I have something to confess. During the countdown I designed to help BTS’ fandom, ARMY, prepare for their long-awaited return to real life concerts, I sometimes didn’t take my own advice. Like on November 24th, three days before the start of Permission to Dance On Stage – LA, a four-show engagement at SoFi Stadium. I posted a journaling prompt encouraging ARMYs to savor their feelings of anticipation, inspired by a writing exercise that was shown to increase how much college students remembered enjoying their spring breaks (Chun, Diehl, & MacInnis, 2017). I believed—I still believe—that it’s a useful strategy to more fully enjoy something you are looking forward to.
But I never did that journaling exercise myself. I was afraid to.
How do you even begin to approach emotions that have been two years in the making?
I called my design Project Spaceship, a nod to a metaphor I used while analyzing the endings of past BTS concerts. I described the transition from concert to “real life” as being like returning to Earth after visiting another galaxy. And that was under normal circumstances. I knew that the upcoming shows would be even more powerful by several magnitudes. There was now a much more dramatic difference between a stadium concert experience and reality, which is still filled with the pandemic’s restrictions, fear, hardship, and uncertainty. I could hardly bring myself to even imagine the emotional release of both joy and pain that these shows would bring and what recovery and integration could possibly look like—even as I was designing for it.
If I was having such thoughts and feelings about my own little fan project, I can only imagine what it was like for BTS and their team planning for the actual concert itself. I couldn’t wait to see what they had in store.
The morning of Day 1, I shared on Twitter: “I decided to wear the same shirt that I wore to rose bowl day 2 today. The last tour date I saw. I feel like I want to stitch these two days together. So much has changed it’s hard to comprehend. But the connection is the same.”
I’ve thought about that last show, from May 2019, a tremendous amount. That was the night I referenced most while writing about BTS’ concert endings. I carefully reviewed the DVD recording and my own videos, diving deep into the details of the final moments. I found a pattern in how BTS usually closes their shows and reasoned about how each aspect supports a larger purpose for the experience. Ever since doing so, I’ve become hyper aware of these ending cues, but only had the opportunity to bring my new awareness to their online shows.
Finally back in a real life stadium, even as I was having the time of my life, I was extremely conscious of the passing of time. I noticed the flow from one set to the next, everything stitched together by transitional videos (known as “VCRs”) that convey a loose narrative structure and sustain the crowd’s energy while the guys quick-change backstage. And as for the performance… well, what can I even say? From literally bursting out of confinement for the opener “ON,” through the breathtaking theatrics of “Black Swan,” to the unstoppable, rollicking freight train of party songs that takes off from a personal favorite (“Baepsae”) and peaks with the exultant “So What”…. If you know, you know. It was everything I’ve come to expect from—everything I’ve missed about—a BTS show. In a word, stunning.
Right after “So What,” when Jungkook said, “guys, I have some sad news… this show is now almost over,” I knew what was happening. I knew this wouldn’t be the last song, that this warning was all part of being prepared. And I definitely felt prepared, probably more than I’d ever been. I bellowed out “NO! Nooo!” anyway, almost like I was playing along with some inside joke. “We’re almost at the end but it ain’t over til it’s over, right?” Namjoon added, referencing one of the key lyrics in “Permission to Dance.” “Let’s not hold anything back.”
The band launched into not one but three back-to-back high-energy songs to finish off the set, culminating in the absolutely rocking, confident, anthemic “IDOL” stadium mix. There was a massive group of backup dancers, a dramatic pause in the music that highlighted the crowd’s chanting, and columns of shooting fire. A perfect climax.
Then came the extended wait for the encore. And things started to be a little different from what I expected.
The gigantic screen, rather than going blank, now showed the starry crowd. The cameras focused on us, panning across different sections. When the wave started up, the cameras tracked its progress. Our centrally-controlled lightsticks flashed in purple, then white, then in a flowing rainbow cascade. Later the lights spelled out “ARMY” and “BTS” across the stadium.
It was gorgeous. I felt recognized, appreciated… and also strangely pressured to “perform.” (It was not ARMY’s proudest moment when it came to the wave, but that’s another story.)
Having seen the online version of the Permission to Dance On Stage concert the previous month, I already knew that the encore set would be slightly different from other BTS tours. I had already seen the final VCR that introduces the encore: an edited montage of their most recent performance and speech at the United Nations General Assembly, which unfortunately had no subtitles to remind non-Korean speakers of its hopeful message about the resilience of young people in the pandemic. I also already expected the emotional journey of the encore to be inverted. Whereas in the past they would start with up-tempo songs and then end on a slower one, this time they began on a sentimental tone and finished with the triumphant “Permission to Dance,” for which, of course, the entire show is named.
First, there was “We are Bulletproof: The Eternal.” This song was meant to be the shining final moment of BTS’ cancelled 2020 tour. Instead, Day 1 was the first (and now only) time it was ever performed for a real-life audience. The lyrics in both Hangul and English filled the screen bit by bit and I sang along as best as I could: “Yeah we got to heaven.” Jungkook removed one in-ear monitor to soak in the crowd’s chanting at the song’s climax, his eyes sparkling, a slight and satisfied smile on his lips. Then came “Answer: Love Myself,” the earnest, heartfelt closer from the Love Yourself tour a few years ago.
It was time for the ending ments before I knew it. There was gratitude and disbelief. Jin said, “Being here with you right now, this is the biggest happiness of my life.” Namjoon talked about how coming to LA had made two years of rage, anxiety, and desperation feel “like nothing.” Taehyung said, “Holy shit. Damn.”
There was no “ARMY Time,” no fan-designed banner slogans with a unique message for BTS. I missed the banners very much. But I suppose we needed our hands free to dance.
“Permission to Dance” lacks some of the visceral poignancy of songs usually chosen to end the shows (“The Eternal” and “Love Myself” being perfect examples). The song is undoubtedly meaningful and even cathartic, but the emotional complexity comes more from considering the larger context than the qualities of the celebratory track itself. In any case, there is definitely something to be said for the experience of a stadium full of people all doing the same communicative choreography in unison. Joy, dance, peace. The screen showed not only BTS’ live performance, but also clips from fans around the world who participated in the dance challenge. At the song’s bridge, drama building as we sang and clapped along, a mass of backup dancers emerged from the main stage. They held large purple spheres that they promptly tossed out into the crowd. It was a symbol of hope, referencing the purple balloons from the music video and other performances. The fun boisterous energy was overflowing; the balloons, the dancers, the abundant confetti all literally spilling out from the stage with nothing to hold it back.
After an extra round of da-na-na-na-na-nas, BTS said their goodbyes, took a bow, and disappeared.
We were left with a graphic displaying some of the lyrics from “Permission to Dance”: “Let me show you / That we can keep the fire alive / Cause it’s not over / Till it’s over say it one more time.” The instrumental version of the song faded in and continued in a loop. I waited a while for a new message along the lines of “Thanks to our universe, ARMY.” I waited for a video montage of rehearsals and preparations, something I’ve equated to the rolling credits of a movie. Neither came. Although the structure of this concert was still extremely familiar, I found myself focused on the little parts that didn’t fit the ending formula I’d supposedly cracked.
At that point, my emotions weren’t particularly strong. Or perhaps I didn’t really know how to feel them. Or maybe it’s just that I can’t remember by now. I know I’m not alone in this. Jimin, especially, mentioned on multiple occasions that there was an awkwardness about Day 1 that affected his ability to fully enjoy the show and feel his emotions. Other members also expressed similar thoughts during post-concert livestreams (via the Vlive app) on subsequent days. As much as there was happiness and relief, Yoongi characterized both the band and the audience as “a bit shy” on Day 1; later, Namjoon and Jungkook discussed their difficulty recalling “exactly what feelings I had” on the first night. Overall, these four shows demonstrated what an important role the hotel room Vlives can play in starting to integrate our concert experiences. (It was a common, but never guaranteed, occurrence on past tours.) By chatting with fans in such an intimate setting, often over food and sometimes a drink, these livestreams are like much more casual and extended versions of the ending ments: a chance to debrief what happened and connect.
But that was all context that came later. Back in the stadium, the house lights came up. The large circular screen hanging from the ceiling showed directions to the various parking areas, ushering us out. Part of me felt a little… cheated. I had spent so much time preparing myself for an intensely moving ending, deepening my understanding of how and why BTS achieved these specific emotional experiences in the past. I had built a whole project around it. Now it felt like they were turning away from the end, almost denying it.
More importantly, I started to worry that I had become too in my head about my own experience. I had just seen BTS for their very first return concert!! Why was I puzzling over a few little “missing” pieces of the closing moments instead of basking in the incredible time I’d just had? Maybe overthinking the metaphor of the galaxy and the spaceship had tethered me permanently to Earth.
With some of the nerves, or hesitation, or shock of a long-awaited reunion behind us, on Day 2 we were ready to let loose. The entire show felt like the most incredible party with my best friends. The feeling of never having been apart crystallized. At the same time, I was particularly struck by the performances of their English-language hits “Dynamite” and “Butter” (that day, featuring a surprise appearance by Megan Thee Stallion, who sent the crowd into ecstatic chaos). These feel-good songs were bright spots for so many of us during isolation, but had been performed only for cameras til now. I felt blessed to be part of that change for BTS, to belt every single word for them in person. The songs I had streamed so heavily for months suddenly felt completely fresh.
That night, the encore started with two different but similarly poignant songs as Day 1. “Spring Day,” arguably BTS’ most legendary and emotionally evocative song, left a deep impression on me as it was my first time experiencing the live performance. To to sing the iconic “보고 싶다” (“I miss you”) directly to BTS after everything that’s happened was indescribable.
After the show, I found myself humming and dancing out of the stadium to the unending “Permission to Dance” instrumental. It was then that I fully absorbed the emotional difference between this tour’s ending and the ones I had written about before.
It didn’t feel like an ending at all. I finally realized that was the point.
It wasn’t that BTS had abandoned the idea of preparing their fans well for the end of the show. Not at all! They still warned us of the closing of their penultimate set, they still played an intimate and meaningful encore, they still helped us feel our feelings and explore the significance of the moment with openness and sincerity during their ending ments. They could have just as easily ended on something like “Spring Day,” a tear-jerker, a soaring ballad soaked with sentimentality, expressing all the hardship of the past two years and the very real mixed emotions of reuniting. There would have been good reason to make that choice. But instead, they chose to dance with us, and then keep us dancing. “Say it one more time.”
The exhaustion hit me on the ride home like an anvil in a cartoon. Physically, I was almost ill, but emotionally I was high. I felt I’d left absolutely all my energy, every ounce of whatever was inside me, on the stadium floor. I had two days to try to build that energy back so I could do it all over again for the final shows.
Prior to Day 3, I set an intention for myself in the form of a reminder: “feelings are meant to be felt in the moment and understood later.”
The first two shows were already among the most fun nights of my life, and I enjoyed them deeply and freely. On top of that, I had done so much mental preparation to fully engage with the entire journey. Yet I also have this sense that I experienced those first nights as if I had reached the highest peak of a roller coaster after a slow and suspenseful climb, only to squeeze my eyes shut when faced with the vertical drop. Nearly free-falling, my body sensations not even being able to even keep up with how fast I was going, just holding on tight because there’s no stopping or slowing down. But now we had crossed a bridge between the beginning and end of BTS’ time in LA. For the rest of this ride, I was going to open my eyes, put my hands up, and scream.
Maybe my intention had something to do with it, or maybe there was some other magic working that night. It felt as if it was the very first time I’d ever seen BTS perform in person.
“It’s like we’re here being together, breathing together, at the end and at the start of something at the same time.”
Namjoon was referring to it being the first day of December. Yes, there was something poetic about those last two nights taking us into a new month. But I personally think he meant something much more than that. I started to really feel, in my bones, how these concerts were a doorway between a world where such experiences (and everything good that we gain from them) were not possible, and… well, whatever comes next. Of course, that feeling came with the largely unspoken subtext that the pandemic is not by any means over. Indeed, we stood on the precipice of another potential dark hole, and what was possible in LA in that moment simply isn’t in so many other parts of the world.
I felt the tension of so many contradictions. The coexistence of beginning and ending. The significance of this moment as a turning point, while so much still remained the same.
The boys were particularly funny, lighthearted, and playful that day. I like to think that it came from a similar place as my own desire to just let go and enjoy before things were really, really over.
In his ending ment, Hoseok mentioned he would spend time with us on Vlive after the show, effectively prolonging the night beyond what was happening inside the stadium.
“Tomorrow will not be the last day,” Yoongi promised, referring to future shows for which the only certainty is that we will wait any length of time necessary.
“I wish it didn’t end,” Taehyung lamented from behind a full-face Squid Game mask. “Why don’t we start from the beginning again?”
If I still had any lingering worries about being too in my head to fully feel the moment, the final day of the concert series blew those thoughts away.
Day 4’s encore songs were new, and the vibe was distinctly different. First there was “HOME”—god, what a banger. The song’s message is still incredibly meaningful and still completely appropriate for an encore that celebrates the connection between artist and fan. It was a loving declaration under hot pink lights, expressing that we were home in that moment because we were together. It’s just that the song inspires gyrating rather than crying.
Not that tenderness was completely abandoned. Next came “Mikrokosmos,” transcendent and affirming. “You got me, I got you.” This had been the sparkling closing song of BTS’ last tour before the world shut down. Here was another layer to the beautiful continuity I’d been hoping for between concerts Before and concerts After.
Once again, BTS embraced the contradictions of the moment in their ending ments. Jungkook said, “This is the end of our concert in LA, but this is definitely not our end.” Hoseok expressed, “I hope this concert is not the end, I hope that it’s another beginning.” Much more was said too. Tears flowed. Topics to be explored another time.
The final “Permission to Dance” was a blur. Actually, I didn’t even have the chance to process that the last song had really ended. The concert was over… this whole experience was over. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something new: a gigantic glowing Earth at the edge of the stage. It should have clicked for me then.
We were still cheering for the end of “Permission to Dance” when “My Universe” began to play. I can only describe it as rocketing into the stratosphere. Lights across the stadium ignited all at once in deep blue. Chris Martin of Coldplay was suddenly on stage, matching with the BTS members in their tour merch. The Earth I had seen moments before was followed by a string of other luminous planets that moved in a slow orbit around the perimeter of the floor sections.
I was shocked, and completely elated. Well, how many times had they stressed, “It’s not over til it’s over…”?
I sang along with whatever I had left. “Never ending, forever baby.”
I was outside the stadium. Airplanes flew low through the fog overhead. A feminine voice relayed safety announcements on loop, fading into atmospheric background noise that me feel a bit like I was in a sci-fi video game, wandering a space port. Having left my voice, my energy, my love, all of my being inside the stadium for the last time, I walked towards the parking lot with the familiar but surreal sense of not being in my body, not being on that street, not being on this planet.
Namjoon used the word “historic” on both the first and last nights; Yoongi, too, during his post-concert Vlive. My guess is we won’t fully grasp exactly how historic these concerts truly were until years in the future. For BTS and ARMY, I believe it was a turning point of such significance that I can’t yet name. A tectonic shift. I feel the enormity of it even as a I fail to understand it.
Not long after I drafted the paragraph above, BTS announced their vacation. This break will really only last a few months, since they plan to perform in Korea in March 2022 and also release a new album, perhaps around that time. To rest immediately following their return to live concerts feels momentous to me, on top of the statement’s clear messaging that they are gearing up for a “new chapter.” It makes me even more certain that those four nights were a threshold that BTS and ARMY crossed together.
A threshold; a doorway. I’m reminded that the logos representing both BTS and us, their fans, are literally two opposite perspectives on opening doors.
As described in brand experience design materials from 2017, “The boy grow[s] up into an adult, facing many doors in his youth. The symbol of BTS is derived from the brand story of youth, which is moving forward to a new world to grow up without being complacent, and it is expressed by a door that can be opened for a way forward.” Additionally, “BTS and A.R.MY….are almost mirror images of each other…. The symbol of A.R.M.Y. is expressed as a door on their viewpoint who is waiting and welcoming BTS on the opposite [side of] the door…”
As seismic and unprecedented as this particular threshold seems to be, crossing into new eras, new growth, and new chapters is at the heart of who BTS are as artists and of what it means to be their fan. This is what we do. It won’t be the last time.
Days after the last concert, I referred back to BTS’ UN speech and pieced together the segments they highlighted in the encore video. In translation (taken mainly from the subtitles here), these are the final statements meant to set the tone for the encore, and thus to represent the most central idea of the entire concert:
“I hope we don’t just consider the future as grim darkness. There are still many pages left in the story about us, and I thought we shouldn’t talk like the ending has already been written.”
“We thought the world had stopped but it continues to move forward. I believe that every choice we make is the beginning of change, not the end.”
On a personal level, I don’t know what my new beginning will look like. I have been ready for change for a long time, and have slowly been making those choices that get me closer to a better and better version of my life. But now, in the afterglow of our magical and affirming time together, I feel even more hopeful. More confident. Better equipped than perhaps any other time in my life to meet and go after whatever comes next.
Ready, set, and begin.
Chun, H. H., Diehl, K., & MacInnis, D. J. (2017). Savoring an upcoming experience affects ongoing and remembered consumption enjoyment. Journal of Marketing, 81, 96-110.