At last week’s American Music Awards, K-pop titans BTS were named Artist of the Year. This weekend, in front of 50,000 screaming fans at the Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles, they prove why they deserved it. Over the course of a thrilling two-and-a-half hour show, the band’s seven members deliver a sublime succession of pop hits, combining meticulously choreographed dance routines with clearly unrehearsed moments of heartfelt sincerity. To paraphrase another famous army leader: they came, they sang, they conquered.
BTS’s dedicated fan following, known as the ARMY, have flown in from all over the world to witness their heroes’ long-awaited return. They have been very patient. Due to the pandemic, 760 long days have separated the last BTS show in front of an audience in Seoul on 29 October 2019 and their return in Los Angeles on Saturday, the first of their four shows at the football stadium. During a press conference held at the venue on Sunday afternoon, singer Jimin said the pressure of returning to the stage after so long had left him feeling “very scared and nervous” the previous night, and he vowed that for their second show he would “take it easy” and try to “enjoy the experience” a little more. Judging by the cheeky smile spread across his face by the conclusion, he more than succeeded. He’s not the only one: 50,006 faces grin deliriously back at him.
The show starts with fireworks, both literal and metaphorical. Bright sparks and plumes of smoke fill the air as the band burst out of a cage for opener “ON”, their massive single from February 2020. They follow that with “Fire”, their sparky 2016 track which blends devilish rapping with heavenly hooks, and “Dope”, which sees them singing and rapping directly into cameras broadcast onto the vast backing screen. It is only after that exhilarating triple-punch that they pause to allow those of us watching to catch our breath – and to give themselves time to introduce themselves. Singer Jungkook sums up the mood, sweetly and earnestly telling the crowd: “I’ve missed all of you!”
The pandemic may have kept BTS away from the live performances for the last two years, but it evidently did nothing to slow their creativity. An early highlight of the set comes in the form of soulful lockdown anthem “Life Goes On”, from their November 2020 album BE. Amusingly, they begin the song perched on a giant bed before shifting to an oversized couch. The circular journey from bed to couch and back again was undoubtedly one of the unifying features of pandemic life – just one I hadn’t expected to see rendered as tongue-in-cheek stage design.
A retro funk and soul backing band joins the group for exuberant renditions of Halsey-collab “Boy With Luv” and smash hit debut English-language single “Dynamite”, before one of the night’s most ear-piercing screams heralds the previously unannounced arrival of Megan Thee Stallion. BTS had been due to team up with MTS at the American Music Awards to perform their remixed version of recent single “Butter”, but the US rapper had been forced to pull out at the last minute. She more than makes up for that absence with her cameo appearance, after which she announces happily that their coming together had made her feel “like the hot girl of every season!”
“Butter” is a high point, but then the show is full of them. One moment rapper Suga is demonstrating his spitfire flow on “I’m Fine”, then we’re seeing footage of the band addressing the UN General Assembly, and then singer Jin has his hair in pigtails tied up in red ribbons for emotional renditions of “Epilogue: Young Forever” and “Spring Day”. It adds up to a show that is at turns playful and then deeply serious, musically dazzling and never performed with anything less than total authenticity. If the performance makes one thing clear, it’s that you don’t become the world’s biggest band by accident.
BTS may have already ascended to the summit of pop, but that doesn’t mean their journey is over. Shortly after their triumph at the American Music Awards, the band received a second consecutive Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Having missed out last year, they’ll have to wait until 31 January 2022 to find out whether they’ll beat out the competition this time around. There are several contenders who no doubt think they have the most deserving song, but you won’t find a member of the BTS ARMY who’ll believe it’s not “Butter”.