At 7:30 p.m. on the dot Sunday, the seven members of BTS appeared onstage at SoFi Stadium, each dressed in white to open the sold-out second show of the K-pop group's four-night stand in Inglewood with an elaborate jail-break sequence set to the band's song "On."
Anytime a popular boy band dabbles in prison imagery — and Seoul-based BTS is without question the most popular on the planet — you have to ask what the young men are imagining an escape from.
The simple read in this case is that the group was celebrating the end(-ish) of strict pandemic safety measures: "BTS Permission to Dance On Stage — LA," as Sunday's show was officially billed, marks its long-awaited return to live audiences after more than a year and a half away.
In an old-school news conference before the performance, the band's leader, RM, said that seeing the stadium filled with people the night before "got me emotional beyond words." His bandmate J-Hope added that he hoped the show would enable fans to "release some of the sadness and depressing thoughts" of the COVID-19 era.
Hearing the tens of thousands inside SoFi squeal later that night as BTS writhed behind a set of bars, you could safely conclude that his plan worked.
Like any of its boy-band predecessors, though — from 'N Sync all the way back to the Beatles — BTS also has the weight of its own success to consider. Already big enough in 2019 to play the Rose Bowl twice, the group went truly global during the pandemic, topping Billboard's Hot 100 six times in 13 months and setting all kinds of records with its digital and livestream offerings. This month, the band was named artist of the year at the American Music Awards — a flimsy appellation, but still — and earned its second nomination for a more respectable Grammy (though some would argue the group deserved more than one nod).
To some extent, BTS exploded by smoothing (and perhaps Westernizing) the unrulier edges of its sound, which early on typified K-pop's rowdy and futuristic blend of EDM, rock and hip-hop; "Dynamite" and "Butter," the biggest of the band's No. 1 hits, are throwback disco-soul jams with echoes of Bruno Mars and Michael Jackson — and lyrics sung in English.
Yet BTS still lives by the customs of the highly regimented K-pop industry, which positions its superstars as ambassadors of South Korean culture; last year, the country's government even revised a law permitting top K-pop artists to postpone their required military service so they might continue spreading South Korea's soft power around the world (as BTS did in September with a visit to the United Nations).
The demand for excellence is intense, and only more so now that additional Korean exports, including Netflix's smash "Squid Game" and the Oscar-winning "Parasite," have extended BTS' cultural gains. Reviewers weren't invited to the group's SoFi opener on Saturday presumably to ensure that the members — the others are Jungkook, Jin, Suga, Jimin and V — had an opportunity to regain their footing after such a long break.
The band's minders needn't have worried: To the delight of the young, racially diverse crowd — Asian, Latino, Black, white fans — Sunday's show was polished as though BTS had been performing every night for weeks. Tightly choreographed and peppered with costume changes, the two-and-a-half-hour concert moved quickly through the group's best-known songs, from oldies like the growly "Dope" and the throbbing "Burning Up" to the Motown-ish "Permission to Dance" and "Boy With Luv," BTS' exuberant electro-pop collaboration with Halsey.
For the folky "Life Goes On," whose Korean lyrics ponder the loneliness of the pandemic era, the band members flopped around on a giant bed and an oversize sofa; for "Telepathy," they boarded motorized platforms that traveled the perimeter of the stadium's floor to get closer to the fans they call Army. Megan Thee Stallion, wearing pink thigh-high boots, made a surprise appearance to do her verse from a remix of "Butter" — just one of the Western pop acts (along with Coldplay, Lil Nas X and Jason Derulo) who've sought out hook-ups with BTS lately.
Throughout the show, fans waved pricey Bluetooth-enabled light sticks — the ones designed for BTS are called Army Bombs — that blinked in time to the music.
For all this characteristic precision, the best parts of the concert were when BTS relaxed ever so slightly, as in "Dynamite," for which the singers were joined by a live R&B combo that looked like it was playing somebody's wedding, and "Idol," where they dropped the dance moves and wandered down a runway to just kind of hang out on a smaller secondary stage.
For the encore, Jin came back out with his hair in pigtails like the doll in "Squid Game" — a welcome disruption of heartthrob masculinity — and here he seemed to be relishing a taste of the freedom that life in a boy band doesn't always allow.
"You and I, we're making a movie together," Jin said through a translator to a crowd filled with glowing smartphones. It was an idea of pop-star intimacy that could almost break your heart.