Bulletproof: How BTS – and ARMY – are Changing the World

There’s this boy band I’m a little obsessed with. Try to love me. I know some of their early stuff has the toxic masculinity you’d expect from a group of teenage boys. But not only do they openly admit their faults, they keep learning and trying to do better. They’ve really matured as artists, with a genuine desire to help make the world a better place. They sing about love, and female empowerment; loneliness, social justice, and inclusion. And even though they’re from another country and culture, I love listening to them, and it’s fun to get to know them through their interviews and little jokes.

Yup. I’m a Beatles fan.

And, like the majority of Beatles fans, I’m a girl. Sadly, fangirls have an awful rap. Apparently, it’s okay for boys to get ramped up, even cry, about sportsball, but female enthusiasm is… scary? Embarrassing? Besides, I keep insisting that tons of males and older adults have been Beatles fans since the beginning.

Of course, this kind of bias isn’t new. My ‘Shouting Methodist’ predecessors – also predominantly female – were certainly maligned enough for being too ‘enthusiastic,’ too loud, excited, and passionate.

But what if ‘fangirls’ aren’t… pathetic? What if, like everything truly powerful, fangirl-based movements have both the potential to be problematic, but also to be incredible forces for good in the world?

In her TED talk, Yve Blake argues that boys are trained to stop squealing and screaming at age 4, because it’s not ‘manly.’ But, she says,

a fangirl shriek is like a superpower. It’s this fearless and honest expression of pure celebration and joy… they know how to do something most of my adult friends have no idea how to do. Fangirls know how to love something without apology or fear.

Wow. To love something, without apology or fear. Like maybe – ourselves?

BTS recently published a cookbook to encourage people not to diet, but rather to enjoy cooking and eating while learning Korean language and culture. (Photo by author.)

By now, most people reading this have likely at least heard of BTS, the Bulletproof (Bangtan) Boys, ‘that Korean boy band’ that seems to be in the news a lot. Many folks are vaguely familiar with their English language hits – Dynamite, Butter, maybe Permission to Dance – created to lift our spirits during the pandemic.

In my Korean/Caucasian household, even with two teenage daughters, my husband tries to argue that he’s actually the biggest fan. To be clear, none of us speaks nearly enough Korean to understand their lyrics. So why listen to K-pop, people ask, when you can’t understand what they are saying?

For starters, this is nothing new. I grew up singing hymns in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, Creole, and several Native American languages. I didn’t know the languages, but I understood. Grace, hope, justice, healing, love – those beautiful hymns are inscribed on my soul. Kyrie eleison. Kumbaya.

At first glance, I can see how BTS might appear to be yet another manufactured group of carefully groomed K-pop ‘idols.’ I understand. Even if they play instruments, K-pop artists usually sing and dance, rather than sing and play, and for some reason, there’s a bias against that. Plus, their lyrics are primarily Korean; why make all that effort?

I have to chuckle. Most of the world ‘makes the effort’ for English language music, after all! But I also shake my head that arguably the most sensationally popular musical group in history is passing people by because of the erroneous assumption that they are shallow. (Sigh.)

So, I’d like to tell you a story. About a man who creates a new label about ‘Music and Artist for Healing.’ And he wants something different from the top down, high pressure scene ­– he wants to help artists create music about things they care about. So he finds a passionate teen underground rapper. Then they find another, who they later learn could barely afford food. And a jaw droppingly talented street dancer who warms the hearts of everyone he meets. Then they add four more, including a contemporary dancer whose grace and voice give you chills. And a 13 year old, whose parents support his dream; so off he goes to Seoul, crammed into a bedroom with six older ‘brothers,’ who pack his lunch, and carry his backpack as they walk him to middle school.

The problem is, this new, tiny label has no clout, no funds, and no leverage in the mammoth K-pop machine. Besides, how dare they do something so different? They let the artists create freely? And write hip hop? Their first performance finally happens only because another group cancels last minute. News media shun them, TV hosts treat them rudely, and others repeatedly undermine them with false accusations, and death threats.

But.

But.

The fans get it. Their sincerity, humility, and amazing talent shine through it all, so the fans, called ARMY, step in, buying huge ads and organizing massive campaigns to support the group – and one another – each step of the way. And because the fans are literally The Reason the group succeeds, the members stop caring about other things. They just want to know how ARMY is doing, and offer whatever support and strength they can.

Against crushing academic and beauty pressure, with terrifying suicide rates even in elementary school, they sing about self-love, respect, and courage. Against deep shame and stigma around mental health, they write openly and honestly about their own struggles with depression, self-doubt, and grief.

And Feminism? I’m glad you ask. Early on, they apologize for sexist lyrics, and learn to do better. They read books, have their lyrics checked by a professor of Women’s Studies, and they include female songwriters, choreographers, and collabs, emphasizing female empowerment. Three entire albums are dedicated to self-love. In an age of toxic social media ‘personas,’ other albums delve into biblical and Jungian concepts of individuation – the courage it takes to be who we really are.

Despite its diversity, ARMY is repeatedly dismissed as ‘hysterical teenage girls,’ in a great big ball of racist, sexist, ageism. But, together, BTS and ARMY have created a global, feminist, anti-racist movement. Matching million dollar Black Lives Matter donations. Working with UNICEF on childhood neglect, abuse, and bullying. Speaking at the UN and the White House, on anti-racism and inclusion. Together, BTS/ARMY have encouraged millions to hold their heads high, no matter what – to become ‘bulletproof.’ The concert fanchants invite everyone to be a part of it, to shout it out at the top of your lungs: you can’t stop me loving myself.

In LA for a BTS Concert: My amazing Korean-Caucasian daughters, who I pray every day will know they are perfect and love themselves without apology or fear. (Photo by author.)

So, I’m with Yve Blake:

Why should fangirls tone it down? What if we rethink the judgments we’ve been conditioned to feel when we see young women screaming their lungs out with excitement? And what if we didn’t allow ourselves to diminish girls with words that undermine their intelligence, their interest, and their capability? Instead of judging fangirls, we can learn from them. We could all die tomorrow, so why not love things while we’re still breathing?

What insecurities lie under our resistance to enthusiasm for something we don’t quite understand, something new and different? The world can be a tough place. We hunger for connection, so BTS offer a place of respite – come in, have a cup of tea. On lonely nights, they offer solace. They say, join our hands: no matter what happens, we have each other – a beautiful, powerful galaxy we carry inside us.

So whatever music you like, today I just want to invite you to love yourself. Take some rest. And then, run, beautiful. Shriek with joy. Shine. You’re bulletproof.


Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an ecological ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Leadership, which offers resources for Climate-Proof Leadership and Unshakeable Hope. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.



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5 replies

  1. Thank you for this post. It is my first read of the day and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for the way you are bringing to light the actions, generosity of these fan girls. I love music and listen to a wide variety of genres. I’ve often stayed away from the younger musicians preferring old school music but every once in a while songs by young artists sneak into my playlist. Today, I’ll try some K-pop. Language is never an issue for me. If it’s got beat and the harmony, the music speaks to me, I’m listening!

    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment! I am so glad you enjoyed reading the post. BTS sneaked past all my defenses, too – I usually listen to classic rock and women folk artists! I linked a lot of songs in the post, so you could try a few of those out, based on what vibe you’re in the mood for – BTS has songs for almost any vibe. For female K-pop, I also love IU and Janet Suhh (who sings on a lot of amazing K drama soundtracks). Have fun! And I’d love to know if you find anything you enjoy! :)

      Like

  2. Incidentally BTS was featured at the Opening Ceremony of the FIFA World Cup currently being held in Qatar. It was pretty good.

    Like

    • Absolutely. To have the youngest member, Jungkook, be the first ever Korean performer at the World Cup was a big deal. Apparently, his in ear mic wasn’t working properly, so he couldn’t really hear himself! But he’s a professional and managed fine. I really love his voice! And the message of the song was beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

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