“Do your thang with me now”: A Reflection of BTS’s Black Swan Performance at Permission to Dance On Stage

BTS performing Black Swan on the Tonight Show September 2020.

홀린 듯 천천히 가라앉아 Nah nah nah

As if I’m bewitched, I slowly sink down, nah nah nah

몸부림쳐봐도 사방이 바닥 Nah nah

Though I try struggling, I’m at the bottom of the sea, nah nah

모든 순간들이 영원이 돼 Yeah yeah yeah

Every moment becomes eternity, yeah yeah yeah

Film it now

Film it now

Do you hear me yeah

(translation by doolset)

After watching the Permission to Dance On Stage concert on October 24, I felt the need to write an essay about some of my thoughts. You can think of this as a bit of a personal reflection on the magic that is BTS on stage and how they are a mirror to how the audience is currently experiencing life.

Important Background

I have spent my academic career (the past 8+ years) focusing on two main research areas:

  1. Unexpected interactions & ways of communicating
  2. Finding value in online experiences

In the past two years, with the quarantines and lockdowns because of the pandemic, a lot more people than just me have been thinking about these things.

Unexpected interactions and ways of communicating are using your body and language in a way that are outside of “normal.” In my work, this often means disabled individuals who do things in a way that non-disabled people find strange or different. An example of this would be autistic children preferring to socialize and make friends in a computer game rather than in uncomfortable face-to-face interactions.

Finding value in online experiences is the acknowledgment that the interactions we have and the friendships we make are just as impactful in online spaces as offline. Individual people might prefer either online or offline interactions, but that does not ultimately make one better than the other. Again, we have the example of autistic youth playing in online spaces, having fun and making friends in a meaningful way, that for them is preferable to offline play. I argue that the direction we’re headed is a blending of online and offline experiences (we’re already part way there).

During the Permission to Dance On Stage concert, BTS became the embodiment of both unexpected interactions and the poetic blending of offline and online experiences.

Setting the Stage

For those who are coming to this essay having not been to a BTS online concert: BTS has performed a number of online concerts since the start of the pandemic. These are performed on live stages by BTS and live streamed across the globe. The most recent concert, Permission to Dance On Stage was approximately 2.5 hours long and had a long setlist of songs. What was different about this performance is there was no audience interaction whatsoever for BTS (they couldn’t see comments or streams of audience faces). They were performing to an empty stadium (one of the members even said it felt like a rehearsal instead of a concert). Another difference with this concert was one of the members, V, was injured and so had to sit in a chair for the songs that had more intensive choreography.

While I could easily write an entire book on the concert alone, I am choosing to focus on the stage for Black Swan.

*I highly recommend giving the song a listen and checking out the translated lyrics. You can listen and watch the choreography here:

Unexpected Interactions and Ways of Communicating

BTS have a long history of doing the unexpected, sending their messages to the world in new and meaningful ways, and generally breaking away from norms. You can see this in their continual push against gender norms, their amazing lyricism, or in places like the UN General Assembly where they spoke and performed Permission to Dance.

V singing into his mic during Black Swan performance.

They also work incredibly hard on their skills as musicians and performers. Which is why, for me, it was absolutely no shock that V’s injury had no impact on the power of his performance. He was mesmerizing. He used his well-known facial expressions, upper body movements, and his voice to express the dance. And it worked.

V performing in Black Swan with his characteristic eyebrow raise.

V’s injury left him, you might say, “temporarily disabled” because he was not able to perform his normal activities. Seeing him still participating in the performance and showing the audience a new kind of idol performance were both outside of expectations. (To be clear, this is not the first time BTS has done this for an injured member. This is just the most recent example.) As someone who runs an entire account for Disabled ARMY, I relish this kind of positive representation.

BTS is also well known for not modifying their choreographies for missing members who might be out for injury or illness. If someone is missing from the performance, there is simply a hole in the dance. So seeing the blending of the expected choreography with V sitting in a chair is quite emotionally powerful for the audience.

The concert was named after their song “Permission to Dance,” which is about how everyone has permission to dance. This includes those who might not dance in the way others expect.

Blending Online and “Offline” Experiences

An online concert was the answer to the pandemic, when in-person concerts were no longer feasible. It was clear from this particular concert that BTS were feeling a deep longing to be face-to-face with ARMY again. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it must be performing in an empty stadium. (I give presentations on zoom and probably feel the tiniest sliver of the feeling, speaking into the void.) This was clear by their comments during the concert about longing to be in-person and struggling to find motivation.

Despite BTS’s missing having an audience in front of them, their live streamed concert was what many ARMY had been longing for. This concert is one way to help keep the fandom connected with their beloved musicians. For many ARMY, for a variety of reasons, this is the only way they will ever get to see the group perform live. It’s important and was something that really only came about because of the pandemic.

What we see in the Black Swan performance is the magical blending of digital and physical realities. There is the fact that BTS are performing live in a stadium in Seoul, Korea and that is being streamed in real time across the globe. Then within the concert itself, there were large digital screens behind the stage that played different visuals from the performance. Sometimes the main stage was mirrored, enlarged, behind BTS. Other times, as in the picture below, V was shown behind the other 6 members while they were dancing. This was while he was sitting just off to the side of the main stage.

V projected on a giant screen behind the other members of BTS while performing Black Swan.

The result is beautiful and a glimpse of the ways in which we are seamlessly blending online an offline, digital and physical, technologically mediated and face-to-face.

Black Swan ~ But What If That Moment’s Right Now

I chose Black Swan because the lyrics speak about losing passion and trying to find a way through the fear of loss. I often turn to this song in moments of burnout or frustration, when my life feels like it’s going sideways.

To me, there is something quite poignant about BTS struggling to find their own motivation while performing in an empty stadium, but performing wonderfully nonetheless, while simultaneously bringing passion and light to so many other people’s lives around the world. To do this with the poetic mixture of breaking down norms and pushing the boundaries of “what is real” is something I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

BTS as a Mirror

BTS’s authenticity and relatability is often discussed. What I think of, watching performances such as this live concert, is how BTS is our mirror. We are reflected in the modality of the concert — having to move to online platforms when many of us weren’t ready for that to be the only way to communicate. But there are glimmers of hope there, too. The members are together, working hard, continuing to give everything they have to move forward. We are reflected in the imagery of the stage — like art come to life, we see things that are familiar and resonate (for me all the large black swan feathers falling as they danced struck something in my soul). We are reflected in the lyrics — wondering how to find a way forward, wondering if this is the end of our passion, wondering where to find the motivation to not just take the next step, but take the next step with purpose.

I am so happy that BTS get to perform in LA next month and see ARMY face-to-face again, something which they clearly desperately need. But I am also happy to have had these opportunities for ARMY, who otherwise cannot go to an in-person concert, get to see them perform live. I hope this, as with many things gained during the pandemic, we don’t lose the progress we’ve made towards equity and access.

BTS in their final pose for the end of the Black Swan performance.

If you want more Black Swan, I also highly recommend the following Art Film performance:

If you’re interested in other ARMY and BTS related pieces, I have written:

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