Thursday, March 29, 2018

REVIEW: BTS: Burn The Stage [Episodes 1 and 2]

The tomorrow we’ve been waiting for becomes the name of yesterday at some point

Tomorrow becomes today, today becomes yesterday, tomorrow becomes yesterday and is behind me

BTS, “Tomorrow”

Yoongi and Namjoon holding court with a make-up free BTS.

Before I talk about the YouTube Red series BTS: Burn the Stage let me tell you a story. Many, many years ago I was in a community theater production of the extremely un-politically correct musical Kismet. (“Baubles, bangles, and beeeeeadsssss!”) I didn’t have a huge role. I played a handful of tiny background characters, as well as one of the “exotic” princesses who does the Diwan Dances. I also happened to be working close to full time as a waitress at Chili’s and taking a couple of community college classes. I was 20 years old and it didn’t even occur to me that I might not be able to handle everything.

One Saturday night I drove straight to the theater after a busy Saturday shift at Chili’s. I got into costume and make-up. I went on stage. And then I started to feel as if I was underwater. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast over 12 hours ago. I wasn’t in control of my body any longer. My limbs and voice moved in muscle memory as my mind became sludge. I’d hit a brick wall of exhaustion. I don’t remember how I made it through the performance or even how I made it home that night. I just remember knowing that I had to go out on stage. I don’t think it even occured to me that I could just… not.

I bring this up not because it says anything about me specifically but because I think anybody who has performed has had a moment like this. Going out on stage with broken toes, a fever, the heaviness of a personal sorrow fogging the mind… the show must go on. Your castmates, your crew, and the audience are depending on you… whether it’s a hundred people in a tiny theater in Southern Maryland or ten thousand in an arena in Chile. Pushing past exhaustion, pushing past your limits, even as your mind shuts down and hours of rehearsal are all that’s animating your frame.

That’s show business.

But it’s not a side of show business we idol fans see all that often. We tend to hear about these types of incidents years later, offhanded asides in interviews. That time Kawai Fumito broke his leg on a bad jump coming off stage in PLAYZone and had to be quietly carried out on piggyback by his bandmate Tsukda as the play continued, the audience left to wonder as he just didn’t appear in any further scenes. “Oh, that’s what happened!!” we fans cry later. “Poor Fumito.”

And that response is why we so rarely see those moments. Our idols don’t want us to worry about them. Their job is to make us happy.

RM says as much in one of the first two episodes of BTS: Burn The Stage, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 2017 WINGS tour that’s now available (!) on YouTube Red. (Possibly the only thing that could have gotten me to sign up for a subscription to YouTube Red.)

I’ve only been a real BTS fan--an ARMY--for about 3 months now so I didn’t see BTS when they came through the United States on tour. What I have seen is both the Korean and Japanese concert DVDs of the WINGS tour as well as all accompanying behind-the-scenes materials for both sets of DVDs. When I fall, I fall hard and I’ve watched both of these sets multiple times. And I consider the behind the scenes materials an essential part of the concert DVD. We idol fans love seeing the craft that goes into producing a music video or concert as much--if not more than--the final product itself. (There’s a reason my Japanese vocabulary is heavy on theater, music, and television production vocabulary.)

There were two big differences between the Korean tour DVD--filmed in February 2017--and the Japanese tour DVD--filmed in June 2017 (besides the obvious production factors because nobody knows how to film a concert DVD like the Japanese. Nobody.)

1) How much more comfortable and polished the guys were with the staging and choreography after months of performances. 2) How much more intimate the boys were in their native Korea interacting with Korean fans but how much better the atmosphere in the stadium was in Japan.

The language barrier gives and the language barrier takes away.

What is it that we want out of an idol concert? What is it that we want out of an idol concert when we don’t share a language or culture?

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of BTS: Burn the Stage or even what I wanted to see. Would it be similar to the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the concert DVDs? Would it be similar to the travel series BTS had filmed? Who was the audience? Korean fans, Japanese fans, Chinese fans, Southeast Asian fans, Latin and Brazilian fans, and Westernized fans all want something different.

Judging from the first two episodes, I think the main audience for this series has to be English-speaking Western fans who primarily interact with BTS through youtube clips. The first episode is really a teaser, interspersing random rehearsal footage for the tour with reality show style interviews where the members give their thoughts and feelings about the scenes. The most memorable moment in the first episode is Jungkook realizing the camera in their green room is on and immediately starting to clean up the messy coffee table because he doesn’t want to make a bad impression. It’s in the second episode--the one behind the paywall--where things start to get a little more intense.

The second episode also mixes concert footage from the Seoul dates (February 18-19, 2017) and Chile (March 11-12, 2017) with interview clips but also includes some candid moments: J-Hope delivering leftovers to Suga’s hotel room because Suga missed dinner; Jungkook entertaining his bandmates with impressions of their dancing; the excited chatter on the van from the airport; Jimin dumping an entire cake on Suga's bag; Jungkook barely able to stand from exhaustion but forcing himself on stage anyways; Jimin working himself into a state of extreme anxiety about a couple of small mistakes.

The good stuff: Suga's baffled expression at his birthday cake covered bag.

I’ll be honest. Watching Jungkook collapse and Jimin cry felt voyeuristic in a way that behind the scenes materials usually don’t. And seeing the screenshots and gifs of their moments of distress floating around on Twitter really made me uncomfortable. What is it that we’re demanding of them as American fans? Do we understand what we’re asking for when we cry for “authenticity”? For the mask to be ripped off? An idol’s mask isn’t just there to conceal flaws, it’s also for the idol’s own protection.

Ironically the best part of the series so far has been the interviews. One of the things I dream about doing for my idol book project is to actually speak with some idols candidly about their relationships with the fans, with performing, and so on. I was absolutely fascinated by the different responses the seven members of BTS gave to questions asking about those things.

Jin, the eldest, is the most focused on the internal dynamics of the group. He frets and worries about the members, even letting the youngest ones take out some of their nervous energy on him.

J-Hope is completely focused on the performance. His main connection to the fans seems to be through the YouTube videos they upload--reaction videos, dance covers--rather than the people live in front of him.

RM is stuck in his own head and that is something I identify a lot with, no surprise. He’s intellectualized the idol-fan experience to something that makes sense to him. He doesn’t want fans to like BTS because they’re cute but because they have formed an emotional connection. He thinks and feels a lot and wants to share his true thoughts and emotions with fans across the world. (Please participate in my book, RM, if you’re reading this.)

Jimin is insecure and needs a lot of reassurance from the members, from staff, and from the fans. He needs our love more than any of the other members and that makes me more worried for him than any of the other members. BTS, please take care of Jimin. Please.

V and Jungkook are the least articulate, verbally, and had the least amount of interview footage. V has trouble taking the thoughts in his head and saying them in a way that makes sense to others. Jungkook just doesn’t use a lot of words but the way he covered his embarrassment at having to talk about his collapse with a smile and said something like, I didn’t know when we’d be back so I had to go back on stage. It broke my heart.

Suga, though. Suga gets it. Ironically the member who appears to be the grumpiest, most antisocial, and least concerned with idoling is the member who truly gets what an idol concert is all about. In the behind-the-scenes DVD for the Korean concert, right before the rap line--Suga, RM, and J-Hope, go on stage for “Cypher pt. 4” they say if the audience doesn’t stand up, they’ll have failed. (Luckily the audience did stand up and it’s actually at that point in the DVD that the flow of the concert really starts to get going.) The moment had stood out to me when I watched it and hearing Suga explain how the excitement of the crowds created a feedback loop with the members on stage until every single person in the arena is part of something magical… it’s how I feel when I attend these concerts. It was incredibly moving and validating to hear Suga say he feels it too. (Suga, also please participate in my book okay? I’m learning Korean.)

It’s hard to say where this series will end up. And I haven’t read any reviews or reactions, American or otherwise, to have any opinion on whether it’s hitting the target market or not. I’m on record as saying I don’t think it’s good or healthy for BTS to cater to the English speaking or American market and I stand by that. Americans don’t understand idols and we don’t understand or respect the very real cultural differences in how we interact with idols. We ask a lot--learn English, stop being fake, show us everything--and don’t give back nearly enough. I don’t want to have to worry about BTS worrying that we’re fetishizing Jungkook’s and Jimin’s moments of distress. As much as they want us to be happy, especially as a noona fan, I really want them to be happy too. And to continue to walk with us through life. Together. A relationship stronger than romance, different than friendship. A relationship of mutual support and emotional connection, sharing pleasure and comfort and sorrow.

The director loved Jin. As do we all.

It really has only been about three months since I fell into this fandom but I regret nothing. And my month and a half or so of studying Korean has me saying this: 나의가족는 방탄소년단이에요.
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