If you are ARMY (a BTS fan), you probably know the common structure of a BTS concert, and you probably know about the last-song lie. This lie has been told at BTS concerts since at least 2015. Here’s what happens. About two hours in, one of the guys, usually RM, announces that “this is the last song.” But really, it’s only the last song before a short break, after which they always return for their encore set—to nobody’s surprise. When RM makes this last song announcement, there is still about another hour’s worth of concert to go, and the audience knows it.
Why has saying something technically untrue become such a reliable feature of BTS’ concerts? Because BTS are masters of something extremely difficult: ending well. They put a great deal of thought into how they end their shows, and they do so because they care about their fans—and themselves—not only in those key emotional moments, but in all other moments too.
For music fans, there is perhaps nothing more magical, blissful, exhilarating than a concert. Music is so powerful that even the simplest of live performances can profoundly move us. But concerts on a very grand scale, of the sort put on by BTS, can be even more transporting. And the price we pay for these 3-hour mountaintop experiences (besides the ticket) is the sharp descent back into our normal lives.
Many people call this drop “post-concert depression” or PCD. One study by a BTS fan yielded intriguing insights into PCD (Yap, 2020). Yap found that nearly all BTS ARMYs surveyed had lingering feelings of “joy and euphoria” immediately post-concert, but many also reported feelings of “separation anxiety” and/or “sadness and exhaustion.” Although only a small fraction of the fandom could be studied, the findings are consistent with certain accounts of Strong Experiences with Music (SEMs), which are intense, extraordinary experiences of music. Among the people who reported having some negative emotion during a SEM, the most common emotions were sadness or feeling exhausted or “empty,” typically at the end of the experience, due to its intensity (Gabrielsson, 2011). In fact, there may be a distinct pattern to certain kinds of SEMs, particularly those with live performances. In one study (Schäfer, Smukalla, & Oelker, 2014), researchers found that a phase of harmony (the peak experience itself, in which there are only positive feelings and one’s state of consciousness is altered) is commonly followed by a phase of disharmony (returning to reality, characterized by sadness at the loss of the harmonious state).
So, the emotional come-down from an ecstatic moment often sucks. But we cannot avoid endings. And if designed well, endings can not only suck less, but actually become the most meaningful and powerful moments of an experience. They can become an expression of care. This is why BTS begin their endings so long before the actual end, with the last-song lie. In fact, they spend nearly a third of their entire concert time bringing it, gently, to a close. (This is at least true of their live shows; to be fair, I don’t believe BTS always get their endings right, as I wrote about after their first virtual concert of 2020.)
Of course, there is a lot more to ending well than announcing the not-last song. That is simply the first “last call.” In The Art of Gathering (2018), Priya Parker argues for the use of last calls in our gatherings the way a last call at a bar warns of the impending closing time. A last call can be anything that serves as a sign that the end is coming soon. When RM says “this is the last song,” it’s not to lie or misdirect or even (primarily) to wink at an audience who already knows about the encore; it’s simply to alert us to the reality that an end to our time together does exist, and it will come. It’s a reminder to enjoy the moment before it is gone. From this point on, we in the audience are provided frequent, subtle signals so that we always know where we stand in relation to the end. This is the most basic condition of being well prepared for an end: awareness. The specifics of what signals are used and when have evolved over the years and may even differ from night to night; here, I will mostly reference how their most recent world tour (Love Yourself: Speak Yourself) was structured.
BTS’ not-last song is a high-energy performance. Pyrotechnics punctuate the final note, the crowd goes wild, and then the stage goes dark. For the first time since anyone was let into the venue, there is no sound from the speakers, and the screens show only a simple tour logo. It’s notable, I think, that some other concerts have a similar dramatic “lights out” moment as their true end. Such shows end on a high note at the cost of a precipitous crash back into post-show reality. BTS’ carefully planned encore leaves enough space for a soft landing without sacrificing a stunning summit.
For up to ten minutes, the audience makes their own fun, doing the wave, chanting, or even breaking out into song. Even though the crowd is still active, this period is like a cool-down. After hours of peak experience (not to mention months of anticipation and a full day or more of preparation), even a ten minute break from the stimulation of a full-swing concert is significant. It gives you breathing room, a chance to become aware of your surroundings, perhaps for the first time since the show began. You are still in an extraordinarily special place, and you’re not leaving yet, but you are slightly closer to earth.
The encore begins as the very first set did: with a video. In Parker’s words, “When done well, openings and closings often mirror one another” (2018, p. 254). Of course, since openings and closings serve different purposes, so too do the concert videos. Whereas the opening video is meant to light a fuse on the crowd’s excitement, the encore video sets up the work of ending in a satisfying way. Parker explains that “A strong closing has two phases, corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: [firstly] looking inward…. Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired—and to bond as a group one last time” (2018, p. 259).
The encore video strikes a sentimental and reflective tone, preparing us to look inward. These videos usually convey the overarching theme of the tour and recent albums. For The Most Beautiful Moment in Life On Stage, the encore video consisted of interview segments where the BTS members answered the questions “What were your childhood dreams?” and “Now that you’re a singer, are you having the most beautiful moment of your life?” During the Love Yourself and Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tours, the encore video prominently featured the interlocking drawings from their album art, representing the journey to self-love. The video reminds us of the core idea of the show, the story BTS wanted to tell, the message of their music and performance, and thus the reason the concert exists at all.
Looking inward continues with the beginning of the encore set. There’s no explicit introspection just yet; the setlist starts out fun and upbeat. But the feeling of the concert has changed. Previously, the guys wore flashy costumes meant to elevate their performance. Now they wear casual outfits: caps, jeans, hoodies, and t-shirts, showing off merch that some fans might have already bought. Their manner of performing is also more relaxed, more playful, and usually less focused on precision choreography. They sometimes wave lightsticks as if they are one of the crowd. The relationship between performer and audience has shifted, the distance between us closed. For BTS and ARMY, this intimate feeling—even in a party atmosphere—is an important part of looking inward, towards one another, in preparation for the end. It’s a celebration of our connection, the whole reason we came together to “meet” each other through a concert. The more casual feeling of the encore also breaks down the structure of the concert by a degree, bringing everyone slightly closer to the reality they will return to. It is one way that BTS begin to symbolically “take the set down” (Parker, 2018, p. 267) for the audience.
A more explicit turning inwards takes place between the second-to-last song and the (real) last song of the concert. This period of time can start in a lighthearted mood. BTS have used this time to conduct the audience in another wave, and to take a commemorative picture with the crowd in the background—all continuing the theme of connection. After this, the group prepares to reflect more seriously about what the night has meant for them. Here I turn to Parker’s words again:
“A gathering is a moment of time that has the potential to alter many other moments of time. And for it to have the best chance of doing so, engaging in some meaning-making at the end is crucial. What transpired here? And why does it matter? … A great gatherer doesn’t necessarily leave this process to unfold only within individuals. Rather, the gatherer might find a way of guiding guests toward some kind of collective exercise of stock-taking.”(Parker, 2018, p. 259)
One of the best examples of collective stock-taking and meaning-making I can think of are the ending ments of a BTS concert. (Ments are breaks in a concert’s setlist where the performers address the audience, and can also refer to the comments themselves.) The ending ments are another, more serious kind of last call—the final thing that happens before the actual last song. All of the members are given space to share their thoughts and feelings in turn, without any sense of rush. Sometimes the ments are funny. Sometimes they are short and simple. Sometimes they are profound. Sometimes they end in tears or group hugs. Whether planned or spontaneous, these remarks are always heartfelt. By freely reflecting on the emotions and significance of the moment, BTS is “help[ing] us process the journey as a whole” (Parker, 2018, p. 260). These clips from the final performance of the Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour give a good picture of what the ending ments can be like, with the added significance of wrapping up a world tour that spanned two years (turn on captions for translation).
The ending ments can also meet the needs associated with Parker’s second phase of closing: turning outward. This phase “is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world” (Parker, 2018, p. 259). In their ments, the members often talk about what they will remember and take with them from that night. They reaffirm the importance of their bonds with each other and with ARMY, assuring that our closeness will persist even after our parting. The members’ reflections can be a way of collectively looking towards the future, side by side. Some ments along these lines have become important cultural moments for the fandom: invented meanings created enduring symbols (“Purple means I will trust and love you for a long time”) and moving declarations came to define the BTS and ARMY relationship (“Please use me, please use BTS to love yourself”).
When these touching speeches are over, it’s time for the last song, and for the true ending to unfold. A special message appears on the screens: ARMY TIME. (Sometimes this happens during the second-to-last song instead.) This is the signal for each audience member to raise that night’s slogan banner. Every night of a tour features a unique banner, designed by fans, containing a message to the group. As soon as you arrive at the venue and pass through security, you receive your banner from someone distributing them to all for free; instructions for how it will be used are printed on the back in various languages. Certainly the distribution is done so early for logistical reasons above all else. Still, it’s a notable experiential detail: before you have even found your seat, you are given a “tool” of ending well, a physical reference to the closing, a thing that will transform into a keepsake to remind you of the culminating moment of a journey that’s barely begun.
The last song is arguably the most important of the entire concert, and it is chosen for its emotional tone and message. BTS end not on what’s most popular but on what’s most meaningful: for instance, “Answer: Love Myself” or “Mikrokosmos.”
Finally the performance ends. But the music does not. An instrumental version of the last song will continue for a good while as BTS take their bows and say their goodbyes. Depending on the venue, BTS might use this time to get even closer to the audience via special conveyances, waving to everyone and connecting with people in every section. Even if they only stay on stage, the guys continue walking around and waving to as many fans as they can, expressing their thanks and love. They take their time. But eventually, it’s time to go. They gather at the back of the stage, take a final bow with their backup dancers, and descend from view.
At their stadium shows, this is when the fireworks begin, to the continuing soundtrack of the final song’s instrumental. During Love Yourself: Speak Yourself, this is also when a gigantic structure in the shape of the BTS logo slowly rises from the extended stage. Extra touches like these help prolong the show’s ending past the moment of separation from BTS themselves. They also redirect the audience’s attention in a slightly different way, gently preparing us for the more jarring transition to come.
The fireworks end with a bang. Now people are starting to leave. (And yes, even at a BTS show, some choose to escape to the parking lot even before the final song ends to beat the crowd.) But there are plenty who linger. Many people are not anxious to leave this magical place. And for the moment, at least, no one is rushing you out. The music transitions to another slow song and a new video begins to play. I think of this as the “roll credits” moment. It’s a montage of behind the scenes rehearsal footage, showing the BTS members working hard to prepare for the show you just witnessed. It’s another way of conveying the meaning of what just happened, of wrapping up with a sense of having taken a journey, now with a new perspective on how it all came to be. The video continues the intimate tone of the encore set. It concludes with a message: “Special thanks to the biggest love, ARMY.” The phrase used to describe ARMY changes over the years—our wings, our happiness, our universe, our biggest voice. This goes against Parker’s advice to not have thank yous be the absolutely last thing at the close of a gathering, but is appropriate in honoring the BTS and ARMY relationship which is at the heart of the show’s magic. When this thank you message appears, there is a final cheer from the crowd, and the background music fades away. The stage feels dormant, but not lifeless, with a few lingering decorative touches sparkling like the night sky. The atmosphere is still buzzing.
It’s time to leave. Thousands of people jostle to the exit, and it’s slow going. You’re off to squeeze into a subway car, or to try to remember where you parked and then fight through the busy lot, or to stand around praying to claim an Uber before your phone dies. Maybe your post-concert depression is already setting in; maybe you are among the two-thirds of fans who don’t have clear memories of the concert (Yap, 2020) and you struggle to remember what it was you just experienced; maybe you are only just realizing how spent you are.
There’s no getting around the fact that this can be a difficult transition. Hopefully, through all the ways that the concert itself was designed for ending well, we are more prepared to face these moments than we might have been otherwise. And hopefully, this also applies to BTS themselves. On multiple occasions, the guys have remarked on the emotional toll of going from the stage, where they are surrounded by tens of thousands of adoring fans, to being alone in their hotel rooms. Jin, for instance, has said “that’s when I feel most empty. It’s like having something in one moment, only to see it disappear in the next” (Break the Silence, 2020). I would think that BTS benefit from the last calls, the reflections, and the structured farewells as they prepare to face this change, just like ARMY. Sometimes they even stop to watch the fireworks along with the audience from backstage.
Priya Parker tells us that a well-designed gathering (and, I would add, any thoughtfully designed experience) “transport[s] us to a temporary alternative world” (2018, p. 112). The extent to which that alternative world is different from the “real world” is, then, the extent to which you have to work to prepare guests to both enter and leave it. An incredible concert illustrates this point in the extreme. In my view, BTS concerts take place in an entirely different galaxy. Landing softly back on Earth doesn’t just happen naturally.
I think people are generally used to giving lots of thought to preparing for special experiences—we see promotions, attend pre-show festivals, and plan outfits in advance. But when it comes to endings, we might stop at just knowing how we will get home, and assume that the rest of our come-down “will happen on its own” (Parker, 2018, p. 246). Or, it’s too unpleasant to think about the end before the fun even begins. And really, who wants to contemplate post-concert depression any earlier than necessary? But perhaps we should, out of compassion for our future selves. BTS do the hard work of ending well while we are still at our seats. Then the rest is up to us. Do we give ourselves enough time and space to recover our energy? To immerse ourselves in BTS content, as we might wish to do to ease the feeling of separation (Yap, 2020)? To intentionally savor our memories and continue exploring what it meant to us and what we will take with us? (I mean, it’s been nearly two years since I last saw BTS on tour; I restarted my blog trying to process that experience and am still processing by writing this.) Perhaps there is untapped opportunity to create scaffolding around post-concert depression (or general post-concert meaning-making) and reminiscence once touring is possible again. Perhaps we can go even further, too: how might we harness the energizing, fulfilling aspects of our experience to not just recover well but to amplify our “joy and euphoria” (Yap, 2020) in other parts of our lives?
The thing about experience is it’s always something more than the sum of its parts. I could go on about the various components of BTS shows, and could probably point out many more examples of how little details help create an emotional journey. But I could probably never fully capture that complete experience, those deep feelings. That’s what makes it so beautiful.
At the end of the last BTS concert I was able to attend, Jimin cried. Talking about that night in the docuseries Break the Silence (2020), he said,
“They weren’t just an audience. We shared something special with them on stage, and then the fireworks went off. So, in my mind, the word ‘perfect’ was all I could think of. I think it was perfect.”
Bang, S. (Executive Producer). (2020). Break the Silence [Documentary series]. Weverse.
Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music: Music is much more than just music. Oxford University Press.
Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering. Riverhead Books.
Schäfer, T., Smukalla, M., & Oelker, S. (2014). How music changes our lives: A qualitative study of the long-term effects of intense musical experiences. Psychology of Music, 42, 525-544.
Yap, L. K. (2020). ARMY’s post-concert depression as a clinical phenomenon. Revolutionaries [Medium]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/revolutionaries/armys-post-concert-depression-as-a-clinical-phenomenon-e48e12f1c181