The immense fineness of 10 glorious years taking small, progressively more difficult steps with BTS

Happy anniversary, you living legends! Please excuse me for getting a bit personal and sappy in celebration

“We're now going to progress to some steps
Which are a bit more difficult.
Ready, set, and begin

So starts the very first phrase on BTS’s very first album, 2 Cool 4 Skool. The sample was used 10 years earlier, on the intro track of Epik High’s first album, Map of the Human Soul, which BTS echoed with their Map of the Soul series, Persona (2018) and 7 (2019). There’s a lot to be said about the relationship between BTS and Epik High as inspirators and collaborators, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about today, the day we celebrate BTS’s first decade. No, I’m thinking about what this old-school dance instructor’s directions set forward.

To say that BTS have created their own civilization is perhaps a bit bold, but it’s also true

It may be a surprise to many, but this intro sample is from a 1978 dance instruction LP produced by Canadian label K-Tel, dubbed Let’s Disco. You can hear the original version the now-famous phrase at around 8:30 on this version uploaded to YouTube, though I believe the sample spliced to different directives as it’s not a direct quote in this instance.

I find myself thinking about the literal meaning of this verse whenever BTS achieves a milestone and/or does something that accomplishes something new nobody else has ever done before. Which pretty much means whenever I’m thinking of BTS nowadays.

“Let’s do something a bit more difficult than what has come before. Nothing too intense, but we’re going to do something new. Let’s begin,” the sample declares. And so to did BTS.

When BTS debuted 10 years ago on June 13, 2013 with the single No More Dream, it was hard to imagine that they, or anyone really, would get to the immense heights that they’ve now reached in less than a decade. In the first part of the 2010s, K-pop already had diehard fans (including yours truly, who was studying in Seoul at the time) already on board, but was still relatively burgeoning on the global mainstage, after Psy’s Gangnam Style brought more eyeballs in 2012. It just wasn’t imaginable at that point, that the whole world would ever rally around a singular Korean pop act. But BTS have made us time and again believe in the unimaginable, turning larger than life dreams into reality.

BTS posing as seven

By the end of the decade and into the 2020s, BTS had rewritten the shape of music and pop culture history forever, changing the lives not only of themselves but millions of ARMY around the world, inspiring a generation and carving a new paradigm of success. And they, supported by their BigHit/Hybe team, did it by taking small steps, gradually building on their artistry and careers, and audience and impact, with the type of care and precision that turns villages into cities, communities into civilizations.

To say that BTS have created their own civilization, or at the very least culture, is perhaps a bit bold, but it’s also true: there are more fans of BTS around the world than many countries’ populations, and their reach is expansive, impacting politics, art, and societal development.

It is intense, the recognition that this all started in small ways, with seven individuals making up the central axis, having walked a route from these early progressively more difficult steps to insurmountable giant leaps where it all has paid off to being shapers of an era.

But as sizable as BTS and their impact now is, it’s still something relatively small: it’s a feeling embedded in each of us, growing larger as it ripples across the world, resonating like a rock thrown into a pond, that leads into a river that leads into an ocean. It’s the seven members. It’s their team. It’s their fans. It’s the heart of humanity responding to art and melodies, aurality turned into something so much more finite as it impacts us all in our own small, personal ways as we find meaning in BTS’s music, their words, their actions. It’s why so many people relate to BTS; they, and what they have given the world, is small but mighty. (The members put this best in their celebratory notes, so check them out after reading this newsletter, if you’d like.)

BTS album poster for 10th anniversary Festa BTS Presents Everywhere. Features images of 19 BTS albums, with brief bios of each one.

When I sat down to write something to attempt to reflect how momentous BTS at 10 is, I was at a loss, because how do you put this all into words for a newsletter? I wrote a book about BTS, and even the day we finished the final edits I felt like I wanted to start again because there was so much more to say, even after ~300 pages of words.*

But one moment I kept finding myself thinking about as I stared at my blank screen, the cursor marker daring me to just put something down onto my Google Doc, was an experience I had around the release of Love Yourself: Answer in August 2018.

I don’t remember all the circumstances, but I wasn’t in a great mood when I began listening to the album a few days before its release. I was walking in Times Square in New York City late one night. It was raining. Not a thunderstorm, and not really monumental enough for me to use an umbrella. It was a perfect summer rain, in retrospect, but it felt like a laugh of the universe at my already not great feelings. But when I heard I’m Fine, I felt so elated, gutted down to my very fibers as I experienced the ebullient comfort, assurances of the song for the first time. I wouldn’t say I danced at Times Square at 2am on my own in the rain, but I definitely had a bit of a skip in my step.

It was like this line sung by Jimin in the opening verse embedded itself into my very existence:

“한껏 숨이 차오르고 심장은 뛰어
느껴져 너무 쉽게 나 살아있다는 걸”

(My breath is quickening, my heart is racing
I can feel it so easily that I'm alive)

It’s so simple, but it mattered to me, and in that moment it truly hit. I don’t know why some musical moments make our synapses and nerves sing while others don’t, but this one hit me so rough it was lifeshaking.

Writing this down, I’m kind of laughing at myself, at how cheesy this experience sounds. But I am not, by nature, a happy person, and moments of sheer happiness just for revelling in my existence, as this one, are rare and far and few. I’ve struggled with depression since childhood. Adulthood has brought moments that have quite frankly tortured me. But in one of those moments, I’m Fine, the answer to their earlier 2016 Save Me, BTS gave me a feeling that I’ve carried with me ever since, that even in the darkest moments I can dance on my own in the rain at night in the busiest place in my city and feel more than fine.

As much as I love it, and as amazing as that moment was for me, I’m Fine is not my favorite BTS song. It’s not even my favorite song from their Love Yourself trilogy. No, that’s the love of my life, Anpanman**. But on the rainy summer night, it was the most powerful thing in the world, and it’s been a feeling I recall during hard moments of life, trying to remember that intensely peaceful moment of existential euphoria shared between me and BTS alone.

Save Me and I'm Fine Meaning | ARMY's Amino

This was a powerful instance*** I singularly experienced, accompanied by the voices of these seven amazing stars. But while it’s a moment that belongs to me and them, this sort of feeling is echoed around the world, experience on the daily by ARMY. We are all small steps, progressing towards living this difficult life, together, with BTS as our lodestone. We as humans are alone, but as ARMY BTS has brought us together to share a bit of our existence with them, and vice versa.

As they embark on the Take Two of their career, I hope that we can celebrate another decade of firsts and powerful earthshaking moments, where it feels like the whole world is just oneself, BTS, and the assurance that things are absolutely, wonderfully fine (even when they’re not!) because it’s small steps in difficult directions that change the world.

whatsapp screenshot. Friend: Girl please love yourself Tamar: literally listening to bts's love yourself answer how did you know
A friend set himself up while I was writing this

Enough being sappy. Let’s go celebrate. APOBANGPO. I love you, BTS. Thank you for everything. Let’s keep taking our small steps together and progressively change this world even more. 💜💜💜💜💜💜💜💜💜💜

* I don’t know if my amazing editor, Sarah Fairhall at VIZ, knew this at the time, but she emailed me for the very first time the week of BTS’s fifth anniversary, in June 2013. Our first call to discuss what would become BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears took place on June 12 in the US, ie on June 13 in South Korea. It’s always a little special thing to me.

**I was hoping to have an essay on Anpanman featured in the upcoming academic work The BTS Critical Reader, but the essay wasn’t coming together in a way that felt like it worked the way I was imagining it so it’s sadly not going to be in it in the Reader but I am very excited to read everyone’s essays. Perhaps I’ll work through the issues someday and put my thoughts on this wonderful song into words for you all.

***Don’t do this, this was dumb af to be listening to music in Times Square late at night alone, when it was pretty empty since it was really late and it was rainy. Be safe everyone. Please carry personal defense items if you feel the need. I have a stun gun from Tiny Protectors, and hope to never use it, but it comforts me.