BTS's Growing Fanbase Isn't Just Teens, It's Their Moms
One hot day last summer, 57-year-old Nan Paturzo hosted a backyard party for a group of women ages 26 to 57 at her home in Southern California. They swam in the pool, played games, danced, DIY'd T-shirts. They spent the whole day together, catching up and sharing anecdotes from their personal lives, bonding over old memories.
In a photo taken that day, they all stand as one big group, smiling in the sun. If you glance quickly at the image, you might miss the signs — the "finger hearts" they're throwing, the shirts that read "Boy With Luv" in cursive — that this was a special kind of party. That the group of adult women, an online meetup taken offline, wouldn't have been friends if not for the seven-member musical group from Korea, BTS.
Still, the perception that BTS's success comes from young, fanatical teenage girls remains; teenage girls, often the unsung purveyors of cultural phenomena, are a market to monetize but not one to respect. It's a perception that manages to belittle the teens who adore them (by referring to them with words like "rabid," for example, or implying they only love BTS for their attractiveness) while also discounting BTS's ability to reach a diverse audience that spans age, race, gender, location, and language.
Around the world, however, fans of BTS (known collectively as ARMY) in their 40s, 50, 60s, and beyond are connecting with each other through social media, finding community and comfort in the music and message BTS presents and in the experience of sharing what they love with other older fans who have become friends. Fans who are older than the members themselves maybe aren't finding visibility in the mass-media narrative of the group's spectacular global rise, but they are finding it with each other on social media.
"I tell my husband this all the time — BTS makes me happy," says Paturzo, who hosted the party for the Facebook group she started called Bangtan Moms & Noonas. "I enjoy what they say in their music. I believe in their sincerity. It's so reassuring to have that presence in my life."
BTS — an acronym for Bangtan Seonyondan, which loosely translates to "Bulletproof Boy Scouts" in Korean — is composed of members Kim Namjoon (stage name RM), Kim Seokjin (Jin), Min Yoongi (Suga), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope), Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung (V), and Jeon Jungkook. They debuted back in 2013, but in the U.S., the past three or so years have marked a major shift into the mainstream as they've become regulars at award shows (most recently performing at the Grammys with Lil Nas X) and on the late-night circuit (appearing on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and The Late Late Show With James Corden). Their upcoming Map of the Soul stadium tour has already sold record tickets in record speeds, beating out Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, according to Forbes. Per The Washington Post, Map of the Soul: 7, BTS's 2020 comeback album that dropped on Feb. 21, sold more than 4 million records...and that was just from preorders.
Paturzo founded Bangtan Moms & Noonas on Facebook in 2018 as an outlet for her blossoming fandom, the result of bonding with her then-15-year-old daughter over BTS's music videos. "By the time the 'Mic Drop' remix with Steve Aoki came out, I was full on obsessed. I was watching on my own," she says. "It was kind of embarrassing, I would drop her off at school in the morning and then end up texting her while she was in class, like, 'did you see this, did you see this?'" After her daughter said it was "weird" she liked them so much, Paturzo began to wonder about the existence of other older fans. "As an older woman, I'm not looking to date them," she says of her fandom. "I want them to come to the house and I'll bake them cookies and ask them how they are."
Bangtan Moms & Noonas now has more than 500 members who are in their 20s all the way up to their 60s. "Noona" is one of the Korean terms for "older sister," but reflects more than just family ties; in this instance, it's a way to describe female fans who are older than the men of BTS, who were all born between 1992 and 1997. In the Facebook group, members share funny videos, memes, and photos of BTS; they obsess over their dance skills and analyze translations (one group offshoot is even learning Korean together); they plan meetups at future BTS concerts.
On Twitter, group chats abound and hashtags unite. 45-year-old fan Winnie Lau is part of a chat of around 30 people from the U.S., Canada, Singapore, and Indonesia called #NoonaSquadLovesBTS, where they host live streaming parties and organize events to see BTS movies and live shows. Lau had never been active on social media before becoming an ARMY in January of 2019.
The community of older BTS fans also exists in looser circles on Twitter, where it's common for one ARMY to tweet about their age and love for BTS, setting off a chain reaction of replies from fellow ARMYs around that age. This happened in December 2019, when Sherri Brannon (@DearMoon246) celebrated her 58th birthday in a tweet that read, "My shadow grows a little longer each December 21st but as I get older I try to let more light in. BTS has been a huge source of light to me as I keep going & keep growing. I'll still be ARMY when I'm 90!"
Fellow fans over age 30 flooded the tweet with supportive comments. "We're just so appreciative when we find other older fans," Brannon says.
Do you know BTS?
It makes sense that the number of older ARMYs is growing as the larger BTS fandom grows, especially when BTS fans display their complete command of Twitter, trending hashtags daily. Younger BTS fans will likely recognize a common narrative in how older ones first got into Bangtan.
"There's a running joke [in the BTS fandom]," says 49-year-old Angela Hall, a master's student living in Oklahoma who made a joke about a BTS retirement village in her reply to Brannon's tweet. "'I just wanted to know their names.' That's how it starts."
Hall first came across BTS when her YouTube algorithm served her the video for "Dope"; it wasn't her first experience with Korean pop — she'd previously been a fan of slightly older groups like BIGBANG and SHINee. She's now been an avid BTS fan since around late 2015, early 2016, and she says the fandom's approach to evangelizing BTS reminds her a little bit of Mary Kay Cosmetics, which relies on independent beauty consultants and word-of-mouth proselytizing. "BTS is just so humble and earnest," she explains, joking, "and if anyone looks at Jimin right in the eyes, they're done."
Though not the case for Hall, she says it's common for older fans to hear about BTS from their teenage and young adult children. That was the case for Paturzo, and also for Brannon, who discovered BTS two years ago through her then 26-year-old daughter, who had her approach all planned out. Brannon took a trip up from Florida to visit her daughter in Virginia: "She sat me down and showed me 'Mic Drop' and I was stunned," Brannon says. "The music was just so different and fresh, and the choreography, my mouth dropped." By the time she got home to Florida, she needed to know more.
"I started Googling just to find out their names," Brannon says, "and then of course you start finding all the content, the Run! BTS episodes, the funny things. The more you learn of them, how can you not love these seven human beings?"
A perhaps predictable side effect of this is that sometimes a parent's fandom exceeds their child's — after all, part of the fun of exploring music in your teens is picking the opposite of what your parents might like or approve of. Paturzo says her daughter, who once used to lie in bed with her and watch BTS music videos, isn't really an ARMY anymore. She recently bought tickets to the Rose Bowl Map of the Soul concerts this spring, but her daughter won't be going; she's more interested in studying for her Advanced Placement exams, which are held that week. "I'm like okay, I'm proud of you, good for you," Paturzo says, "but I'll be gone all that weekend."
Once a Fan, Always a Fan
Many of the women see BTS as connected to their past musical obsessions — for better and for worse. 59-year-old Alicia Wray is another fan who responded to Brannon's birthday BTS post, joking about seeing BTS with silver hair and a cane at a show in 35 years. Wray was initially attracted to BTS's dance-pop hits: "So What," "Am I Wrong," and "I'm Fine." In the '70s and '80s, she gravitated toward dance music, like the B52s and the Talking Heads, as well as punk, like the Ramones and Patti Smith.
Wray remembers walking into a record store around that time in search of a peppy, dance-y Diana Ross single that had been making its way up the charts. Heading up to the older man at the counter who was clad in all black, she inquired after the record only to be literally scoffed at and told they don't carry "that" kind of music. "I was crushed, and I was pissed too," Wray says. "And then I was just invisible, like you're nothing because you like this song. It was that judgement, that 'oh well you're just a teeny bopper and you're listening to some pop thing that isn't really valid.'"
That moment of judgement probably sounds familiar to young BTS fans, especially ones who have seen the genre of K-pop be so widely generalized and written off by music industry gatekeepers in the U.S. and other western countries. It's a judgement compounded by age and by gender. Even the perception of BTS as having all female fans, even if it's not true (hello, John Cena), affects how the group's success is seen and discussed.
"I think women don't get credit for a lot of things," explains Dodai Stewart, the deputy editor in Metro at The New York Times. Stewart, who is over 35 "but ageless," has been a BTS fan since seeing the group perform "Fire" at KCON in New York in 2016. "A lot of things that women like are considered low brow. Things that are multi-million dollar industries are often not taken seriously because women are the driving force behind them. Something like football is a male-dominated, American pastime that if you really think about it, it's silly, it's just a game. But it drives millions of dollars, there's a segment for it on the evening news every day. Somehow other things that women are interested in don't necessarily earn the same kind of space or respect."
It's not hard to see connections in how female music fans of any age are treated, how they're not always taken seriously. History repeats itself, and people are always ready to judge. Wray has tried to explain her love for BTS's music to friends her age who aren't fans: "They glaze over," she says. "They can't hang with it long enough to hear why it really has value for me."
Over seven years, BTS has built a substantial body of work that grows more introspective with every comeback. The Love Yourself era featured the members singing about how it can be more difficult to love yourself than it is to love someone else. In the Map of the Soul era, BTS has reflected on the images they put forth, the masks they wear, and what it means to achieve your dreams and find out that life still has its shadows. Anyone can stan anything at any age, but part of BTS's universal appeal is that they take time to present universal messages.
It shouldn't be surprising that those themes resonate with older fans, Wray says. "People need these messages at different stages of their lives, not just when they're in their teens and twenties," she says. "We relearn our lessons in life."
As Hall explains, some BTS songs just hit differently when you're older. One example is in BTS's song "Tomorrow," written by Suga, RM, J-Hope, and frequent collaborator Slow Rabbit. "One of the lyrics in that song is like, 'Before you know it, yesterday becomes tomorrow.' If you hear that at fifteen, it's sort of an 'it gets better' message, like if I just hang on, pretty soon this will all be over, and I can get onto the next chapter of my life," Hall says. "At 50 when you hear that lyric, it's like, girl, you better quit screwing around because pretty soon your ride's gonna be over. You're gonna be out of tomorrows."
That ideology of going after your dreams, bolstered by all the evidence of BTS's intense work ethic (the rehearsal videos, the reports from colleagues), energizes older ARMYs. "They share the challenges of what they're doing as well as the glory of it," Wray summarizes. In her own life, that momentum has played out in a career shift from project management to work in a commercial kitchen, a job where she has more time to work on creative pursuits; she's also started working with a personal trainer and says she's stronger physically than she's ever been. "All of that is a result of being inspired by them as a fan of their work," she says. Wray isn't the only one to report motivation to make big life changes: Hall recently returned to the U.S. after studying Korean at South Korea's Yonsei University for two semesters. "People [said to me], 'Oh, you're just going because of BTS,'" Hall says. "It's not just because of BTS, but had I not developed the passion I have for them I probably would never have started studying the language."
For Winnie Lau, who lives in California and has converted her entire family to the BTS ARMY, the effect of BTS on her life has been almost immeasurable: Bangtan has helped her cope with early-onset hearing loss that was the result of a benign tumor.
To help ease her tinnitus, which is worse at nighttime, she began listening to Jungkook's cover of Park Won's "All of My Life," as well as solo songs from other members, like Jimin's "Promise" and V's "Scenery." "I made a playlist that I listened to every night to relax and calm my symptoms," she says. "Discovering BTS's music helped me to hear beautiful music again."
Lau is also Chinese-American, and she grew up in California never seeing people who looked like her on screen, or who depicted Asian culture as she experienced it. "BTS made being who you are, despite your language barriers and your culture differences, a cool thing," she says.
It's So Hot ARMY… Because of You
Ultimately, BTS's older fans love the message of BTS's lyrics — and they also love the way that message inspires people to form communities, to reach out to one another.
In the Bangtan Moms & Noonas Facebook group, they can communicate using only funny BTS memes. But it's the kind of safe place where they can also share when they're struggling in their personal lives, and when hardships come, these women know they'll find support from their Bangtan community.
56-year-old Yevonne Cantwell lives in a rural part of New York near the Canadian border, across the country from Paturzo, with whom she's gone to BTS concerts as part of Bangtan Moms & Noonas. Cantwell recently lost her daughter-in-law to breast cancer at age 28, and the group sent her a care package that included a photo of them all from a BTS show and a printed version of Namjoon's 2018 "Speak Yourself" speech in front of the United Nations.
"It came on a day when I was really feeling bad and inadequate, torn between what can I do, how can I help my son and their six children [when] I'm still too young to retire," Cantwell says. "I opened that gift, and [there was] a heart they had sent me, telling me that I never walk alone. I knew that even though they're all the way across the country, that they were there for me."
"You Never Walk Alone" is a BTS phrase, the name of their repackaged Wings album from 2017. It's an apt way to describe the relationship BTS and ARMY have with each other, as well as the way ARMYs support and encourage other ARMYs. BTS fans on Twitter might recognize Cantwell — at a concert in Hamilton, Ontario, she was filmed singing along to "DNA" by a fan who tweeted, "HONESTLY WANNA BE LIKE HER WHEN I GROW UP. THE POWER OF BANGTAN SEES NO GENDER, RACE, AND AGE."
The clip has been viewed more than 1.6 million times since then. It was actually Cantwell's first-ever live concert, and BTS has brought even more firsts into her life: when she met members of Moms & Noonas for a BTS show in New Jersey last year, she did karaoke for the first time, and an escape room, and ate Korean BBQ with her online friends who have become a vital lifeline for her. Being a BTS fan has also been a source of comfort when dealing with career burnout.
Those experiences make it pretty hard for her to put up with any mockery over being a non-teenaged Bangtan fan. And anyway, why focus on critics when she can think about the good BTS puts out into the world? "That's what's wonderful about BTS, they bring us together," Cantwell says. "They want us to think outside of ourselves, to look at the big picture, to be generous."
She adds, "They're not just a boy band. They're more than that. They're calling on people to stand up, to speak their name, to treat each other better. That gives people power. Once BTS's message gets in your heart that you're worth something, then you don't put up with [ridicule] anymore ... One of my favorite things to say on Twitter is, everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so always be kind. I think BTS would like that message."