I Went To My First BTS Concert And Learned What ARMY Is Really About

The sold-out Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour opener at the Rose Bowl was an illuminating lesson in how ARMY operates

If I'm being honest, BTS's fandom intimidates me. I'm a casual, occasional listener of the group's music, but there seems to be nothing casual about being their fan. Anyone with a Twitter account can see how massive, vocal, and fervent ARMY is, and I assumed that to be a part of it meant being all in or not in at all. As much as I'd flirted with the idea of immersing myself in the BTS world — one that the group has been building across multiple albums via intricate storylines and hidden messages — it seemed overwhelming, so I became content with watching from the periphery.

Then came Saturday (May 4) — the opening night of BTS's Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tour, and my first K-pop concert — and I realized that even stepping foot onto the grounds of the Rose Bowl meant you were in that world, whether you liked it or not. The group members' airbrushed faces adorned banners lining the streets and covering the walls of the stadium itself. The merch line snaked around a gigantic green field with seemingly no end in sight. I briefly chatted with a mom who was bringing her tutu-wearing four-year-old to her first concert. When I asked the little girl if she was excited, she could only jump up and down and scream "BTS!"

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There were a lot of things I saw that went over my head, though, so I found some gracious fans to school me on all things BTS. I met Myrene and Monette, who taught me about ARMY Bombs, the globe-shaped lightsticks that are Bluetooth-activated and color-coordinated with each performance. I learned about BT21 headbands from Jiaying, Kristine, and Ruby, who showed me theirs and explained how each member of the band had created his own character for this exclusive line of merchandise. Then there was Rubie, who flew in from Fort Worth, Texas, for both the Saturday and Sunday shows and planned to live-tweet them for fans who couldn't be there in person. She was there with Shelby, an Internet-turned-IRL friend she'd met on a K-pop forum. This was their first time meeting in person, but you'd never know it; they practically finished each other's sentences.

Finally, Margo and Elizabeth shared perhaps the biggest lesson I needed to know: the meaning of BTS's "love yourself" message. "It's about understanding yourself," they told me. "Finding the little pieces of yourself, understanding what you're made of, and putting them together to love yourself. It's helped a lot of people."

BTS has felt pretty inescapable these past few weeks. They scored their third No. 1 album, played SNL, released their biggest single to date with "Boy With Luv," and picked up a pair of Billboard Music Awards — all notable feats for any act, especially a Korean one. But hearing about them making history and breaking records can feel like a broken record, so it was satisfying to witness firsthand why they're as big as they are. From the second RM, Jin, Suga, J-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook kicked off with "Dionysus," it was nonstop kinetic energy. Each performance of the 24-song set felt like an encore, and was bolstered by confetti, fireworks, trapezes, AR tech, or some other fancy flourish. (Or, in the case of "Fake Love," a hilariously zoomed-in shot of Jungkook flashing his abs.)

All pageantry aside, the show also managed to highlight the members' strengths, quirks, and personalities. Each guy got his own solo, which resulted in some of the best performances of the night — from Jungkook's high-flying voyage with "Euphoria" to Jimin's soothing, sexy "Serendipity." The four singers harmonized on the ballad "The Truth Untold," while the three rappers joined forces for the hyped-up "Outro: Tear." All the while, the guys proved themselves pro pop stars — they knew which cameras to make eye contact with, and knew when to turn up the silliness, the sensitivity, or the swagger. Each had all three in spades.

There was a moment on Saturday when it occurred to me that this show was only partly about BTS. It was right before the four-song encore, a few minutes after the group had disappeared into the bowels of the Rose Bowl, leaving 60,000 rapturous fans to their own devices. The right side of the stadium abruptly launched into the wave, and it circulated around the venue several times, getting brighter with each turn as more cell phone lights turned on. Simultaneously, the crowd's chants of "ARMY," the name for BTS's fanbase — for themselves — grew more deafening, and BTS had no choice but to answer the call.

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I later learned that the pre-encore wave is a staple of the group's live shows, but experiencing it for the first time was a stunning scene, and a lesson in how ARMY operates — they were there for BTS as much as they were there for themselves. To celebrate themselves, to love themselves, to speak themselves. Once they returned to the stage, BTS, too, were ready to catch their breaths and speak. One by one, they reflected — some of them, via a translator — on what the night meant to them. "ARMY, you and I are one," Jin said. "This place is something else. It's so surreal," J-hope gushed. The group's leader, RM, admitted he was nervous earlier that day, especially after some hiccups during rehearsal. But, he said, "many years later, I'll definitely think about this night." Eyes twinkling, he added, "You're the stars of our night, and the lighthouse to lead us." It was a fitting segue into the final song, "Mikrokosmos," which they sang under a huge, glimmering disco ball before a fireworks display ushered them offstage.

My ears are still ringing, and I'm OK with that. I didn't have an ARMY Bomb to raise into the air, I didn't have a "bias" picked out, and I didn't know all the sporadic fan chants throughout the show, but none of that really mattered. I left with a big, dumb smile on my face and a reassurance that BTS fans have a "the more, the merrier" mentality. Which is great, because a pair of sold-out nights at the Rose Bowl certainly means ARMY is growing in wild, unprecedented fashion, whether you're in or not.