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My 24-hour dive into BTS fandom

14 min read

If you had asked me three weeks ago if I’ve heard of BTS, I’d say sure. I could go so far as to say I knew they are a Korean pop band, or K-pop, extremely popular and … that’s it. 

So, just how I, the Food & Drink editor of SFGATE, wound up in the parking lot of a local McDonald’s, chatting with two fans about all things BTS over a meal of chicken nuggets this week, is a long story. The short of it is that the mega-fast food corporation has recently restarted its signature combo meals, teaming up with a celebrity on a McDonald’s meal. Travis Scott was the first celebrity to pair with McDonald’s in September 2020 (followed by J Balvin one month later), in a promo which last ran with Michael Jordan in 1992. 

So when McDonald’s announced it would be teaming up with BTS for a special meal to be released May 26, I figured now was my time to stop being an Old, re-embrace my former boy band-loving self from the early aughts (hello, recovering NSYNC fan, here), and dive deep into this (new to me) subsect of fandom. I was the perfect blank slate to learn about all things BTS and their fans and see how much #content there is to consume. (Spoiler: It is A LOT of content.)

I was intent to hear why BTS fans were flocking to local McDonald’s locations for what ultimately was a disappointing rollout of meals that sent a lot of angry BTS fans flooding social media to complain. (But more on that later.)

But first things first: Learning about all things having to do with BTS, as I’ve learned, is a deep, deep rabbit hole. 

So here I go, tumbling in.

Members of South Korean K-pop band BTS pose for photographers ahead of a press conference to introduce their new single
Members of South Korean K-pop band BTS pose for photographers ahead of a press conference to introduce their new single “Butter” in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 21, 2021.Lee Jin-man/AP

I could never do an introduction to the band BTS justice, given the millions of fan sites out there, but here goes. For the uninitiated, BTS (an acronym for Bangtan Sonyeondan, or, Bulletproof Boy Scouts in Korean) is a seven-member group made up of group leader RM (short for “Rap Monster”), 26; Jin, 28; Suga, 28; J-Hope, 27; Jimin, 25; V, 25; and Jungkook, 23. They’ve performed sold-out concerts around the globe and in the U.S. since their debut in 2013, under their management, Big Hit Entertainment.

They’ve broken plenty of records with their album sales and awards — really, there’s too many to mention, but just trust me and The Atlantic, which recently wrote about the band and all their accolades — and have been taking over the U.S. with their infectious songs. Their recent English language hit “Dynamite” landed at the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 on Billboard last year, and their latest song, “Butter” (released May 21), is already breaking world records for most views of its video on YouTube, NME recently reported. Their loyal fans, known as ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), are directly responsible for their record-breaking success, consuming BTS content and related merchandise at a voracious rate, despite the apparent language barrier for fans across the globe — BTS has mostly recorded songs in their native language, Korean — and becoming a force to be reckoned with in all online social media spaces.

Fans of K-pop band BTS showed up at McDonald's locations across the Bay Area to check out a newly released BTS-inspired meal Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Fans of K-pop band BTS showed up at McDonald’s locations across the Bay Area to check out a newly released BTS-inspired meal Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Lance Yamamoto/Special to SFGATE

When I first entered the social media world of ARMY, dipping a toe into the Bay Area BTSxARMY Facebook group, what I was first struck by was its sense of community. Within my first few perusals of posts, among the things that stood out to me — besides plentiful photos of the band, of course — was its philanthropy work and meetups that were happening. In the leadup to the Billboard Awards this past weekend, I smiled at an open invite for ARMY members in the East Bay to meet up and watch the show together. It was a full-on community of strangers, in the purest sense of the word, and it was refreshing to see in a safeguarded safe space for fans.

I am a firm believer that everyone needs a nice corner of the internet to counteract the toxicity of everything else on this virtual space we all share, and BTS fans have created all sorts of cheerful, useful corners for themselves under ARMY. There are professional groups to help with landing jobs, BTS cooking groups, everything under the sun for fans who want to engage each other in all of these specific ways. Even seeing another fan with BTS merchandise can be an easy way to make a friend, several people have told me, and can make socializing less of a chore.

If you ask a BTS fan about what makes BTS special, they will all point to the music and the guys of the band, of course. But if you drill down deeper, most will point towards the band’s surprisingly healthy take on mental health, and their openness about their own struggles with depression and anxiety. 

The “Love Yourself” series of albums, in that respect, was a breath of fresh air to its fans, with its theme being, “before you can truly love someone else, you must first be able to love yourself,” as one writer put it. BTS even partnered with UNICEF’s End Violence program as part of their “Love Myself” campaign, raising money for the cause through album sales and merchandise.

Carolain Peregrino, a BTS fan and psychiatric nurse practitioner in the Bay Area noted that BTS has had a positive impact on others, especially in terms of mental health.

“To me, mental health is very important, given I work in the psychiatric field and it’s my passion. … [In ARMY], you start to meet other people online who actually were saved by BTS, and they talk about it. ‘They saved me from depression.’ ‘My daughter had cancer and they saved me,’  to being able to survive a daughter [who] died of suicide [and] made me feel better after finding out that her music list included BTS,” Peregrino said.

Indeed, as one person told me, “BTS finds you when you need them most.” BTS fan Vicky Tran, 22, said she was having some personal struggles while attending UC Berkeley and listening to their music helped her through the rough times. Pointing to a song like “Epiphany,” she felt its message really struck home.

“There’s a lyric that said, ‘I’m the one I should love in this world,’” Tran recalled. “I hear that line, it really resonates with their [message of] love yourself and self care, and just taking care of yourself and putting yourself first. I think that’s something that a lot of folks don’t do. Especially in the Asian community, too, we don’t talk about things like mental health and taking care of yourself and we’re not open about those conversations, so I think it really speaks volumes.”

That message of taking care of yourself can also perhaps extend towards the fan groups’ ethos of taking care of others. ARMY, as I learned, is big on philanthropy. In June 2020, following protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, when BTS’ fans learned the group and its record label donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter organization, fans organized to match the donation. They were able to match the donation in just 25 hours, and is just one example of how they are able to mobilize online, and quickly, to support various causes.

BTS has also become a positive for Asian representation. Some see the group as a way to get Asian representation in places like the music industry, including prestigious award shows like the Grammys and making waves in the United States.

“What I think is coolest about them is that they’re Asian, like, visibly, they’re very Asian,” said Brian Truong, 30. “The way they come off in interviews and the way they present themselves is really different, and it’s refreshing compared to Western artists and the Western music industry. And it’s just cool to have representation, especially at a time where there’s a lot of Asian hate right now.”

ARMY, from its outside, can seem equally parts fearsome and wholesome, if that’s imaginable. The one thing I did know about BTS prior to this deep dive was the group’s ability to subvert online hate. One of the first times, for me, that ARMY really bubbled up into my consciousness was when BTS’ fans in 2020 very famously “boasted about helping derail a Trump rally in Tulsa,” as Bloomberg reported, somehow turning Trump’s estimations of 1 million attendees to be really more in the realm of just 6,000. They’ve also taken on QAnon in the digital realm, flooding Twitter hashtags #MAGA and #WhiteLivesMatter with videos of BTS and other K-pop groups in a bid to subvert those toxic spaces into a purer one.

But it’s also this hyper-targeted movement of ARMY that does worry some people. If you’re on the receiving end of a lashing from ARMY, it’s easy to think the worst of a hive mind like this one. As an NME columnist noted in an opinion piece from 2018, slights against the band have led to full-on online campaigns to complain about anyone who speaks ill of the band. A radio host was deemed racist, NME pointed out, after calling a BTS track “noise.”

And as some of the people I spoke with pointed out, there is the drawback of toxic fans, or “sasaeng fans,” who invoke stalker-like behaviors such as following the band members onto flights and not giving the group space.

Still, in my (brief) dalliance into ARMY, I have yet to encounter the darker side of the group. What I’ve personally become increasingly impressed by, in contrast to its hive mind, is the inclusiveness and diversity.

“To me, what I think is so cool about ARMY is it’s a collective,” said Truong. “And it’s not just one demographic, one age group; it transcends all ethnic [and] socioeconomic classes. … We’re all in different walks of life. We’re all at different times of our lives — and it just brings everyone together.”

And that includes even Peregrino, 43, who manages a 40-plus BTS group on Facebook. For those who don’t listen to BTS, enjoying the music of a group of 20-somethings well into your 40s and beyond can lead to stigma among various social groups  — in fact all of the members I spoke with, regardless of age, said they’ve been laughed at for their fervor, whether by family or strangers — but Peregrino said it’s been nice to feel acceptance with others who share your passion. There are even think pieces on the older fan phenomenon and what they get out of listening to BTS. 

Valerie Villaraza-Steele is in her 40s and certainly felt that same stigma from others and kept her joy of BTS hidden from others. Still, she found that it was the perfect bonding experience with her recently adopted daughter, who was also a fan of the band, and she recently “came out” to friends about BTS in a post on Facebook. She brought her two kids along with her to try the new McDonald’s meal, turning it into a family activity.

Valerie Villaraza-Steele and family went to a McDonalds in Alameda on Wednesday, March 26, 2021, to celebrate the release of the limited-time offer BTS meal.

Valerie Villaraza-Steele and family went to a McDonalds in Alameda on Wednesday, March 26, 2021, to celebrate the release of the limited-time offer BTS meal.

Courtesy Valerie Villaraza-Steele

“I didn’t tell people because from my experience being a fangirl before, I used to get made fun of all the time, and this goes all the way back to high school,” Villaraza-Steele said. “… I don’t know if I developed a complex or whatnot for that whole part of my life, but I’ve just kind of tried to not announce it as much. But then I was like, you know what? I’m happy. I’m happy with my family. This is a part of my life that makes me happy. I’ve made friends that make me happy. So this should be something that I’m not ashamed to share.”

“But the main thing I wanted to focus on was the fact that it’s nice to kind of find something new and exciting, something that you can kind of dive deep into and that there are other people who enjoy [this] just as much,” she later added. 

But back to McDonald’s. 

If I hadn’t already made it abundantly clear by this point, the ARMY is strong. Rumors were swirling about extra items customers would receive with a meal purchase, such as photos of the band, but instead, fans arrived at McDonald’s to try out what is essentially a slightly glorified Chicken McNuggets meal — albeit with two new sauces, Sweet Chili and Cajun. BTS-branded packaging, such as bags and cups, were limited and at seemingly random locations, leading to various posts of where to find the coveted items. 

Valerie Villaraza-Steele and family went to a McDonald's in Alameda on Wednesday, March 26, 2021, to celebrate the release of the limited-time offer BTS meal.

Valerie Villaraza-Steele and family went to a McDonald’s in Alameda on Wednesday, March 26, 2021, to celebrate the release of the limited-time offer BTS meal.

Courtesy Valerie Villaraza-Steele

And, sure, there was an attached merchandise sale, much like with Scott’s turn with McDonald’s, and virtual extras included with download of the McDonald’s app, but the collaboration did ultimately seem underwhelming, according to many of the band’s fans

Still, despite this, ARMY turned out, and when I asked Truong and his friend Meghan Barker, 38, about their need to support BTS, they both had their own personal reasons for what brought them out to McDonald’s that day.

“I feel very personally invested in their success,” Barker said. “… I love to see Asian success stories. It feels like [the music industry] has been a very traditionally, I think, white gatekeeper industry and the fact that a South Korean company is completely shaking things up on their own terms, as a business major it’s incredibly interesting.”

For Truong, it’s not just being invested in their success, it’s also about supporting the band and where they’ve come from.

“What’s super humbling is just where these seven boys started,” Truong said. “V was the son of strawberry farmers in the countryside, so very humble beginnings. And their being humble has shown all the way through the past eight years that they’ve been around. They’ve always been themselves, and they’ve always been authentic and humble and kind, which is a completely refreshing view of the music industry versus Western standards.”

Thus is the supportive nature of BTS’ fanbase.

Fans of K-pop band BTS showed up at McDonald's locations across the Bay Area to check out a newly released BTS-inspired meal Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Fans of K-pop band BTS showed up at McDonald’s locations across the Bay Area to check out a newly released BTS-inspired meal Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Lance Yamamoto/Special to SFGATE

When I first started my look into BTS as a geriatric millennial (ahem), I thought I knew what to expect. My own dabble with boy band fandom was a mix of silliness and fun, perfect for my teenaged years and friend group, but nothing that would last beyond that. And maybe I expected more of the same from this group of fans going into this story — silliness, but no depth, a shortsightedness in projecting my own experiences onto them. (I mean, NSYNC fans in the year 2000 organizing themselves enough to raise money for charity, totaling past a million? We could NEVER.)

Instead, I found much more than I expected: a thriving and robust community, with more depth, heart and supportiveness than I would have ever guessed. It took a failed fast food promotion day for me to discover this. ARMY somehow is a place where a band has brought together different generations, ethnicities and more in a nice (mostly), cooperative space. And while I wouldn’t quite call myself part of ARMY, I have to say I respect the hell out of what they’re doing and achieving.

If you are in distress, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255, or visit for more resources.

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