The O2, London
The BTS pre-show is different to most pre-shows. Rather than bringing a support act on tour, or inviting a DJ to play hits by other artists, BTS’ warmup consists of their music videos being played in full. Each one gets the kind of response an IRL entrance would get at a standard pop arena show, but this isn’t that.
£49 bluetooth-linked “light sticks” which coordinate with the light show are as good as compulsory; there’s a queue to get a photo with a poster which is longer than your fave’s pre-show meet-and-greet and the only merch item which hasn’t sold out is a bath towel. BTS, the seven-strong K-pop phenomenon made up of rappers RM, Suga and J-Hope, and vocalists V, Jungkook, Jin and Jimin, are playing the second of two sold out shows at the O2 Arena on their LOVE YOURSELF tour. Their fans, known simply as “Army”, have been camping out at the North Greenwich station bus shelter due to the venue’s policy of forbidding camping and overnight queueing.
As a global network of superfans, Army have bucked the trends of fandoms which have come before in a similar way to how their idols have reset the blueprints of K-pop through being musically involved and confronting issues of class structures and societal pressures placed on young people in Korea. There’s hysteria and screaming with Army, but their relationship with BTS feels more considered and, crucially, reciprocated – the stans use soft, more personal language when talking about BTS online and pride themselves on being able to disprove critics with cross-referenced interviews and exhaustive lyrical dissection.
This focus on detail and subtlety remains throughout the entirety of their epic, 150-minute show. Despite the cinematic filmed interludes and pyrotechnic bombast, their fans respond most wildly to casual gestures and muted signals which offer a glimpse into each member’s truest self. One of the most impressive feats of the show is how the band deliver athletic choreography and approachable breeziness at the same time – skilfully balancing the untouchable precision of Beyoncé with the kind of neighbourly charm that catapulted One Direction to stardom.
And through 23 tracks, they showcase an agility and fluency in pop’s current languages which few acts manage to get right, or even attempt. Opening tracks IDOL and Save Me exist roughly in the orbit of mainstream EDM-pop, Run and DNA feel like more conventional bubblegum boyband tunes and Airplane pt. 2 absorbs rhythmic influences from Latin pop styles which continue to make global commercial inroads.
While undoubtedly at their strongest as a unit, solo performances offer indications to each member’s musical identity. Jungkook’s Euphoria is a sincere EDM radio hit made all the more poignant to fans following an ankle injury which left him unable to perform in dance routines and confined to a bar stool for most group numbers. Jin’s power ballad Epiphany provides an archetype of schmaltzy arena pop spectacle and rapper RM’s Trivia: Love is a bouncy, melodic ode to universal love with a colourful beat that sounds like Drake at his most populist. The hooks are so strong and the response is so electric that the last thing you think about is the fact that they’re singing in another language.
As they move through different sounds and styles at a dizzying but ludicrously fun pace, BTS’ Army remain firmly at the centre of this live experience. For their encore, the screen reads “ARMY TIME” and the group reappear in t-shirts and jeans, their most understated look of the show. They take it in turns to thank to the crowd and talk about BTS being a vehicle for self-love the world-over. It’s a sentiment that pop stars have rolled out for centuries that feels somehow more pertinent when it’s the fans providing this much of the light.