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For Fans Of K-Pop Megagroup BTS, It's Not Just About The Music

Lauren Rogers, Kelly Sipko, Nancy Sipko, and Tony Ganzer. (Stephanie Jarvis / ideastream)

Last night at the Billboard Music Awards Korean megagroup BTS performed, and they won for a second time Best Social Artist, a testament to their online prowess. 

I have known of BTS for some time, but I ran into their social media power and their reach into Northeast Ohio by chance a few weeks ago…when their fans known as the BTS ARMY, sort of adopted me.

On a good day a tweet of mine might be shared 10 times, but the BTS ARMY shared one of my tweets 16,000 times, and liked it 27,000 times. I had noticed many fans were helping spread the word about a UNICEF fundraising campaign, using the hashtag #RoarForChange, but I didn’t know the details.

The Armys, as they call themselves, helped me fill in the gaps, all the while filling my timeline with purple hearts.

“The members are very big in just promoting happiness and love and acceptance everywhere in the world, so that’s what this is kind of trying to achieve. And so it’s really easy to spread that on Twitter,” says Kelly Sipko, who helps edit The Kraze, a magazine devoted to the Korean entertainment industry.

The 26-year-old lives in Northeast Ohio, having graduated from college in Bowling Green.

She’s likes BTS…a lot.

“I like a lot of K-pop, I’m a big fan of more than just BTS. I mean it’s good, and it’s upbeat, but there might not be as much meaning sometimes," Sipko says, sitting in her room adorned with BTS posters, fan art, and more. "BTS is different because all of their discography is filled with deeper meanings that you really don’t see in Korea, because Korea’s a pretty conservative country.”

Beyond the Music

BTS supports causes in Korea, including an anti-violence campaign for Unicef Korea, but when I stumbled into the tweet campaign weeks ago, that was completely fan-decided.

From Seoul, to Solon, to St. Petersburg, it seems the BTS Army had used the ideas of the seven-member group to find other causes to promote.

“I don’t think the fans would ever try to largely influence something in a negative way. That’s not what we’re about, that’s not what they’re about, that’s not what the group’s about,” says Lauren Rogers, Kelly Sipko's roommate and long-time bestfriend. 

She’s long been a fan of rock, especially the Foo Fighters, before Sipko brought her into BTS.

“I used to be…like I didn’t understand the appeal, really, it’s just a boy band, but I think if you invest a little bit of time, and you search for something in them that would appeal to you, you will find it," Rogers says. "If you don’t understand it even if you have tried, that’s okay, too, you don’t have to. You just have to respect that other people do have something invested in this group, invested in this culture.”

Something that Rogers and Sipko, and scores of other BTS devotees on Twitter told me, is that the group seemed to have an authenticity that forged a deep bond. Fan interactions and songs have addressed mental health issues, for example. 

“They’ve documented their entire journey from the beginning. It really makes you feel like you’re not alone," Sipko says. "Even though my own life, there were a lot of bad parts at the time, you know watching these boys succeed and achieve their dreams really made me feel better. And I know it sounds silly, but pretty much any BTS fan will agree with you there. And the members have opened up about topics like depression. It really connects with listeners.”

Kind of Like Beatlemania...or not

Sipko and Rogers’ rooms are filled with posters, fan art, picture books, CDs, and more from BTS, some of the more rare items imported from Korea to the US through fan-organized bulk shipments.

Kelly Sipko in her room, the walls adorned with posters of her favorite BTS members and albums. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

There have been some comparisons between BTS and Beatle-mania, though the group balks at that, Sipko’s 63-year-old mother Nancy says it’s accurate.

“I grew up during the Beatles when they came, and the crowds are reacting the same way as when the Beatles approached. They say no, but the crowds are very similar,” Nancy says.

She's also now a BTS fan, and the long-time dancer will even perform BTS-inspired choreography in a local recital in June.  The oldest member of her troupe is in her 70s, the youngest in her 50s.

“I love the way that [BTS] have such synchronicity, you know they all move at the same time, they never miss a position,” she says in admiration.

BTS is touring the U.S. this year, and Nancy, Kelly, and Lauren are gearing up for that. 

Despite a passionate fan base, and more and more attention, Kelly Sipko says there is still a stigma about K-pop here:

“They are getting traction, with the sense that their being played on American radio, but there still is a lot of stigma, just people that don’t really want to give them a chance because they think that, ‘oh, well, their music won’t connect with me, because I don’t know their language,’" Sipko says. "And I want to say that you should definitely give it a chance, because I didn’t know Korean, and I can by far say that nothing has really impacted me quite like listening to BTS has.”

And for many fans that impact is positive, in private and in spreading the word on Twitter about causes they find worthy.

After all, as Sipko says, the fans are representing BTS, and they don’t want the group to look bad.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.