Korean boy band BTS at the 32nd Golden Disc Awards on January 10, 2018. Photo: Wikipedia
Korean boy band BTS at the 32nd Golden Disc Awards on January 10, 2018. Photo: Wikipedia

On the poster stuck up in the subway station, he is smiling, raising his left hand in the air, clenching a microphone and obviously happy.

And why shouldn’t he be? He is “V” and is a member of K-pop supergroup BTS. The poster is a birthday tribute to him.

It is a classic fan salute, of a kind that can be found plastered all over Korea. But this is not Korea – this is Copenhagen, Denmark.

It is a sign of the power of fandom and informal international marketing, which has been an immense help to BTS in its world-conquering surge.

Viking ARMY

“In December we put up the first banner in Denmark,” Camilla Hansen, 35, said in a phone interview. For her daily grind she works in an office,  but during her off-hours she runs the “BTS Danish ARMY,” the Danish fan club for the band’s mighty fan base.

“It was great, we got so much feedback afterwards, people were so excited,” she said of her postering activity. “The fan culture is slowly starting to spread here, I’ve seen posters so many times in South Korea, so to be part of it here [in Denmark] is amazing.”

In fact, her dedication to BTS – also known as “The Bangtan Boys” – is having real-life implications for the spread of the group’s music.

Every year, Danish music magazine GAFFA holds an award show, and this March BTS took home the gold in two categories: International Band of the Year and International Release of the Year – thanks to a little help from the ARMY.

“It was a fan vote and all our fans voted, [and] when the host said the name of BTS we all went crazy,” Hansen recalled. She traveled halfway across Denmark to attend the event, which she had tweeted about in advance in order to ensure the international ARMY would help BTS.

The Dane stumbled upon BTS and K-pop by accident. Back in May 2016 YouTube’s algorithm suggested a video showing the boys practicing a dance. She watched, and her life changed.

“I didn’t understand a word they said, I knew nothing about South Korea or K-pop, but I was completely hooked on their music,” she recalled. “My life took a 180-degree turn and I’ve been lost ever since.”

Hansen has immersed herself to the max, teaching herself Korean, travelling all over Europe to see BTS perform, and even naming her cat ‘TaeTae’ after one of the band members.

Superfans = super promotion

The success of BTS – the first K-pop act to truly hit it big in Western markets – can be attributed to fans like Hansen. In the US, the ARMY made sure that local radio stations gave air time to the Bangtan Boys by calling DJs directly. It worked.

“The question is no longer about how ‘BTS is coming’ or ‘BTS is crossing over’ to the West — the answer is ‘BTS has arrived,’” said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Korean music artist and label services agency. “They had an insane year last year, emerging as the best-selling band in the world and 2019 is shaping up to be even bigger, as their new album release is already on pace to break sales records they set just a few months ago.”

The success of BTS’s tight fan connection is something other artists can learn from, Cho suggested. “BTS’s special SNS [social networking service] connection with their international army of fans is a fascinating case study on how to successfully be proactive and interactive,” he said.

Hansen has tried to convince Danish radio stations to get aboard the K-pop wave and give BTS a chance on the airwaves, but so far there has been little cooperation from the radio stations in the Scandinavian country.

“We have been told directly that BTS will not be played since no one understands what they’re saying, which is weird since the same radio stations have been playing [Spanish language hit] ‘Descpacito’ almost on repeat,” Hansen said.“But of course, we keep fighting and hope that one day BTS on Danish radio will be a normal thing, like in the USA.”

The force of fandom

K-pop fan culture is a force. On Korean streets, young kids dance and reenact their favorite artists’ tracks; cafés cater to certain bands and are covered with fan paraphernalia; Seoul’s Sinchon subway station is plastered with “Happy Birthday” posters for K-popsters.

One of them is of Oh Se-hun from Exo. He’s crossing his thumb behind his index finger, a common hand gesture signifying a heart and representing love. Ironically, love is not something most K-pop stars can partake of.

In September, two idols from different groups started dating and were quickly dropped from their record labels for “breaking their trust.” Their crime? They had gone public without the blessings of their label. “No dating” clauses have even been added to contracts, according to The New York Times.

BTS are famed for their Vlog, and K-popsters have to be available to fans – really available. K-pop, like most pop music, is at least partly sold via sex appeal. For this reason, idols must remain asexual publicly, so fans can feel like they’re in a relationship with them.

Ugly amid the pretty

Yet, although they’re carefully curated by their labels, there is a dark side to some K-poppers.

“I admit to all of my sins,” singer Jung Joon-young said in front of half of the Korean press corps earlier this month. “I filmed women without their consent, shared the videos in a group chat and did such without feeling any sense of guilt.”

Jung is just the latest star to be dragged down in a widening scandal, which has also engulfed Big Bang member Seungri on charges of soliciting prostitutes and possible police corruption.

Still, die-hard fans remain steadfast in their conviction.

“My heart aches for you, I hope you can read all these encouraging words from us so you can also have strength to face all these things,” a fan wrote on an Instagram video showing Jung confessing.

“But I’m so proud of him for being honest and admitting his crimes,” another wrote. “I’ll wait for you…”

BTS has not been implicated in the scandal – and there is no indication that they will be. Even so, some of their fans stand accused of being overly protective of their idols.

Music magazine NME alleged that the ARMY has become “weaponized”, accusing fans of employing bullying tactics on social media against writers who are in any way critical of BTS.

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