“Beyond The Scene” of Performance in K-pop: BTS’ Network of Performances On and Off Stage

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Sim, Hakyung. “‘Beyond The Scene’ of Performance in K-pop: BTS’ Network of Performances on and Off Stage.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv3n1a5

Hakyung Sim

Seoul National University

K-pop is now a popular music genre among teenagers and young adults worldwide. It’s not uncommon to see fans from different cultural backgrounds cheering for K-pop artists, singing along with Korean lyrics, and covering K-pop choreography. While Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, was observed through TV soap operas (K-drama) from the late 1990s on in Japan, China, India, and Taiwan, as well as Sino-ethnic countries in Southeast Asia, the current surge in the popularity of Korean pop shows wider spread and deeper penetration in terms of geographical range as well as ethnic groups. K-pop owes its bigger success with international audiences largely to the advancement of media technology. Through user-driven communities on computers and mobile devices, K-pop was easily circulated without the constraints of physical and institutional borders that K-drama initially had to face when being broadcasted by the local channels or sold on Video Compact Discs (VCDs). Also, whereas K-drama had to have its lines meticulously translated from the manufacturer’s side to be received in the market, K-pop has its strengths in the audio-visual realm, leaving relatively little to be translated.[1]

In the discourse of performance studies, the futility of distinction between artistic and non-artistic performances has been argued when speaking of aesthetic experience in performance. Erika Fischer-Lichte points out how “the aesthetic experience of a performance does not depend on the ‘work of art’ but on the interaction of the participants” (Fischer-Lichte 36). However, the binary still persists in most forms of performing arts with the concept of “work of art” defining the outlines of what should be aesthetically regarded. Performances in K-pop are a network rather than artworks, comprised not only of on-stage performances but also of off-stage performances, as well as the text and context that accompany those performances. The concept of network here would be best understood as that in Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), which considers networks to be comprised of both material and semiotic actors, continuously creating meaning and performing relations. An actor-network is different from a network in the mathematical or technical sense in that it is “not a thing but the recorded movement of a thing” (Latour 378). This constantly evolving and performing concept of an actor-network suitably describes how performances in K-pop are formed and disseminated.

On one hand, K-pop performances on stage or in music videos could be regarded as on-stage performances, with music, dance, visual effects, and the performers’ charismatic bodily presence (albeit usually on screen). On the other, the continued “performance” of K-pop artists performing identity through various channels such as YouTube and social networking platforms could be seen as off-stage performance, which, in turn, influences and shapes their on-stage performance. While the audience may never meet a K-pop performer in real person, K-pop artists perform themselves as personae or social beings by releasing autobiographical documentaries or uploading messages, videos, photos, and recordings to complement their performances on stage. K-pop performance as an actor-network shows how various actants, human and non-human, build up and expand the network itself and traces the movement of K-pop performers’ identity through the performance persona paradigm.

Given such circumstances, understanding the mechanism of K-pop performance as a network could immensely contribute to grasping the newest currents of cultural globalization through social media, which could be even seen as gradually turning away from mere Americanization as cultural critics have unfavorably forecasted. Though most K-pop artists have been utilizing social media to perform and circulate their performances digitally, the K-pop boy group BTS (also known as Bang-tan-so-nyeon-dan or “Bulletproof Boys” in Korean) and their performances not only serve as the most exemplary case for the present discussion but even deserve an academic analysis in the perspective of performing arts and performance studies. This paper examines BTS’ performances from 2015 to 2018, ranging from the narrative in their songs and albums, musical performances (recorded and live), and a documentary show to their use of social networks. Through this examination, I will argue how the actor-network of on-stage and off-stage performances is created when some aspects of their off-stage personality pervade into their on-stage personality.

BTS: From “Boy in Luv” to Worldwide “IDOL”

The recent unprecedented popularity of BTS serves as an adequate example for this discussion. BTS is a group of seven twenty-something boys (RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook), now in the seventh year of their career. At the beginning of their career, BTS didn’t have a proper name for global activities, as they only went by Bang-tan-so-nyeon-dan. As they began gaining a fandom abroad, their international fans referred to them as the Bulletproof Boys or Bangtan Boys in the early days. Upon starting their full-fledged international activities, BTS added the meaning “Beyond the Scene” to their already-formed acronym. BTS perform themselves on or off stage; either as young men, stars or characters; creating a complex performative network of real life, drama, and their artistic work. It was when they were first named Top Social Artist at Billboard Music Awards in 2017, ending Justin Bieber’s six-year monopoly of the award, that the rising global interest in K-pop finally proved itself. After a decade of K-pop singers’ attempts to penetrate the global market,[2] BTS is also breaking records for Asian singers with their albums LOVE YOURSELF: Tear and LOVE YOURSELF: Answer peaking the Billboard 200 chart in June and September of 2018 respectively (“BTS Chart History”).

Critics and fans alike are evaluating this phenomenon to be substantially different from that of PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” which was a global hit from 2012. “Gangnam Style” swept the global audiences when its music video was introduced via YouTube with a hooking rhythm and camp aesthetics. While the success of “Gangnam Style” did not lead to the expansion or even creation of a stable fandom for the singer himself, BTS’ growing success is rather seen as a natural result of the activities by their global-scale fandom, ARMY. It is commonly understood that the formation of BTS’ global fandom was enabled by their active use of and engagement with social networks, especially YouTube and V LIVE — a Korean live broadcasting platform. This strategy has its roots in the humble environment that BTS is known to have come from.

Before they came into full limelight, their real life as K-pop “idols” is known to have gone under constant discouraging and belittling. K-pop industry then and now is being mostly led by the three biggest entertainment agencies, SM, YG, and JYP. Successful K-pop groups prior to BTS had come from those large companies, with substantial financial investment put in from the initial stages to secure sufficient public attention on the way leading to their debut. Surely, there are other prominent entertainment companies and labels in the K-pop industry and belonging to a company other than those top three does not immediately mean that a K-pop group will fail. However, what posed a double trouble for BTS as they debuted in 2013 was that they were not only debuting from a small newcomer company with no successful predecessor but also identifying themselves as a “hip-hop” idol group, which induced much repulsion from both the hip-hop and pop scenes in Korea.

Being without corporate support meant that it was hard for BTS to get opportunities for exposure in mainstream media. As revealed in the lyrics of “Sea” (2017), a hidden track in the album LOVE YOURSELF: Her, they were “cut from TV shows countless times, and it was their dream to stand in for someone else” (BTS “Sea”). It was because of the impenetrability of mainstream media that BTS turned to YouTube and other alternative media. Since even before they debuted, they had been sharing their vlogs, journal entries, and demo tapes on a blog, which they continue to use as one of the routes for communication (BTS “BANGTAN BLOG”). Their YouTube channel features several different types of videos, including behind-the-scenes footages, self-cam recordings, and choreography videos. BTS’ early and active utilization of YouTube as a major platform resulted in allowing easier access to overseas K-pop fans, who cannot always depend on mainstream Korean TV and thus require online materials.

While BTS’ early themes from 2013 to 2014 revolved around school life, with songs like “Boy in Luv” and “N.O.” dealing with teenage love and the sense of resistance against the oppression of standardized education, their real-life transition into young adulthood was reflected in the themes of their songs and performances. The three-part album series, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 1, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 2, and The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever (2015-2016), reflect images of troubled young adults by not only celebrating their reckless youth but also revealing the darker sides of violence, depression, and isolation. Through the albums that followed, WINGS (2016) and A Complementary Story: You Never Walk Alone (2017), BTS brought in themes from literature (Demian by Hermann Hesse and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin) to develop their narratives on youth. Finally, with another three-part album series, LOVE YOURSELF: Her, LOVE YOURSELF: Tear, and LOVE YOURSELF: Answer (2017-2018), BTS completed its three-year-long narrative sequence on troubled youth by arriving at the simple yet powerful conclusion that loving oneself is the key to happiness.

By offering a network of on-stage and off-stage performances, BTS seems to offer a stronger sense of authenticity than other K-pop stars. A typical structure of seeking and offering authenticity in K-pop culture should be noted here. Authenticity is a contested concept especially in the K-pop realm where mediation and remediation are part of the modus operandi. In dealing with the authenticity of glam rock, Philip Auslander notes how Barnie Hoskyns criticized the ideology of rock authenticity “because it masks the fact that all rock performances are in show business and construct their images very carefully” (Auslander Performing Glam Rock, 67). The rock authenticity that Hoskyns decried, in fact, shares its device of deception with K-pop authenticity. The success of K-pop stars depends on their appeal to authenticity, which in fact directly grows out of how well they play to the expectations of the public for them to be flawless in every way. These expectations include their fulfillment of social norms in contemporary Korean society as well as meeting the standards of quality in terms of the on-stage performances they offer. They always put on a perfect exterior and keep a well-kept star image on stage (or TV) but sometimes present their off-stage selves to show their more “humane” sides apart from their constructed images, thus inviting the public to relate to them better.

However, unlike other K-pop stars, BTS makes active references to their off-stage lives even on stage, thus supporting a unified narrative for the team and offering their fans a stronger promise for authenticity. This is because they seem to defy the constructed image of a boy band that the public is used to. Through the lens of Auslander’s performance persona paradigm, however, which is used to analyze “the roles and the means musicians use to perform them in popular music” (Auslander “Musical Persona”, 305), this phenomenon could be considered as creating a stronger actor-network of on-stage and off-stage performances for BTS, rather than connecting their performing and non-performing (thus real or “authentic”) selves, since even the off-stage performances that BTS offers to the public are “performed” and mediated, if not constructed. This actor-network of on-stage and off-stage performances will be further examined below through specific cases of YouTube clips that K-pop consumers can access.

The Performance Persona Paradigm in K-pop

The actor-network of on-stage and off-stage performances in K-pop can be best understood if we consider the movement of K-pop performers’ performing identity over the range of their performance. According to Simon Frith, “identity is always already an ideal, what we would like to be, not what we are” (Frith 274). What pop listeners do when appreciating the music is not clearly realizing the identity of the performers and identifying with them, but “[participating] in imagined forms of the social and the sexual” (Frith 274). This is especially true in terms of a pop star’s identity, which may never be fully grasped by his or her fans. Here we can again turn to Auslander, who explores the ways that aspects of identity are dispersed through performance. Drawing on Frith, Auslander recognizes three levels of personification in popular music performance: person (the performer as human being), persona (the performer as social being), and character (the characters that performers play for the lyrics of a song) (Auslander Performing Glam Rock, 4). Whereas Frith emphasizes the voice of pop singers when he suggests that “the star voice (and, indeed, the star body) [ . . . ] acts as a mark of both subjectivity and objectivity” (Frith 210), Auslander effectively emphasizes the visual or theatrical side of popular music performance by taking Frith’s concept of “song personality” and re-naming it as “character,” as “it is also possible for the performer to embody more than one of the characters in a particular song” (Auslander “Musical Persona”, 314).

As Frith recognizes the pop star’s “art” to be the double enactment of a star personality and a song personality, Auslander explains that all three levels (or layers) of personification may be simultaneously active in a musical performance. In case of K-pop performance, however, all three layers are inevitably always active. This is due to the silent rule that K-pop culture imposes on the performers to constantly offer their personae to the public eye, even on a daily basis. Even on days when they are not on stage or TV performing their songs, K-pop performers perform and present their personae through various channels. A large part of Korean television consists of entertainment shows that feature K-pop stars alongside actors, comedians, and singers of other genres. On such shows, the identities of K-pop performers are placed midway between their (social) personae and the (fictional) characters for the specific context. The simplest way for K-pop performers to perform their personae on their personal level would be using Twitter or Instagram and sharing messages or photos on what they are eating, wearing, seeing, or listening to, while a more complex and coordinated way would be shooting, editing, and uploading video journals on YouTube or other video platforms. Of course, one of the most popular ways these days lies between real-time text-oriented posts and pre-produced videos, which is live streaming and communicating with the viewers in real time. While performing their daily routines in their live streaming shows, K-pop performers seem to be in a more natural setting and reveal themselves as social beings. Yet, they are still under the syntax of what can and cannot be broadcasted, keeping the rules of video production in the K-pop world.

For K-pop performers, the ubiquity of personal identity performed throughout various platforms reinforces their actor-network of performance overall, as their off-stage performance of persons and personae lingers as a layer under the characters in their on-stage performance. As discussed earlier, K-pop performers are expected to keep a certain “front” even when they are off stage. Erving Goffman describes “front” as “the expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during his performance” (Goffman 22). This “front” of K-pop singers is generally kept in a rather uniform way, emphasizing their modesty, diligence, and optimism. This may be due to the neo-Confucian ideals that are still deeply rooted in contemporary Korea, although John Lie argues otherwise in K-pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea when he notes that “the neo-Confucian ethos of seriousness and sincerity, along with conservative attire and a demure posture, gave way to a new urbanity and pizzazz” (59). Sure, K-pop idols can sing and dance while giving out sexual innuendos in revealing clothes on stage, but they are still highly expected by their fans and the public to live up to the neo-Confucian ideals of humaneness, modesty, diligence, loyalty, and filial piety off stage. Any K-pop star who openly violates those ideals, even just by smoking or wearing a t-shirt without a bra, is immediately censured by many.[3]

On the other hand, this specific “front” for K-pop performers tends to stick to their personae. While characters in their performances are at the far frontier of their “front,” their personae in off-stage situations also keep the “front.” Even the most scandalous dance moves or sexy outfits on stage stay as those of characters and can be viewed as the evidence of the K-pop performers’ professionalism, which is readily accepted by the public. In other words, the enticing, sexy, outrageous characters of K-pop in turn translate into diligent, professional, artsy personae of performers. There seems to be a desire on the spectators’ part to fill the gaps that appear between the personae and characters of K-pop stars, to understand them as having rounded personalities. This way, K-pop performers can perform transgressive characters on stage for artistic purposes and still be free from accusations of actually being socially unacceptable in any way, just as theatrical actors are.[4] Therefore, the network between on-stage and off-stage performances in K-pop is activated and transformed from both sides, with both artists and the audience actively maintaining the paradigm by various means. The audience members are thus human actants in the actor-network of K-pop performance, not any less than the performers are.

Characters in BTS Universe

Examining the on-stage and off-stage performances of BTS in terms of performance personae and characters will shed a light on how the network is reinforced through each instance. The on-stage performance here refers to BTS’ performance both on stage and in music videos. Music videos or video recordings of live stage performances by K-pop artists reveal much stylistic affiliation with more traditional genres of art such as music, dance, theater, and film. Though evoking the history of music video aesthetics would be both unnecessary and impossible in the present discussion, it should be noted that current K-pop music videos encompass many diverse aesthetic qualities of contemporary film. They not only function as a means of promoting the songs but also play a significant part in forming the overall visual and dramatic concept for the respective albums. A string of BTS’ music videos for The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series (2015-2016), as well as short films for their album WINGS (2016) and the albums in the LOVE YOURSELF series (2017-2018), all share a single yet complex narrative full of characters, symbols, episodes, and narratives that unravel themselves non-sequentially. All of this is named BTS Universe, or BU.[5] The name was initially given by fans in 2015 when they recognized a continuous narrative being maintained throughout, and the producers of BTS took it on as a franchise brand in 2017, making it a trademark and certifying which albums or products are intended to be placed in BU.

Each single BTS music video is a separately-standing work on its own, faithfully conveying the music, words, and (in most cases) dance performance of the respective song. The videos together work like pieces of puzzles, working with recurring themes and symbols, emphasizing certain aspects of the music, providing bits of information about the entire narrative, and eventually setting the overall atmosphere and tone for BTS’ oeuvre. BTS’ on-stage performance in music videos involves not only singing and dancing but also acting out characters (although mostly without spoken words) that retain a certain consistency throughout their works. This is strikingly different from what most other K-pop groups do with their visual or performative concepts; they constantly strive for something new to offer to the public, instead of maintaining a single persevering theme.

“I NEED U” (2015) is the title track of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 1, and the characters and their narratives from its music video are carried on to BTS’s later works until 2018. ach member of BTS depicts a certain dark side of youth today. With the song lyrics continuously longing for a lost lover, the seven men of BTS act out characters that are in psychological pain. The solo scenes featuring only one performer at a time depict their pain, with each of them implying one or two social issues. Suga sits alone in a motel room with a lighter in his hand, showing angst and the possibility of arson. Jimin sits in a bathtub and cries, suggesting suicidal depression. J-Hope looks in the mirror and opens his medicine cabinet, implying sickness or drug abuse. RM stands in an empty gas station, which seems to be where he works. This implies poverty, as it is culturally assumed in Korea that part-timers in gas stations don’t make a lot of money. V walks through a shabby apartment building and into a scene of domestic violence. Jungkook’s scene implies violence and victimization as he wanders on the streets and gets into fights and possibly a car accident. Jin seems to be in sorrow and pain and carefully places six flower petals on the floor. With the overall dark and monotonous color palette of the music video, it is further implied that all seven of them are suffering from depression. It is only when they are together that they seem to have at least some energy and hope. The only time they smile or laugh is when they are all together, running, sitting around a bonfire, or playing with firecrackers, and it is also only at such time that the music video has some color. The video ends in a monotone scene where all seven boys are asleep around a dying bonfire.

These same characters are transposed in the music video of “RUN” (2015), the title track of the following album, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 2. The boys are now found in a dreamlike setting, in which they party like crazy and play pranks on each other. Each moment of one’s personal pain is intruded upon by another; as RM walks out of his run-down house and opens a train container, the other six members of BTS welcome him into a different world. In that world, Jimin opens the door into his bathroom to find the six other boys waiting for him around the bathtub, pulling him in and playing with water; J-Hope is no longer alone on the cold hospital bed when Jimin appears and starts a pillow fight; Suga throws a fit and turns destructive, but Jungkook arrives to throw himself upon Suga and stops him. The characters of BTS members in “RUN” keep running as the song demands them, and they appear free from worries when they are running together. Yet, some images still imply their darker psychology, with V falling into deep waters and struggling to survive or Jimin sitting in his bathtub again, burning a photo of the boys together.

Personae Under and Over Characters in BTS’ Performance

The characters portrayed by the members of BTS in the music video performances of “I NEED U” and “RUN” appear depressed and possibly oppressed by some adversities that are both external and internal. As discussed earlier, K-pop characters that appear undesirable in any way would normally be considered by the public to be separate from the personae of K-pop performers, in order to keep the audience’s illusion of the performers being covetable. However, even though BTS’ characters in BU carry many features that are socially frowned upon in Korea, they don’t seem to stay completely apart from BTS’ personae. One factor of this phenomenon could be the creative process that BTS is known to take. As BTS started out as what they called a hip-hop idol group, their approach in producing their music is close to that of hip-hop musicians. The rappers of BTS (RM, Suga, J-Hope) have released their hip-hop work in the form of mix tapes and playlists on Soundcloud, apart from their oeuvre as BTS. Hip-hop has been regarded as an artform in which the performer autobiographically speaks of his/her own experience and ideas. As Adam Bradley explains, it is storytelling that “distinguishes rap from other forms of popular music” (Bradley 133). Bradley also points out that we as listeners “assume that MCs are rapping to us in their own voices and therefore that what they say is true to their own experience” (137). This would mean that in hip-hop, the personae and characters are closer than in other forms of popular music performance. Thus, when RM, Suga, and J-Hope tell stories of their hardships and sufferings through their rap, the rap characters seem to promise more authenticity than pop characters do.

Suga’s mix tape Agust D (2016) contains seven tracks, all of which talk about his hardships before and after debuting as BTS. In this mix tape, Suga uses the rap name Agust D instead of his BTS name Suga, indicating that he will tell stories that are not suitable for the category of “K-pop.” In the track “The Last,” Agust D explicitly mentions his visit to a psychiatrist and even acknowledges a possible suicide attempt. Indeed, the tracks include themes of frustration, anxiety, poverty, depression, and other psychological difficulties, all of which are stigmatized in Korean society. In the music video of the title track “Agust D,” Suga appears tied up and abandoned inside what looks like a messed-up room. Images of fire, handcuffs, and policemen overlap on top of him, creating a mood of a crime film. As he struggles to free himself, Suga’s platinum blond hair is disheveled, but his face appears defiant when he declares, “this K-pop category ain’t enough size for me” (Agust D). He soon finds a jackknife to cut himself free, and, upon finding the door locked, he kicks it open. The room appears to have been a container on top of a moving truck, and Suga sits on top of the trailer for a while before images of oil, lighter, and fire are overlapped once again, hinting at the possibility of him committing arson. All the while, Suga in the music video performs as a rapper. Though without a mic, he directly eyes the camera and performs his rap as if on stage. The symbolism used in the music video is straightforward, as Suga is presented as a criminal who puts the outside world on fire, symbolizing his potential power as a hip-hop musician, not just a member of a K-pop boy band. The character in the music video is equated with Suga the performer, and he shows the will to break through any institutional constraints or taboos with his art. It is with Agust D’s rap character and persona that Suga’s insecure character from BU gains verisimilitude and approaches the performance persona.

The boys’ BU characters are again strongly attached to their performance personae in WINGS, the album that follows The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series. It features solo tracks of BTS members, each seeming to follow the hip-hop tradition and telling a story in his own voice. RM’s solo track “Reflection” talks of his solitude as he stands in a park in the middle of the night, reminding the listeners not only of his lonely impoverished character in BU but also of RM’s personal park-visiting hobby that is well-known among fans. In “Begin,” Jungkook, the youngest, reflects on his growth and how the older members of BTS have influenced him. As Jungkook was only in his early teenage years when he first left home to join the band, it is natural to assume that he had depended on the other boys a lot. He sings, “I feel like I’m going to die when I see you sad, it hurts me more to see you hurting, brother let’s cry, cry” (BTS “Begin”). Again, this could be taken as Jungkook telling his real-life story of growing up as a part of BTS but also as him embodying the BU narrative in which his character cries with Suga’s character while trying to stop his self-destruction.

The performance personae of BTS as K-pop celebrities are best portrayed through their off-stage media exposure. However, BTS is notorious for the rarity of their appearance on mainstream TV shows, especially after 2016. BTS is possibly one of a very few K-pop groups without any specific member standing out for the public eye through mainstream terrestrial TV broadcasts.[6] Instead, BTS is remarkably active in creating a network of off-stage performances through online platforms, such as YouTube and V LIVE. BTS’ YouTube channel “BANGTANTV” offers diverse playlists in about twenty-five different categories, including not only their official music videos but also dance practices and behind-the-scenes of their major performances and productions. While this may seem similar to any other K-pop artist’s YouTube channel, BTS’ channel takes it one step further; self-camera recordings of their everyday lives, including reviews of their own albums, unboxing synthesizers, and recently an exclusive documentary series serviced by YouTube Red, Burn The Stage Season 1.[7]

The documentary starts with BTS’ preparations for their 2017 BTS LIVE TRILOGY: EPISODE III. THE WINGS TOUR and follows them throughout the year including their trips to attend the Billboard Music Awards in May and perform at the American Music Awards in November. The seven boys of BTS seem somewhat different in the eight episodes of Burn The Stage; they are insecure, worried, easily agitated, and terrified. They are excited by the opportunity but simultaneously overwhelmed by the popularity because in the early days of their debut in Korea they were not immediately so well-liked. The documentary features them in their worse moments: arguing with each other, collapsing backstage, being depressed after a mistake on stage, and crying over a pulled muscle that leads to sitting out on stage. This disclosure of their otherwise well-hidden sides imply that they are not just sudden superstars who got lucky but hardworking young artists with doubts and struggles of their own. The videos on YouTube serve as a route for BTS to perform themselves as subjects of their own desires as artists and not merely stay as the object of their fans’ desires.

On a parallel track to YouTube, V LIVE is an Internet broadcasting platform for celebrities, established in August 2015 by NAVER, the biggest search engine and online platform in Korea. The launching of V LIVE mobile application coincided with the turning point in BTS’ career in mid-2015 with the success of their third mini album, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 1. BTS apparently got the most out of V LIVE, becoming the first group to reach five million followers on the platform. On V LIVE, the BTS Channel offers various documentaries and reality shows in different formats: Bon Voyage Seasons 1-3 (travelling to Northern Europe, Hawaii, and Malta), Bangtan Gayo (solving quizzes on K-pop songs), Run BTS! (playing games or doing fun activities), BTS NEWS (delivering news on their new albums). Through these shows, BTS performs not their singing and dancing selves but their off-stage twentysomething selves: excitable, clumsy, sensitive, competitive, goofy, sometimes scared of new experiences but mostly up for the challenge.

Furthermore, with the real-time broadcasting function of V LIVE, BTS members often communicate and interact with viewers through pop-up broadcasts that usually last around thirty minutes each. They come online in late hours in either their studios or hotel rooms (while on tour) and just talk about their day, have a late dinner, or listen to music, while reading real-time comments posted by viewers and giving immediate feedback. They enable a sense of telepresence for the viewers as they clearly announce their current location and expose that they are living in the same present time as that of the viewers. In these live shows, BTS are usually relaxed and down-to-earth, as if talking to friends on video chat. In such off-stage performances, they do not only perform themselves as serious artists and ambitious young adults but also as friendly boys next door.

They appear to be showing what Goffman called “back stage,” or “a place [ . . . ] where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted” (Goffman 112). As Goffman goes on to confirm, “it is natural to expect that the passage from the front region to the back region will be kept closed to members of the audience” (113). When BTS offers a peek into their off-duty life to their fans, it seems as if BTS is offering them intimacy as a “team,” a role that fans are willing to take. However, even when BTS appears on YouTube or V LIVE without makeup and costumes, they are not truly in their “back stage,” as they are still in the public eye and performing their off-stage personae. We could say that K-pop stars today have different levels of “front stage” depending on the medium through which they are presenting themselves. The foremost “front” could be their performances on stage in their song characters, while mainstream broadcasts place them a little backward and their personal broadcasts on social media even further back.

One example is Jin’s “EAT Jin” series on V LIVE. Jin is known to be a big eater, and he sometimes streams a live mukbang or a live online broadcast in which he eats something while interacting with viewers. Unlike other professional mukbang shows in which the hosts gobble down large amounts of food, Jin’s live show is not focused on the food that he eats but rather the activity itself. In an “EAT Jin” episode broadcasted in September 2018, he appears barefaced and in pajamas, ready for bed, and like a friend calling via Skype. After waiting a while for viewers to log in, Jin reveals the menu of the evening to be none other than a glass of water. He talks about his hair color, the jet lag he has, the concert he is to have the next day, and his pets at home. When a viewer asks him to do something, he seems to comply. However, when asked to sing a song he is to perform solo the next day, which could be seen as a somewhat unreasonable demand for a singer past midnight, Jin shows the will to try rather than declining or pretending not to have seen the request. After unsuccessfully trying to get the first few notes out, he stops and says in embarrassment that his voice is not ready to sing. He appears to try a couple more times but soon gives up and sincerely apologizes to the viewers. He explains that it’s past midnight, he has had too much to eat that day, and that he feels bloated from drinking water. While Jin could really be in his “real” pajamas just before bed, it cannot be seen that he has shared his back stage moments with the viewers. However, his performance of back stage behavior creates a well-rounded star persona and a stronger sense of K-pop authenticity.

A Reinforced Network of Performance Through Performing Identity

Through active use of media platforms to present their off-stage personae, BTS adroitly handles the actor-network of personae and characters, or that of off-stage and on-stage performances. The characters BTS take on for each song correspond to the characters of the respective music video, which remain consistent throughout the meta-narrative of BU. Since the release of WINGS, BTS has actively encouraged the delightful confusion of their performed personae and characters. The confusion arises as the characters they play in their narrative have the same names and ages as themselves in real life and have similar relationships with each other. Yet, without direct dialogues like in films, the music videos let their viewers to fill in the gaps with complementary information from other materials. The narrative is further complemented by additional text provided alongside their albums from the LOVE YOURSELF series in the form of journal entries of the characters. Along with some description of events that are not featured in the music videos, the text implies that the characters of seven boys are friends from school, bringing BTS’ performance as schoolboys (from their debut in 2013 until 2015) into the narrative as a contextual background.

While Auslander argues that “the audience generally infers what performers are like as real people from their performance persona and the characters they portray” (Auslander “Musical Persona”, 306), it can further be argued that the artists’ characters are constituted by their performances as both natural human beings they are and the identities they perform socially. BTS’ personae performed in off-stage performances are crafted through a varied yet convergent self-presentation, which continuously implies that they are inexperienced but hardworking, frustrated yet persevering, lost but hopeful. The characters BTS members have played in their music video universe so far are immature, frustrated, lost, depressed, traumatized, impoverished, and powerless. Viewers find the resonances between the characters and the personae and automatically expect how the characters’ narrative will unravel: just as the social beings of BTS persevered, worked hard and matured, their characters will, too.

This network reinforces the performance in the opposite direction as well, as the personae performed off stage (in documentaries, interviews, and memoirs), can be affected by the characters performed on stage. Among BTS’ top songs are “DOPE” (2015) and “FIRE” (2016), in which their vivacious characters condemn the society and older generations for labelling their generation as hopeless and weak. As the characters in such on-stage performances are ambitious, indulgent and funny, the personae shown through V LIVE and YouTube videos take on a similar attitude and outlook. From the latter half of 2016 and on, as the characters in BTS’ songs (released both officially in market as albums and privately online as mix tapes) and the overarching BU narrative started to show more pain and struggle, their personae also reveal a more considerate and serious attitude toward their work as musicians and entertainers. In the past, most YouTube videos or live video chats showed BTS hanging out in their hotel rooms while on tour, playing goofy games or exchanging jokes to kill time. However, the YouTube Red documentary Burn The Stage features how the first thing they do in a new hotel room is to set up their workstations, presenting their artist personae and implying that they constantly work and strive to be better in what they do.

Final Thoughts

The three levels of personification ultimately have their places in the performance context that is partly intended and partly autopoietic, formed with various aspects of identity and biography from across the realms. BTS’ success has been analyzed in various perspectives including those that focus on their moving narrative of growth and active social networking as well as transmedia storytelling. Of course, it cannot be overlooked that the most effective tool for BTS to do that has been YouTube. YouTube as a site of performance for BTS is not only where the on-stage and off-stage performances are presented on an equal level but also where original, primary productions from the producers of BTS are mingled with secondary creations of their fans. While those perspectives may also be valid, one possible factor in BTS’ unprecedented popularity and growing fandom is their effective and even exquisite way in making use of how their performance in a different layer contributes to the reinforced performance of another layer, blurring the barriers which in turn makes their overall performance context stronger and its delivery more powerful.

Works Cited

Agust D (Suga). “Agust D.” YouTube, uploaded by BigHit Entertainment, 15 August 2016, https://youtu.be/3Y_Eiyg4bfk. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Auslander, Philip. “Musical Persona: The Physical Performance of Popular Music.” The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology, Edited by Derek B. Scott, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 303-316.

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Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. Basic Civitas, 2009.

BTS. “BANGTAN BLOG.” BANGTAN BLOG, https://btsblog.ibighit.com. BigHit Entertainment. Accessed 6 September 2019.

—. “Begin.” WINGS, BigHit Entertainment, 2016.

—. “Reflection.” WINGS, BigHit Entertainment, 2016.

—. “Sea.” LOVE YOURSELF: Her, BigHit Entertainment, 2017.

“BTS Chart History.” Billboard, https://billboard.com/music/bts/chart-history/billboard-200. Accessed 6 September 2019.

“BTS ‘I NEED U’ Official MV (Original ver.).” YouTube, uploaded by BigHit Entertainment, 10 May 2015, https://youtu.be/jjskoRh8GTE. Accessed 6 September 2019.

“BTS Live: EAT Jin.” V LIVE, uploaded by BTS, 5 September 2018, https://vlive.tv/video/87662?channelCode=FE619. Accessed 6 September 2019.

“BTS ‘RUN’ Official MV.” YouTube, uploaded by BigHit Entertainment, 29 November 2015, https://youtu.be/wKysONrSmew. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, Translated by Saskya Iris Jain, Routledge, 2008.

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard University Press, 1996.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, 1959.

Latour, Bruno. “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications.” Soziale Welt, vol. 47, no. 4, 1996, pp. 369-81.

Lie, John. K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea. University of California Press, 2014.


[1] This is so only in relation to performances of K-pop songs, whose lyrics are usually translated by eager bilingual fans. For TV programs that K-pop performers appear in, their lines and the overlaid text require translation for appreciation. This translation is also mostly completed with contributions from fans.

[2] K-pop artists such as BoA and Wonder Girls were the first to chart on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 in 2009.

[3] Sulli, former member of a girl group called f(x), has constantly been in the center of controversy since she posted pictures of herself on Instagram with visible nipples under her clothes.

[4] Of course, this is possible only so far as actual scandals are held off.

[5] Contents produced under the BU label include the following: The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series, WINGS, and LOVE YOURSELF series.

[6] One exception is that RM (then known as Rap Monster) had regularly appeared on The Brainiacs, a weekly brain-teasing quiz show on cable for a brief five-month period in the first half of 2015.

[7] The movie version of this documentary was released November 2018 worldwide.