What I Want You to Know About BTS

A couple of weeks after your mom died we were on our way to get some dinner when BTS’s “Mic Drop” started playing on the car stereo. It was part of a playlist I made for our car rides together after I finally came to accept the fact that you were only interested in listening to about four or five songs on repeat at any given time.

The rotation in the playlist changed over time. When I first made it and was driving you to and from preschool every day, we listened to a lot of Disney music, the Ghostbusters theme song, and a couple tracks by Twenty One Pilots. For a stretch, we listened to a clean version of the song “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar. During that phase, I would turn red whenever you shouted out in public, “My left stroke just went viral!” I didn’t know any better than you did what the lyric meant but I suspected that a three-year-old maybe shouldn’t be rapping it.

For more than a year, from April 2019 through June of 2020, the playlist was almost entirely comprised of BTS songs, your love of BTS being one of your longest lasting and most fervent interests.

On this particular day, as J-Hope started rapping the first verse, I looked back and was surprised to see that you had covered your ears with your hands. “Can you play something else?” you asked me. “Sure, buddy,” I said, and skipped to the next song. “Boy With Luv” came on. I turned back only to see that you still had your hands over your ears.

I turned the music down and asked you what was wrong. You told me that BTS songs made you miss mommy too much. That listening to them now just made you feel sad.

As we drove the rest of the way to get food I started thinking about how the weight of our loss seemed to mirror and rival the depth of our love. Our good memories now all seemed poisoned by grief. I wondered whether there was any hope of repair.

Like many Americans, our family first discovered BTS when they were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. I had never heard of them but I realized what a big deal it was for a K-pop group to be featured on SNL. I called out to your mom, figuring she wouldn’t want to miss it. She came downstairs and we watched together as the group performed “Boy With Luv.”

Their performance was energetic, athletic, and electrifying. They were an entire vibe, with their bright colors, coordinated dance moves, and big, authentic smiles. Your mom was laughing and cheering at the whole thing.

You overheard our enjoyment and came into the room. Immediately, you were transfixed, too. You wanted to watch the SNL performance again and again, and then you wanted to watch the group’s music videos on YouTube. You googled them and noticed a picture of one of the members (Suga) wearing a headband, so you asked us to buy you a similar headband to give you the “BTS style.” We obliged, of course, and you wore it every single day after it arrived. Seriously. There are months’ worth of pictures of our family in which you are wearing that headband. You wore it so confidently you even inspired friends at your preschool to start listening to BTS and sporting their own headbands. Hell, you even convinced me to get one.

You loved to sing and dance to their songs. You memorized the lyrics, as best as you could considering most of them were in Korean. When your aunts and uncles and cousins would come to visit, you would make them stop what they were doing to watch you dance to your favorite tracks. You talked about being a part of the ‘BTS Army’ and wanted us to take you to a show, preferably one in Korea. You watched YouTube videos of BTS live performances and drew pictures of what you saw in the videos. You named your fish after your favorite member, “Jungkook.”

Your mom encouraged your BTS obsession completely. The two of you talked about how you were both part Korean, unlike me, which made you feel connected to each other and to the group. She loved that you were tapping into this part of your Korean heritage.

And so, it made sense to me, once you articulated it, that listening to BTS would not bring the same joy after your mom died: that, in fact, listening to BTS would only highlight your sense of loss. Your mom’s voice and laughter had become a kind of accompaniment to the songs, and they all sounded different without her around to provide that music.

Since she died, I started searching for a new artist or group that might spark some of the same enthusiasm in you. I have missed the way that your fake Korean words would rise from the backseat, and how I would catch you in the rearview mirror dancing when you didn’t know I was looking. You have discovered a few pop stars that caught your attention, briefly. Justin Bieber. Harry Styles. You even liked a couple of the more anthemic Green Day songs. But none of these artists have hooked you in the sustained way BTS did.

Now, I am aware that your musical tastes will continue to evolve as you grow up, and that you were never going to be a lifelong BTS fan. I know that from experience, since my New Kids on the Block and Michael Jackson obsessions both ended long ago.

Oh, but my son, how I hope you can someday come back to BTS and find comfort in the old songs, rather than only sadness. I hope those songs can spark good memories, and not just serve as painful reminders of what is missing. Most of all, I hope that when you listen to them, you notice what is still playing in the background for you and me: a sweet voice and some laughter just outside the range of everyone else’s hearing.

We went out for a drive today, this time to play basketball and to grab some groceries. I had started writing these words to you earlier in the day but didn’t quite know where I was going with them. So as we headed out on the short drive to the park I opened up the old playlist just to see what your reaction would be. You were unbothered. You didn’t seem too into the music, but you didn’t seem upset by it, either.

On the way home, after a few of the old favorites had played, I asked how it felt to listen to BTS again. You said it was fine. I asked if it still made you sad, and you said it did. I asked if it was kind of a nice way to remember mommy and you said not really. You said it was too long ago and you don’t remember listening to the songs with her that much. I wondered if I had perhaps given your grief too much room, avoiding the music to the point that you lost some of the good memories you might have otherwise held onto.

But then the song “Make It Right” came on and you asked me, “Wasn’t this one of mom’s favorite BTS songs?” I said that it was, and I told you it was one of my favorites, too.

A few minutes later we pulled up to our driveway just as the song was coming to an end. I turned the car off and the music faded. From the backseat, I heard you, in your sweet voice, humming the song’s “dee do doo-doo” horn loop.

My heart leapt knowing that, even if you don’t realize it, like me, you had heard her, too.

6 Comments on “What I Want You to Know About BTS

  1. You have a gift for weaving a story that allows grief to mix with joy and hope. This is truly a gift for your son in the years to come…and I do hope a gift for your spirit as well.


  2. this brings tears to my eyes, and reminds me of that scene in Inside Out where all of the main character’s (I forget her name) childhood joyous memories become tinged with sadness because they are gone and can’t be relived as she stares down puberty and adulthood. Part of growing up, I suppose, or for Evander and anyone who’s grieving, part of that process too. Love to you both!

    Liked by 1 person

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