In a week's time, my school will celebrate its first year of closing the doors of its campus to students and faculty as a result of the pandemic. Between the time the first of the CQ's was announced by the government until this very day, work has been so badly diminished in my other work having gone on lock in shootings twice and realizing just how hard it is to accept, adjust and advance.
Between February of last year until today, so much has changed around me ... and in me.
Aside from discovering the joys of Lazada and Shopee and Facebook Market and Grab Food and Mr. Speedy and Lala Moves, I have learned the tranquil pleasures of gardening. I can now distinguish over thirty kinds of hybrid hibiscus ("Gumamela yan!") , mayanas and caladiums. I walk around the garden anticipating the growth of my monstera and realized that I have turned more into the Batman nemesis Poison Ivy than your regular textbook quarantined Plantito.
Yes, we have all found ways of coping with the Year of Self-Imposed Hibernation.
It has become a matter of life or death. Or face masks and face shields. Some of us have gained weight (because of the sheer volume and variety of food being sold online by your neighbors) or lost pounds (because of those who turned into backyard gym bunnies) or completely lost their minds (when you start talking about the vaccine as the Mark of the Devil heralding the coming of the Anti-Christ). O siya.
But if there is anything that helped me survive this year of domestic confinement, then it must be Hallyu.
I will confess that I did not give much time or attention to this whole Korean Thing until I had all the time in the world and no place to go.
The threat of virus to someone over sixty years of age is (supposedly, allegedly) double the risk than somebody in his thirties. And I am not going take a gamble on that assumption. Whereas before you counted the hours by the number of deadlines and appointments you had to deal with each day, the past year has been the adventure of more of the same, day in and day out.
Blame it on Netflix and Crash Landing On You that came at the right time and the right place --- when the Unconvinced (like me) was finally enticed to watch a KDrama about a rich girl literally caught by a whirlwind and brought to another world divided by national borders. All of a sudden, what you only heard about was beginning to make sense. Yes, reading subtitles was a matter of getting used to and gaping at the Korean complexion makes you realize that it is not their whiteness that matters: it is the fact that they look like they are genetically poreless.
And just as I was recovering from the euphoria of BONG JOON HO clasping his Oscar trophy for Best Director --- and his movie bagging Best Film, I thought this whole Hallyu thing was maxxing out on me.
Yes, I am a late bloomer when it comes to being so with it and in it because I was never a KPop Fan (Yes, Boomer! ) nor did I understand how the young can literally swoon and sing along songs in a language that they did not understand ... much less ever learn to speak. That is until I heard that song "Dynamite."
OK, OK ... it was released on the 21st of August the year before and I am really way behind of the groove since my ears went on full radar mode six months later. Now why?
So many of my musically accomplished friends ( Grand Dame Lea Salonga included ) were already exclaiming about the outstanding musicality and showmanship of this KPop group. Years after the Backstreet Boys, NSync , One Direction and Boyz II Men ... and yes, include the Jonas Brothers and even Hanson ... you think you had seen and heard everything.
And there was KPop always at the back burner of mainstream music lovers ... until the perfect storm took place.
When we are forced to sit still and literally absorb everything happening around us, the years of hard work in the programming of an Asian popular culture final bore worldwide fruition. Hallyu embraced us at a time we needed both escape and anesthesia,
I have spoken about the impact of KDrama and how Netflix and Viu have fuelled not only its popularity but its inevitability in the New Normal's streaming alternative.
When a major television network was forced to shut down, the interest veered towards the promise of varied and most important --- newer kinds of content --- in streaming platforms. Similarly, whereas before only the kids down to the X-ers were already glued to YouTube, now even the Boomers were spending more and more time streaming content or opting for internet-based entertainment. Why? Because my generation who were not exactly computer savvy nor internet wired learned that there was so much more variety available there than the more-of-the-same usual diet you get from commercial tv.
Since we are all forced to stay at home and find some kind of amusement and entertainment, the search for options because more urgent. Now you are not watching TV or streaming just after work when you get home. You are now working at home to work and there is all that spare hours where you have to occupy your mind to flush out the frustration, misery and paranoia.
Suddenly information across the generations was no longer limited to mainstream media --- but to internet based platforms where an eighty year old grandmother now has a Twitter account and even government officials attempt at being charming by doing TikToks. Whatever. The survival via confinement further ignited the discovery or rediscovery of Hallyu reaching unbelievable heights of popularity and massive consumption.
This is why the crowning of BTS as Time Magazine's Entertainer of the Year catapulted the whole Hallyu phenomenon. Nobody ... but absolutely nobody ... ever imagined that a Korean Boy Band can possibly achieve this level of worldwide success.
And for those who have been faithful followers of the careers of these seven young men, their success was not a fluke. It was and will forever be a deserving affirmation of so many years of hard work, underlined by determination, discipline ... and undeniable talent.
* * *
When music enthusiasts compared the importance of BTS to (Oh, my God!) ... the Beatles because of their mindblowing achievement in the Billboard international chart, you realize that something more than extraordinary is happening here.
But, hey, it is not like these seven young men are overnight sensations.
Far from it. Theirs was an uphill climb from obscurity to megawatt popularity. Better yet, these are not just another bunch of pretty boys lip syncing songs and making a career out of being popular: an examination of the musical range and death defying variation of genres of the songs they compose, produce and record prove that they should be taken seriously. And that they are making history.
I am not just talking about the billions of dollars they are funneling into the South Korean economy. Their contribution to their country's gross income is enough for the government to recognize their significance and delay their obligatory military service.
I am talking about the fact that you have Asians blowing off the roof and displacing the Bieber and the Sheeran from the charts and staying there, only to return again and again.
I am talking about how they continuously stun --- I repeat, stun --- even their most diehard fans by the surprising choices they make of the songs they compose and sing --- or the manner that they execute their production numbers.
What is more important is their cultural significance in terms of musical contribution and the very narrative of their existence --- as individuals, as a group and as a representation of the global fusion of popular culture.
At this point in their career, that hard climb from 2012 to the present is not a Cinderella story. It is a tale of evolution --- it is a story of diversity and individuality. It is proof of the triumph of talent over mere novelty or celebrity. It is about getting there through the uphill journey because the flash in the pan sensations have career spans of nanoseconds.
What is equally interesting is dissecting what is it about them to gain even greater momentum at a time when people were locked in their personal spaces, unable to congregate for concerts and even ringing the death knells for live entertainment.
The answer is again --- simple as it is complicated: it is the perfect storm. BTS has gotten this far because they are of the here and now.
Why is that? Let me offer my take on their phenomenal rise.
(1) Whereas other performers had to claw their way to maintain visibility and the interest of their audiences (and therefore their fans), BTS has always been social media-based. A great amount of their popularity is pegged on their YouTube uploads and multi-platform accounts each and everyone orchestrated by their management.
Even before the pandemic, Big Hit Entertainment --- the management company that handles the group --- has made it a point to create maximum visibility for the fans. In other words, what was being sold was not just the music itself but the premium of the seven members who constituted the band, Through shows like Run BTS or even YouTube videos uploaded by fans and fan club sites, the seven members of BTS are known not as a single unit but as individuals.
Social media has become the language of communication and connection even before the pandemic but more so when we are forced to stay away from each other.
Unlike other groups who came before who were MTV-based ( think of the rise and sustainability of Madonna ) and did not have the immediacy or even the currency of interacting with their fans, social media has played a prominent role in shaping the stature of the Bang Tan Boys ... and that is without doubt or question.
Even at the height of the pandemic when people are kept apart, social media kept the boys close to their admirers with consistency of updates and images. They never went away. As a matter of fact, with so much time in their hands they became closer and developed an even larger fan base during this restrictive period.
(2) The members of BTS have created an ironic relationship with their Army.
It is virtual and yet intimate. There is truth in the accessibility of RM, Jimin, Jin, V and Jungkook or Suga and J Hope because of the proliferation of videos that show them not as performers but as regular people who go about their daily routines and revealing their behind-the-scene existence.
In other words, there is a reality show mindset you gather when you see all these clips of the boys being themselves or goofing around or being playful in their pajamas. They are shown eating, sleeping, doing podcasts, rehearsing --- interacting with one another like family and drawing us into their personal universe.
More important, they are distinguished from one another because of their personalities which eventually become their selling points.
Nobody can resist the tattooed most junior member of the group because he is the kid the group raised ---- the Jungkook who spent his high school life growing up with his hyungs who took care of him.
And everybody is just floored by Taehyung's narrative: the son of farmers, raised by his grandmother who died while he was performing in the Philippines and who happens to be an actor ( in the historical series Hwarang with Park Soo Joon ) and who has the sassiest moves in his Gucci clothes. OK, enough.
Of course there is Jimin --- the spitfire member of the troupe who was an outstanding modern dance student before turning into this performing monster with unparallelled precision in both choreography and vocals.
Or what about Suga and JHope ... both rappers who have evolved from the early days into precision performers.
Or Seokjin, the hyung of the boys, being the eldest and well, aside from that silver voice has branded himself as Worldwide Handsome (attested by a European group by saying he has the most perfectly formed male face ever supplied by Mother Nature. What-the-...!!!)
Then there is RM, who made a choice whether to continue as an underground rapper or to become a pop star. Apparently, he did well in his decision-making.
And here's another point for the record: as most of the Army members know, RM learned English from watching the American TV series Friends and has an IQ of 148. OK. I am floored. But this still leads me to another important point.
(3) The strongest charm of this group is the narrative of their selves.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, they have been handpicked and have been living together for almost a decade, (I will go back to the significance of that in a bit.) Yet they have evolved from this edgy hip hop group of their early career into this world class band that has defied cultural barriers and could fill up ninety thousand stadiums all over the world. Whereas others would like to look at this as magic or a miracle, it is not. It is a long-drawn process --- mostly planned but still spontaneous --- that yielded this perfect storm.
Because each of the group members have distinct personalities and well-rooted stories, theirs is an appeal of utmost relatability, accessibility --- and, yes, what they have always promoted in terms of their persona: empathy.
Unlike other boy bands who have evaporated into oblivion because of predictable harmonization, lollipops and roses themes and lame stage presence that eventually graduated into predictability, the brains behind and within BTS surpassed all that.
Of course there will be love songs that would sell and warrant audience applause --- but the band has been given by Big Hits Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Bang Si Hyuk the freedom to find their voice and make their own music. They were encouraged not to be templated but to experiment, innovate and discover what is true to themselves.
Yes, they are pre-fab group clustered together not in an organic manner (like the Beatles but more like the Western Boy Bands resulting from auditions and training) but professionally contrived --- yet their uniqueness is that they made their music their own and were given the liberty to find their voice.
It is this liberty that has made them not only survive but soar.
They spoke to a generation --- their generation --- not to just make sales but to provide a channel from which their millions of fans can find their voices too. The songs of BTS expressed the angst and anger of the moment --- of mental health issues, of meaninglessness , of existential existence --- of the dilemmas faced by the youth.
Their songs were very lucid with their message: Love Yourself, Speak Yourself. Amidst the turmoils faced by the young in a world that has gone completely confused and amoral, BTS tells them "It's going to be OK as long as you accept yourself to be no other person but your self."
More than ever, while the world felt the helplessness and despair brought by the pandemic, they come out with their first all-English song, Dynamite which literally leap frogged all other entries in the Billboard 100 because of the happiness and positivity with lyrics like "....Shining through the city with a little funk and soul ... Light it up like dynamite."
No, BTS is not just another group selling cute. They are smart. Their music carries intelligence because it knows its audience in terms and wants and needs. They know exactly what buttons to press not only with their overwhelming stage and video presence or charms. They know how to address the world, making each moment the here and now.
(4) Ten years together have seen the boys grow with one another. Ten years of training, of singing, of dancing and creating: is it still a surprise that they sing and move like THAT?!
The precision in their choreography is nothing short of stunning. Because they have been living together for almost a decade, they already have become ONE. They move the same moves, they breathe the same breath. When they dance, the synchronization is not a product of rehearsals but transcending exactitude and more of solidarity.
They may not have been any natural selection here but one that has been designed to suit needs for constituting an effective troupe but the ten years of togetherness has made this more than just organic: it has become metabolic. The way they move their moves, the way they voice their voices --- this is not a product of rehearsals. It is more of the result of being.
(5) But being is not enough. It is all about professionalism, discipline, dedication to what they have chosen to do ... or made to do.
If you have seen the KDrama entitled Sky Castle then you will know exactly how Korean youngsters are used to very, very hard work. School and training are of supreme importance to them in their priorities. Kids are focused to achieve their goals because parents are expected to expect much from their offsprings. BTS is a classic example of how all that hard work finally created a mindset of world class professionals.
The boys of BTS are like Olympic athletes. They have been moulded into performers who will offer nothing less than approximations of perfection in every performance.
When you see the backstage videos of their concerts showing how these boys literally collapse with exhaustion ... or how they practically stifle screams of pain because their bodies are giving in to the pressure and fatigue or even the time that Jungkook damaged his heels while performing and still insisted in going on with the show despite the obvious pain that he was going through... that is when you realize that age old adage which people from the outside never seem to comprehend. That it is never that easy. That the long hard climb to the top is the fun part: it is when you get there that the difficulties really begin.
In a business like entertainment, there will always be someone newer, younger and fresher who will steal away the interest and favors of the audiences. To remain relevant and important require painstaking effort at reinventing and having your fans rediscover a side of you that they had not expected nor seen before. But with the musicality of BTS, that has never been a problem because they, like their audiences, grow with the changes brought by the times. When they are onstage, there is that total commitment to discipline and professionalism that yielded this unparallelled recognition.
(6) Relevance can achieve may definitions and shapes. But with the Bang Tan Boys it is not merely about maintaining the status of celebrity or being branded as the Number 1 Entertainers of the World. Not South Korea, not Asia --- but of the world. They embraced this honor with a sense of commitment to social responsibility as they did with their art and craft.
No, it is not just about the million dollar donation that they gave to the Black Lives Matter and how they rallied their fans to also give to such socially-oriented causes. It is about their commitment that goes beyond words or lip service but in the songs they create and share with their audience. Their relationship with their fans is their relationship to a much larger world that goes beyond pop music: it is about creating their art that is important for the world to hear, see and feel.
When asked why they released their biggest song Dynamite at the height of the pandemic, their reason was simple: they wanted to give a sense of happiness and hope to the world --- not only to their fans --- but to a planet that has spun out of orbit and now seeking any form of consolation and refuge. A song with such a catchy tune sung by an all-Korean boy band in English ... celebrating the energy of life and its brilliance. Like a ray of hope. Like someone patting your back saying, "It is going to be all right."
That is the moment you realize that you cannot help but love them. And their music. And their story. But more so who they are.
A few days ago, BTS appeared in MTV Unplugged. Yes, they sang Dynamite in a different mode much like the way they performed the song in Good Morning America and the NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Yet when they did the cover of Coldplay's Fix You --- that song that has always hit me right in the heart for years --- and rendered with the vocals of the Bang Tan Boys --- I was stupefied. In disbelief. And in tears. I was in a moment.
Anyone who still doubts that RM, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, Jimin, JHope and V do not have talent and are just products of hype, marketing and the euphoria of a trend --- think again, listen again. Individually and as a group, they are armed with such musical gifts that it is not surprising that they are making history.
Discipline. Dedication. Professionalism. Gratitude. Empathy. Love for their audience. Growth. I am stupefied.
A senior citizen. A Boomer in tears experiencing such a high in music that I have never felt for the longest time. That was when I decided to write this blog. That when I realized that regardless of Boomer, Gen X, Y or Z ... the heart of true music knows no age, no nationality and no language.
I am now a full-fledged member of the Army.