It is 5:45 a.m. at Rockefeller Center, and an army is trickling into what will become a packed TODAY Plaza. But it’s not just any army — it’s the BTS Army, the name given to BTS fans, like Taylor Swift’s Swifties or Beyoncé’s Beyhive.
Jung Kook, the golden maknae (“golden youngest”) of the K-pop supergroup debuted an ambitious full-length album “Golden,” sung entirely in English, on Nov. 3. Now, Army has gathered to watch him perform three songs: “Seven,” “3D,” and “Standing Next to You.”
While BTS is on hiatus so the members can complete their mandatory military service, Army has been kept satisfied with staggered solo releases from Jin, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, Suga, V — and now, finally, Jung Kook.
Long before soundcheck, before the sun is even a thought in the sky, the BTS Army is treated to a sneak peek of the artist as he rises from an escalator into the lobby that houses Studio 1A. Dressed in a black button-down shirt and cropped black pants, he takes a look outside— and the crowd roars.
I, for one, don’t make a sound. I am simply shocked to be having this moment.
My journey to the concert this morning was over a decade in the making. I became a K-pop fan in 2008, growing up in the second generation of the Hallyu wave, the name for the surges in international interest of Korean pop culture over the past few decades.
At the time, K-pop was still on the fringe of American pop culture, and middle-school me was insecure about liking something that wasn’t yet mainstream. I didn’t care that I didn’t speak Korean and couldn’t understand what was being said without a translation. The infectious beats, vibrant color palettes and clean choreography were enough to get me hooked.
But my obsession wasn’t so positively received by some of my peers. I remember being in a seventh grade social studies class when a classmate decided to queue the iconic “BABYYYY” that plays at the top of SHINee’s “Ring Ding Dong” on a classmate’s computer, leading to snickers and embarrassed flushes. Though PSY’s “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to hit a billion views in 2012, the sensation was met with memes and ridicule, signaling to me it wasn’t cool to like the genre, no matter how popular it was globally.
Kim, positioned across the runway of the stage, says she felt the same way growing up. “It was definitely one of those things where people were like, ‘Oh, you listen to what?’” she recalls.
Then came BTS, which Army often says “paved the way” for K-pop internationally. The group has five Grammy nominations and had four albums hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart faster than any group since The Beatles. “I feel like BTS has kind of helped open the doors… where people are like, ‘Oh! I actually know this group,’ and it’s not a joke,” Kim says.
By the time BTS rose to fame in the U.S. starting around 2015, I had moved away from K-pop, but came back to the genre in January 2022. As a newly minted BTS fan at the age of 23, I experienced the same rush I did as a preteen, but finally felt free to feel it with others.
“It’s not just the music, it’s the fandom, too,” says Ann, a fellow fan. Catherine, just a few feet away, says the same: “I always tell people, ‘A BTS concert is 80% because of the BTS members, and 20% is because of what you experience with the community… it’s not just acquaintances. We’re connected forever.’”
Essentially, we’ve found our people. And these people are Jung Kook’s people too. He works his way down the stage runway and takes time to fist bump the people who have been waiting for hours to see him and makes sure to throw in an, “I love you!”
Shivering on stage, Jung Kook asks the crowd, “Are you cold?” Yes, we are — but it’s worth it.
Although New York City is finally hitting colder autumnal temperatures, the electricity running between the fans that came together this morning is enough to keep anyone warm.
When he finally starts singing his first song — “Seven”, which has over 1 billion streams on Spotify — screams erupt, with cries of “king,” “slay” and “JKKKK” almost as loud as his music.
To stay warm before his next song, he hops around the stage, becoming the high-energy rabbit fans know him as (his internet avatar is a bunny). As soon as the music for “3D” hits, he’s back to being cool and relaxed, interacting with the crowd and making sure Army watching at home are as much a part of the experience, serenading the camera and reaching out to the lens. For them, the lyrics, “I can’t touch you through the phone” might not feel so true.
But me? I get to “see it, in motion, in 3D.”
At the same time I’m returning to K-pop fandom, it’s clear Jung Kook is evolving, too. During the dance break of the retro-bop “Standing Next To You,” he does a spin, glides effortlessly down the runway, places his mic down on the stage and lights on fire. He is magnetic, and he is more than a member of BTS. He is Jung Kook, solo pop star.
“It is so cool to see him come into his own … I’m so beyond proud, I’m just over the moon for him,” Yasmine says.
Sharing this excitement for an artist while in my 20s has been healing for my inner preteen. I’m not ashamed to be excited for the things I love anymore, and I also know that I’m far from alone. To put it in Jung Kook’s words: “Our love is deeper than the rain, deeper than the pain, deep like DNA.” As Jung Kook enters his new chapter, we’ll be standing next to him.