Friday, September 28, 2018

BTS Love Yourself Tour: Hamilton, Ontario, September 20, 22-23, 2018.

On Wednesday evening I traveled alone from America to Ontario for a long weekend of BTS concerts in the city of Hamilton, which is about an hour outside of Toronto. 5 days later I spent the Sunday evening concert dancing like crazy with the woman I’d sat next to at the concert on Saturday, had a belly full of cookies provided by two amazing women who’d flown in from Alberta for a whirlwind 36 hour BTS-extravaganza that included matching BTS tattoos, was keeping a watchful eye over a tiny, nervous but excited high school freshman whose parents had dropped her off alone at her very first concert, and then chatted all the way back to Toronto on the bus with the same lovely woman I’d befriended when we stood in line together all the way back on Thursday.

BTS call their fans ARMY but this weekend I truly felt like I was part of a big fandom family. Women passed out cookies, stickers, postcards to other women in line, offered up water and places to store backpacks, and I know I wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on the younger (and shorter) fans to make sure they didn’t get overwhelmed in the crowds. I saw women (not unkindly) giving young fans lessons in good fan manners at the venue--don’t shriek during the speeches--and making sure those around them knew where to go, when it was time to raise their banners, and helping with fan chants. I met fans from Hamilton, from all across Canada, from the US, from Korea, from Japan…

This wasn’t just a concert; it was a celebration. A joyous festival for BTS and for ourselves. We raised our voices and sang together. Peaches and cream, Sweeter than sweet, Chocolate cheeks, And chocolate wings...

Hamilton has been called the armpit of Ontario and as I looked around the area where the from the bus from Toronto dropped us off, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Like Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Worcester, Massachusetts, layered over the drug problems and discount clothing stores of Hamilton are the ghosts of former prosperity. But the steel mills are long gone and the riotous labor battles waged on these streets took place over 100 years ago. (Although Hamilton residents are still fighting the good fight. One of the most interesting news stories I saw while researching the city was about Hamilton residents trying to get the provincial government to reinstate the Universal Basic Income program begun in 2017. There were some truly heartbreaking stories of people finally able to do things like… buy a bus pass to go to work only to have it ripped away.)

In short, the redevelopment that in other cities put flimsy glass condo buildings over the proud early and mid-20th century infrastructure and architecture never happened in Hamilton and the city’s biggest claim to faim remains Conway Twitty writing It’s Only Make Believe in Hamilton’s now defunct Flamingo Lounge in 1958. And, honestly, me being me, I liked the city that much better for it. New York City, Los Angeles, even Toronto… these are cities with a lot going on and where famous acts come through all the time. Hamilton? Not so much. And I think the combination of self-selecting BTS superfans who made the effort to get out to Hamilton, combined with the overall curious and welcoming mood of the city really made for a unique kind of energy over the long weekend.

The BTS concerts were held at the FirstOntario Centre, a boxy early 1980s-vintage hockey arena that seats about 18,000 and is directly adjacent to what would quickly become my home away from home: the Jackson Square Mall.

Every morning I would depart bright and early from the bus depot at Union Station (clutching a giant cup of Tim Horton’s coffee) and arrive in Hamilton around 9:30 or 10 a.m. ready to PARTY. Each day passed by in an absolute blur of excitement for the upcoming show and the buzz of meeting new friends. We bought merch and explored the area around the venue. I was introduced to “timbits,” a donut hole type snack special to Canada’s beloved Tim Horton’s chain and giddily took selfies in front of the birthday ads for BTS’s Jungkook that had been purchased in some local bus shelters by Chinese ARMY. Down on James Street I found a incredible BTS-themed art exhibition put on by a local Hamilton ARMY at the Factory Media Centre and snacked my way up and down the little coffee shops and bakeries (some of which were even playing BTS inside the stores!)

(THANK YOU CHINESE FAN ARMY!)

(The Magic Shop exhibit was so cool!! Definitely check out their stuff here!!)

Most of the store clerks and cashiers I chatted with were happy and excited to see us. Everywhere I went the mood was one of joy and celebration. You could walk up and talk to anybody and make a new best friend. In all my years of attending concerts, festivals, fan conventions, etc. I’ve truly never experienced anything quite as positive and joyful and open and friendly as I did this past weekend. People were smiling and happy. Even when the merchandise sold out. Even when we we’d been lined up for a few hours and feet were starting to ache. Even standing on the crowded bus back to Toronto.

Even the street musicians got into the party atmosphere. The violinist camped out in front of the venue on Bay Street was having a blast (and making mad cash) jamming along to “Airplane Pt. 2” and other BTS songs while ARMYs walked back and forth getting merchandise and coffee. I actually chatted with him a bit. He was an older gentleman and he said he didn’t know who BTS was before Thursday but quickly figured out that it was what we wanted to hear and was having a great time improvising over the songs. “It’s your day!” he said with a smile.

(I mean, I did spot a few of the more unpleasant types of fans--the competitive ones who will ruin the day for everybody with their jockeying for status and access--but they were by far the minority and easy to avoid.)

(Hamilton's own SOPE!! These girls were awesome and gave me a flower!!)

Far from the stereotype of hysterical teen girls, the crowds in Hamilton were made up of women of all ages and from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Women in headscarves stood chatting in line excitedly with women with multicolored hair and tattoos. I saw moms and their daughters in matching gear. Women dressed up as their favorite members. I also spotted a handful of “ARMY Dads” including one in a handmade T-shirt announcing his status, along with boyfriends, husbands, and (my favorites) men who appeared to be BTS fans themselves. Korean, Japanese, Canadian, American, White, Black, Desi, Muslim, Christian, old, young… for three days we were all one big family.

Before I talk about the concerts themselves, I feel like I need to explain a few things. I am well into my 30s and have been a fan of many (many) bands over the years and have gone to (and played at) many (many) concerts of all different sizes and genres: punk, country music, jazz, indie, rock, rap, and, yes, idol groups. There are a lot of things that can go wrong to absolutely ruin a concert going experience that have nothing to do with the band or the performance. There is a reason why I didn’t even try for tickets when the BTS concert at Citi Field in New York City was announced and that reason is this: getting in and out of Citi Field is a goddamn nightmare. I’ve heard horror stories of people stuck in the parking lot until 3 a.m. and not to mention the intrusive American security checks entering almost any venue these days and the high cost of New York City hotels… and for what? To see BTS as tiny little ants or on video screens? Forget it. No way. I love BTS but not enough to get groped by security, have my tampons pawed through, pay as much for one night in a hotel in New York as I paid for 5 nights in Toronto, and potentially end up surrounded by people on their phones who are only at the show because it was the trendy thing to do.

Like I said, I’ve been at this a long time and believe me when I say that I want to thank the city of Hamilton, Core Entertainment, and GO Transit (serving the Toronto-Hamilton area) for their excellent handling of this event. Communication was good. People knew where they were supposed to line up (and when) and everybody got to where they were going. Security was firm without being crazily intrusive or on some power trip. By Sunday evening, even the security guys were smiling and enjoying the music and performances. This doesn’t normally happen.

But back to the show. For those of us who have been around a long time in the Korean and Japanese idol group fandom, we know that you can’t absorb everything attending one show and seeing it from one seat. You will need a view of the center stage, the main stage, from up close to get the details on the costumes and faces, from far away to appreciate the intricate choreography and stage craft.

Hit a concert tour too early and the performances may be strained and anxious. Not to mention that the fan chants and light stick choreography from the new songs may not have settled yet and the performers themselves may not have figured out the best places to put their improvisations and fan service into the choreography. Hit a concert tour in the middle of a long slog of dates and travel and the performances may be tired and energy flagging. And sometimes it’s just a bad show.

Even BTS are only human. Performers feed on the energy of the crowd. We hype them up; they hype us up even further; and by the end of concert--if it’s a good concert--the energy and endorphins of both performers and audience are through the roof. Now amplify this feedback loop from a single night through three incredible days of concerts and you’ll understand why by Sunday night every single person in the FirstOntario Centre felt like family.

And this feedback loop is the other reason why it’s worth seeing the same idol group show multiple times in the same venue. Over the course of a few shows, the audience will learn where to react, where to sing, where to cheer in order to best hype up the performers. And the performers learn the idiosyncrasies of the venue and local crowds. I’ve written it before but these idol concerts are collaborations between the audience and performer and are meant to be seen and experienced multiple times.

There’s a different kind of enjoyment that comes from attending a concert on the opening night when everything is a surprise and you can actually feel the gasps from the women around you as we collectively realize that Yoongi is actually going to dance in his solo song than when the tour is a few weeks in and fans can see the smile on his face when we sing along to the lyrics in the right places. On Thursday night BTS discovered that Hamilton didn’t want to tweet about the show, we wanted a party. And BTS gave it to us. We danced, sang along, cheered, and jumped up and down until throats ached and feet were blistered.

On Saturday night, during the middle of the show, RM explained that they’d been surprised at how much energy we’d had on Thursday and had had a band meeting about it and made some adjustments to hype us up even further. It worked. Even in the “seated” section, I jumped up and down and cheered like I was the same age as the group of teen girls next to me.

By Sunday night, I felt like I was floating. The energy in the room was incredible and I could see it reflected back in both the faces around me and in BTS themselves. At the end of the shows, typically the fans will hold up fan slogans thanking the group for the show. At the end of Sunday night’s show, BTS instead surprised us by turning their stage set into a giant Canadian flag. We were all honorary Canadians that night.

I’ve now seen BTS’s Love Yourself Tour 5 times (with at least one more show in October!) from a bunch of different views and I think I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for it. By every measure the production is a massive step up from WINGS, the previous tour. The costumes, not something that BTS is typically known for, are gorgeous--for both the group and solo stages. A sparkly deep cornflower blue jacket over a beautiful white linen tunic shirt with bell cuffs for Jungkook’s “Euphoria”, every movement of his arms making the cuffs flutter like butterflies; Taehyung looking just as dashing as if he stepped directly out of The Rose of Versailles in flowy 1970s-inspired trousers and blouses; Yoongi’s shoulder-emphasizing cross-tied, diner seat vinyl red jacket for “Seesaw”; J-Hope’s cowboy fringe jacket and leather pants spotlighting every hip thrust in “Baepsae”; RM’s long, long legs and height played up with a vertical striped coat; petite Jimin’s cropped shirts giving freedom of movement; Jin’s absolutely breathtaking deep navy, flower-studded suit coat for “Epiphany.”

There is a playfulness and expressiveness in these Love Yourself costumes that just wasn’t there for the WINGS tour. The WINGS costumes were practical, utilitarian. A lot of plain shirts and trousers. I can only guess the company had more money to work with for Love Yourself and one more reason to love BTS is that they put the money back into making the concert tour better.

The setlist was also well constructed. While BTS leave out some of my favorite songs from the past year (Daeng, 134340, etc.) they selected a nice balance of “hits”, hype songs that get the crowd going, old favorites, and more thoughtful, slower songs to give everyone a chance to catch their breath.

BTS have become really good live performers over the years. Their choreography tends to have places where only a few members will be “on stage” while the rest wait to jump back in. When those songs are performed on the center stage where there are no wings to wait in, the members interact with the crowd, dancing with us, singing along off mic with the “on stage” member, and so on.

For the Love Yourself tour, BTS are using a combination of pre-existing choreography from their television singles--Idol, Mic Drop, DNA, Fake Love, Anpanman, Airplane pt. 2--and songs where they basically just free dance around the stage and play off of each other and the crowd.

Both are a lot of fun live and for the choreography that we’ve seen a million times on television, it gets a new life when seeing it with your own two eyes. You can focus on what you want to see rather than what the camera selects for you--whether it’s watching your favorite member the entire time or just enjoying the overall flow of the song, life size and unboxed from the tiny box of your iphone screen. You can watch for Hoseok’s small improvisations, for Yoongi’s smiles when he’s feeling it, for the way Jimin and Jungkook turn every movement into a thing a beauty, for Taehyung’s barely contained hype for the songs he loves, and, of course, for the utterly endearing looks of concentration on Jin and RM’s faces as they work their way through the more complicated steps.

Take a song like “Mic Drop.” It’s a song that I have never been particularly fond of and will usually skip when it comes up on the album but seeing it live gets me hyped up every single time because a) it’s fun to yell along to the lyrics with a room full of people and b) it’s fun to watch BTS as they get hyped up from the song and choreography.

For me, however, for this tour, while I enjoyed every single song, I feel like the standouts, artistically, were the solo stages. A lot of thought, effort, energy, and passion was put into every single one and was linked to the theme of the tour: LOVE YOURSELF.

Jungkook’s “Euphoria” stage is breathtakingly beautiful. It builds on his previous solo “Begin” using the same basic format of the lightly sung verses with the danced choruses but everything is just a touch more confident, more grown-up, more assured. The dark coat and trousers with the white shirt of “Begin” are flipped for the previously mentioned flowing white tunic shirt and trousers topped with a rich cornflower blue coat. And rather than simply being shadowed by the backing dancers, they form an integral part of the performance, flowing gently around Jungkook, like a stream in a forest. When Jungkook hits the high note at the climax and the confetti cannons go off, filling the air with fluttering blue and silver tape, I don’t think there’s a dry eye in the venue. I could watch Jungkook perform this song a million times and still feel overwhelmed with emotion. (And once I get the DVD of the concert tour… I will.)

J-Hope’s “Trivia 起: Just Dance” is a party in just under 5 minutes. Unlike the busy “Mama” with its full choir, video slideshow, and hordes of backing dancers, the only special effect in J-Hope’s solo this year is… J-Hope. Dressed in a snazzy all-white suit, J-Hope pops up on stage and just dances. And it’s fantastic. J-Hope uses the full range of the stage to build some momentum, first using the elevated stage in back before strutting down the walkway to the center stage during the build-up where he leaps over two dancers and then just explodes into the chorus. It’s an exciting and incredibly fun performance. And it’s all J-Hope.

I wrote about Jimin’s “Serendipity” being as warm and soft as a sunbeam in my album review of Love Yourself 承 Her but the live performance is a bit different in tone. Jimin’s choreography is much more playful than I expected, finding hidden bounce and rhythm in the track. The way Jimin moves reminded me of a cat’s tail, expressive, curving gently as the mood takes him. And when he turns his back to the audience and gracefully bends backward to the floor as the lyrics hit “just let me love you” the crowd rightfully loses their collective mind. It’s an absolutely lovely performance and even if Jimin’s focus is much more on the dance than the singing and he lets the backing track carry him for some of the song, I had no complaints.

RM’s bouncy “Trivia 承: Love” is another gem. I’ve written before about seeing him hold an entire arena in the palm of his hand with “Intro: What am I to you” but I’d only seen it on DVD. To experience that magnetism in person was on a completely different level. The biggest contrast between “Trivia 承: Love” and “Reflection”, RM’s solo for WINGS, and even “Intro: What am I to you” isn’t just the light and breezy feel of the song but that the RM involves the audience in the performance. Rather than performing for us, he pulls us fans into the song and performs with us. The effect is electric. Thousands of fans singing along “사람사람사람” (human, human, human) and “사랑사랑사랑” (love, love, love). The song itself is so uplifting and joyful and watching RM bounce along on stage with his long legs and cheezy grin is just… if you aren’t just bubbling over with happiness by the end of it, you’ll never get it. RM just seems like he’s in a good place mentally and to hear him singing about loving yourself instead about how he’s the loneliest whale on the planet earth is just extremely Good, at least for this noona fan.

V’s solo “Singularity” overlaps a bit with his WINGS solo “Stigma.” I’m incredibly fond of Taehyung’s deep, soulful voice and both “Stigma” and “Singularity” are nice showcases for it, sort of jazzy, smoky ballads that let him tickle our ears with his low register before stretching higher. But here’s the thing. I’ve always kind of gotten the feeling that V doesn’t quite believe in his own talents for singing and dancing, so just to see him holding the stage, confidently, with the intricate choreography for “Singularity” was such a huge change from the stationary (and somewhat stiff) staging of “Stigma” just filled me with so much pride for how far he’s come.

The choreography for “Singularity” was created for the promotional video but like all the other songs they used existing choreography for, it was very different experiencing it live. To actually see the way V’s long coat would flare out with his movements and to be able to watch his expressive face while he sang… it was a beautiful performance and I hope he’s proud of it.

One of the things I found most interesting in Burn the Stage--and something I’ve brought up again and again--is how Suga’s understanding of how idol concerts are supposed to work aligns 100% with my understanding of how idol concerts are supposed to work. The way we hype each other up until the endorphins are peaking and every single person in the venue is on their feet dancing. Suga’s solo for WINGS was a personal and very angsty solo rap about his relationship with music. A year and a half later and “Trivia 轉: Seesaw,” his solo for Love Yourself, is a cheeky and very idol-y midtempo jam that includes a singalong chorus, choreography, and room for fan chants.

Suga’s non-idol idol persona is so strong that when I saw the Love Yourself tour in Seoul on opening night--before anybody knew what was coming--I was just one voice among thousands of startled cheers that swelled up through the stadium when we realized Suga had choreography. His relaxed, comfortable stage presence is so much fun to watch and the song is so much fun to sing along with. The skill in Suga’s solo stage isn’t in the execution of the dance or song but rather in the way he uses his persona to play with the us, the fans. That takes incredible skill in idol-ing.

Last but certainly not least is Jin’s “Epiphany”. Like V with “Singularity”, “Epiphany” builds on Jin’s WINGS solo, “Awake”. They’re both slow, steady ballads that give Jin a chance to showcase his voice in a way that he doesn’t usually get to do in BTS’s songs. But where “Awake” has a safe, almost conservative feel to it, “Epiphany” takes more musical skill to navigate. The melody has a nostalgic 1950s I Only Have Eyes For You feel to it and Jin has to switch back and forth between his lower and higher registers, support extended descending runs, and fill the whole arena with emotion. It’s a tough song to get through but Jin sells it like a champ, standing in front of CGI rain looking absolutely breathtaking in his flower-studded suit coat.

Love Yourself is a fantastic concert, crafted with all the love and respect that BTS clearly has for their fans. It’s would be so easy for a group as big as BTS to half-ass a global concert tour, doing the bare minimum while still raking in cash. That they’ve taken the effort to create something so special for us really means a lot. Nothing is skimped on, even a detail as small as what appear to be handcrafted buttons on Jungkook’s white fluffy shirt in “The Truth Untold.” To have the success and put the money back into giving us good product is what separates the Good idol groups from the… less good ones.

I can honestly say that the weekend of shows in Hamilton is one of the best concerts I have ever attended and, as I said earlier, I’ve been to a lot of concerts. I’d put this right up there with the second night of A.B.C-Z’s 5th anniversary bash in Yokohama Arena and the 1999 Belle and Sebastian set at the Bowlie Weekender in Camber Sands. And for those who know me, know that that is just about as high as my praise can go. I am still on cloud nine almost a week later, plotting on how to get my fix.

I want to thank BTS for putting on such a wonderful show in Hamilton, Ontario. You truly made a lot of people very, very happy and not just those of us who were at the venue. I’ve seen comments from moms who dropped their young daughters off at the show, so thankful that their girls were taken care of and had a good time. I talked to the staff at the Jackson Square mall, most of them absolutely delighted with the festivities taking place, promising to look up BTS. From the violinist outside the venue, jamming to “Airplane Pt. 2” to the security guard behind the barrier at the front stage who was smiling along just as big as the rest of us… I don’t think any of us will ever forget this weekend.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A few random thoughts on BTS canceling the Akimoto "Bird" collaboration

It’s been a long while since I was involved in a fandom as large and active as BTS. I’d forgotten both the good--large amounts of content--and bad--large amounts of drama--involved. There is another layer of difficulty in dealing with the BTS fandom in that with BTS’s sudden growth in popularity in the English-speaking world there are suddenly large numbers of fangirls falling for BTS who have absolutely no understanding or knowledge of the cultural context in which BTS exists.

What I mean is this: there are suddenly a lot of well meaning English-speaking fangirls coming from fandoms like One Direction who simply do not understand anything about Korean history or culture let alone the complicated web of relationships that exists between the entertainment industry, politics, and the fans. And worse, they don’t even know that there are things they don’t know.

On the one hand, no, you really don’t need to know anything about Korea to appreciate a fun dance performance and a bunch of cute guys being charming.

On the other hand, when a huge controversy erupts in the Korean fandom about lyrics to a new Japanese single written by Akimoto Yasushi, you really do need to understand what’s happening or it gets spread to the English language press in the most vapid of terms: i.e. “concerns about past misogyny”.

My immediate reaction seeing that is, you’ve got to be kidding me. The idea that BTS’s management in Japan wouldn’t know that Akimoto--one of the most famous men in Japanese show business and the guy behind such classic girl group songs as the lingerie slumber party themed “Heavy Rotation”--may have some issues with “misogyny” is ridiculous. Of course he has issues with misogyny. SHOW BUSINESS HAS ISSUES WITH MISOGYNY!

I’m not excusing Akimoto’s lingerie parties but I also don’t think it’s helpful to women's causes to use misogyny so casually as an excuse for a business decision in this way. Why pick on Akimoto specifically and not, for example, the rampant misogyny in the Korean music business or, for that matter, the American music business? I mean BTS just did a collaboration with Nicki Minaj and for my money by using her sexuality as a promotional tool she encourages just as many negative stereotypes about women as AKB48 does.

Misogyny is serious and it's endemic in show business (as well as everywhere else in modern life).

So, here’s what American fans need to understand: it’s not about us and it's not about our ideas of "social justice".

Akimoto is a hugely powerful figure in Japanese show business and this deal falling through will probably have some negative consequences in the Japanese market. (How big, I don’t know but I would guess they’re going to get frozen out of some television promotions and possibly the end of the year music shows.)

BTS didn’t tank a new single with lyrics written by a hugely influential and legendary songwriter because somebody showed them “Heavy Rotation” and they thought it was sexist. This was a calculated decision stemming from the negative reaction from the Korean fanbase that is rooted in Akimoto’s nationalist political leanings.

Folks, Korea has a long and difficult relationship with Japan. Korea is still extremely bitter about the years of colonization, among other things. I mean, Japanese music was literally banned in Korea until fairly recently.

But K-Pop can’t ignore Japan, considering it makes up a considerable percentage of their export market for entertainment.

But Japan doesn’t need K-Pop like other markets need K-Pop, which is why Korean idol groups have to go out of their way to try and appeal to the market there, releasing not only Japanese language versions of their Korean songs but Japanese songs meant to appeal to mainstream Japanese pop tastes.

BTS are no different.

Or are they?

I still need to write up my concert experience in Seoul but one thing that really stood out to me was the large number of foreign fans in attendance. I’m not talking about Americans or Europeans but Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian fans. I’d guess that at least ⅓ of the fans in attendance were not from Korea, which explains why the stadium announcements were given in both Korean and Japanese.

My impression is that Japanese fans of K-Pop groups like BTS have negative feelings towards Japanese show business and the men with sleazy images like Akimoto (or Johnny Kitagawa) who run things behind-the-scenes. Is Korean show business different? I mean, not really, but I think it’s easier to pick and choose what you pay attention to when it’s all in a foreign language. American and European fans of East Asian entertainment act the same way.

BTS’s management miscalculated with the Akimoto collaboration. They were aiming for a link-up with the mainstream Japanese public but didn’t realize that a lot of their Japanese fans enjoy BTS because they’re not mainstream Japanese show business. Add to that the outrage from Korean fans over Akimoto’s nationalist reputation and it makes more sense to cancel the collaboration than risk further backlash.

I’ll be honest though: I am disappointed. I’m not a huge fan of AKB48 or of Akimoto himself but he is a great lyricist and one with ties stretching back to the glory days of Showa era J-Pop.

I understand and support the decision from BTS’s point of view but the Japanese single will now only feature remixes and Japanese versions of songs I’m not overly fond of.

 
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