Thursday, May 30, 2019

On translating and translations

Something that has been bothering me for a while is the way translations--especially fan provided translations--are accepted at complete face value. This won’t be a long post but I wanted to get some thoughts down, especially as after a year of studying Korean on my own, I’ll be starting a class on Monday and I’m very curious to see how it’s taught to native English speakers.

I’ve done some translating from Japanese to English, which you can check out over here if you’re interested. I’m certainly far from perfect but the experience of translating from Japanese to English has taught me a few things.

* Neither language uses gendered pronouns. In fact, neither language really uses personal pronouns all that much. If a translator is pushing a pronoun agenda, be very cautious.

* Phrases that you might think sound close enough to English phrases to just translate directly do not always mean what you think just based on the loan words.

* It is next to impossible to convey the way the text is flattened out when you strip out the deliberate use (or non use of) honorifics, polite speech, dropped endings, dropped subjects, etc. in order to make some sort of understandable English out of it.

* There will be pop culture references, memes, double entendres, specialized slang and vocabulary, and idioms that you will not pick up on because you are not native and did not grow up in the culture. Google everything you have a question about to see what turns up.

Here’s an easy example to illustrate from “Agust D” off of BTS’s Min Yoongi’s mixtape.

The original lyrics:

A to the G to the U to the STD

i’m d boy because i’m from D

난 미친놈 비트 위의 루나틱

랩으로 홍콩을 보내는 my tongue technology

Literally those last 2 lines translate to:

Me (topic marker) bastard/freak beat on top of [Lunatic] (loan word transliterated)

Rap (by means of marker) Hong Kong (object marker) to send/escort (marker turning the phrase into a noun) my tongue technology

So if you’re me, this is the thought process:

Starting with that Me (topic marker) already implies braggadocio. It’s arrogant. The English “I am” sounds wimpy but it’s the best we can do unless you want to fool around with tone by inserting filler words and that gets real dangerous real fast when dealing with rap.

Then, you then spend time googling around like what does “on top of the beat” mean to a Korean. I know what the English phrase “on beat” means but is that the same thing? My limited (currently!) abilities in Korean turn up the phrase in lyrics to GD & TOP’s “High High”, the self-introduction of numerous aspiring rappers on a reality show, and in the description of a video of a guy claiming super fast rapping. So, my best guess is that it implies a mastery of the craft? So, how do I want to convey that in English? And then how do I attach it to “lunatic” as a modifier? There’s no indefinite or definite articles in Korean. Is he the lunatic who’s master of his craft? Or a lunatic who’s master of the craft?

And then there is the fourth line: My tongue technology [will] by means of rap, escort [you who is listening, implied] to Hong Kong.

“Going to Hong Kong” has become enshrined in English-language BTS canon as “making cum” but in all the “adult Korean” explainers I found in Japanese say it means “feeling good” (let me make you feel good) and that the origins of the phrase are from the 1960s when Korea was really poor and under military dictatorship and leaving the country was not easy. The idea of traveling to glamorous Hong Kong was like an exotic pipe dream and the phrase originally had a meaning like “I’ll be in seventh heaven”. The phrase eventually took on a sexual undertone (only used by men) before dying out in the 80s.

There is a huge difference between the graphic “I’m going to make you cum” which explicitly refers to sexual activity and “I’m going to make you feel good” which has sexual undertones but does not explicitly refer to sexual activity and is something that is, for example, in a billion disco songs. “I’m going to make you feel good” ties up that sexiness, yes, but with all the layers of other pleasures of the beat. That feeling in your bones you get from dancing to a good song. Perhaps some wining and dining from a neighborhood romeo.

Translation from Genius Lyrics:

A to the G to the U to STD

I’m D boy because I’m from D

I’m the crazy guy, the lunatic on beat

Sending listeners to Hong Kong with my rap

My tongue technology

Here the translator has chosen to make him the lunatic. He’s the one. And then on the fourth line the metaphor is kept in tact but the decision to use “listeners” makes that line very impersonal. He’s not making “you” feel good but some generic “listeners”.

Translation from Muish

A to the G to the U to the STD

I’m D boy because I’m from D

I’m an insane bastard, a lunatic on top of this beat

My tongue technology that causes orgasms with rap

Here the translator has chosen to make him a lunatic (one of many!) who is kind of physically on top of “this” beat versus being master of all beats. And he’s not making us “feel good” in the disco sense but graphically (and in the passive tense) having an ability to cause an orgasm. With rap.

The official translation--taken from the video (linked above)--says this:

A to the G to the U to the STD

I’m D boy because I’m from D

I'm a freak lunatic on the beat

I rap and y'all get turned on by my tongue technology

The decisions that go into interpreting a bit of lyrics or an interview are complex. Sometimes you are sacrificing flow for clarity. Sometimes you’re losing color or shaded meanings. And sometimes translators are forced to make a decision based on their own gut instincts. Their own internal biases. What is this song saying? What does this person mean right here?

Maybe this is pedantic but I do think it makes a difference when fans are taking the translations as the text, not just an interpretation of the text. Is Yoongi going around bluntly bragging about his oral sex skills, is he using crass party-song slang, or is he cheekily using aspirational travel slang (with sexual undertones) that ties into the travel metaphors he was using earlier?

The way you read that line colors the way you see Yoongi and his lyrics.

Friday, May 24, 2019

A Totally Random, But Completely Sincere Letter to New American Fans of the Best Boyband Ever, BTS.

Cosmopolitan published a piece yesterday titled, “A Totally Random, But Completely Sincere Love Letter to the Best Boyband Ever, BTS” and it probably wasn’t worth taking the time to write this since most of the fans who think like that will move on as soon as the next shiny bobble appears but I am weak and I love a good TL;DR.

In that spirit, I present “A Totally Random, But Completely Sincere Letter to New American Fans of the Best Boyband Ever, BTS.”

Wow, hello new fans! Welcome! So, how long have you been into BTS? A month? That’s so exciting! There is so much good content waiting for you to discover. (Like check out their reality travel show Bon Voyage!!)

And while I’m so glad you’re here (I really am!) can we just talk just fan-to-fan, woman-to-woman for a minute?

Okay, cool.

I was kind of concerned when I read the Cosmo love letter because it sounds like you kind of just think they’re cute and fun and wear good clothes? And they are, don’t get me wrong, but BTS is a lot more than that.

Let me explain.

BTS are a Korean idol group. That’s different from a boy band like One Direction or New Kids on the Block.

For one thing… they’re Korean and sing in Korean. And they do write a lot of their own lyrics, which means a little extra work for those of us who don’t speak Korean. Their songs aren't just nonsense syllables set to catchy tunes, which is kind of what it sounds like you’re saying here?

Oh, you haven't tried listening to K-Pop yet because you don't understand Korean? Trust me, that's a non-issue. I know that "music is a universal language" is a cliche cheesy enough to be a high school yearbook quote, but it's true. Listen to "Idol," and hit me up in two weeks when it's finally unstuck from your brain.

“Idol” is super catchy but it’s also about BTS’s own struggle in coming to terms with their own status as… idols. And how they’ve stopped caring about what the critics have to say about them not producing “real” music.

And I’m not trying to tell you how to listen to the song. I mean, there are plenty of songs I just like without thinking too deep about the message but I also don’t necessarily consider myself a fan of those artists, you know?

BTS put a lot of thought into their lyrics and a lot of us ARMY enjoy engaging with their music on that level. I hope you’ll also find it rewarding!! Plenty of lyrics translations are floating around so just google the song title and stick a “English lyrics” in there and the results should pop right up.

And there’s a lot more too!

Asian idol groups have a long history dating back to the 1960s in Japan. (listen to my podcast if you want to hear more!! Start with Episode 8-10 for just a BTS-focused mini-tour.) An idol group is more than cute boys singing a catchy song. An idol group is performance art intertwined with an interactive fan culture.

For a single performance the idols have to balance choreography, vocals, stagecraft, costuming, camera work, hair and make-up, and audience interactions. If any one of those is off, it can tank the song.

In concerts, the stakes are even higher because it’s not just about working with a small TV studio audience but bringing in fans sitting hundreds of feet away, far out of reach.

So, like, definitely this kind of fan service is part of it and it’s a super fun one:

Seriously, even when you're a zillion rows away from BTS in an arena with 100,000 screaming fans, a wink from Jin or a Jimin lip bite will make you feel like the only person in the whole world. It's almost like a solar eclipse. Except, instead of risking permanent eye damage by peeking, you risk becoming ridiculously obsessed with this boyband.

But that’s only one piece of the whole puzzle.

When you are in that arena, no matter which seat you are in, you are part of the show. Every fan will have her lightstick (or penlight) and every fan has her voice to sing along and cheer. Those two things magnified by 100,000 create a very unique and special atmosphere. You may be sitting on the 3rd floor in row ZZ seat 999 but the light you hold is important. And your voice singing the fanchants or calling out the lyrics when it’s time for a singalong is important.

BTS concerts aren’t supposed to make you feel like the only person in the whole world but like you are part of something bigger than yourself.

A single ARMY bomb is just a lightbulb. 60,000 ARMY bombs coming together is a movement.

I saved their good looks for last even though the love letter puts it first because… well, I don’t really feel comfortable highlighting it. They are handsome men. They really are. All of them. But here’s the thing. They’re a Korean idol group. Which means they’re Korean and that label comes with a lot of baggage over here in America.

There’s a long history of East Asians being fetishized and exoticised and otherized by, well, white people.

I mean, I’m white too. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with white people enjoying East Asian pop culture. Just… think a little bit before jumping in. Never forget that there are real human beings--real men--behind the make-up and stage outfits. They aren’t dolls. They aren’t walking memes. They aren’t anime images on a screen. BTS are real people with real parents, real families, and real friends. They have whole inner lives, dreams, goals, disappointments, ambitions, talents, and personality flaws. They work really, really hard to put out the best music and performances they can and they take pride in their work.

So, like, yes, “Jung-shook” memes are funny and Taehyung is impossibly gorgeous and RM for President but if you never go further than that you are missing out on most of what BTS actually is.

Anyways, I really am happy you’re here and I wish you the best in your fandom journey!!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite television performances where you can really get a feel for how the audience and BTS come together to create something special.

Much love,

Filmi Girl

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

TL;DR on #IHeartBTS or BTS visits I Heart Radio and it's a complete shit show!

(View of American ARMY from the stage)

This past weekend BTS finished their last tour dates in America for this leg of their Speak Yourself World Tour. Next weekend they will be in Brazil and not a moment too soon. It didn’t take long after the gushy love fest of Speak Yourself at the Rose Bowl for all of the shit I hate about American fandom to come marching through waving stars and stripes flags and blaring Sousa marches. (USA! USA! USA!) We were treated to numerous call out posts and tweets directed at “fans” bullying and scamming their way to the front of every line as well as at people just minding their own business at the concerts. There was a collective realization at how strange it was that the same group of fans with massive cameras (and their friends) somehow managed to get floor seats and soundcheck to every concert stop when most of us cried tears of frustration to even get one seat because of Ticketmaster prices and scalpers. There were the fans bragging online about their “Y/N” moments where oppa noticed them personally and then there was the live I Heart Radio interview with BTS that well… I have never been more embarrassed to be an American ARMY.

Most my experience as an active participant in fandom has been through Japanese fandom and, yes, obviously Japanese fandom has its own issues but I can say with 1000% certainty that Japanese fans would never have yelled out a member’s name if an interviewer asked the group who was most likely to mess up the choreography as the attendees of the I Heart Radio event did.

The entire interview was a mess and you can see it on their faces.

“How about that Halsey, huh?” (She’s fine but they didn’t fly halfway across the world to promote Halsey.)

“Is anybody planning on seeing them on tour?” (Bro, the last date in US has come and gone.)

(BTS trying to lighten the mood of the room by doing the choreo for "Boy With Luv". Look at those smiles COME ON!)

(What American ARMY did instead of dancing along and having fun like BTS was trying to get them to do.)

But it’s BTS so there were some highlights. When BTS were asked what their favorite tracks were on the album. RM starts rapping “Persona” and the crowd joins in for a bit and you can see Yoongi crack a smile. “I love ‘Home’,” he says afterwards, to loud cheers. (WE LOVE “HOME”; JUSTICE FOR “HOME”)

The whole extended stay in America clarified two things about American fandom for me.

1) The clout chasing has gotten out of control. BTS fandom is not about YOU, individual fangirl, and it’s not about BTS noticing YOU. If your only goal in going to a concert or event is to make eye contact with Taehyung or have Hoseok point at you then you need to rethink your priorities because there are 60,000 seats in these venues and behind every single one of those ARMY bombs, behind every single cell phone LED light during “Mikrokosmos”, there is an ARMY who is just as passionate and full of love for the group and for her favorite member as the people in the front if not more so. YOU ARE NOT MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE PERSON IN ROW ZZZ SEAT 99999 JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE AT BARRICADE OR SOUND CHECK.

(Who should we be paying attention to when RM is talking? Yes, that's right Yoongi.)

2) The culture gap is wide and getting wider as more Americans from completely outside the Asian pop scene become involved. Here’s something that I feel like a lot of Americans--especially white Americans--are missing: Even though BTS are from Korea and do not speak fluent English, they are human beings. They are not dolls. They are not walking memes. They do not exist to provide you with glossy Teen People photo spreads to wank over. These are adult men who have homes and lives and families halfway across the world. They do not have to tour America. They do not have to do these media appearances. And they certainly don’t have to put effort into learning English. This may be hard for some of you to hear but plenty of musicians have long and very profitable and fulfilling careers without ever gaining support from the mainstream American market. Have you heard of TVXQ (aka DBSK)? Mr. Children? Seo Taiji? Asha Bhosle?

The American market is a prize, yes, but it’s not mandatory. If it becomes not worth the hassle to tour here, they don’t have to. NEVER FORGET THIS. America is not the center of the universe and we are not owed any attention from BTS.

Yes, RM speaks good colloquial English and the rest of BTS are doing their best to also learn English but to be a fan of a foreign act means that we also have to put some effort in. Over and over again on those behind-the-scenes documentaries from the WINGS tour, we hear members (especially Seokjin and Yoongi) say how incredibly moving it was to hear foreign audiences singing in Korean. Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina. They learned the lyrics--phonetically if need be--and sang along at full volume to show how much they appreciated BTS. What did we do in America? We yelled “TAEKOOK” really loud during a pause in the I Heart Radio interview.

Look, American ARMY, I know a lot of you are coming from outside Asian idol fandom, whether its from 1D fandom or whatever, and that we are an individualistic people but there is (or was) also an American tradition of banding together to work towards a common cause. Let’s get more on that tip. We collectively need to examine exactly what it is we want out of this fandom because if it’s just boy band hysteria and “oppa noticed me” posts then I feel justified in completely checking out and putting my resources into attending concerts in places like… Brazil. Or Japan. Or Korea. Where I’m more likely to meet and talk with like-minded fans.

There is a reason I stopped paying attention to American music and American pop culture years ago and this BTS extended jaunt here reminded me exactly why that was.

(Tag yourself: I'm Jimin's "SIT ON A DICK" shirt)

Friday, May 17, 2019

Are BTS the next Beatles?

(The Beatles, 1969)

(BTS, 2018)

Are BTS the next Beatles?

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert made the comparison explicit but I’ve seen the charge thrown around for a while. The mainstream English-language press has no other benchmark for a group of male musicians popular with young women. “This is Beatlemania big,” said CNN. On the other hand you have well meaning fan girls who implicitly understand the condescension aimed in their direction from cultural gatekeepers for liking a “boy band” and who have adopted the Beatles comparison as a point of pride because the Beatles are respected by those cultural gatekeepers. From a thread by @AnnieLuvsBTS1:

“The Beatles wrote inspiring, beautiful lyrics that were like poetry, songs that tug at your soul and make you think about life’s large topics. @BTS_twt’s music does the same thing. Their songs push you to think and question the status quo, and they make you glad to be alive.”

She’s not wrong to feel the way she does. I certainly shared some of those same sentiments when I was a young woman obsessed with the Beatles and I can easily see how BTS evokes similar feelings. But then you could say the same about any band you loved. I felt (feel) the same way about Belle & Sebastian, who are far from these levels of popularity.

And this is from a medium post by Heidi Samuelson:

One clue is found in the fact that people stop calling the Beatles a boy band after they started writing songs that were more musically complex, stopped touring in arenas full of screaming young women, and started being “cool” for men to listen to. But this is all a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? I’m sorry adult men who use liking the Beatles as some barometer of coolness, but it was the same four “boys” who recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that recorded “Revolution 9.”

Again, Heidi here is absolutely correct. The Beatles only truly shed the teen dream label after releasing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 when they’d stopped touring and started really like, exploring their inner selves, man, and taking heaps of psychedelics topped with some borrowed Indian mysticism.

Here’s what I think.

The Beatles were four very young men from a rough and tumble provincial city in post-War England. They had likable personalities, good looks, and charm for miles and, thanks in no small part to the talent and vision of behind-the-scenes producer George Martin, they recorded some fantastic albums. But the Beatles were young and naive and at the mercy of the men who had their recording and management contracts. This meant doing a lot of stuff they really didn’t want to do… the same stuff now being held up as as proof that the Beatles and BTS are the same. Aw, isn’t it cute?? Beatles dolls! BTS dolls!

The Beatles toured relentlessly through the early 1960s to stadiums full of shrieking fans so loud that not even the Beatles could hear themselves play. They hated it. They hated the fans. They felt trapped.

If you’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night--a true masterpiece and a film that 100% deserves to be in the Criterion Collection--then you see what their lives had become. It’s made light of in the film but I’ve read more than enough Beatles biographies over the years to know that the feeling of being trapped and surrounded by the shrieking hordes of girls was a sad reality for John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Once they had enough power to quit being the touring zoo animals--gawked at by horny girls in every city across the world--they did. But what was left behind? Four slightly older men who had never really grown up, now only had each other to focus on. They fought their unfair recording contract, fought the press who had turned on them, and fought each other. Ringo had nothing to contribute in the studio; George had too much to contribute in the studio for John and Paul’s egos to handle; and the two lead songwriters found themselves at odds about which direction their music should go in (John: more artistic and weird; Paul: high kitsch and schlocky). Eventually the cracks became too big and they split. John’s tragic death in 1980 at the hands of an obsessed male stalker meant they would never reunite again.

When I see these comparisons I keep asking myself, where in that story do we want to draw parallels to BTS? Are they trapped by fame? Hunted by fan girls? Bickering over artistic direction? Fucking their way through hundreds of groupies? Doing inhuman amounts of drugs? Locking themselves in their studios passive-aggressively replacing each other’s instrumental tracks? I mean, maybe? But it’s not exactly the comparison I’d want to highlight.

The Beatles story is ultimately not a positive one. They may have had fame and fortune but at what cost? The four smiling “moptops” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 were only ever an illusion. The Beatles drank, smoked, snorted, and fucked their way across the world, growing increasingly bitter and jaded with every tour stop. They had little respect for their fans or for women in general (although that second one would change, for some of them, in later years see: Ono, Yoko).

But they did make great albums. (Even if Paul replaced Ringo’s drum tracks.)

And they did come to represent a sea change in the way people thought about rock music. The year Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, 1967, was the same year Rolling Stone magazine was founded and those two things form the foundation of the Rock Canon. The building blocks of today’s Rock Music Industrial Complex. (What Heidi is challenging in her essay linked above.)

Which brings me to the other point that the perpetually lazy, misogynistic, and xenophobic English-language media and the well meaning fan girls are missing out on is the broader context: There can never be a “next” Beatles in America because we no longer have any sort of meaningful shared mainstream music culture.

The music industry in the USA ate itself. It no longer has any sort of cultural relevance. There’s a reason aggressively marketed K-pop was able to get a foothold in a notoriously foreign-language averse country like America: we no longer make this kind of music ourselves. Mainstream music here is either generated by an algorithm deep in the bowels of the IHeartRadio laboratory building or it’s deeply personal lyrics vomited up by an acoustic guitar wielding singer-songwriter. Anything in between is a holdover from the 1990s and early 2000s. We don’t have anything to compare to the way that these K-pop acts perform music that is emotional without necessarily being private and personal and broadly appealing without sounding like it was spit out of a SongBotT4500.

And, importantly, these K-pop acts ARE IDOL GROUPS. That means they not only encourage fans to feel like they are a valuable part of the acts’ teams--through voting on music shows, streaming, writing fan chants, etc.--but they also offer support to fans, writing messages telling them to study hard on exams or to take care in going to work after staying up late to watch a performance.

The Beatles sold over 8.5 million albums (not including singles) in just the USA alone in 1964. If BTS are lucky with sales for the rest of 2019 maybe they’ll get to 500,000 in the USA? Maybe one million?

It’s estimated that 73 million Americans watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Just about 40% of the population at the time. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert averages about 3.5 million a night. The videos of the appearance on YouTube (at the time of writing this post) have about 1-2 million views each, a percentage of which are probably coming from outside the US and/or represent repeat viewings by fans.

Does this mean BTS aren’t amazing and epic and all of those things? Of course not!!

BTS are amazing and epic and it’s incredible they can hold concerts in 60,000 seat venues here in America.

It’s just worth keeping in mind that their audience will never be as mainstream and as big as the Beatles because we no longer have the kind of shared culture in America that allows it. And if those 60,000 seat venues are filled with fans who travel long distances to attend (me!) or attend multiple shows on the tour (not me this time but there are quite a few) it doesn’t make the achievement any less incredible.

BTS are not the next Beatles. They are their own thing and that’s okay. It’s more than okay, it’s… 대박.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

BTS: Speak Yourself Tour at the Rose Bowl, May 4-5, 2019

Anybody who has been reading my blog for any amount of time knows how highly I value attending live events. I’ve written numerous posts on seeing concerts, going to games, visiting different venues, different cities, different countries… Some people like to take cell phone videos to remember but I like to write down my experiences. I’ve been doing it since I was 16. And seeing BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan; 방탄소년단) opening the “Speak Yourself” tour at the Rose Bowl is definitely a concert for the record books. I’ve been thinking about the whole experience since I’ve gotten back from Los Angeles, trying to organize my thoughts, how to explain what made it so special.

The last BTS show I’d attended had been in Amsterdam (read about my experience yourself; I will never get over being tapped on the shoulder during “Fire” and told to sit down. DURING “FIRE”?! ARE YOU CRAZY???) for the European leg of the “Love Yourself” tour. To say it was a disappointment is putting it mildly. Not the guys--they are professional entertainers, after all--but the audience. This is something I’ve written about beforebut for idol concerts, audience participation is mandatory. When everything is working right, the audience and the group on stage are able to join together to create something truly magical. The venue is transformed into a sacred space for a few hours. Normal social barriers are knocked down as we join in the celebration of art and music and… love.

I do think BTS understands this. (Judging from interviews with one Mr. Min Yoongi anyway.) And that is one reason I take my role as a fandom big sister so seriously. Not just because I’m on the older side in a fandom full of youngsters but I’m also a long-time idol group watcher in a fandom full of Westerners totally new to the way Asian idol fandom works. I’ve bought and mailed merch for complete strangers who have reached out on Twitter. In Hamilton, Ontario I adopted multiple little sisters for the day. Made sure they didn’t get dehydrated or lonely or lost in the crowds, helped give directions and find buses. As others have done for me in the past. For the Rose Bowl shows, when it became clear my extra ticket was not going to sell at face value, I offered it on Twitter for whatever price an ARMY could afford. It may have been a financial loss to me but somehow I couldn’t feel any regret at seeing that ticket go to an ecstatic high school girl for just $30. There would be a true ARMY in that seat.

I arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday morning and spent two days sightseeing and letting the stress of my normal hectic life melt away. Walking along the beach at the Santa Monica Pier on Friday, skin warmed by the bright sun, sand and water beneath my feet, belly full of delicious food, I was happier than I’d been in months. I even stopped to chat with a pretty blue-haired Taehyung fan and her mother who had come all the way from Mexico for the concerts!

(Santa Monica!! I did ride the rides alone. Yes, I realize I am Seokjin.)

The friends I was staying with live in Long Beach, south of downtown Los Angeles. The Rose Bowl is in Pasadena, to the north. It took an hour to drive, even with the minimal weekend traffic, but I didn’t mind. Los Angeles has a great 90s hiphop station and I danced as best I could behind the wheel of my rental car to classic songs like Lodi Dodi (“Mirror mirror, on the wall, who is the top dogg of them all?”) and, just as I was coming into Pasadena, Warren G’s Regulate came on the radio--BTS fans should know it from the group’s own visit to Long Beach back in 2014 for American Hustle Life. It had to be a sign.

Pasadena sits in the San Gabriel Valley, nestled in close to the San Gabriel mountains, which are visible, green and friendly, all around the city. My route took me through a peaceful green suburb, trees dangling leafy branches over garden walls, the calm broken by riotous blooms of pink flowers. (Possibly crepe myrtle?) I emerged from the back streets onto a wide open field full of excited ARMY. I was finally here!

The Rose Bowl itself is a beautiful old stadium. Built back in the 1920s when civic architecture was still something Americans took seriously, the stadium design from Myron Hunt deliberately echoes the grand coliseums of ancient Rome. Instead of the harsh, boxy, inhumane, and above all else hideously ugly designs of contemporary stadiums (just take a stroll through the Philadelphia Stadium District for a good taste), the Rose Bowl aims for rounded beauty. This is no Metlife Stadium looming ominously over a massive desert of parking lots. The Rose Bowl is surrounded by green park land. There’s even a small formal garden path leading to the main entrance which had been decorated with small BTS flags. And instead of the usual industrial detritus and advertisements, the building is ringed with classical-inspired columns, standing tall and proud. And for the BTS concert, large banners depicting each of the members had been hung around the outside.

(Pretty Jungkook hanging on the hideous VIP extension building with the lovely original Rose Bowl columns to the right.)
As we waited for the gates to open, I joined the sea of fans strolling around the pleasant open lawns surrounding the Rose Bowl in the warm afternoon sunshine. I was just cracking into a bottle of water given to me by an extremely kind security guard when I heard somebody trying to get my attention, calling me over to a shady cluster of trees. It was the same Taehyung fan and her mother that I’d met the day before in Santa Monica! You’re truly never alone at a BTS concert. (Later that afternoon I would also run into the same Jungkook fan I’d sat next to in Hamilton, Ontario. “Out of 60,000 people, I can’t believe I saw you!” She exclaimed as we hugged. I still don’t know her name.)

The audience at the Rose Bowl was a healthy mix of Americans (of all ethnicities and ages) and Mexicans and Canadians, as well as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fans. I heard Spanish bleed into Japanese; Korean into English. My little section of the bowl on Saturday was a good representation of the crowd at large.

There were the two local American high school girls sitting behind me, both massive Jin fans, who had never been to a concert before. They were both delightful and I enjoyed hearing all about their plans for college and the future, something that weighs heavily on a lot of young women. When I realized they didn’t have the “Army Time” fan banners, I encouraged them to go grab a few before the start. Instead, one of the them turned behind her and yelled, “DAD!” And, yes, their dads, both dressed in jeans and rock t-shirts, and most definitely closer to my age than the two girls I’d been chatting with, were sitting behind them a few seats down. “Go get us some banners!” He also brought them back some ice cream. I was charmed.

A little further down to my right was a cluster of Asian American women who were clearly experienced idol concert attendees and were loudly singing along to the BTS videos playing on the screens. I more than happily joined in.

And directly next to me was a Yoongi fan, an artsy-looking woman with a Shooky headband holding back her long, blond hair. She was also sitting alone and sensing a kindred spirit, we bonded very quickly. “I’m definitely going to clutch your arm and cry,” I warned her. “But you can do the same to me. I always have extra Kleenex.”

The seat to my other side remained empty until the very last second and the young woman who sat there seemed suspiciously uninterested in the concert, mostly sitting and reading academic articles on her phone. I was annoyed until I realized she was there with a couple of tweens in the row in front of me, fussing over their coats and trying her best to get lightsticks to work during breaks in the songs. “There’s an ap you can download,” I stage-whispered at some point.

(My seat the first night, look at the beautiful San Gabriel mountains surrounding us!!!)

And then it was show time! The first day of a concert run is really special, knowing that things might not go perfectly but that feeling of surprise and delight at experiencing the unanticipated… it’s magical. No other audience except the first day of the Love Yourself tour in Seoul got to experience that collective flood of excitement as we realized Yoongi was going to dance for his solo! And no other audience except the first day of Speak Yourself at the Rose Bowl got to experience… well, I’ll get there.

Before I get into Speak Yourself, I should explain a little about the different types of venues for idol group shows. There are three basic sizes of venue: the Hall, the Arena, and the Dome.

* A Hall holds a couple thousand at most and the set-up is like a stage play. Depending on the venue, the group, and the audience, members may even come out into the aisles and give high-fives. But overall the concert is focused on the single main stage, with the audience always in front. There are usually video screens but they aren’t nearly as important as they are in other venues, since no matter where you’re seated, the view will be pretty good.

* An Arena holds somewhere from like 11,000-20,000 (ish) and typically will have a main stage and a center stage connected by a walkway. Johnny’s & Associates concerts in Japan will go the extra distance by using an additional walkway that extends most of the way around the arena and an additional rear stage just to get that much closer to the fans. But for the Kpop groups that come to America, you’re typically only dealing with the main and center stage. There will be floor seats and stadium seats, although sometimes the floor “seats” are just general admission standing. Video screens become more crucial for arena shows, especially when you’re seated in the stadium seating opposite the main stage. But--and I speak from experience--if you can identify members by their body language, you still have a pretty good view from the stadium seats closer to the center and main stages, even in the higher rows. But in arena shows, depending on where your seats are, you will see different things, different members, different angles to the choreography. I personally try to get seats in a variety of locations--left side, right side, in front of center stage, closer to main stage--so I can get the most complete experience.

* A Dome is a 50,000-60,000+ venue. These are massive venues. To be able to reach every fan in a dome takes some truly extraordinary production magic. (And Arashi’s ability to do this is going to be the subject of a future podcast so I won’t get too detailed here.) The minimum set-up is similar to the Arena set-up but just on a larger scale. BTS used both of those as well as a rear stage in their Seoul Olympic Stadium shows in August 2018. I mentioned being able to distinguish members by their dancing in an Arena show. In a Dome show, that is impossible. The choreography that could scale up from Hall to Arena, cannot easily make the jump to Dome. Everything needs to be scaled up--costumes, sets, lighting, any sort of effects. People enjoy mocking the gaudy Johnny’s & Associates concert costumes with their bold member colors, sequins, and feathered tails and yes they are silly but by God you will be able to pick out your favorite member without binoculars even from the cheap seats.

BTS had already done some large shows on the road--notably the Saitama Arena in June 2017 (capacity ~40,000)--but had only taken their first real dip into Dome shows with the Kyocera Dome concert in Osaka, Japan, in October 2017 but that was still felt like an Arena show, just scaled up a bit. Even for the Seoul Olympic Stadium concerts I attended in August 2018, they may have used a rear stage and included fireworks but the heart of that Love Yourself production was meant for Arena-sized venues.

I don’t mean any of that to be taken as negative criticism. BTS should have put the majority of their resources into producing a show for the type of venue that they would mostly be performing in. (And the Love Yourself Arena shows were fantastic!!) But it is one reason why I didn’t feel any real pressure to go to the CitiField concert in October of 2018. I had no desire to enter the crush of the General Admission free-for-all and knew that because they were using the Arena set-up, there was a very good chance I’d be in a dead zone if I sat in the stands.

These are all the types of things I was thinking about when it came to picking tickets. I was pleased that there would be seats on the floor level rather than general admission--and I would have loved to get at least one--but once I realized that wasn’t going to happen (THANKS TICKETMASTER) without me shelling out a lot of cash for resale tickets, I decided to lean into the Dome audience experience. This is what I mean.

One of the memories that really stuck with me from the Seoul Olympic Stadium concerts wasn’t even my memory. It was a brief video shared with me by a very sweet Japanese fan I started chatting with at the MediHeal shop in Myeongdong. She had been sitting in the upper deck on night one and had taken a video of the lights spelling out Happy Birthday Jungkook. I’d been in the stands below, close to the rear stage, and hadn’t had a great view of the message but suddenly I could feel how magical it must have been to have your light be part of the message to Jungkook. Who cares that you couldn’t see his face except for on the video screens! It just suddnely clicked that if I went into a Dome-sized venue anticipating the kind of fan service I was used to in smaller venues all I was doing was setting myself up for disappointment. What I wanted more than anything at that moment, was to have been part of the birthday message.

So, with all of that in mind, I deliberately chose to sit higher up in the stands on the first night. I was close enough that I could see something but far enough away that even I couldn’t really distinguish individual members except on the video screens.

My mind and body were ready to be the best One Light Among Tens of Thousands that I possibly could be when the inflatable cheetahs (?) reared up, the covers were whisked off of the Grecian temple setpieces and BTS kicked off the Speak Yourself Tour with a rousing version of their latest hype song, “Dionysus.” (Which I speak at length about in Episode 12 if you’d like my thoughts on the link between Dionysus and BTS.) If I had any lingering unease at another Amsterdam situation happening, it fell away as soon as I heard the lusty “ONE SHOT” “TWO SHOT” fan chant yelled out by all the fans surrounding me. I was home.

From “Dionysus”, they moved to the center stage as they sang “Not Today” another hype song and one that also uses a lot of the backing dancers. Although they only did a small portion of the official choreography, “Not Today” was also the song that kicked off BTS’s first Dome concert in Osaka and they must have realized that it worked well in the larger venue.

After a short break for the opening ments, it was “Outro: Wings” (one of my ALL TIME favorites; I just about lost my mind at this) to round out the first portion of the set.

J-Hope’s solo “Trivia: Just Dance” scaled up surprisingly well to the Dome setting with little change. J-Hope is and--has always been--his own special effect. Watching him command the attention of 60,000 fans set my heart fluttering and I’m not the only one. During the breakdown, a spontaneous chant of “J-Hope, J-Hope, J-Hope” washed over the venue. J-Hope’s face captured on the screens as he took out his earpiece, spread his arms, and just basked in it was something I’ll never forget.

But I was not even remotely prepared for what came next. I have loved Jungkook’s solo “Euphoria” from the first moment I saw it. The way the costume fluttered around him while he danced, the choreography that was simultaneously both delicate and full of physical power, and, of course, his voice. When the solo began, it seemed like he would simply be doing his Arena solo choreography--and I was totally fine with that--but at a certain point he kind of walks a little bit down the ramp and stands still as staff raced up to adjust something on his torso. The cameras were not on him at the time but I’ve seen more than enough Johnny’s & Associates shows to know that this meant… flying. Jungkook was going to fly? JUNGKOOK WAS GOING TO FLY TO “EUPHORIA”?! I grabbed the arm of the Yoongi fan and leaned into her. Nothing else mattered on this planet at that moment except that I was going to see Jungkook soar above us in his gentle pale pink and white suit, singing to us in his gentle voice. Only the faintest bit of twilight was still coloring the night sky outside the Rose Bowl but inside our hearts were pink and white.

That moment of anticipation, that moment just before Jungkook was lifted from the ground, that moment is something nobody will ever experience again. It was why I was in the Rose Bowl on opening night. Even in our nosebleed seats we could see him fly. His expression when captured on the screens was part bashful, part giddy excitement and I just melted. I will support this kid in his career forever. From beyond the grave if necessary. I will start the All Ghost Chapter of the Jungkook Support Team.

(Flying Jungkook!)

The rest of BTS emerged on the center stage for a rousing “Best of Me”, all the members in pink and white as they circled the stage playfully, hyping up the crowd, getting energy back from us in return.

Jimin’s solo “Serendipity” was mostly the same as the Arena shows but with addition of a gorgeous new prop. Jimin appears on stage trapped in a bubble--an echo of the art design for Love Yourself: Answer--which he pops with a finger before emerging to dance. Jimin is a wonderful performer and it is always a pleasure to watch him dance, even if all I’m seeing is the giant video screens.

And then RM’s “Trivia: Love” where he got the entire Rose Bowl singing along. It may not make for fascinating video footage but being a part of that crowd of 60,000 singing in unison was something very special. World Peace and Love anthems are always kind of cheezy--the Beatles “All You Need is Love”, the Tigers “Love Love Love”--but it doesn’t make them less lovely.

It went right into one of the few songs to get full group choreography… “Boy With Luv”! As expected, it is a lot more enjoyable as a song when performed live than on the CD or radio version thanks to both the audience participation element and just the visuals of BTS’s happy faces as they danced in their pastel costumes.

The Hype Medley from the Love Yourself Tour was cut to just three songs--the ones that always got the biggest cheers in the Arena shows: “Dope”, “Baepsae”, and “Fire.” And then unexpectedly, we went into “Idol” as another audience hype song. It worked surprisingly well. I know we’d just seen Jin wipe out doing the “Idol” choreography on a recent television appearance so I was more than fine with them retiring it in favor of whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

Much like Jimin’s “Serendipity”, Taehyung’s “Singularity” was adapted for the larger venue using some new props but keeping the choreography mostly the same. It’s still a beautiful song and I am still firm in my desire for the Taehyung album of jazz standards.

And then… “Fake Love”. Another choreography song with the old familiar staging (no reason to mess with what works). BTS had switched from the “Boy With Luv” pastels to rich jewel tones and black but on that first night Jimin was wearing a thin shirt cut so that it revealed his entire torso every time he moved his arms up--something that happens a lot in “Fake Love”. And when the Rose Bowl collectively lost our minds every time the camera focused in on Jimin’s shirt teasing us with the briefest glimpse of the tattoo on his ribs.

I’ve given up on Western fans being able to sing along with the part of Yoongi’s solo “Trivia: Seesaw” where he does the little dance break (unless Brazil proves me wrong!) but I was pleasantly surprised to hear quite a few people singing the easier part of the chorus along with Yoongi. He also had a few new props to jazz up his solo, including a new moving walkway!

Since I was sitting in an unofficial Jin Supporter Section that first night, “Epiphany” was an utter delight. The girls contained themselves during his actual performance (aside from the usual “Kim Seokjin” chants) but during the outro, somewhere a few seats down a girl yelled out her undying devotion to big laughs and cheers.

The vocal line song, “The Truth Untold” was beautiful, as always, even if the confetti didn’t make it as high as our section. And the rap line song “Outro: Tear” just bangs live. I wasn’t completely sold on the use of the black and white effect on the video screens for “Outro: Tear” and the next song, “Mic Drop” (another banger), simply because it made it hard to tell the members apart. It would have been fine in a smaller venue but those of us in the nosebleeds rely on the screens to see what’s happening. Hopefully that is something that can be worked out in later dates after some review.

And then… we waited for the encore. There were some half-hearted attempts at cheers but nothing was sticking until somebody started doing the wave on the far side of the venue. It traveled around and around and around and around and around. Every time we got giddier and giddier. It was a surreal experience. Am I really here? Am I watching 60,000 BTS fans not know how to stop doing the wave? Will I be doing the wave forever in some sort of ST:TNG “Cause and Effect” time loop thing???

The surreal feeling only continued as BTS popped back on stage with an inflatible bouncy castle to perform “Anpanman.” WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

I adore the “Anpanman” choreography but seeing the fireworks blast off as BTS giddly bounced all over a candy-colored playground set, I couldn’t be disappointed at missing it.

“So What” was one I looked forward to just because it’s fun to hear live--everybody singing “YOUNG AND WILD AND FREE” at the top of our lungs (even if “young” is, um, strictly mental for some of us) and this was no exception. There was so much warmth and joy in the Rose Bowl during this song. We could only see so much on the video screens but Jungkook happily jumping up and down with his floppy hair bouncing, Taehyung in his yellow beret doing interpretative dance, Jimin flirting cutely with the camera, J-Hope making ridiculous faces, Yoongi caught looking bemused, RM’s long legs, Jin wandering chaotically…

The warm mood continued through “Make It Right”--another song that sounds far better live than in the recording. Jungkook’s falsetto is No. Joke.

Namjoon had asked us to raise our cellphone lights rather than Army bombs for this one and they twinkled prettily while BTS wandered the stage giving fan service to the lucky fans in the floor seats. Jungkook, in particular, seems to like this song quite a bit and he was having a great time playing with his hyungs as they rapped their parts of the song.

Finally, it was “Mikrokosmos”, another song that is transformed from mundane to magical performed live. With our lights twinkling, BTS twinkling on stage, confetti twinkling in the stage lights, it was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.

Then it was over.

Despite the enormity of the moment, the whole evening had felt relaxed and happy. The audience. BTS themselves. In the ending ment Yoongi, with a big grin on his face, had summed it all up by saying something like, “Good weather, good people. Isn’t that all we need, ARMY?” And in that moment, yes. It was.

Namjoon was the only one who really hinted at what it all meant, bringing up their long ago dream in the ending ment: to one day have their own concert at the… Staples Center and what it meant to have achieved so much more.

The Sunday show was even better. Opening day nerves had been calmed, a few technical glitches were smoothed out (Jimin’s shirt no longer flashed his tattoo during “Fake Love”), English pronunciation on memorized phrases cleaned up, and we started to see the shape of the concert emerge. The ebb and flow of crowd energy, places where organic fan chants would start to stick, where one-off adlibs would become running bits (Jungkook is very good at these and his interpretive dance behind Namjoon in “Make It Right” has already become something to watch out for!), how they would balance the need to play to the camera with the on stage fan service in the increased number of songs they were not using the stage choreography for.

My seatmate on Sunday was another girl sitting by herself, a very sweet teenaged Jimin fan who had traveled up from Mexico with her mom for just this show. We bonded quickly over the difficulties we’d faced getting tickets and our love of the new comeback. She was a little embarrassed at only having the version 2 ARMY bomb but it was quickly forgotten as the concert began.

Despite it being a Sunday, the crowd was just as loud and passionate as they’d been the night before. I was seated on the opposite side of the Rose Bowl and close enough to the center stage that I could make out members by their body language, even if I was nowhere near enough to see faces. It was fun watching them dance up and down the walkway from the main to center stage, Hoseok moving like he’s on an entirely different plane of existence from us mere mortals, Jungkook’s bouncy dance he does when he’s excited, head back, arms dangling, Yoongi, as ever, prowling the edges feeding on the crowd’s energy, Jin, all flailing arms and shoulders, Taehyung feeling himself in the moment, Jimin attempting to personally connect with every single person he can, Namjoon’s long legs silhouetted against the stage lights…

From the opposite side I could also see the lights twinkling in the VIP boxes high above where I’d been sitting the night before and was quite charmed to see them joining in the pre-encore light wave. Not even the elites are immune to the power of BTS and ARMY.

I know that these Rose Bowl shows will soon fade in collective memory, buried under the next show--there’s always a next show--the next fandom controversy, the next hurdle to overcome, the next new song, the next viral fancam, the next V-Live, the next the next the next. But for me, they will burn brightly forever. I will never forget the tears that prickled as Namjoon delivered his ending ment, voice full of passion as he said:

“We’re just BTS and you’re ARMY. And at the same time you guys are BTS and we’re your ARMY. Wherever you’re from, whatever you speak, however old you are, in this Rose Bowl, tonight we are one. We speak the same thing. We speak the same voice. We speak the same language. This is community, what we call community.”

As he spoke, from somewhere in the crowd a chant broke out and we all quickly joined in: “Kim NAMJOON Kim NAMJOON Kim NAMJOON.” 60,000 voices speaking the same language.

For all that we idol fans get shit on by the media as dopey teens or horny moms--not that we aren’t all guilty of those moments--but at the end of the day, for me, being an idol fan, being a BTS fan, is about that feeling of contentment and happiness I had watching the fireworks show on day 2 of the Rose Bowl. Confetti still twinkling in the air. Smiles on all the faces around me. Standing next to a tiny new friend I’d never have met otherwise. BTS didn’t see me. I didn’t get a high five or eye contact or even a wave and point in my general direction that I could pretend was for me. Yet, I still felt seen by those seven guys, even as one among tens of thousands of fans.

I don’t know when I’ll get to another concert. May turned out to be an exceptionally difficult time for me to travel and even taking time off for these Los Angeles shows was hard to manage. The rest of the tour dates announced were impossible. But I have my memories to carry me through.

Thank you, BTS! Thank you Namjoon, Seokjin, Yoongi, Hoseok, Jimin, Taehyung, and Jungkook for an unforgettable weekend. Thank you to the Rose Bowl staff, BTS’s staff, and the backing dancers for helping make it all happen!

 
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