Making peace with my teenager through K-pop

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I am in a cinema with my teenage daughter, watching the last concert of BTS's Love Yourself tour being live-streamed from South Korea.

I paid $25 a ticket to sit in these reclining seats with other mums and daughters, some wearing BTS shirts, jewellery and mouse-eared headbands featuring Tata, Mang, Chimmy or another one of the band's Line Friends characters.

Like many other girls here, my daughter is what I'd call dance-sitting, swaying her arms and sometimes lifting herself out of her seat entirely to let the rest of her body move with the music.

Her eyes and smile are as wide as I've ever seen, wider than when she experienced Sesame Street Live as a preschool Elmo fan, even wider than when she saw Hamilton on Broadway, after she'd memorised the soundtrack and role-played Alexander Hamilton in social studies class.

The Hamilton tickets were more expensive, but this BTS show means more to both of us.

We don't say that, of course. We don't say much of anything to one another these days. She spends most of her time at home behind the closed door of her bedroom. In the car, she listens to her own music and podcasts. Even dinners, when we manage to have them together, are often silent affairs punctuated by angry outbursts at her younger sister.

I know it's natural for daughters, even daughters who have always been close to their mothers, to pull away during their teen years. Experts say it's a positive milestone. Girls who do this feel secure enough in their relationships to test their mothers' patience while trying out their own independence.

Pushing me away is helping my daughter become more autonomous, more responsible for herself, more knowledgeable about her own mind. It's a good thing. It's also a hard thing for mothers like me who enjoyed the somewhat independent but not-totally-dissing-you elementary school years.

After a school event in the fifth grade, my daughter bristled when I tried to hug her in front of her classmates. Her teacher looked at me sympathetically.

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"This is when it starts to happen," she said. "They pull away. It's normal."

It didn't feel normal when my daughter stopped wanting to join family game nights and bike rides. It didn't feel normal when she moved from doing her homework at the kitchen table to doing it in her bedroom. And it felt far from normal when she began snapping at just about anything I said.

Even "Good morning" would be followed by a grunt or "Leave me alone!"

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by BTS official (@bts.bighitofficial) on

Then one day, as I was driving her somewhere without her ear buds, BTS's "Boy with Luv" came on the radio.

"This is a good band, Mum," she said, turning up the volume.

Her friend, a member of the "army," as BTS fans call themselves, gave her one of their CDs, and soon we were listening to BTS more than we listened to the Hamilton mix tape.

A few months later, in the cinema, my daughter is singing along to the songs in Korean, a language she'd never heard before falling for this band, and I am recalling my early teen years and my devotion to five Latin American singers who made the covers of teen magazines in the '80s.

The band was Menudo, and they also sang in a language I didn't know and had never heard before I came across their songs. I spent hours alone in my room, flipping through my music magazines, captivated by their pictures. I had one school notebook with their image on the cover, but the marketing - the consumerism - was nothing like it is today. I never actually saw Menudo perform in a theatre or anywhere.

I kept my own teenage fandom under wraps at home. The terrestrial radio stations in our town didn't play songs in Spanish, so my mother and I never had a radio moment with Menudo like the one my daughter and I had with BTS. My mother was never into the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any other popular band of her generation.

And I was initially reluctant about encouraging my own daughter's fandom. My initial dismissal went beyond the shelling out of hard-earned cash for a frivolous cause. I was being a snob, reflexively thinking that what's being hyped by teenagers can't be good music.

It's a prevailing misconception critic Brody Lancaster aptly summarised in Pitchfork, "When fame is girded by a swelling teenage, female fan base immediately, that celebrity becomes false, temporary and unearned."

Then my daughter shamed me into checking myself. Not only has this band won a slew of music awards and collaborated with Halsey, Lauv and other popular artists, "BTS does good for the world," she told me, before sending me a link to one of the band's emotional, ethereal videos, which promoted UNICEF's #ENDviolence campaign through depictions of bullying being thwarted by acts of kindness.

With BTS, as with all celebrities, I know there's a high degree of promotion control. BTS's causes are universally acceptable: self-love, respect, beneficence. All of this, while not provocative, also meshes nicely with the values I've tried to instil in my daughter.

With so much incivility, self-destructiveness and abuse in the world, positive messages like these may seem like a lifeline to many teenagers, especially those who are dealing with anxiety, depression and social oppression.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by BTS official (@bts.bighitofficial) on

Perhaps my daughter liking BTS - not just their music but their messages - is a parenting win. She's not just enraptured by the music, or by the boys who can sing and rap and dance. She has also found a community of support for her own values in her fandom.

My daughter may not want me in her room anymore, but at least she's sharing this part of her life with me. When BTS is playing, no one is fighting. She enjoys switching roles, being the enlightened one, helping me expand my cultural knowledge and vocabulary.

There's always something to talk about in BTS world - a new single just dropped, a tour just announced. My daughter is now in the band's army, and I am in its version of the USO.

We don't carpool karaoke, but we do plenty of dance-sitting at stop lights.

The Washington Post