On day five of pouring over hours of Bangtan Boys (BTS) member J-Hope’s live stream content to gain insight into the intersections of his stage persona and true self, I realized that my obsession with this South Korean boy band went deep. As someone with a storied history of delving into various pop culture fascinations of the moment, my descent into intense BTS fandom was perhaps inevitable. Within a year of seeing the light, my devotion to BTS transcended any feelings I’d had towards other boy bands, like One Direction.
This can partly be attributed to the sheer magnitude of a group like BTS. Along with an extensive discography of catchy K-pop, they also incorporate seemingly impossibly synchronized choreography and a convoluted cinematic universe that began with the “I Need U” video in 2015.
What stood out the most upon my introduction to BTS is their ability to produce staggering amounts of content while maintaining a sense of personal mystery. This dichotomy between accessibility and elusiveness makes it difficult to remain a casual fan. In an era of oversharing, I found BTS members’ efforts to remain enigmatic while also cultivating a sense of availability to fans reminiscent of a bygone version of celebrity made famous by figures like Prince.
Throughout his dynamic career, Prince maintained vehement opinions about what he was willing to share with the press. Rather than letting interviewers record him, he insisted they report based only on their notes and his often cryptic responses. As a result, many profiles of Prince primarily discuss his essence and the image he crafted so meticulously. In this sense, he created a mythology around himself that lent itself generously to public imagination.
Prince stories abound all over the Internet from people who worked with him, or fans who were blessed enough to have a firsthand encounter. Part of the fun of loving Prince is all the wild, unbelievable, possibly made-up stories that circulate from fellow celebrities on talk shows or from acquaintances at parties. Though many parts of his life remain an enigma to fans, he balanced mystery with a level of accessibility that allowed him to become a prominent part of music history. Rather than allowing his wariness toward the press to close himself off from the public eye, he selectively chose which journalists he wanted to work with and often invited them into his home.
While many celebrities succumb to a media landscape that seeks frequent, surface-level interviews, Prince instead relied on sparse but deeply thorough profiles to promote his art. In many ways, BTS has followed a similar model of establishing a strict contrast between what is shared and what is not, stimulating a more meaningful connection with fans and catapulting them to an unprecedented level of global K-pop stardom.
Despite the overwhelming amount of BTS-made content to consume—the discography, the intricate music videos, a variety show, a travel show (Bon Voyage), and hours of live streams—the members manage to keep the details of their lives fairly private. Considering how famous the group has become, maintaining privacy is crucial to caring for their physical and mental health. In addition to protecting themselves, BTS’ masterful separation between public persona and true self builds the type of mythology that leaves a void fans are desperate to fill.
Like Prince, stories of brief encounters with BTS from fans, staff, and other K-pop idols flourish across the Internet. A story about Jin’s personal trainer recounting mundane details of their time working together, essentially that he is very polite, went viral despite lacking the type of salacious scoop we expect from Hollywood paparazzi. If you type “meeting BTS” into the YouTube search bar, you’ll find pages of videos from fans recounting every detail from concerts and fan meetings. While these stories are often inconsequential (often along the lines of “Taehyung nodded at me/RM waved at me”), they provide us with a brief glimpse into what these seven ethereal boys might be like off-camera.
The carefully-crafted void around the backstage lives of the members is filled by fans in several ways, one of the most prominent being fanfiction. Fanfiction has a long history of empowering women and queer fans to rework texts to serve their underrepresented narratives more comprehensively. Though there is debate about the ethics of writing fanfiction about real people, I argue that it’s a healthy, productive way to channel the innate desire to feel closer to someone fans idolize. Fanfiction can serve as “a substitute for desires that could not be articulated,” which in the case of BTS, allows fans to develop imaginary lives and relationships for the members without acting in ways that put the members themselves in harm’s way.
Along with fanfiction, BTS fans are continuing the legacy of boy band conspiracy theories. While many tread into the ridiculous (i.e., there’s an invisible eighth member, Jin is a time traveler), others stem directly from the group’s secrecy. On multiple occasions, the members have referenced a period in 2018 when they considered disbanding (notably in their emotional acceptance speech from the MAMA award show that year). Although they have addressed this directly, the members have provided scarce details on what actually happened. This is easily justifiable, considering they are still an active group that must work to avoid potentially negative press, but it has catalyzed waves of fan speculation.
Since this information has gone public, fans have entertained numerous theories on what could have gone wrong within the group to lead them to almost disband at the height of their career. Without any concrete evidence to go on, the theories are usually rooted in deep analysis of content that is available. For example, some interpret the timing of Taehyung’s onstage breakdown as evidence of him perhaps wanting to leave the group. Then, they’ll seek out more evidence of Taehyung acting in a way that could promote this theory and post about it on social platforms. Rather than providing any real insight into private conflicts within the group, these threads serve more as an example of how devoted fans are to answering questions raised by the mystery surrounding BTS.
Amid the countless threads on Quora and Twitter unpacking hypothetical drama within BTS, some fans spend a considerable amount of time trying to figure out who the members are dating. Unlike Western groups, K-pop idols are discouraged from having public romantic relationships. Most companies have some sort of contractual obligation trainees must sign before their debut that restricts them from dating, at least for a certain time. Idols are encouraged to keep their personal lives hidden to craft the illusion that they are available exclusively to fans. In doing so, they provide a sense of accessibility that allows fans to develop genuine feelings of intimacy with idols.
However, many within the industry have explained how idols date in secret, often against their company’s direction. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to imagine this reality—it’s impossible to fathom young and beautiful idols refraining entirely from romance. By providing no concrete information about who they might be dating, BTS fans turn to fantasies about reciprocal relationships with the members while also sparking infinite speculation on secret real-life romances.
When I reflect on my days as a One Direction fan, I’m struck by how much more we knew about the members’ lives outside of the band than we do with a K-pop group like BTS. We always knew what was going on in One Direction’s personal and family lives—which raises concerns about the members’ ability to maintain privacy, but also takes away from the sense of mystery that fuels everyone’s obsession with BTS. Thanks to the Hollywood paparazzi model that capitalized massively off One Direction’s love lives, all it took was a quick Google search to figure out who Harry Styles was dating.
With BTS, however, fans must rely on far-fetched theories, usually based on close analysis of videos and images drawing weak links between members and other idols. Though paparazzi exist in South Korea, they function differently than in the US and the UK. The tabloid magazine Dispatch was launched in 2011 and is the largest media entity that reports on idols’ private lives. Dispatch has been involved in several high-profile scandals exposing secret relationships, but the publication works more directly with idols and their agencies than Western tabloids tend to.
BTS has so far largely avoided damaging run-ins with the paparazzi. In 2019, CCTV footage was leaked of Jungkook at a tattoo parlor with artist Lee Mijoo, leading to dating rumors debunked in an official statement from Big Hit Entertainment. Though the story led to some brutal messages attacking the artist, the vast majority of fans accepted Big Hit’s narrative and quickly moved on. Since BTS has achieved such a dominant level of power in the K-pop industry, their privacy is likely protected more than other artists. In keeping their personal lives almost entirely obscured from the public, BTS manages to inspire more prolonged interest from fans than a group like One Direction, whose girlfriends were often on display.
While all celebrities are forced to create boundaries between their public and private personas, for K-pop groups like BTS, the members’ personas exist as separate entities distinguished by stage names. In the Western music tradition, boy bands are less likely to craft such dramatic personas, and certainly less prone to discussing this element of artistry openly. Solo artists like Prince, David Bowie, and Nicki Minaj have relied heavily on various theatrical personas in their work, while groups like the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC tended to invoke more realistic alter egos to present to the public. In contrast, the members of BTS use stage names and explore themes relating to the persona as a motif in their music, building yet another layer for fans to dissect at length.
The latest BTS album integrates ideas developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to delve into the members’ personas and how they have evolved as the group continues their ascent into global superstars. By Jung’s definition, the persona serves as a social face capable of adapting to societal expectations, but also as “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” In concealing their “true natures”, BTS opens the door for a level of fan involvement unmatched by other groups that avoid discussion of the persona entirely. Sifting through hours of content trying to discern the subtle differences between J-Hope as a public persona and Jung Hoseok as an authentic individual easily becomes a full-time job. The group’s leader RM addresses this most explicitly in the lyrics of his song “Intro: Persona”:
The ‘me’ that I want myself to be
The ‘me’ that people want me to be
The ‘me’ that you love
And the ‘me’ that I create
The ‘me’ that’s smiling
The ‘me’ that’s sometimes in tears
Vividly breathing each second and every moment even now
The various “me’s” RM references signify the myriad of personas he’s developed throughout his life and how they interact. The person BTS fans love and feel they understand deeply is only a single facet of the person behind the music. This is the persona that provides a sense of accessibility through content and fan interaction, while the other aspects of RM, more fittingly addressed with his given name of Kim Namjoon, are largely kept hidden from adoring fans. By directly employing this concept in their work, the BTS members illuminate a universal but nebulous truth—we can decide how much of ourselves we’re willing to give to others.
The historic rise of BTS across the globe and the implications it has for the music industry is too expansive to attribute to a single variable. The question of why they have surpassed the international notoriety of all K-pop groups before them will continue to inspire musing from fans and critics alike. Though they existed decades apart with thousands of miles between them, BTS has expertly followed a model of balancing accessibility and enigma that played such a pivotal role in the success of legacy artists like Prince. And whether I ever manage to understand the distinctions between J-Hope and Jung Hoseok or not, I’m sure it will keep me invested for years to come.
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