PSA: The following is solely my opinion of American/British interview culture concerning BTS. I love BTS and have the utmost respect for their abilities. I repeat: I love them, so please don’t eat me.
Award season is underway and BTS is nominated for every bit of it. (I see you, Grammys.)
And as it’s award season, it is also interview season, and I am going to be real with you, Army:
I don’t think I can watch their English ones.
I can’t do it. It hurts too much.
And it’s not me I hurt for — it’s them. It’s like watching a close friend hit a wrong note in a song or forget parts of a speech. You want all the success in the world for that friend, so to watch it not go as well as you both hoped makes your insides ache as the performance rapidly goes south before your very eyes.
I‘ve watched a mixture of their American and British interviews, plus a smattering of Korean interviews to best ‘diagnose’ my issues with BTS’s English-based conversations with some of the world’s most famous late-night talk shows, radio hosts, and magazines. In doing so, I came up with three opinions as to why I struggle, as well as two suggestions to ease the discomfort.
Opinion 1: Repetitive and Underwhelming Questions
Repetitive and underwhelming questions are what I think plays a huge role in my inability to watch BTS interview with English speakers. BTS has worked so hard to not only reach their current level of stardom but to also give a voice to those who feel they’re not worthy of having one. So to know this about them, to hear their emotionally-laced lyrics, or be allowed to witness each of them in their most vulnerable moments and not be asked about it— Well. It burns me up, to be frank with you.
BTS has been in the spotlight for several years. As a result, we’ve learned quite a bit about them, much of which hasn’t changed with age. V loves hamburgers. Jin and Suga are excellent cooks. Jimin wishes he were a bit taller.
“BTS hearts Drake.”
As someone relatively new to the BTS scene, it’s incredible to me how quickly this became ‘old news’ while watching their interviews. For the most part, any new fan of theirs can learn the same information from just one interview. In some cases, BTS might as well come ready with an FAQ card, hand it to the interviewer, and spend the rest of the interview doing whatever makes them feel comfortable. Surface-level questions are fine, but when we hear about their favorite snack or second career choice eighteen times, the magic of simplicity begins to wear off.
I am aware that variety and radio shows aren’t exactly built for heart to heart conversations with one individual, let alone seven distinctly different men. But I think it’s worth considering different questions that extend outside of their sense of fashion and favorite artist. We have the gift of a group who have publicly stated, through song, that they will be this generation’s new kind of superhero, even though it means sacrificing themselves to do so. I can think of thirteen questions for them based out of Anpanman, right now, none of which have to do with whether or not any of them have a girlfriend.
I just— ah. BTS has a critical platform where they can talk about social, mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health, and it’s like, I don’t know. (Many) Journalists don’t go there, and so the interview, to me, feels like a wasted opportunity.
Suggestion: Strike a Silly/Serious Balance
BTS is known for their silliness. They are straight up goofballs when left to their own devices, and their fans (myself included) adore them for it. Everyone needs to let loose and play with puppies. Absolutely. Interview quizzes are also entertaining.
Basically, get away from the monotony, dig a little deeper into the lyric of a song or a comment one of them said in passing in Burn the Stage, and hand all of them a kitten.
Opinion 2: Perceived Discomfort
Because BTS regularly posts live chats from their Korea-based dorm, fans feel like they’re friends with the guys without actually having met them in real life. And since BTS willingly exposes the good and flawed parts of themselves, their fans know what ticks each of them off, what makes them laugh, what embarrasses them, what random skill one has but not another. And, like close friendships, their fans often know any given emotion just by the look worn on one of their faces.
I don’t know when I reached this level of knowledge— probably after a marathon of Run! BTSs and a Festa or two. I may not have been part of the fandom from the beginning, but I like to think I ‘know’ them pretty well, which leads me to the second reason I can’t watch their English-led interviews—
They look severely uncomfortable.
Given their personalities, it’s no surprise that each member copes differently through the interview process.
Let’s start with V.
Never have I seen this man more miserable than when he’s in this particular hot seat, and that’s including all the times he’s had to carry out a penalty for losing another Run! BTS game. V looks filled with dread as if he would rather be anywhere else than behind someone else’s microphone. Once, an interviewer asked the members which of their lyrics meant the most to them, and V responded, expressionless, with, “Set it all on fire, bow wow wow.” Though his unexpected answer made me belly laugh, I think that was his way of saying, “I genuinely want this to be over, so… does anyone have matches on them?”
(To be fair: V often dawns a similar look in other broadcasts, so this point may be entirely moot.)
JK tends to handle interviews with the most ease, in my opinion. He smiles his way through them, and his big doe eyes do most of the talking, though he does have a ‘deer in the headlights’ look about him when he gets lost or forgets a name which is nearly every interview.
JM appears to cope through nervous humor. Jimin, known for his endearing inability to keep from laughing at pretty much everyone and everything, has a certain level of “typical” Jimin humor and laughter, as seen throughout BTS’s content. But when he sits down for an English interview— I don’t know what happens to him. It’s like someone spiked his water with ten Red Bulls.
Hobi seems to cope more or less the same but surpasses Jimin’s hyperactivity by spontaneously standing up, dancing, and making an overwhelming amount of sound effects. Hosts seem taken aback by his unpredictability, flashing a hint of uneasiness as Jhope’s arms and legs take over the rest of his body. His energetic unpredictability can throw off the already chaotic rhythm of the interview, making it a challenge for follow-up questions. Or, in my case, a successful viewing.
Suga is a wild card. There’s a well-known clip of Jin pretending to speak from inside Suga’s mind in which he states, “I just want to be born as a stone in my next life…” Sometimes, Suga goes into this stone-mode, and sometimes he’s uncharacteristically active and talkative, joining in with the hype brought on by his brothers. He’s one of the easier ones to watch.
Oh, Jin. Worldwide Handsome Jin, as he famously dubbed himself years ago, continues to lean on what he knows the camera wants from him: his WWH line, an air kiss, a dad joke, and a few ‘You know?’s in sentences that don’t entirely make much sense. He’s an interview woo-er, to be sure. But underneath his goofy fluff is a profoundly thoughtful person trying to do his best as the elder brother. Mainly, I think he copes okay in his English interviews, but I think he is unfairly stuck in a Jin-box: Say these words, do these motions, end of meeting, you know?
You know those YouTube compilations that say something like ‘When RM is so done with BTS’? While I realize most anything can be edited just right to convey a particular joke, his ‘being done’ with his brothers escapes his confident expression perhaps more than he realizes.
Being the sole member who’s fluent in English, our man often goes into what I call ‘dad mode,’ when, like a dad, we see him try to keep his family together while giving them a chance to express themselves. Because he’s a fantastic leader, he does his best to kick the English ball around the group so others can try their hand at a sentence or two. But since his six brothers all cope with English interviews differently, there’s no way to know when Jhope will burst into song or if Jin will crack a joke that no one laughs at. Often RM goes to those awkward places with them to alleviate the, well, awkwardness, while other times, the look on his face conveys an SOS to whoever might be watching. The other six depend on RM entirely, and it shows.
Opinion 3: The Reliance on RM has Expired
In one of the later episodes of Bon Voyage 3, we see Jin exploring Malta on his own, save for the camera crew. He wanders into a pub in which the pub’s owner cheerfully welcomes him. As Jin is one of the more outgoing of the group, it’s no surprise that, despite the Maltese/Korean language barrier, Jin befriends the old gentleman, then makes the following remark to the camera:
“I should have studied English. My English is… (trails off) If anyone tells you to study English, please do it. It is hard to explore without RM.”
BTS has come a long way in their English skills, and every single one of them is indeed improving. But it’s my feeling that their full reliance on RM to get them through everything from interviews to international exploration has expired, and acknowledging that expiration is the only way the rest of them will reach an average level of fluency. In 2017, leaning on RM in this way made plenty of sense as no one had anticipated even the smallest of desires to hear from a K-pop band in an English-speaking environment. But we are around the corner from 2020, and their dependency on their team leader has not exactly lessened. RM knows he can get through English-speaking situations, mistakes and all, and live to tell about it. The other six, I believe, need to experience their individual ability to survive just as RM does time and time again.
Suggestion: Six Ways to Improve BTS’s English
1. Hire a Native Speaker
The best way to learn English is to be fully immersed in the language. I’m not sure how BTS is taught the English they know currently, but my first suggestion is for them to hire a native English-speaker. Emphasis on native because merely bringing someone in, like RM or others, who are fluent but not native, will only serve to limit their skill level. Observe: I’m fluent in German, but I should never teach a German language course specifically because I am not a native German-speaker. My fluency is riddled with mistakes, and the way I enunciate is not even a stone’s throw-close to what real German sounds like. To teach a class would be to lead my students astray.
So, bottom line, the guys need to learn from someone in real life (not just Friends), who is a native English-speaker.
2. Limit Translation (including RM’s)
A quick(er) way to learn English is to significantly limit access to translation apps and dictionaries. Maybe the teacher could agree to let them speak Korean up until the moment class began, then it would be all English from there, with little to no Korean-to-English translation. Removing translation forces them to spit out, or mime, whatever English they do know to communicate with the teacher.
A fear may be that their lack of reliance on RM’s translation ability will lessen his importance as a leader. I cannot emphasize how untrue that is. A great leader is demonstrated through the heart, not through vowels and consonants.
3. Increased Time Spent in English
I know BTS is crazy-busy, and I have zero clue as to how much time they’re able to dedicate to intensive English courses. However, I get the feeling much of what they do learn is similar to how students are, unfortunately, taught second languages in the U.S., which is basically: Learn for the test, forget the rest. As the world’s biggest boy band, BTS is no longer in a position where they can study up to get by. It has to stick. If they could devote about two to three hours to intensive English experiences, five days a week, I think their knowledge and confidence levels would shoot through the roof.
4. Throw Out the Workbooks and Play to Their Strengths
Again, no inside knowledge as to how exactly they learn English. I could imagine that an easy fallback is to give each of them workbooks to study in their hotel rooms and on long flights. Workbooks help a little, I guess, depending on the person. But I think it would be brilliant to teach them English through the very activities they’re doing already. For example, all seven are gifted actors, so assign them characters in a restaurant, perhaps. V is the waiter. Jin, Jhope, JK, and RM are customers. Jimin is that one American waiter that keeps asking, “Are we doing alright?” Suga is the host. There’s no script, just going through the motions of what they already know. A good teacher will let them have fun with it while also guiding the correct and incorrect ways of how to talk in such situations. And as the guys are primarily in the U.S. more so than any other English-speaking country, they can receive an insider’s knowledge into a variety of normal cultural situations.
Or what about all of those BTS board games they play on Vlive? There are so many creative ways the games could be used to help improve their English, with winnings and penalties based on verb conjugations and sentence structure. Maybe a Run! BTS English is in order? What about rounds of AdLibs with famous songs or children’s books?
5. Get Them Talking
In the same vein of playing to their strengths, I suggest talking about topics that matter to them. Surface level discussions help to a point, but as I’ve tried to show above, such discussions don’t lend much to the viewer or the speaker. But get a person ignited with a subject he’s passionate about, and you’ve got yourself someone who’s on their way to adding a new language to his repertoire. There are, at least, ten different ways that Love Yourself: Speak Yourself could be explored. And the beauty of this strategy is, though it will be awkward at first, each of them will be able to say, “Wow. I was able to communicate something significant to me, in English, and I survived.” An additional idea is to get them conversing about things discussed on a global scale. Maybe they don’t think too much about recycling, for example, but, after reading this short article from The New York Times, what do you think guys? Thoughts? Opinions?
6. Provide a Comfortable Atmosphere
To my limited knowledge, the times the guys speak English is around cameras and more cameras and lights and makeup artists and a bunch of people touching their hair. Maybe I’m off base here, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to learn a language this way. Instead, I’d turn their English experiences into a non-taped Festa. Give them food. Give them drinks. Provide them with a teacher who’s genuinely interested in their persons and won’t freak out at them for making a mistake but instead encourages one hundred more. And in return, I think it’d be pretty cool if the tables are turned in the guys’ favor and they teach their teacher some intensive Korean. Together, they’re able to share the sort of discomfort only felt in language-learning with their teacher, who will undoubtedly make triple the amount of mistakes in Korean compared to BTS’s English.
If you’ve made it this far in the post, you deserve an award. All of this comes from a place within in which I only want the best for every one of BTS’s interviews, which I think is 50% up to interview culture, and 50% up to BigHit Entertainment. If BTS were able to communicate with a journalist or interviewer comfortably, I believe their body language, facial expressions, and coping mechanisms would relax to a significant degree. In return, those talking with them might catch on to their newfound knowledge and so ask them questions no longer typical of what BTS has been asked for years on end.
Anyway, friends. BTS has my heart, awkward interviews and all. I want them to feel comfortable, at ease, and appreciated. May they win allthethings, and snag that well-deserved Grammy.