By Radhika Oltikar
“Mom, do you think I’ll ever meet Jungkook?”
There was fervent hope in my 14-year-old daughter’s voice, as she unplugged the perennially inserted headphones from her ears long enough to ask me this question. It helped quell the flash of irritation I felt as I mumbled a half-hearted, “Of course you will.”
“Is this her ambition in life?” I complained to my husband later. “While her peers are setting career goals, this is what she aspires to do: meet that fellow from that Korean pop band, BTS or something.” My husband comforted me with his trademark optimism, reminding me that it was a teen phase at best; he told me not to get so worked up. “She’ll get over it,” he offered.
Except, she didn’t. Over the course of the coming year, her obsession with BTS showed no signs of waning. Instead, it intensified. She would come home from school, looking sullen, and confine herself to her room. In would go those infernal headphones, as she shut herself once again from us and the world at large. My annoyance with her K-pop band gradually gave way to concern. Something wasn’t right and I needed to find out what that was.
My initial attempts at probing didn’t yield much. She’d keep telling me she was fine and brushing off my requests. Then one day, the dam broke. That day she came home looking more distraught than usual. As it turns out, she was being bullied at school. It had been going on for quite a while, and centered around her being “too thin.” And given how important body image is in one’s teens, it was proving devastating for my daughter. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” I gently asked her, pulling her close, my heart breaking at her obvious pain. “It would only have made it worse. I’d get called a wimp, in addition to everything else,” she sobbed. I understood her predicament. How could I not? I’d been there myself in my teens and I had told no one either.
When my daughter felt devalued by her bullies, she turned to this band for guidance and to realise that her true value was intrinsic.
The next few days saw me and my husband having several meetings with my daughter’s school principal. Before we knew it, my daughter’s bullies had already tendered their apologies to her. As it unsurprisingly turned out, they hadn’t even realised just how deeply their behaviour had been hurting her. But even then, it took time and counselling for my daughter to revert to her cheerful self. She’d been under stress for so long that even after the bullying stopped, she’d still suffer bouts of anxiety.
I still distinctly remember something my daughter told her therapist during her first counselling session that nearly knocked my socks off. While recounting her ordeal to the therapist, she let slip that the only thing that kept her functional during all the bullying was BTS, a South Korean boy band. In my head, I’d compartmentalised that band as little more than nonsense. But to my daughter, that very band was a lifeline. That day, I could see my daughter’s body language change and her eyes shine as she kept talking about the band and how their songs preach self-love and inclusivity, “The best part is, that they have been there themselves. They know what they’re talking about. Suga has had such a hard life. Did you know that he was once suicidal? He shares his journey so openly through his songs.”
When my daughter felt devalued by her bullies, she turned to this band for guidance and to realise that her true value was intrinsic. “That’s their constant message to the ARMY (that’s what BTS call their fans), that all of us – regardless of our skin colour, gender, identity, or sexual orientation – add value to the world, that all of our voices matter.”
I kept reflecting on her words long after the counselling session ended and couldn’t help but feel a smidgen of guilt. As parents we are so quick to judge our children’s behaviour and choices. When they oversleep, we label them “lazy”; when they shut out the world with their headphones, we label them “self-absorbed.” But that day I realised that what we often forget to understand – that our children are, after all, also trying to deal with an overwhelming world in their own way. Maybe, that’s the part of parenting that we need to focus more on: where we listen to our kids and embrace their peculiar choices, instead of being critical of them.
BTS’ lyrics speak of issues faced not only by millions of teens across the globe, but also by the band members themselves.
John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
That’s what I did, after years of dismissing my daughter’s inexplicable obsession with a band as an indulgent distraction. I googled them and asked her questions about them. I can now tell you that BTS is short for Bangtan Boys and it has seven members. For my daughter, I’m taking the time to actually listen to their songs. I might not bob my head to their music, but what stands out to me about BTS is that they don’t talk down to their fans; they level with them. My daughter was even right about their songs: This is no vacuous fluff. Their lyrics speak of issues faced not only by millions of teens across the globe, but also by the band members themselves. Take for instance, their first single “No More Dream”, it’s about following one’s dreams in the face of societal opposition. “N.O” on the other hand talks about the hardships the members themselves have faced and “Dope” asks the number one question on most millennials’ minds: “Why are you killing us before we can even try?” The music is definitely not mindless, as I first assumed.
My new-found interest in BTS has had another unexpected fallout: It has helped bring my daughter and me closer. She’s thrilled that I’m showing interest in something that she holds so dear. And, it’s nothing but a learning experience for me. As parents, we’re trained to obsess over the differences between our children and us; we scrutinise their flaws, and stand in judgement of their choices – from the clothes they wear, to the friends they hang out with, and movies and music they fanboy over. It took an obscure K-pop band, who I had instantly labelled as trash, whose existence I would have never otherwise cared about, to teach me about the joys of taking an active interest in my daughter’s likes. It took a band of boys with pink and blue hair to give me a chance to peek into my daughter’s inner world. Who would have thunk?
That said, we have our differences. And we have a lifetime to argue over them. Perhaps, we’ll now do it over a BTS song.
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