Music

‘A lot of fans do more work than academics’: Inside the BTS conference at Kingston University


In five and a half years, BTS have gone from rookies in the K-pop world to a global phenomenon.

The band – made up of RM, Jimin, Suga, J-Hope, V, Jin and Jungkook – are the first Korean band to top the US album charts and to play Wembley Arena, have sold out worldwide tours and have even launched an art project to connect artists and fans across the globe.

And now, they’re infiltrating lecture halls too.

On the first weekend in January 2020, over 160 people attended a conference at Kingston University just outside London, to discuss a shared passion – BTS.

Students and academics from universities in the United Kingdom, Korea, Mexico, Canada, Malaysia, America, Bulgaria, Italy, Serbia, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Hungary, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Ireland, Indonesia and Hong Kong submitted 200 papers, of which 150 were accepted, across numerous disciplines, with the band as their focus.

Panels included Queer Moments and Other Desires, featuring papers on empowerment and agency in BTS fanfiction and queerness in the Bangtan Universe; Music For Healing, which discussed how BTS influence wellbeing and anxieties; The Language of BTS, which talked about codeswitching as a communicative strategy and lyrics used for learning aids; Culture and Economics, involving East Asian relations; Religion and BTS, exploring K-pop as a religious practice and BTS through the idea of Laozi and Zhuangzi; and Cultural Heritage, Soft Power and The Global, which asked if BTS works as a soft power tool for South Korea.

Dr Colette Balmain organised a two day conference at Kingston University (Picture: Dr Colette Balmain)
The conference was attended by over 160 people (Picture: Dr Colette Balmain)

Dr Colette Balmain, a lecturer in film and media and communications at Kingston University, organised the conference out of an interest in looking at K-pop in terms of her work on globalisation and identity politics, particularly how the band play with conventions of masculinity, and across a number of different disciplines; for example, keynote speaker Professor Lee Jiyoung argues through philosophy that BTS represent a new type of revolutionary art form.

Dr Balmain also mused on how BTS fans chase down translations and subtitles for band interviews and performances on Korean TV – which ‘goes against what I’ve experienced in my teaching’. And it was important that a conference she organised wouldn’t exclude fans.

‘One of my experiences on social media is that I see a lot of pop culture critics who are often dismissive to fans, and they shut fans down through subtweeting or saying “oh, ARMY are toxic”,’ Dr Balmain told Metro.co.uk.

‘They put them under a huge stereotype. I think that’s very unfair. Part of my work is an interest in silencing and how and why certain people are silenced – especially women – and the idea that all BTS fans are all 12-year-old girls a) isn’t true and b) is very dismissive towards teenage girls.

‘I wanted to create a conference where fans could come and it wasn’t just academics speaking at each other, but it was listening in a learning community. A big part of the conference was not just doing an academic conference, because I’ve been going to those my whole life, and a lot of the time, they’re not very interesting. Some of the time you don’t learn a lot. We wanted to say to fans and undergraduate students and mothers “come along and let’s talk about this”.’

The conference explored the band through the lenses of different disciplines (Picture: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for dcp)

After it was decided not to split the panels into fan and academic strands, 162 attendees from all over the world listened to the panels, with representatives from the LGBTQ+ community and an 80/20 split of women to men. (A possible reason for the gender imbalance, according to Dr Balmain: ‘Women are silenced much more than men. Men talking about pop culture is seen as more valuable than women talking about pop culture.’)

Some speakers were far from paid-up members of the BTS ARMY, with Derek Laffan, 30, sharing that he ‘barely knew three songs by BTS and still would not consider myself a fan’.

‘But I really appreciate BTS and can see their music and impact from a more appreciative view,’ Laffan, from Dublin – who presented a paper on how social identity plays a role among K-pop fans, and how fandom is associated with happiness and self-esteem – said.

‘I learned that the BTS ARMY fandom is globally diverse and accepting. I was amazed to see the extent of which BTS impacted people’s lives and how researchers could look at that from a scholarly perspective.’

However, many of the papers submitted came from those who identified as BTS fans.

Courtney Lazore, 29, has been a fan of BTS since 2015 and travelled from Virginia, USA, to attend the conference.

The conference was a success (Picture: Colette Balmain)

Lazore, who presented work on storytelling and healing for the Music and Healing Panel, said: ‘it brought together a very diverse group of people who participated in intriguing discussions, and the topics were so much more varied than I had anticipated. It prompted lots of inter-fandom connections and stimulated discussions surrounding BTS and fandom that I believe will continue for years to come.

‘Through one of the panels, I learned how some think of ARMY activities and behaviours within the framework of religion. I hadn’t considered this before, and while I think lots of the behaviours aren’t inherently religious, it’s still a useful framework for thinking about fandom, as well as negotiating our own relationships with our fandoms.’

MRes Philosophy student Kate Warlow-Corcoran’s paper on BTS, Nostalgia and Ethical Critique – which explored how reconnecting with the memory of past desires and modes of being can provide motivation for renewed ethical engagement with the world – was her first foray into writing about popular music.

The 39-year-old from Oxfordshire said: ‘My 13-year-old daughter and I became fans [of BTS] at the same time. We were fortunate to see BTS live at Wembley last summer. Becoming a BTS fan took me by surprise; my conference paper was an attempt to work out what it was that seemed so valuable about the experience.

‘Academic training often encourages a dispassionate and somewhat detached mode of engagement with one’s object of study. The BTS conference has made me reflect carefully on the ways in which love, humour, and playful creativity can enrich our work. The conference was so much fun and the atmosphere was supportive and genuinely collaborative.’

Christina Florensya, who presented her research on BTS from the perspective of international relations, has been a fan of the band since the WINGS era and said: ‘I work as an academician and I don’t want to give up liking them. So this is one way to be productive as a BTS ARMY.’ Christina, 21, travelled from Indonesia for the conference.

While Nur Lina, 35, from Kuala Lumpur, didn’t get into BTS until late 2018 when her students urged her to give them a listen.

‘I learned that BTS is truly interdisciplinary and people from various fields of research are able to come together to learn from each other’s specialisations. As a music educator, it was fascinating to see how professors and colleagues from other fields brought together their vocation and passion, yet very few shared from a music perspective.’

The conference ended with a performance from Hyelim Kim (Picture: Dr Colette Balmain)

‘A lot of the fans do more work than the academics! They’re more knowledgeable, and that’s not acknowledged enough. People don’t see the invisible labour that goes into fandoms,’ Dr Balmain explained.

‘There’s a false distinction with the assumption that as academics, we have more of a critical distance. The truth is, you research what you like and you have a vested interest in what you research. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical. In fan studies, you do need to recognise your status as a fan, but we’re not that different. In thinking otherwise, you’re kind of constructing university as this hierarchical place where only certain people and certain types of knowledge function. And that’s not true anymore.’

After two days, 37 panels and a performance from Korean artist and composer Hyelim Kim, the conference came to its end, following conversations on how BTS played a part in international relations, how they achieved such success in an English-dominated society and how they affect the music industry and the concept of fandom.

And a running theme Dr Balmain found was how fans used BTS as a coping mechanism.

‘When people say “I’ll always be an ARMY”, that’s exactly what they mean. BTS fans are very specific. There are multi-fans, but a lot of the fans aren’t looking to go onto the next group – there’s something very specific about BTS, and they’re often the only K-pop group they’re interested in.

A second event is being planned for 2021 (Picture: Michael Stewart/WireImage)

‘The message of self-love, that’s a huge part of who BTS are and why people connect with them. That message is not just important when you’re young, but as you transition through life, you go through stages – especially for women – where you are rendered less important and visible, so that message of self-love is very important.’

Dr Balmain is planning on hosting another conference in 2021 in a non-London location to boost accessibility. And while this conference may have just been the beginning, she hopes that it will provide a model for how conferences work going forward.

‘Certainly within academia, we are moving away from the idea that a student walks in and we talk at them for three years. There’s an understanding that learning can only happen through collaborative relationships. Fan studies as a discipline is growing. When I did my MA, which was about 25 years ago, somebody wanted to do their dissertation on Doctor Who and they were told they couldn’t do it.

‘What I hope this work will do is remove some of the negativity about fans, about teenage girls and about interactions with media.’

Dr Colette Balmain teaches at Kingston University and writes for London Korean Links.



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