BTS’s momentum never once slowed during the pandemic. After a monumental 2020 packed with record-breaking hits, virtual concerts and a Grammy nomination for the summer anthem “Dynamite,” TIME’s Entertainer of the Year for last year continued to dominate the charts—and the Internet—in 2021. The group released three number one singles this year, and in September accompanied South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the United Nations General Assembly, where the members delivered a speech about how today’s youth is embracing change amid the challenges wrought by COVID-19. As BTS’s long-running list of firsts and bests grew in the months since the pandemic started, so too did the size of its passionate and devoted fanbase, the ARMY. This week, the band makes its triumphant return to live concerts with a run of shows in Inglewood, Calif.
Much has been said about ARMY: their online campaigns to support BTS’s music, their translation work, their philanthropic efforts. But perhaps less has been said about ARMY’s diversity, though anyone who is a part of the community knows it’s one of the fandom’s best qualities. In the general public’s eyes, ARMY is often flattened into a stereotype of teen girls, whose musical tastes have for decades been
unfairly looked upon with derision despite the clout they hold as consumers and taste-makers. (Case in point: James Corden’s foot-in-mouth moment when referring to ARMY on his show as “15-year-old girls.”) And while teen girls certainly do make up a sizable portion of BTS’s fanbase, its demographics are in fact much more varied, diverse in age, gender, race, ethnicity, geography and more.
Sub-communities like “
Bangtan Moms & Noonas” ( noona is the Korean word used by men to address older sisters), “ ARMY MÉXICO” and “ Bangtan Egypt,” which are location-based, and “ BTS ARMY Medical Union” and “ BTS ARMY Bar Association” which are profession-focused, all highlight the colorful and textured identities represented among ARMYs. “Many younger fans talk about their impact, but as an older fan who’s already lived at least two-thirds of my life, I think BTS has had an even more precious impact in many ways,” says Marilyn Schenk, 64. Schenk, who lives in Provo, UT, says the group has inspired her to revisit old hobbies like painting and start new ones like making YouTube videos. Character effects artist Dan Camp, 47, has also been inspired by BTS in his craft. “I respect that they are humble and always have an ‘I can do better’ attitude,” the British Columbia-based fan shares.
Photographer Hannah Yoon set out to capture some of the faces that make up this diverse fandom through a series of virtual portraits. They live in South Korea and the U.S., Uganda and The Netherlands, the Philippines and the UAE. They share their love for BTS with their partners, their kids, their parents. They are ARMY members who, regardless of when and how their love for the band started, now belong to a global community that spans continents and generations.
Name: Britt Franklin, 35 (see image at top)
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA
Occupation: Full-time writer at Apartment Therapy and Editor at OffCulture
Franklin has been a lifelong music fan, beginning with her love for Boys II Men, then N’Sync and Glee. As a part of ARMY, she loves seeing the positive impact they have on the world as a collective. Franklin had been listening to Korean music because of her interest in Korean dramas. With BTS, she was most drawn to the messages in their songs.
Song Recommendations: “HOME,” “Love Maze,” “Tear,” “UGH!” the Dark & Wild album
Name: Chantia, 26
Location: Antananarivo, Madagascar
Occupation: English teacher and part-time worker at a Korean restaurant
In 2017, while attending a K-pop event, Chantia saw a group of fans perform a BTS dance and sing a BTS song. She wanted to listen to their music afterward. For Chantia, it can often be difficult to participate in streaming parties or live concert watches due to a lack of wi-fi and data connection. But being part of ARMY is more than helping to get their numbers up. “I was really shy, and now because I know a lot of ARMY in Madagascar, we’ve become family,” she says. “We share everything even if it’s not about BTS. We share books, dramas and different things.”
Song Recommendations: “Life Goes On,” “Spring Day”
Name: Myunghwa, 35
Location: Seoul, South Korea
Occupation: International high school staff
In the fall of 2018, Myunghwa traveled across Europe for three months. During that time, she was going through a life transition. She listened to the group’s album Love Yourself: Answer at that time. “‘Answer: Love Myself’ and ‘Magic Shop’ were the two songs I listened to constantly throughout that trip and they carried healing and encouragement to me,” Myunghwa says. Since the ’90s, Myunghwa has been a fan of K-pop. “Having seen different K-pop artists fighting through a thick layer of stigma that was on Asian artists in general, watching BTS finally breaking the glass ceiling and thriving in the major music markets thrills me.”
Song Recommendations: “I highly recommend music you can find on SoundCloud. These are songs that are released online for free. My favorite songs are ‘4 O’CLOCK’ by RM & V and ‘So Far Away’ (SUGA, Jin, Jungkook version).”
Name: Marilyn Schenk, 64
Location: Provo, Utah
Occupation: Retired from a 30-year career as a human resources executive, consultant and teacher at the University of Nevada
Schenk was introduced to BTS by her daughter in 2016 while they were listening to K-pop music in the car. Her first song was Suga’s “First Love,” and she was intrigued by its themes about mental health. “The real thing that pulled me is how they act as people,” Schenk says. “They are sincere and they walk the talk.” Schenk adds, “Many younger fans talk about their impact, but as an older fan who’s already lived at least two-thirds of my life, I think BTS has had an even more precious impact in many ways.” Schenk says the group has helped her rediscover old talents, such as painting, and discover new ones, like making Youtube videos.
Song recommendations: “Mic Drop,” “Dope” and “Spring Day”
Name: Shantul Khan, 16
Location: Karachi, Pakistan
In March 2020, a friend recommended the song “ON” to Khan. She has been a fan ever since. At first, it was the music that drew her in, but she became more committed as she got to know the members’ personalities. “It was the 2018 UN speech by BTS that had an impact on me,” Khan says. “They were helping me to love myself.” For Khan, being a part of a global fandom has been special. “I’ve interacted with people all over the world,” she says. “I’ve made so many new friends.”
Song Recommendations: “It depends on your music taste. BTS has such a wide discography. If you like rap, I recommend the Cyphers. I recommend ‘Black Swan’ because it has such a different vibe.”
Name: Luciana, 9
Location: Cuernavaca, Mexico
Occupation: 4th grade student
Luciana was introduced to BTS through the song “Dynamite” in the summer of 2020 and became a fan. While Anna, Luciana’s mother, knew who BTS was and had heard their music, she wanted to make sure they were a good influence on her daughter. “I was curious about the music and dancing, but stayed for their personalities,”Anna says. “They teach me a lot of things, but especially to love myself even in the moments when I cannot love myself,” says Luciana.
Song Recommendations: “Dynamite,” “Fake Love” and “Idol”
Jackson (left) and Charlotte
Name: Carol Villavicencio, 60
Location: Manila, Philippines
Occupation: Owner of a computer retail store since 1984, CPA since 1983
Villavicencio first heard about BTS through her daughter, but it wasn’t until she saw BTS perform at the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards in August that she became a part of ARMY. “I’m a fan because of their genuine personalities. There’s no pretense,” Villavicencio says. She supports the group by contributing to birthday events for the members, purchasing their albums and sharing news articles about them. In the pandemic, Villavicencio joined the band’s online concerts. “Before I go to heaven, my dream is to see BTS live in concert,” she says. “If they do a concert in South Korea, I will fly there!”
Song Recommendations: “Awake” and “Epiphany” by Jin. “DNA,” “Boy with Love’ and “I Need U”
Names: Charlotte, 13 and Jackson, 10
Location: Jersey City, NJ
Occupation: 7th and 5th grade students, respectively
Charlotte was already a fan of K-pop groups like Red Velvet in 2015 when she saw a photo of BTS and became hooked. Jackson soon followed. “You don’t see a lot of Asian people in the big music industry,” Charlotte says. “When I saw them, I saw them as role models.” Jackson enjoys BTS purely for their music. When asked about BTS’s impact, Jackson says, “They’ve done their part in making me just happier at times.” For Charlotte, BTS has helped her through hard times. “They lift my spirits,” she says. “They remind me that there are people who are decent in the world.”
Song Recommendations: “The albums 2 Cool 4 Skool and Map of the Soul: 7, the song ‘Tear’” – Charlotte
“Start out with the newer ones so you can catch up quickly. And then start going down the list. Start checking out their solo careers like Agust D’s D-2” – Jackson
Name: Jas, 16
Location: Oldenburg, Germany
After her family moved to a new house in September 2017, Jas was scrolling through Youtube when she unintentionally clicked on BTS’s “DNA” music video. “The way they danced and sang was so beautiful. And plus, their visuals in that video blew me away,” she says. After that, she googled their names and her journey as an ARMY began. Jas sees her entry into the fandom as fate, as no one introduced BTS to her. “I think every single ARMY can relate to what I’m about to say and that’s the fact that they’ve taught me to appreciate and love myself in a way I never knew existed,” she says. “They’ve taught me to always keep trying no matter how hard the situation gets.”
Song Recommendations: “Spring Day,” “HOME”
Name: Lauren Burke, 32
Location: Orlando, Florida, USA
Occupation: Finance analyst, volunteer for the Universal Asian
Burke, 32, is a Korean adoptee who started listening to BTS in 2018. A co-worker introduced her to the band as she was looking for workout music. After listening to “Mic Drop,” Burke was hooked. “At the time I discovered BTS, I was also on a cultural journey to discover the Korean roots my adoption left behind,” she says. “The ‘Love Yourself’ era was the first time I’d ever heard songs in Korean. Ever since, they have been a part of reclaiming my identity through music, in the language my heart has somehow always known.” She describes the septet’s influence in her life as a “mirror.” “I was born on Korean soil. Being adopted into an American family made it difficult to accept that,” Burke says. “But through BTS and their music, I truly see and love my own reflection now. I see it’s O.K. for me to embrace being Korean and proud of the country I still consider home.”
Song Recommendations: “Love Yourself,” “Anpanman” and “Mic Drop” if you want to know their fun side. Currently listening to “Blue & Grey”
Name: Dan Camp, 47
Location: Richmond, BC, Canada
Occupation: Character effects artist
While working from home during the pandemic in 2020, Camp needed new music to listen to. A close friend, an ARMY, had always recommended that Camp and his wife Rosa listen to BTS. They added a few of the band’s songs to their playlists and started to watch their documentaries together. “Seeing the attitude of ARMY rise up to occasions like BLM and other causes was important,” Camps says. He shares that the group’s fighting spirit has also influenced his work. “As an artist, I respect that they are humble and always have an ‘I can do better” attitude,’ Camp explains. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my children’s books. That path is really hard and I use them as inspiration to keep fighting.”
Song Recommendations: “Black Swan,” “ON,” “Mic Drop” and Jin’s solo song “Abyss”
Name: Joyce Rivers, 40
Location: The Hague, The Netherlands
Occupation: Marketing and communications manager
Rivers became a fan of BTS in 2016. She had heard their songs on the radio and wanted to learn more. “I love how much content they create. It’s never a dull day with BTS,” she says. Rivers feels connected to the global fandom. “I can go anywhere in the world and have a place to stay because I know I have ARMY friends there,” she says.
Song Recommendations: “Blood Sweat & Tears,” “DNA,” “Ddaeng” and “Love Maze”
Name: Paula Otero, 27
Location: Córdoba, Argentina
Occupation: High school ESL Teacher
Otero first discovered BTS in February 2020 after she got a Youtube Premium account and saw the BTS documentary, “Burn The Stage.” This led her to watch all of BTS’s American interviews, and she began to read their song lyrics. “The tipping point was when I heard ‘Mono,’” Otero says of RM’s 2018 mixtape. “It was the first time I had truly connected with the songs—at that point I knew this was more than passing interest.”
Song Recommendations: “My Universe,” “Moon”
Correction, Nov. 24:
The original version of this story misstated the title of one of BTS’s albums. It is Dark & Wild, not Darn N Wild.
More Must-Reads From TIME