Most articles written about BTS include at least a mention of the ferocity of its fandom, known as ARMY. But few attempt to earnestly delve into the reasons behind the devotion held by the millions-strong, multi-generational global fanbase. With The Rise of Bangtan: A Fan-Made Documentary Series, one BTS fan, who also happens to be a professional editor, is attempting to do just that—and she’s absolutely nailing it. Den of Geek talked to The Rise of Bangtan creator Aneesa about what it takes to create the series, the impetus behind the ambitious project, and why BTS is the real deal…
The Beginning of Rise of Bangtan
The Rise of Bangtan creator Aneesa first had the idea to create a video project encapsulating what makes BTS special back in 2017, when the Korean band was first starting to garner mainstream attention in the U.S.
“I was so angry at the constant media manipulation that was going on around them,” Aneesa recounted to Den of Geek, via Zoom earlier this year. “There were a lot of reporters trying to find a way to undermine them in the States, to try to not pay attention to them, and I was like, ‘No, you should be paying attention to them. There’s something very different and special about them.’ But the problem was… I had a really hard time putting that into words. I couldn’t fully explain how important they were because it was just a feeling I had.” The Rise of Bangtan docu-series is driven by that intangible feeling—an emotion that any ARMY can recognize, but might have a hard time describing to someone who doesn’t feel it too.
Aneesa’s own social circle was her initial target audience for the project. She wanted to make something that articulated to her friends, family, and co-workers why BTS matters so much to her, and why being an ARMY is an integral part of her identity. Using her skills as a professional editor, Aneesa began making a movie. A 45-minute edit flopped with her non-ARMY test audience, who said they understood the events of BTS’ rise, but were not connected emotionally to the journey. Aneesa recounts: “In that edit, I got to the ‘Fire’/’Blood, Sweat and Tears’ part [of BTS’ career] and the people who I showed it to were like, ‘It’s cool to see their growth, but, because I don’t know about them as people, I don’t really care about that growth.’”
Rather than give up on the project, Aneesa reimagined its structure into a docu-series. The series—which currently consists of 18 half-hour episodes—has a much more ambitious scope than the movie, and is driven by the feedback garnered from that initial, cinematic project. It still tracks the group’s career chronologically from their 2013 debut onward, but it now has the space to delve into some of the major forces that have inspired, shaped, and challenged their story. With the series, Aneesa is hoping not only to chronicle the events of BTS’ rise, but also the emotions and interiority of its members and fans along the way—not simply what BTS has done, but why so many people around the world care. In the process, she’s providing a vital resource for new ARMY, joining BTS fandom more than eight years following the group’s debut and looking for their own context for how the “boy band” became who they are today.
A K-Pop Context
Aneesa has been a K-pop fan since 2008; K-pop, with its consistent eddy of content, was a source of escapist comfort even before BTS came along—a “bright, colorful distraction of dances and a language I didn’t understand that I could bother trying to understand to keep myself distracted from [intrusive] thoughts,” Aneesa explained to Reed Reacts in a March 2021 interview. It’s also what sets K-pop apart from the western music industries.
“You look at an American musician in the States, and they’ll release an album, they’ll do some interviews on a couple night shows or for Vogue or something online on YouTube, and that’s it. That’s the promotion they do for their thing,” Aneesa tells Den of Geek, describing the American pop music system as “disconnected” as compared to the K-pop system, which prioritizes the parasocial fan-artist relationship to a much higher degree.
“In K-pop,” continues Aneesa, “you do that, you go on music shows, you have your own reality TV shows probably at the time that you’re releasing stuff, you do the behind the scenes content on your YouTube channel, you’re doing the VLives on the V app. You’re constantly, constantly doing stuff … By doing that, you establish this connection of artist and fan, in all of K-pop generally, but the idea of, ‘We know we couldn’t be here without you. You are the reason we’re able to do this, so let’s stay connected in as many ways as we possibly can.’ It’s something that the American music market just does not have. It’s completely lacking in it.”
When BTS debuted in 2013, groups with a hip hop focus were still relatively rare in the world of K-pop. “There were so few of them [who did hip hop] and you could just tell immediately how skilled BTS was in rap because of the fact that they did mostly rap and then had little singing [rather than the other way around], so that was intriguing to me.”
“I know that BTS hit harder in the States than other K-pop groups because of the whole hip-hop route that they took,” says Aneesa. “[Also], their choreos were all very powerful. It hit a chord with certain people in a way that was really different. I remember dance studios in the States back in 2014 and 2015 doing choreography to ‘Dope.” That was way back before they were even anything huge.”
When BTS performed in Los Angeles for KCON 2014, Aneesa was in the city for an internship and scored tickets.
“I think that was the first time I realized that their stage charisma, their presence, was something really to be reckoned with,” says Aneesa, “because even the people in the audience who weren’t BTS fans or didn’t know who they were, were chanting along to their songs by the end of it. You felt how much weight they carried in that moment.”
K-pop—which comes from a place of “viewable music,” as BTS founder Bang Sihyuk describes it—offers a density, frequency, and diversity of content creation that goes largely unmatched in western pop music spaces. If you’re a fan of BTS, for example, you can not only enjoy their comebacks (the K-pop term for the launch of a group’s new album or song), but also their web series, livestreams on VLive, music videos, performance videos, choreography videos, online and in-person concerts, and variety/talk show appearances. And that’s without taking into account the accrued content from more than eight years of band-dom.
When asked to give her own personal definition of K-pop as a genre or industry, Aneesa paraphrases one of BTS’ most industry-attune members: “It’s like how Suga says it, where [K-pop] is a package that takes elements from a lot of other things and then makes it better by putting it all together. The K-pop genre is that formula of putting it all together. It’s not a genre, but because it does what it does, it is a genre because no other genre does it.”
Searching to articulate exactly what K-pop is, from an English-language international ARMY’s perspective, is one of the great quests at the heart of The Rise of Bangtan, and perhaps its most ambitious challenge. “I want to explore the idea of K-pop as a genre and what it means—what defines K-pop as a genre or is it a genre at all?” says Aneesa when asked about the broader aims of the series.
The act of defining K-pop is inherently tied to the rise of BTS, who has been challenging the concept of K-pop as genre since their inception, says Aneesa. “Given that they are now in the United States, they’re now singing in English, but they do everything and operate still like what we know as a typical K-pop group. So, it’s like, ‘OK, what makes it K-pop and what just makes it pop?’” Aneesa’s decision to contextualize BTS’ journey within the larger K-pop industry in The Rise of Bangtan has been somewhat divisive amongst the ARMYs who have watched the docu-series.
“I didn’t do a lot of comparisons with the K-pop industry when I initially first did this,” says Aneesa. “And it was because, in my mind, BTS are something greater than the genre. But I forgot that, if my goal is to show other people who aren’t into K-pop this series, they need context. They needed a breaking-off point.”
Aneesa recognizes that some people aren’t happy with the decision, but as the sole creator, it is her prerogative and, for her, BTS’ history and identity as a K-pop group is an honest part of their narrative from debut to the biggest band in the world. “In my mind, I’m like: if people are really angry with the way I’m doing it, I’m like, ‘You spend three years and make a doc.’”
The Logistics of Rise of Bangtan
It would be hard to undersell just how much work Aneesa, who is the sole editor and creator for The Rise of Bangtan, has put into this fan project.
“By the time I finish airing all of what I had planned, it’ll be the end of four years,” says Aneesa. “It’s just a long time. I essentially have all of the main segments that I want to do, the main eight-minute song hunks of every episode done. What I really struggle with is transitioning from one thing to the other in every episode. Every time I look at it again, I’m like, ‘I need to change this again.’ I go back through all their VLives, all their interviews, all their reporter movement stuff. I’m like, ‘OK, I have to find something to help me get from here to here better than what I currently have,’ and that’s the thing that makes the process take so long.”
Though Aneesa is Rise of Bangtan’s sole creator, she does have people to help. This includes her roommate, a screenwriter who looks at all of her edits and gives narrative feedback, and her two best friends who work as the project’s PR, social, and admin team. This includes fielding emails related to the team of volunteer translators from around the world. Right now, there are roughly 36 people on the translation teams, who range from ages 16 to 60, translating the episodes into 15 or 16 different languages, making the series accessible to a wider variety of people.
In addition to the main episodes, Aneesa releases both “Deleted Scenes” and “Bonus Content” corresponding to each chapter of Rise of Bangtan. The additional project components add more work to Aneesa’s plate, which was something to consider when outlining the project’s scope. “I did think for a while about not doing the supplementary stuff, but then I thought about how people are going to end up using this series as a reference for knowing more about BTS and their eras. I feel like I should show all sides of them in their growth as best I can … If you just want to see them be silly, there’s the silly compilations, but if you want to legitimately learn about them as a team, then you go to the episode itself. At least that’s my goal.”
Reflections on Being ARMY
The making of The Rise of Bangtan has given Aneesa a chance to reflect back on early periods of BTS’ career through a personal, retrospective lens. Aneesa is the same age as BTS’ median-aged member, RM, which means not only has she grown up alongside the members as an ARMY, but she has grown up alongside them as a young Millennial. (Jungkook, the group’s youngest member, is a Gen Z-er.)
“I was learning life lessons with them,” she says, also remembering how difficult some of those lessons were. BTS debuted under BigHit Entertainment, which was not one of the “Big Three,” aka the music entertainment companies that controlled the industry in 2013. Because of this, the group had less money and fewer opportunities relative to groups from SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, or JYP Entertainment. Before debut, all seven members shared one dorm room with one bathroom. After debut, they shared many of the same outfits for performances and other public appearances.
“I look fondly back on those days. We really learned a lot about this relationship between fandom and artist in that period of time,” notes Aneesa. “We learned what that really means if you truly support the person. I have a lot of K-pop groups that I really enjoy and I support whenever I like their music, but I don’t always like their music, and then my support trickles away. That’s not me in it, that’s me in the first layer of it, really, you know? Going back and looking back, I realized how I was able to really attach myself to them and how those lessons helped in that at the time.”
As with many ARMY, BTS’ evolving vulnerability around subjects like anxiety, depression, and the pressures on young people living and growing in modern capitalism became more than a source of distraction for Aneesa. In 2015, with the release of their 화양연화, Most Beautiful Moment in Life series, BTS became a source of solace for Aneesa and many other ARMYs around the world. As Aneesa told Reed Reacts: “They took my head and they turned me to my problems and they said, ‘These problems. This is OK. It’s OK for you to feel like this. We’re gonna get through it together.’”
In Episode 8 of The Rise of Bangtan, Aneesa shows a clip from an early VLive with Jungkook, the youngest member of the group. In it, he confesses to ARMY watching the livestream: “Am I not working as hard as I’m supposed to be? I don’t know. Honestly, it feels like I should be working to the point of death, but I’m not. I want us to improve quickly, but, for some reason, it feels like we’re not. Music definitely comes first, but for some reason it feels like I’m not working as hard as I should be.”
It’s the kind of negative thought pattern that many young people watching could no doubt relate to and the kind of vulnerability that fans understandably don’t get from all of the idols they watch, both within K-pop and in western pop music spaces. BTS’ full name, Bangtan Sonyeondan or 방탄소년단, translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” in English. Since their formation as a group, BTS has seen themselves as a protective buffer for young people especially against the unique pressures and expectations that face emerging generations. This purpose has only clarified in the eight years since BTS’ debut, coming to particular fruition during the pandemic, as many people’s mental health has suffered. It’s not a coincidence that BTS’ popularity has grown so much during the past few years, during a global crisis that has seen so many search for comfort and connection.
“I think the biggest misconception that I want to clear up [with Rise of Bangtan] as best I can is… there are people who [think BTS] came out of nowhere,” says Aneesa. “They view the fangirls [who support them] in the way they always view fangirls. By showing the BTS narrative and what their stories were as they grew, I feel like you can understand where the fans came from and how the fans attached themselves to the group and thus why the support grew from that.”
When you’re inside of a fandom, it can be hard to explain to others why it matters. This is especially true for fandoms built around teen girls and women, whose interests are usually derided as silly, out-of-control, or both by a misogynist culture built for and around the interests of (financially privileged) (white) men. The Rise of Bangtan is a resource for those who already understand why BTS is so popular, who get that feeling Aneesa set out to give shape to, and it’s a resource for those who don’t but who earnestly want to try. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a resource for anyone hoping to bridge the gap between the two. There’s something incredibly generous—incredibly BTS—about that purpose.
All 18 episodes of The Rise of Bangtan are currently available to watch via YouTube.