In 2014, the members of BTS literally walked around Los Angeles trying to drum up people to attend their free concert — about 200 showed up. Last week, the group kicked off its “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour with a pair of sold-out shows at the Rose Bowl Stadium near L.A., and on a chilly Saturday night it performed the first of two sold-out concerts at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The two-and-a-half-hour show proved that the group has grown into the bigger stages. RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook made a theatrical entrance, flanked by a pair of giant black panthers. Their opening song, “Dionysus,” from their chart-topping latest album “Map of the Soul: Persona,” even nodded to that progression: “If we pop up anywhere in the world/ It’s a stadium party,” Suga rapped. “Born as a K-pop idol/Reborn as an artist… What does it matter if I’m an idol or an artist?”
They followed with 2017’s “Not Today,” which starts out with a rallying shout out to dark horses: “All the underdogs in the world/ A day may come when we lose/ But it is not today/ Today we fight!” Despite the group’s popularity, even that song is a statement on their careers: Sure, their popularity is due to their songs and their look — but it’s also because their most powerful numbers are about loss, inequality and the unrelenting pressures that young people face. “Our generation has had it hard,” they sing in “Baepsae.”
The songs also include elements familiar to Koreans from older generations. “Idol” – which sounded even more anthemic live with a stadium full of fans singing along – has its roots in pansori, a genre of Korean folk music that was originally played by and for commoners, before becoming favored by the elite. Layered with African beats and trap elements, the song has a rich, global sound that is both modern and traditional.
Even their current hit “Boy With Luv” – a catchy pop song with rap verses – has deeper meaning. It’s a tip of the hat to their 2014 song “Boy in Luv,” which deconstructs their younger adolescent mindset. The lyrics include the line, “I’m flying high in the sky with the two wings you gave me,” with the wings being a metaphor for their fans, while also referencing the title of their second album.
Many of BTS’ ballads evoke a feeling of “han,” which has no direct English translation. In Korean, it’s a wistful combination of longing and sorrow. This is evident in ballads like “The Truth Untold” and “Epiphany,” which started off quietly with Jin accompanying himself on piano before the song crescendos into a series of high notes that left some attendees in tears.
Each member had a chance to shine in solos. Jungkook floated above the crowd on guide wires as he sang “Euphoria.” Jimin appeared inside a transparent bubble for “Serendipity,” before showing off choreography that would fit right in place with a modern dance troupe. V performed the most smoldering song of the evening with the soul-fused “Singularity.” Rappers J-Hope, RM and Suga showed off their skills with “Trivia: Just Dance,” “Trivia: Love” and “Trivia: Seesaw,” respectively.
The group has also figured out the most challenging aspect of stadium shows: how to make them feel intimate. Their boy-next-door charm, lively banter (in both English and Korean) and constant engagement with projected a warmth that reached the upper bleachers of Soldier Field. And even a language barrier doesn’t distract from the storytelling aspects of their songs: Most of the fans in the stadium tonight have long since translated the lyrics.
And although there was plenty of screaming from the largely but not entirely young audience, it was less of a frenzied shriek than an emphatic roar of approval. Fans hollered with delight when the individual members faces’ were shown on the video screens and cheered when Jimin and Jungkook flashed a bit of their abs. But they saved their loudest applause for the songs.
It also probably helped to keep them warm on this damp and unseasonably chilly night — RM joked that this was the group’s first winter concert. Still, V promised that BTS will be back next year — a remark that made the fireworks display that followed almost anticlimactic.
2. “Not Today”
3. “Outro: Wings”
4. “Trivia: Just Dance” (J-Hope solo)
5. “Euphoria” (Jungkook solo)
6. “Best of Me”
7. “Serendipity” (Jimin solo)
8. “Trivia: Love” (RM solo)
9. “Boy With Luv”
14. “Singularity” (V solo)
15. “Fake Love”
16. “Trivia: Seesaw” (Suga solo)
- 17. “Epiphany” (Jin solo)
18. “The Truth Untold”
19. “Outro: Tear”
20. “Mic Drop”
22. “So What”
23. “Make It Right”