BY TORI GOODWIN
ART BY CALLIA SILVERTON
The Scotiabank movie theatre erupted like a concert venue in downtown Toronto. Jaden M looked around and saw glowsticks designed to sync to the beat of the music and fans cheering the names of artists on screen while dancing from the comfort of their seats. BTS, the Korean pop (K-pop) group and global sensation, were “live on stage.” Or, at least they were four months ago, when the movie was filmed. The movie was a sold-out event and Jaden (who opted not to share her full last name for safety and privacy concerns) warned those around her that she would be singing, cheering, and treating the show like a concert. Others did the same. Music blared from the speakers, transporting audience members to the concert. Fans were walking around offering “freebies,” a familiar gesture to K-pop fans—stickers, snacks, and photos of the pop group members . . . items made to be shared. When the show ended two hours later and the credits began to roll, almost everyone started filing out of the theatre. That is, nearly everyone but Jaden and her friend, Jackie K (who also opted not to share her full last name). They stuck around until the lights turned back on and caught some unseen footage of the 2022 concert that played after the credits, which the less patient failed to see.
Jaden is ARMY. And no, it’s not the Army you’re thinking of. This ARMY is a fandom collective for the K-pop group BTS. Adorable Representative MC for Youth. Twenty-four-year-old Jaden’s social life revolves around being an ARMY. Not only does she spend most of her free time watching live streams and videos of BTS but her social circle also consists of ARMY members. Her parents told her how thankful they are that she found BTS and Jaden believes, given the chance to meet each other, her family would get along well with the group’s seven members.
Part of that is because of their personas. Likeable personalities are common interpretations of the members of BTS; ARMY often notes their authenticity. This makes the fandom feel like they know all the members personally and have a relationship with the group. But Jaden and other members of the fandom are not delusional; they know that the men do not know them personally. Instead, ARMY members feel that BTS knows the fandom as a unit on a personal level. So, as members, they’ve established a relationship with the group.
There is a significant difference between being a fan and being part of a fandom. A fan supports and enjoys the music. Being a part of a fandom means identifying with others who share the same fixation on the celebrity or group. Jaden’s story shows how fandoms go beyond the music and the group itself. The communities established through fandoms can alter the course of someone’s life. Even as the seven members of BTS are conscripted into the Army (and this time, it’s the actual South Korean army, as per the country’s law), Jaden’s constant devotion shows how the community is independent and resilient to change.
BTS: The Global Phenomenon
BTS has the largest fandom in the world, outranking even those of Taylor Swift and Harry Styles. The group began its assembly in the early 2010s when Bang Si-hyuk, a South Korean songwriter and producer, wanted to build a group with “real people” instead of the usual idols groomed to rise to the industry’s standards that tend to display a lack of individual personalities. South Korean idols undergo training sometimes lasting years, providing them with lessons not just on singing and dancing but on how to deal with being a celebrity, such as learning to maintain their public image and talk to the media. Although BTS members were also once trainees who went through lessons, Bang Si-hyuk wanted to mix up the usual formula. He created a group adolescents could relate to, with music about society’s pressures on the younger generations and the anxieties these may lead to. The group expresses their authenticity by writing the majority of their own songs, releasing relatable lyrics—“These words that are easily said towards me quickly become a wall/ Even loneliness turns into something you can see”— and openly talking about their struggles, such as anxiety.
BTS is short for Bangtan Sonyeondan, Korean for Bulletproof Boy Scouts. “It has a profound meaning . . . ‘Bangtan’ means to be resistant to bullets, so it means to block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that aim on adolescents like bullets, to preserve the values and [ideals] of today’s adolescents,” BTS member, J-Hope, said to Affinity Magazine.
“With a member missing, it feels as though the family is incomplete.”
While their openness in sharing their anxieties helps them connect with young people, the BTS members also resonate with South Korean men through their enlistment in the military. South Korean law dictates that every young man takes up military service by the time they are twenty-eight; however, there have been years of debates among government officials surrounding their possible exemptions from enlisting, especially because BTS brings in more than $3.6 billion (USD) to South Korea’s economy. The group had an extension for when they were to enlist, but it was cancelled when their oldest member, Jin, joined the service in December 2022 at thirty years old. The group announced their decision through a statement to fans on their record label’s social media platform, Weverse. This sparked a new era for the group, as all seven will not be together until at least 2025.
“Military enlistment is not a shock,” Jaden says. “When you get into K-Pop, you’re made aware that if you’re going to stan a boy group, members will go off and have to do this service, and they might come back, or the group might disband. There’s always like a bit of uncertainty around that,” she continues. Jaden expresses that the sadness attached to military enlistment comes from the seven members being a family. With a member missing, it feels as though the family is incomplete. However, Jaden notes that enlistment is an honourable thing for South Korean men and could be seen as a rite of passage, as all the men in their families have done it. Although this may be one reason for their enlistment, Jaden believes it’s also a way for them to take control of their lives and make the decision to enlist for themselves, proving their character. Jaden’s devotion stands strong as the members go off to serve.
The Making of an ARMY Member: Jaden’s Story
BTS talks to their fans about mental health, something they feel people with a platform should spread. “That’s why we have the concept, ‘Love Yourself.’ We don’t want to preach, ‘Do this or don’t do that,’ because that’s not the way that we want to spread our message,” said BTS member RM in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. These messages do not go unnoticed.
Jaden became ARMY in 2020, in a time of lockdowns and social distancing. She says, “When we were going through COVID and all the lockdowns, [my parents] actually said that they were quite thankful that I found them because it really pulled me out of a very dark place that I was in, and kind of kept me afloat during all of those uncertain times.” She was struggling with her mental health at the time and says she was close to giving up. Being employed as an essential worker in a bank at the height of the pandemic, with no end in sight, made things harder on her. Although Jaden listened to BTS’s music before, it hadn’t impacted her in the same way. When she listened to them during this dark point in her life, she says the music spoke directly to her experience and made her feel happy again. There is a saying amongst ARMY, “You don’t find BTS; they find you when you need them,” which Jaden says sums up her experience.
Three major factors drive people to fandoms: self-care, social connection, and identity. As they find comfort from a music group they love, fandom members can process emotions through their music. Jaden had been in fandoms before, but ARMY is different. “No band, artist, group has made me feel the way BTS do,” she says. In addition to the personal implications of fandoms, members also develop friendships with one another through their mutual dedication to the group. For Jaden, that is definitely the case.
“In a society focused on getting ahead, finding your passion, and making a career out of it, it can be hard for people who don’t know what that passion is.”
Jaden met her best friend, Jackie K, because of ARMY. In 2022 Jaden had just moved to Toronto from Australia, not knowing anyone. She discovered that a bubble tea shop near her was dedicating a day to BTS, playing their music, and encouraging ARMY members to come and mingle. They gave out cup sleeves, which were essentially koozies, decorated with BTS memorabilia. Jaden took it as a great opportunity. As she stood in line waiting for a bubble tea, she noticed a pin on Jackie’s bag that she thought was interesting and decided to strike up a conversation. Within minutes they discovered that they were both heading to an upcoming BTS show in Las Vegas on the same weekend. After grabbing their drinks, they kept the conversation going. Instead of engaging in the typical small talk one would expect to have with a stranger, their conversation turned into a deep reflection regarding mental health and the effects of BTS on their lives. Hours later, they left as friends. Now, over a year later, they describe one another as besties. “It’s a shared experience type of moment,” Jackie says of the day she met Jaden, “where there’s immediate common ground and there’s an immediate understanding of, ‘Oh, I see you.’.”
What draws people to BTS differs for everyone but Jaden and Jackie agree that they were attracted to the messages BTS share through their music and social platforms, which focus on self-love and breaking away from societal norms. One example is being told it’s okay not to have everything figured out—a message they don’t hear often enough. In a society focused on getting ahead, finding your passion, and making a career out of it, it can be hard for people who don’t know what that passion is. “It’s alright to stop/ There’s no need to run without even knowing the reason/ It’s alright to not have a dream/ If you have moments where you feel happiness for a while,” the BTS song, “Paradise,” reminds listeners.
Jaden and Jackie say vlogs (video blogs) and behind-the-scenes videos turned them into the loyal fans that they are. Those videos allowed them to develop the sense that they intimately know BTS members. They’re with them through it all and this deep devotion to the group runs through most of the fandom. BTS has over 60 million YouTube subscribers and their site, Weverse, created by the group’s label containing exclusive BTS content, has over six million users. Jaden is one of them.
Jaden and Jackie developed their friendship because of BTS, and their activities, such as concerts in movie theatres, revolve around the group. In the past year, they made more friends at ARMY events and concerts. Although social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter), are powerful tools for connecting with other community members, friendships do move offline. “It doesn’t feel like I have to pretend to be someone I’m not or someone else in order to fit in,” Jaden says, “because I already do fit.”
Jaden has a tattoo of the number seven on her wrist, something all the members of BTS and other ARMY members have. She received the tattoo in 2022 after attending her first BTS concert. Seven represents not only the seven members but also their hit album, Map of the Soul: 7, released in their seventh year as a group. ARMY members started putting the number in their X usernames to show that they were a part of the fandom before it became a popular tattoo. Jaden’s seven is unique to her. It’s attached to a butterfly, which symbolizes a BTS song of the same name about self-identity and struggles with mental health. She describes this song as “musical therapy.” The combination of the two BTS-related symbols in her tattoo provides a permanent reminder to Jaden of the group’s impact on her. Jaden also began learning Korean and has hopes of going on an extended vacation to Korea soon. Her interest in the pop group led her down a new path, where she found community and a new culture to learn about.
With the inability to see all seven members together until at least 2025, ARMY must learn to adapt. Jaden describes this next stage, where members explore solo careers, as “Chapter Two.” She acknowledges that it’s not just a shift for ARMY but the BTS members themselves. She says, “It feels like we’re holding hands with all of them, which is nice because we’re not the only ones trying to get used to it. They are as well.”
Although ARMY mourns the loss of seeing the men interact as a unit, BTS’s increased social media activity helps ease the sting. Jaden feels it’s intentional, keeping the fandom occupied and reducing the sadness attached to their enlistment. “Trying to get BTS to not talk to ARMY is like trying to pull out a tooth—a really stubborn tooth,” Jaden says. “You can’t make them not want to talk to us.”
Clearing It Up: Fandom Stereotypes
Making deep connections with celebrities may confuse some people or, frankly, seem strange. Negative perceptions attached to fandoms leave some fans not wanting to label themselves as such. The words “stalker,” “groupie,” and “antisocial” come to mind. These stereotypes distract from what ARMY, and fandoms in general, are all about and often leave members feeling embarrassed and misunderstood. Jaden notices these stereotypes, especially when meeting a new person and explaining her identity as ARMY. “Essentially,” Jaden says,” it’s the automatic connotation that you’re insane and all you do is scream and cry and act like a child.”.
Jaden believes that because BTS is made up of men, the societal understanding of the fandom is that young girls are fans because of the attractiveness of the group’s members. However, she notes that the fandom is diverse and consists of varying genders, ages, and sexualities. ARMY’s level of dedication can be compared to sports fans, who don’t get judged to the same degree. If a sports fan has memorabilia plastered over the house, it likely won’t receive the same level of scrutiny as it would with BTS merchandise. “Sports fans are the same level of dedicated as ARMY, in the fact that they will buy merchandise, they will wear it, and they will have it in their house. And they will put up posters and buy trading cards and buy tickets to every game and go with their friends,” Jaden says. But the difference between the groups is found in how society perceives them. “Sports fans are not looked down upon,” she continues. “Their intelligence is not questioned. They are not made fun of, ridiculed, or automatically lumped into just really negative connotations.”
“Although Jaden knows she cannot develop a more intimate type of relationship with BTS than she already has, her real-life friendships with other ARMY members are enough for her. More than enough.”
Establishing a relationship that cannot be reciprocated is commonly formed through social media, where people have access to a more intimate, candid version of a celebrity. Parasocial relationships, seen in many fandoms, can have a completely healthy quality, explains Wendi Gardner, a social psychology professor at Northwestern University. “We’re built to care about things, and the fact that this extends beyond our kin, our actual face-to-face friends, is extraordinary,” she says. Whether it be sports fans or ARMY members, Gardner emphasizes that dedication to the hobby remains healthy so long as it does not replace real-life relationships. In Jaden’s case, it does not replace anything. Instead, it adds to her life through the friendships she made because of her connection to BTS. “The community may disappear altogether one day,” Jaden says, “but I know those friendships and the impact BTS had on me will stay.”
Although Jaden knows she cannot develop a more intimate type of relationship with BTS than she already has, her real-life friendships with other ARMY members are enough for her. More than enough. These friendships, which she describes as long-time commitments, will endure even if their devotion to the group does not. Through ARMY, Jaden found acceptance, friendship, and a place she belongs. She found her people, thanks to BTS, who are as vital to her now as the music idols themselves.
While Jaden will not get to see BTS together in concert for years to come, she and Jackie did get to see two of the seven members in New York this year. In April, they saw Suga in concert. A few months later, they attended Good Morning America to watch Jungkook perform after winning tickets to see his solo debut. Even though these were solo performances, Jaden says the love will always be felt between ARMY and the group. “No matter what you go to, no matter what show, no matter what member it is, it’s always ARMY and it’s always the seven of them. It’s always ARMY forever and BTS forever.”