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Studying BTS with Candace Epps Robertson

January 29, 2021 | Tommie Watson

Assistant Professor Epps-Robertson discusses her work on a collaborative and open-sourced syllabus on the South Korean pop group BTS and their fandom known as ARMY.


Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, I speak with Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature Candace Epps Robertson. In our conversation, Professor Epps Robertson discusses her work on a collaborative and open-source syllabus on the South Korean pop group BTS and their fandom known as ARMY. So, Candice Epps Robertson, to start out, if you don’t mind, would you just describe for our listeners what your role is at UNC and your general area of research? Candace Epps Robertson: Sure. So I am an assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. And I currently serve as the associate director for the Writing Program and director of the Writing in the Disciplines Program. As far as my research goes, I guess broadly stated, I would say that I work in the areas of rhetoric, literacy and citizenship studies. My work is driven by curiosity around how communities teach, learn and practice what it means to be citizens at both the local and global levels. PH: Candace, thanks for that. Oh, one thing that stuck out to me about your work was, my wife mentioned your name. She saw something in a Teen Vogue article and you are quoted. But you’re quoted with regards to the Korean pop group, BTS. And so then I dug in a little deeper in and it turns out that you’re working on this syllabus for BTS, and you’re doing some of your research around this group. And I was really intrigued by that. One, because I kind of have always been interested in people studying like pop culture, or film or music and things like that. But then also, just coincidentally, our family — my daughter, my wife, my son, me — we’ve been listening during this whole quarantine to a lot of that group. We live-streamed one of their concerts, we woke up at 6am on a Saturday to do it. But then also the other thing I’ve noticed is a lot of people don’t know who they are that I’ve talked to, like around our neighborhood or some of my friends. But so to start off, I want to ask you, since you’re becoming an expert on this topic, who is BTS? And how did you get introduced to this musical act? CER: Sure. So I guess first I would respond and say I’m happy that you and your family have been enjoying BTS through quarantine. I think they have been a source of support and inspiration for many of us. But for those who don’t know, BTS is a seven-member group from South Korea. The members of the group are Kim Nam-joon, Kim Seok-jin, Min Yoon-gi, Jung Ho-seok, Park Ji-min, Kim Tae-hyung and Jeon Jung-kook. They debuted in 2013. And, you know, it’s often difficult for me to actually describe their sound because it blends, their music blends so many genres like hip hop, pop, r&b and more. Their music, as far as messages go and lyrics, they cover a range of topics. So from social critique, anthems for hope and reflection, you know, ballads about self-love and community as well. BTS, if anyone has heard anything about them recently in the past year, you probably know that they are renowned for breaking records. They have top charts, they received numerous awards and in addition to those achievements, they’re also known, I think, for their authenticity and charm and for continuously being open about the struggles and obstacles that they’ve endured. In addition to the awards and the accolades, I think that if you are learning about BTS or if you hear about BTS, then you are probably also going to hear about their fandom known as ARMY and the many ways that they reflect and engage with BTS’ music and messages. In my research, and then I guess also just in my own experience, I think that one of the things I’ve come to find is that ARMY really reflects the same kind of innovation and creativity as BTS does, right? There are fundraising fan bases like one that the ARMY organized, micro-donation projects around social and humanitarian causes. There are a host of fan-led publications for writing art and academic articles. I’m fortunate to be on the editorial board of The Rhizomatic Revolution Review, and we’re the only peer-reviewed academic journal that focuses on exploring BTS’ impact across genres. Our first issue was published last year. As for how I learned about BTS, so my initial introduction came by way of my daughter, she found out about BTS from a friend in school back in 2018. And I vividly remember the day she got into the van, I was picking her up and she’s like, do you know BTS? And I didn’t know at the time that that question is sort of like an inside joke within the fandom. And I’m like, do I know who? [laughs] And she’s like, Oh, my gosh, I have to tell you about this. And, you know, what made me interested and curious was not only the music itself — because that was playing constantly in our house and still is — but it was the fact that my daughter was so committed to being part of this community, and to learning. And so at the time, she was reading translations of their lyrics and interviews. She herself was trying to learn Korean and she just, she was so eager to learn more about Korean history and culture so that she could experience the music. So as an educator, you know, I wanted to know more about, what I felt like, you know, were self-driven, independent studies. So I asked her to teach me and I’m very grateful that she took the time to do so. PH: Our daughter has been, you know, she’s been really into it. She’s about to turn seven. And then, you know, we’ve been listening to a lot, but she’ll talk to other people about it. And then they’re like, Who’s that? And I’m, like, I have to answer when they say who is BTS? As I have to say, well, they’re like, the biggest group in the world. Right? It’s weird that there’s still people that don’t know. But it’s also amazing that, you know, you have this pop group that is inspiring people to learn Korean. Typically, you have these international groups, they’ll just sing in English. But they kind of mix languages, but it’s primarily in Korean. So it’s pretty impressive how they’ve been able to do that, and not only promote themselves as musical groups, but also Korean culture, the country and all that. CER: Exactly. You know, I would add to that, that in addition to some of those other fan organizations that I mentioned in the publications, there’s actually a group called Bonton Academy that provides free Korean lessons and support for language learners. So there really is a range of support and ways for people to network and learn within the fandom in a very supportive way is what I found. People are all about collaboration and wanting to encourage people to learn if they are in fact interested. PH: Yeah, that’s great. And so, as I mentioned earlier, you’re working on this BTS syllabus and you’re working with another professor at the University of Washington, Professor Jin Ha Lee. Can you talk a little bit about that project? CER: Yeah, so one of the things that excited me when I started to do research on BTS and ARMY, was just the number of scholars from across disciplines around the world who are researching and writing about BTS. There is so much work that’s being done, but it’s often hard to keep track because it happens in so many different places. So originally, I thought that the syllabus could serve as an archive or repository, right? A place for this work to be collected. I wanted to start this project after the first BTS conference that was held in London in January of 2020. But it was difficult given the pandemic, of course, and I knew that this was a project that would be best served with a collaborator, actually with a host of collaborators. So I’ll talk about that. I’m very fortunate that I met Dr. Jin Ha Lee from the University of Washington because she’s also researching BTS and ARMY and she is ARMY as well. So we both shared similar interest and commitments. We started talking last summer and finally were able to put these thoughts into action. So one of the things that we believe is that it’s essential to archive the scholarship, but also the materials that are created by the fandom by fans. So archives, blogs, vlogs, review essays, video and lyric analysis and podcasts. ARMIES have such in-depth knowledge about the fandom and about BTS and we felt like it was integral to the syllabus as well. In many ways, I think the fandom, you know, fans know the history and experiences in ways that some just simply cannot or would take a very long time to be that familiar with the history. So we aim to have this be a resource that will be of use to anyone who wants to learn more about BTS and ARMY who wants to do research or possibly even teach. And to do that in a very holistic way, we feel like we need this range of resources. In the ARMY, community collaboration and sharing is essential. So we solicit recommendations from ARMY and again, we trust and believe that the fandom also knows what’s vital to preserve this history and to tell these stories. So our goal right now is to release the first version of the syllabus in the next month, and I suspect that we will be very busy for quite some time as we continue to update. PH: So this will be accessible to like anyone that wants to find out about it. Are you going to also like do this like as a course at UNC? I’m just curious about that? CER: Sure. Yeah, this will be a document that will be accessible. We’re talking now with some other ARMY academic scholars about where best to house the resource itself, but it will be accessible for anyone. I would love to teach a course about BTS here at UNC. I have used BTS in several of my courses already. Not as being a primary focus, but more so on case study and thinking about language and thinking about fandom communities and practices. But it would be a dream to work with, even to collaborate. I think, you know, of course, about BTS would be really rich if there was some collaboration across disciplines. So I’m hopeful that that can happen in the future. PH: Yeah, that sounds great. Um, I have a quick question. So, if any of our listeners haven’t really heard of the band or heard any of their music, could you give them a couple songs to kind of introduce them to the, you know, you said it was hard to describe their style. I think the best way to do it is listen to a song or watch one of their music videos. So, where would you point them to first, maybe one or two? CER: Oh, this is probably the most challenging question, where to begin [laughs]. So one of the very first music videos that I’ve watched, is a music video from a song called Spring Day. And I would encourage viewers to watch that, or listeners to watch that, I’m sorry, because it is both aesthetically so beautiful, but the song itself is just you know, there’s a sentiment of sadness, but also one of hope. And here recently, if you’ve watched them do any performances in the past year or last year, they perform that song on several occasions and have talked about what it means to wait for spring to come. There are also a number of analysis videos that talk about the connection of that particular song with events that happened in Korea. And I think that it represents the way in which BTS has been able to tell stories that in some instances are very much a part of their culture and context as young Koreans, but that also connect with experiences and emotions that we all share and feel. So Spring Day would be one. And then a more recent one, people have probably heard Dynamite. I hope maybe on the radio or they’ve seen the music video and performances. So that one I think is very uplifting and fun. But I would also recommend Black Swan. I think that both the song and the music videos — there are two — are representative of also the kind of reflection that BTS — reflection and vulnerability, I’d say — that BTS has come to be known for as they talk about what it means to be artists and to have to contend with the anxiety or the concern of what happens if you fall out of love with your craft. How does one reconcile with that? So those would be my suggestions but I could offer at least 20 more [laughs]. PH: So another nice point of entry, if anyone else is interested, is in the fall, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, they had BTS week and so they did some like segments but also each night they would have a musical performance. And I think there’s some really cool stuff that they did there and some cool performances there of like Idol and Dynamite as you mentioned. I really liked that version that they did of Home for the Jimmy Fallon show. CER: Yes. And Home is actually one of my favorite BTS songs and so it was absolutely amazing to watch them perform that and to see the set. I think anyone who- PH: Yea it was a really cool set. CER: yeah, you know, part of what makes BTS performances so dynamic is just the way in which both the music, you know, the choreography and the set all work together to tell these really just amazing stories. And so that one was one of my favorites. PH: Can you talk about, I saw — I think through Twitter or our discussions, I believe it was through email communications — you have a planned trip in the future for research in Daegu, South Korea. Can you talk a little bit about that? What you plan to do there? And why Daegu? CER: Sure, so a little bit of sadness, actually. Because initially, we were planning to go to Daegu this July for the International Association of Popular Music Conference. The panelists and I, we just found out that the conference is going to be postponed until 2022. Because of COVID. Yeah. And at this conference, I’m actually discussing it for a panel on BTS and language. So the trip to Daegu and the conference was going to be the start of fieldwork in South Korea for me. And now I’m trying to figure out, as I’m sure many people are, just how to plan in the midst of a pandemic. So, once I actually get to South Korea, I’m working on a few projects that will benefit from my ability to spend time with ARMY and Korea and to connect with scholars who are also researching BTS and ARMY. One of the projects examines the fandom’s traditions and practices as potential cultural exchange sites and for trans-cultural community building. So, how do we learn from one another in this space? Not only about BTS, but about any number of other issues as well. And then a second project looks at how fans archive their experiences with BTS-related spaces and places in Korea. Both of these are efforts towards my second book, which will examine BTS’ messages through a rhetorical lens, and the many ways that ARMY has responded. And again, I think, you know, these questions connect to larger questions and curiosity I have about the potential for thinking about what it means to be a global citizen and what it means to be connected and present in our world today. PH: Great. Oh, I had a quick question — I may not include this — but did you see the show I-Land by any chance? CER: I actually had. So when that was coming on, I was in the midst of something. So I don’t remember what it was. But I typically allot myself, like one show or one thing to follow? PH: Yeah. Yes, we do that, as well [laughs]. CER: And so I have been going back to watch that. But I actually have a colleague who was following it quite closely. And so I would look for feedback or look for input about what was happening through them. And of course, there would be conversations on Twitter, but no, I didn’t follow it closely. PH: I would say, I found it pretty fascinating, not just because, you know, it’s a music-reality competition show. But on top of that, you know, because, you know, it was produced by Big Hit Entertainment, who formed BTS, and it really shows like the work – it’s pretty fascinating in terms of the amount of work and just like just how hard it is to do what they’re doing. Because it shows them like training and practicing competing for spots in what ended up being like a seven-person boy band. But also just how the differences in the way that young men in Korea interact with one another as a comparison to say, kind of like American culture. Like they’re much more like affectionate. And they’ll share their feelings a lot more. And it was actually pretty interesting, just that cultural difference as well. So, I would recommend it even you know, as someone who’s kind of passingly interested in like kpop and those groups. It was really fascinating. It’s really good. CER: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting that you mentioned that, because one of the things that I did when I first started — this was through my daughter when she was first teaching me about BTS — was to go back and watch some of their early vlogs. Before they had debuted, and they are talking about, you know, just the struggle of what it means to have to practice that much, you know, what it means to have to learn to be in community with others in that way. And just, I think similar to what you said, I was just taken aback by the level of dedication and sacrifice. And that’s one of the things that I think a lot about now. I mean, they have seen so many successes, but there’s so much sacrifice and hard work that comes with that. And so the fact that but they are still, you know, they still are very humble and very grateful. I think it’s quite remarkable. PH: Yeah, I will just say no spoilers. But in the finale of that show I-Land, BTS was there. CER: I heard. PH: And the group had been formed, they were like, this is just the start. You’re just beginning now. Even though they felt like they were at the end, they’re like, just know that you got a lot of work. And it’s really hard. And it’s just starting now. CER: Right? PH: But it’s pretty interesting. Um, I’ll also add for anybody else. On Netflix, there is a documentary on Black Pink — which is a really popular Kpop girl group — that kind of shows some similar themes there. But yeah, so this is a question that we ask all our guests. What’s a book that changed your life? CER: So I was thinking about how best to answer this question. Because of course, there are any number of books that at different phases and different stages of my life have been, you know, just sort of like, have offered guidance. But, I think I want to answer this question by recognizing the ways that stories have changed my life. And you know, these are stories that come from people like my late grandmother and my mother, who were very resilient in the face of so many obstacles. And what I tell people all the time is that, you know, usually their stories, they didn’t have like a direct, you know, there might not be a direct way to like fix whatever the problem was that I was facing. But their stories made me feel seen and they made me feel less alone. So I think that stories and feeling supported and connected, just feeling heard, like that has changed my life in so many ways. I’ll also say that the work that I’ve been doing on BTS and ARMY has been meaningful in a similar sense. Because the stories that people are willing to share in this community are often quite brilliant. Because they also speak to tenacity and to hope and power through shared connection with music and community. And that’s something that I’m very grateful for. PH: Well, that’s great. Well, thank you so much. And Candace, it was a pleasure talking to you. And hopefully, we’ll get to see each other face to face sooner than later. CER: Yes, thank you so much again for having me, Philip. [music] PH: You can follow Candace Epps Robertson on Twitter at Dr. Epps Robertson. You can also find more information on the BTS syllabus on Twitter at BTS_syllabus. Check back at for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcasts on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at iah_unc.

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