By putting BTS into his comedic crosshairs, Carr was essentially hurling a rock at a wasps’ nest; without likely realizing it, he was risking the collective wrath of BTS’s international mob of followers, a mega-strident, humorless rabble known as “the ARMY,” which is an acronym for, brace yourselves: “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth.” Uh, okay, but however you cut it, this is a group that really puts the “fan” in “fanatical.”

His joke went like this: “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried. So I guess it could’ve been worse — but not much worse.”

Rimshot!

Whether he was comparing BTS’s explosive popularity to exploding Samsung smartphones or North Korean missiles is up for interpretation, but the irony-free, thin-skinned legions of ARMY members wasted no time in going on the offensive. They rained down their fury via the Twittersphere. Like others who have dared to besmirch the untouchable status of “the Korean Beatles” (eye roll), Carr was immediately accused of racism, though I challenge anyone not high on the spray paint of ludicrous fandom or stuck deep in a k-hole of perpetual SJW outrage to find a shred of actual racial denigration in his joke, whether you consider it funny or not. Even the most uber-woke among us would have trouble squeezing proof of that charge from this particular stone.

Still, the accusation stuck, at least when it came to Australia’s Channel 9, who aired the show on which Carr uttered those unforgivable words. Rather than sticking to their guns for booking Jimmy Carr, a legendary and notoriously un-PC comic who has managed to offend just about anyone offendable over his career, they immediately threw him under the double decker bus and, you guessed it, issued an apology.

Why were they so quick to offer up atonement? Is that just how we operate in this day never-ending butthurt? Or were they scared of the cult of BTS?

After all, this isn’t the first time people have gotten into trouble for failing to pay sufficient fealty to the globe’s #1 boy band. YouTuber Mark Dice got into hot water last November for a Twitter rant in which he called BTS “a new lesbian group” and accused them of ruining the American Music Awards. Now this guy, in my view, is a right-wing shitbag, but rather than just trash talk back, the BTS ARMY, completely ignorant of US free speech laws, gathered thousands of signatures in an online petition to “sue him for racist comments.” Upon learning about the petition, Dice laughed and referred to BTS fans as “Generation Z — zombies.”

A Greek TV host named Katerina Kaimourgiou (a man won to anyone who can pronounce that on the first go) recently felt the heat as well, after poking fun at members of BTS and a couple of other K-pop bands that had made the list of “100 Most Beautiful Faces of 2018.” She was inundated with hate messages from ARMY members and others, many containing overt threats. She was so unnerved by this cascade of abuse that she offered up an apology, though a quick look at K-pop sites shows that a majority of fandom considered her mea culpa to be insufficient. After all, they require complete supplication.

This obsessive, foaming-at-the-mouth fan culture has been festering in the K-pop world for a long time now, an offshoot of Korean netizens. The BTS ARMY is just the most virulent strain to pop up. I know this firsthand, having endured vitriol and threats for a snarky, tongue-in-cheek takedown of K-pop that I penned some years back at my old blog. I was writing a lot of “shock content” listacles at the time, but nothing prepared me for the fury I unleashed by attacking that 3rd rail of contemporary culture, K-pop. My favorite comment by “Fuck you Asshole,” went like this:

“It’s okay if you hate the music

BUT HATING THE SINGERS???

THERE IS NO FUCKEN REASON TO HATE THE SINGERS!

YOU KNOW YOU SHOULDN’t EVEN BE IN SOUTH KOREA

IF YOU WERE STANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME I WOULD SLIT YOUR THROAT AND FORCE YOU TO LISTEN TO KPOP TO YOUR VERY LAST BREATH”

I’ve been writing for much of my life, and sure, I”ve pissed plenty of people off, but this was the first (and only) time someone brought up slitting my throat. After that I thought it wise to steer clear of the topic of K-pop for some time, and have largely done so. Until today.


A couple of weeks ago there was some kind of BTS fan event at the big soccer stadium here in Busan, which is also the hometown of one or two of the members. I found myself in the neighborhood on the day of the event, which was part concert/part fan appreciation production in which all of the band would be present. A kind of mass meet-and-greet, it seemed.

The streets were choked with BTS fans that afternoon, many of whom had come from China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan. They clutched placards displaying the names and photos of their favorite members and carried banners to be unfurled in the midst of the stadium. The excitement was pulsating and palpable and I found myself happy for them. This was a tribe of people with a passion that united them into one mass. The ARMY. They were obviously thrilled to be in such close proximity to their idols that day (and yes, “idol” is really the proper word here) and never could I imagine them turning into some nasty attack dogs due to a perceived slight.

They were also almost all exactly who you would imagine BTS fans to be: teenage girls. There were a few young guys in the mix along with a strange smattering of middle-aged women, but the BTS ARMY, like any conglomeration of pop idol fans anywhere on earth, is largely an adolescent cauldron of boiling estrogen. In this way the Beatles comparisons aren’t so off base. At the height of their popularity, the Fab Four was greeted with thousands of hysterical, screaming women everywhere they went. Perhaps if the internet existed in 1964, those fans would gather online to form a leviathan that took zero shit from any haters and went after them accordingly.

Still, I just don’t get this level of fandom, because I’ve never participated in it. Sure, I’ve had my own artistic heroes, and love music and singers and certain movies and books, but I’ve never been gripped with the desire to camp out on the sidewalk to get a ticket to the first showing of a film, buy scads of shwag, or fly to another country just to get close to some people whose songs I love. I’ve just never cared that much.

I didn’t write this piece to shit all over BTS. I certainly have time for pop music and will freely admit that “Fake Love” (the only song of theirs I know) is a cool, taut, brooding tune. I’ll freely give it a thumbs up, even if it is from a boy band, which is what BTS is and will always be. They’re cast in the tradition of Menudo, New Kids on the Block, N’Sync, Westlife, One Direction, and so many others. They may be talented, hard working, and perhaps the most sophisticated manifestation of the form, but they’re still a boy band, which makes it hard for me to wrap my head around the rabid, seemingly mindless dedication offered up them by their fans, a seemingly unified organism that countenances zero criticism of their exalted ones. This, to me, is what makes the ARMY come across as a cult.

But who am I to say? I’m a middle-aged American dude, certainly not the target demographic for BTS or any modern, shiny pop music, for that matter. That said, groupthink and pile-on/shout-down culture really raises my hackles, and I’ll address it anywhere I see it, even in such seemingly innocuous corners as K-pop fandom.

Don’t like it? Feel free to slit my throat while forcing me to listen to K-pop until my very last breath.

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