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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