Friday, May 25, 2018

[REVIEW] BTS: Burn the Stage, episodes 1-8

The eight episodes of BTS: Burn the Stage aired weekly on YouTube Red from March 28, 2018 to May 9, 2018. Although the series was produced in South Korea, the target audience was the United States (and the English-language international market more broadly) with the final episode airing just before BTS returned to Las Vegas for the Billboard Music Awards and the launch of their new album. Each episode of BTS: Burn the Stage mixes talking head “confessional” interviews with video taken from backstage, on stage, and at various hotels during their 2017 WINGS tour. The constant ticking of the tour clock is the main narrative push as the seven members lose passports, sit around hotel rooms, do a bit of sightseeing, and perform all over the world.

I watched the series twice all the way through--once as it was airing and then again before sitting down to write this--and I am here to report that I have very mixed feelings about it. (You can read my thoughts on the first two episodes over here. All of my initial concerns about the voyeuristic elements of the series remain.) But let me start with the good. There were two things I really liked about BTS: Burn the Stage:

(One of many enjoyable, casual dinner scenes.)

(RM attempting to set up his computer.)

1) All of the Terrace House-esque scenes that featured the BTS members having a glass a wine and a chat or just going about their daily routines. There was one incredibly funny sequence in the third episode where the seven members are unpacking their suitcases at the hotel. We see RM, J-Hope, Suga, V, and Jungkook setting up their computers but the director edits it so that footage of RM’s bumbling around and not being able to figure out which plug goes where is intercut with the others smoothly unboxing, hooking up microphones, and getting to work (or in Jungkook’s case: gaming.) It’s a gentle reminder that RM may be articulate and intelligent but he’s also just a normal, somewhat clumsy 20-something young man.

(Suga explaining how he wants to do a warts and all documentary.)
2) Suga’s importance to the group comes across very well in this series. One of the things I’m most frustrated by in BTS’s American and English language media coverage is that RM is the main focal point. This is understandable to an extent because RM speaks fairly good colloquial English and he knows American pop culture references. The American media is very bad at dealing with foreign artists who do not speak English and who do not know these American pop culture references so of course they’d focus on him but it doesn’t give a complete picture of BTS.

When he’s in a Korean language environment Suga (Min Yoongi) is thoughtful and very funny. He’s put a lot of thought into what it means to him to be an idol and into his relationship with the fans and the other members. (Suga fans know that despite his grumpy exterior he really does value us.) The younger members of the group obviously look up to him and for good reason. He may not be the group’s leader but he is a huge influence on the group musically and intellectually and Suga’s interviews in the series were always the most insightful on what it actually means to be an idol.

(A crabby Suga who would rather be home in his studio than on an LA beach.)

What Suga also brings to the group is a grounding in Korea and everyday normal Korean culture. There’s a great scene in episode 4 or 5 where the group is in Los Angeles and go out to the beach for some sightseeing and photos. Suga is dressed all in black and moping around while the others are in hawaiian shirts and splashing in the water. The guys tease him for dressing like he’s in Korea and Suga says something like that’s where his heart is. RM is the guy who taught himself English and has worldwide dreams and Suga is his counterweight, keeping the group grounded.

But I don’t think Suga’s importance comes across in the English language press. In English language interviews, even with an interpreter there, he tends to stay silent and he appears to have little patience for interviewers who clearly don’t know or care who BTS is outside of the “crazy” fan base they have. He also seemingly has little interest in American pop culture. In one of the interviews BTS did for the Billboard Music Awards this past week, the interviewer quizzes them on the music of recent (ish) pop artists and Suga--to my delight--didn’t know songs from any of them other than some classic Justin “Sexy Back” Timberlake. (Also the only one I could answer.)

Which leads me directly into what I really didn’t like about BTS: Burn the Stage. It feels completely untethered from any sort of cultural context outside of the American one. And I think it does a huge disservice to the group because they are not American, do not interact like Americans, and should not be understood as an American “boy band.”

(Jin discussing how moved he is that foreign fans take the trouble to learn the Korean lyrics by ear so they can sing along.)

It’s not just the way that certain interactions can really only be understood in the Korean cultural context--i.e. Jin’s, the oldest member, incredible generosity with the youngest members reads much clearer when you understand the strict hierarchy in relationships baked into the DNA of Korean culture--but also things like when Suga says at one point that he knows this period won’t last forever. In the American context this is read as an acknowledgement of the brief flickering of “boy band” fame [See also: One Direction, 2010-2015, etc.] but fans familiar with Korean culture would understand that he means a race against the military draft. Male K-pop idol groups have a limited number of years before members start cycling out to do their two years of mandatory military service. This may seem like a small thing to nitpick but I think it makes a huge difference whether we understand “not lasting forever” as a frivolous teen craze coming to the end as dictated by the whims of the market or as a discrete period of youth that necessarily comes to an end with mandatory military service.

Then there is the complete lack of any sort of Korean musical context. We see BTS go to the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards but no Korean awards shows or other Asian awards shows. You don’t get a complete picture of BTS’s popularity if you don’t understand that just as the WINGS tour was wrapping up with BTS’s very first dome show in Japan and the final encore performance at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, veteran Korean idol group BIGBANG were launching their massive 6 city-16 date Last Dance dome tour in Japan that would also end at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. Other groups have also performed to similar sized crowds in South America, North America, South East Asia, and China… yet the way the series is edited it feels like BTS simply popped into existence. That these fans cheering for them arrived out of nowhere. It’s surreal.

(RM confessing that he envies America's place in global pop culture.)

I didn’t expect a complete history of “K-Pop” in the series but the complete lack of any non-American context for BTS made the series feel whitewashed in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Adding to the dissociative feeling I got watching this was that as somebody who has enjoyed hours (and hours) of backstage and rehearsal footage from the various WINGS tour DVDs (as well as on special broadcasts like the Kyocera Dome Concert Documentary that aired on Japanese TV and the actual concerts themselves) the series really didn’t have much to offer in the way of backstage and rehearsal footage that added in any real way to my understanding of how the group puts together its concerts. We see a few different cuts of incidents and interviews but for the most part it felt like stuff rescued from the cutting room floor, used as visual filler for one of the many, many (so many) montages. There’s no sense of the artistic process or the hard work that goes into crafting massive stadium show.

And then on top of the dull, scrap pile feel to the concert footage, I found the hyping and drawing out of backstage conflict and injury really, really voyeuristic and uncomfortable to watch. I wrote about this in my review of episodes 1 and 2 but I found it disturbing the way Jungkook’s collapse from overexertion in Chile was hyped up and lingered over. Instead of protecting him, the director deliberately offered up his distress for consumption and hungry fans had no qualms with screenshotting and fetishizing his prone form. Later episodes show RM injuring his foot but soldiering on anyways; Jimin crying and upset over not being able to perform due to muscle pain; V and Jin getting into a heated argument right before a concert is to begin. Who benefits from this? What larger purpose is it serving?

(Jungkook's reaction to RM's foot.)

(BTS discussing the previous day's show on the Korean WINGS tour DVD documentary.)
I can’t help but feel that these moments were deliberately chosen to linger on because of the Americans only want to see “authenticity” and “authenticity” to us means confessing a personal struggle. But “authenticity” is a cultural construct just as much as anything else is and while lingering on Jungkook’s prone form may get some praise as “bravery” in “showing vulnerability” from American reviewers, what I see is the American market’s hunger for the commercialization of personal pain and distress. I much prefer the “authenticity” of the documentary for the Kyocera Dome concert that aired on Japanese television and featured an extended sequence where the group was going over choreography they hadn’t done in a while and laughing among themselves at how rusty they were as members ran into each other.

There is some value to the series, in the interviews and the causal dinner scenes, but the episodes are larded with too many montages and devoid of any outside context. It's certainly worth a watch for people who are already fans but I don't think it serves as a good introduction to the group for American fans new to Asian idol culture. Too many things are left unexplained and it's too easy for outsiders to draw the wrong conclusions.

Towards the end of the series, there is a bit where RM talks about how “unknowable” J-Hope is and the director chooses to use footage of J-Hope mentally preparing to go up on stage for his solo song “Mama.” The normally chipper J-Hope’s face is kind of blank as he glances up at the camera. Is he unknowable or is this an editing choice meant to imply that? Yes.

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