BTS throwback: When Manila became a ‘testing ground’ for the K-pop superstars

Patricia Esteves - The Philippine Star

Unknown to many, global K-pop sensation BTS held one of their very first international concerts in Manila on Dec. 7, 2014 dubbed BTS Live Trilogy in Manila: Episode II The Red Bullet. Yes, the Philippines served as a “testing ground” of the seven-piece boy band that debuted in South Korea in 2013.

At that time, the band only performed in six international venues, all in Asia, with the country the second stop right after Japan. They have since come a long, long way.

Since their debut nine years ago, BTS — composed of V, Jimin, J-Hope, RM (Rap Monster), Suga, Jungkook and Jin — has spearheaded a global K-pop craze with catchy, upbeat music and synchronized dance moves, as well as lyrics and social campaigns aimed at empowering youngsters.

BTS made history in November 2021, becoming the first Asian artists to win the top prize at the American Music Awards. Last year, their singles Butter, Permission to Dance and My Universe, a joint release with Coldplay, all topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. They’re also the first K-pop group to ever receive a Grammy award nomination.

Recently, video clips of their press conference here in Manila, held in 2014, circulated online and caused quite a stir. The clips actually went viral and fans swooned, with some ARMYs (name of the group’s fan base) expressing regret and remorse for not being able to support the BTS when they were just starting.

Some of the fans’ comments were: “We wished we were there when they were not yet famous globally and wow… they look so young, I wish I was a BTS fan already back then.”

This writer recalled that during the promotions for their first concert here in 2014, they were referred to as the Bangtan boys and their music was more hip-hop and electronic metal. It’s because RM, Suga and Jimin were adept at rapping, so their genre was more hip-hop at that time.

In 2014, their most notable achievement was winning the Melon Music Awards. But I remembered that although they were newbies in the K-pop scene then, they already had a solid and loyal fan base in Manila. In fact, their Red Bullet concert was a sold-out show.

I was fortunate enough to attend their first-ever concert here, which was held at the SM MOA Arena. Fans were already infectiously intense then, as they waved orange glow sticks and screamed at the top of their lungs.

But what I remembered most was the Karaoke vibe during the concert. Me and an editor friend were amazed at the devotion of their Filipino fans. At that time, most of BTS songs were rap. As a fan, to sing in the Korean language is already difficult, but to rap in Korean, that is simply remarkable.

Yes, the Pinoy ARMYs memorized their songs by heart. Well, ARMYs here and worldwide are known for their fervent dedication to the group.

The love and support of the fans were not lost on the members. They thanked the audience for singing their songs. As a gratitude, the boys did fan service and reciprocated in their own sweet gestures. From time to time, the group would break into short intermissions to talk to the crowd.

“Mahal ko kayo,” said one of the members, eliciting deafening screams from the crowd. Another member recounted that he ate the Pinoy favorite halo-halo, which sent the crowd wild even more.

Back then, I was already impressed by their talent in dancing. They showed expert choreography as they performed their early hits Just One Day, Boy in Luv, N.O. Danger, Coffee and Let me Know. I admired them for working so hard and giving 110 percent to every performance.

I recalled telling my friend that BTS holds so much promise, and I was right, because seven years after their very first concert here, they conquered the world and became global superstars.

BTS subsequently held two more concerts in the Philippines: the BTS Live On Stage Epilogue in Manila in 2016 and the BTS Live Trilogy Episode III: The Wings Tour in Manila in 2017.

This paper was also able to cover their one-night-only concert in 2016 also at the MOA arena. Prior to their arrival, there were reports of fans camping out for hours at the NAIA airport and shelling out P12,000 to be in the mosh pit, never mind if they had to stand for two-and-a-half hours, just to see the boys up close. There were reports, too, of how devoted fans worked part-time to save money for premium tickets.

At the concert, I remembered how the BTS members got the fans dancing the moment they launched their first song Run. Retrieving my notes on the concert, I was reminded again of how solid the Pinoy ARMYs then and now.

Song after song followed during the 2016 concert with the boys performing a total of 24 numbers, including the early hits, namely, Danger, Autumn Leaves, Tomorrow, Butterfly, Outro: Home of Cards, Intro: What Am I To You, Boy in Luv, Save Me, If I Ruled the World, Baepsae, Dope, Boyz with Fun, Attack on Bangtan and No More Dream. For their encore, they sang four songs, Epilogue: Young Forever, Miss Right, Whalien 52, For You and I Need U. But the highlight of the concert was their performance of Fire, which got the Pinoy ARMYs excitedly dancing to the song.

More excerpts from our past coverage: The members were magnanimous with fan service, eagerly reciprocating the love back to their fans. The boys lingered at the stage to blow kisses. They would also talk in Tagalog, much to the “kilig” and delight of the ARMYs.

“Mahal ko kayo, sana masaya kayo,” said the band’s youngest member Jung Kook, eliciting deafening screams from the crowd.

Rap Monster (RM) lauded the audience for the effort to sing their songs, no matter how hard.

“I just realized in our concerts here that language or race is never a barrier for us, and we are grateful to you for embracing our music,” he said to wild shrieks from the fans.

The fans, too, enjoyed the special effects like the fireworks and laser lights. Every BTS fan went home ecstatic that night, bearing the hope that their K-pop idols would come back and perform frequently for their fans. The next year, 2017, they did come back. And then the COVID pandemic happened and the world came to a halt.

In an interview with ABS-CBN last year, the group, who has partnered with Smart Communications for the company’s Live Your Passion with Purpose Campaign, expressed intentions to see the Filipino fans once again.

Pinoy ARMYs are hopeful of the possibility that a BTS concert will happen again here in the country that somehow witnessed the band’s early rise to global superstardom.

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