music

Why I like BTS. (It’s not just because they’re cute.)

Hey guys! I thought I’d talk a bit about stuff I’ve been using to help manage my dysthymia, while I’m still trying to find affordable therapy options. Take note that I don’t think these things will work for everyone, and they aren’t a substitute for therapy, especially if you have a more severe mental illness than I do. I’m “lucky” enough that my symptoms are relatively mild.

I say relatively mild, though, because sometimes I do have rather intense episodes of a deeper, more disruptive depression. This is why I am seeking a second check-up; I don’t think I can totally rule out adjustment disorder, since these intense episodes often have identifiable triggers. To return to my allergy analogy, you can live with allergies day to day, and occasionally have a really bad attack thanks to a weakened immune system and exposure to a particularly potent allergen.

Last year, around quarter four, that exposure happened: a combination of moving jobs, burnout from conservatory studies, the stress of my EP launch, and–what ultimately triggered the whole thing, I think–all my bands more-or-less officially breaking up. It took one Facebook message–sent just a few days after my EP launch party, which should have seen me still riding high on endorphins–to send me spiraling. And I spiraled hard.

If you follow my blog or me on social, you will probably be able to tell that music is a HUGE part of my life. Heck, I went back to school for it! I’ve been singing since I was three years old, picked up violin at 12 (and dropped it at 16), then started playing guitar (and writing songs) at 20, which was also around the time I joined–or maybe I should say was picked to join, since honestly we were assembled more than anything else–Stories Told, an indie pop-rock band started by a dude from my university and his highschool-age drummer brother.

While I’d been trying out going solo for a while, I never considered it my main thing. My loyalties were to Stories Told, the band that had “saved” me in my last year of college, had picked me up and shown me the stars. It was where I’d staked my future, and my solo music was just something I did for fun. When I got the message that the band wouldn’t likely be coming back from hiatus, it felt like all my hopes had derailed, and I was, after three years riding high on dreams of touring and brotherhood and indie music stages, effectively back to zero, and all on my own.

This, coupled with my challenges at music school started making me question my capacity to pursue the passion I’d basically built my life on. Sure, I loved music, but was that enough? Was I enough? Or had I been fooling myself for twenty-four, nearly twenty-five years and was it finally time to stop playing and grow up?

When I have an intense depressive episode, one of the first things I do is I start cutting off contact with a lot of friend groups. I don’t like people seeing me at my most vulnerable and volatile, so I pull away, convinced I’ll be a burden and secretly grateful for the reduction of sensory input. This is probably the least healthy thing to do when you’re going through something like this, but it’s what I did last year, limiting my contact only to people I felt might “understand.” Thankfully, one of those people was my long-time creative collaborator Kristin.

One of the best things to have, when you’re in-between lucid moments, is a friend who is not only willing to put up with your issues, but also refuses to let you wallow in them. Kristin is one of those people. She would patiently listen to me vent my anxieties, but once I was “done” she’d find ways to direct the subject elsewhere, so I wouldn’t re-enter the spiral.

Her favorite method was to bombard me with images and links of this KPop band she liked at the time. I had a pretentious hipster’s distaste for KPop, which I found too “manufactured,” but I liked my friend so I figured if she could put up with my madness, I would put up with hers. I added a song called “Blood Sweat Tears” to my Spotify playlist…

…and several replays, Tumblr memes, and VApp Episodes later, I found myself a member of the BTS ARMY.

For the uninitiated, BTS (short for Bangtan Sonyeondan, or Bulletproof Boy Scouts) is a seven-member boy group from South Korea that skyrocketed to global prominence last year when they became the first Korean boy group to win a Billboard Music Award. While most of KPop’s “manufactured” idol groups (many of which I’ve now come to like) come from the “Big Three” of JYP, YG, or SM Entertainment, BTS came from a tiny, fledgling label called BigHit. In a world where even big-label rookie groups can mocked and ridiculed by the industry and fans, BTS struggled from the get go with negative press, accusations of unoriginality from “antis” (anti-fans, many of whom can be vicious and even drive idols to suicide), and even lack of funds. That they managed to go from “dirty spoon idols” (a mockery of the term “golden spoon idols,” or idols that come from privileged backgrounds) to a global phenomenon in under five years is basically the underdog story on steroids, compounded by the fact that BTS, having the rare opportunity to co-write their songs, openly documented that struggle in lyrics and music videos.

From left to right: Kim Taehyung (V), Min Yoongi (Suga), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Jeon Jeong-guk (Jungkook), Kim Namjoon (RM), Park Jimin (Jimin), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope).

Instead of keeping up appearances, BTS has chosen instead to publicly acknowledge the pain, fear, and anxiety involved in debuting and making the climb up the charts, with one member–my bias wrecker Suga–even dropping a mixtape where he narrates a severe bout of social anxiety that left him wanting to run and hide and die the night before a concert. You read that right, friends: these boys sing and rap about mental health, societal pressure to succeed/conform, and even issues such as breaking the glass ceiling.

As many ARMYs and even BTS’s “leader,” Kim Namjoon (a.k.a. RM) himself will tell you, the band’s relationship with the fans has always been positioned as a side-by-side struggle and climb. That this is savvy marketing, I won’t deny: legends are built on their origin stories, and BTS has I’m sure purposefully crafted a near-perfect one for the ever-anxious, ever-hungry, ever-hustling millennial generation. But that doesn’t make that story less inspiring, especially when you consider that within the overarching narrative of the band, there are sub-narratives specific to the individual members.

In KPop tradition, fans have a “bias” and “wreckers.” A bias is your favorite member, while wreckers are the members you also are crazy for, who “wreck” your loyalty to your bias. The running joke with BTS stans is that you always have one bias and six wreckers, and this is true: as you get deeper into the fandom and get to “know” each member’s story, you can’t help but fall for them in turn. But your bias is always special, and mine is Kim Seok-jin, a.k.a. Worldwide Handsome, BTS’s eldest hyung.

Most people assume Jin-stans are in it for his good looks, and it’s not hard to see why: Jin, along with V, are both considered the “visual” members, and Jin did create a Twitter/Weibo frenzy due to his gorgeous looks in award show photos. But, in my case, while I was initially attracted to Jin first (a fact that shocked Kristin, as Jin is traditionally in the back of dance lines and is usually overlooked in favor of Namjoon, Taehyung, or the ever-popular Jungkook) because of his looks, what cemented his status as my bias was, well, his story.

On their second most-recent album, WINGS, each BTS member is given their own solo song, including Jin. Awake is a ballad, befitting his high, nasal voice, but while the song itself is a beautiful barnstormer with serious Ken Hirai vibes, the lyrics, penned by Jin himself, are heartbreaking. In it, he acknowledges the “truth” of what’s been said about this oft-overlooked band member (who gets so few lines in group songs): that he is neither the best nor the brightest of his band, that maybe he will never fly as high as they will, but that he just wants to run, for just a little bit longer, because he loves his six other flower petals so much. He holds on to them, walking through the dark, covered in bruises and scars that are implied are partially from his own insecurities.

Born in the first quarter of 1993, I was the oldest member of Stories Told, and, like Jin does (though he dislikes the title) for BTS, I functioned much like the band “mother” of this bunch of boys I’d come to view as family. In our darker moments, I’d been encouraged to strike it out on my own, but I never could because I didn’t want to do music alone. Part of the appeal of being in a band was the family, the tenderness of belonging. I liked having people to dote on, to hug and cling to and treat like the younger siblings I never had.

Like Jin–a non-singing, non-dancing film major initially recruited by BigHit as an actor–I was the least talented, with no band or formal musical background (unless you counted classical/broadway singing) to speak of. As frontwoman, I was the “visual,” the de-facto “best looking” of the band by virtue of being the only girl (though, like V, it was my “vampire twin” who was ultimately considered more handsome, and, like Jungkook, our youngest member who attracted more attention due to his many talents), but other than a pretty face and sort-of gift for spieling, I wasn’t the band’s standout member, even if I had “center.” Jian produced and mixed everything. Aned was a wizard with the loop pedal and churned out hit chord progressions. Dan was charming and played a mean bass. Jedd…well Jedd ran the band, a maknae on top if there ever was one. I was the awkward one with dreams, who desperately wanted to keep the family together for as long as she could.

You always hear the narrative of the talented but underappreciated band member ditching his group to be true to himself, but in hearing Jin’s Awake, I finally found a story that spoke to who and where I was: a dreamer who wanted family, who understood their limitations, would work hard to overcome them, and, having made peace with the possibility that they could one day get left behind, would keep running for as long as their legs could manage.

The thing with depression, at least for me, is that by itself, the sadness isn’t that bad. Oh sure, it’s bad, but what really crushes is the sense that I am alone in it, that no one can understand what the inside of my fears and struggles looks like. It’s the illusion of isolation that feeds the depression, trapping me a spiral. Breaking the illusion interrupts the spiral’s momentum long enough for me to eventually crawl my way out, and in those long, dark days of Q4 2017, KPop and BTS, but specifically Jin’s story, were what helped put a crack in that illusion. One of BTS’s albums is called “You Never Walk Alone,” and that was exactly how I felt, listening to their music and poring over their lyrics, watching as my bias went from dance wrecker with barely any singing lines to dancing center (if only for a moment) and singing triple-high-notes. This boy had managed to go from least talented to most improved by simply accepting his limits, and resolving to do his best anyway.

These days, it’s harder to watch Jin. As he gets older and his enlistment date approaches, I can feel a sense of foreboding that, despite all of BTS’s promises to stay together, his time might be almost up. After all, he still gets little to no PR outside the group (aside from variety shows), no offers of roles in television or serious hosting gigs outside of his few award show MC moments. There’s a sense, too, that he’s come to accept this: his answers to interview questions about the future revolve more around present happiness than future hunger for musical development. But even if “the end” may be looming, Jin doesn’t seem so much bitter as sweet: there’s a sort of joy, a genuine gratitude that overflows from him in every fan message or VLive snippet. He continues to work, to do his best, and to enjoy the ride, appearing thankful for every moment. And while it might be easy to envy the other members their future–something I know I did with the members of ST–Jin doesn’t seem to. He just continues to care.

Perhaps I’m projecting or speculating. That’s the thing with idols: their relative distance makes it so easy to taint their mythos with your own. I’m reluctant to overreach, because it feels like an insult, superimposing my workaday issues over the life of this global star. What I can say is this: from what I can see, Jin has not let any potential insecurities or limitations stop him from trying anyway, and that hard work has taken him to his personal best, which frankly is impressive regardless if you hold him up next to the other six, more naturally gifted members.

My stanning for BTS and Jin is inspiration wrapped up in the sugarpill of escapist distraction. I jumped down the KPop rabbit hole to escape the black hole of my own depression, but found at the bottom of it things that helped me wake up and keep going. I may not have bandmates or an ARMY, but I have a family of friends who care for me (and who I can care for), and inspiration, and an origin story I can tell myself when my fears threaten to get too noisy. While I’m loath to believe too much in the “power of positive thinking,” I do think that having something that means a lot to you, even if it doesn’t cure the sadness, can help keep you going until the cloud cover does break. BTS isn’t my cure, but it helps me cope, and certainly it doesn’t hurt to be inspired.

One last thing: when I was going through this depressive season, a friend made the misguided attempt of trying to cheer me up by sending a joke comic in a group chat, describing friendship with me as involving the dubious privilege of being attacked with my emotional baggage or, as he playfully called it, my #firstworldproblems. See, compared to many of my friends, I was privileged: I had a job I liked, received parental support in order to return to school, and never really seemed to want for anything. This joke made me conscious of opening up about my struggle with mental illness, because compared to their “real” problems it felt like an entitled excuse to have issues.

I’m sure a lot of people feel this way. Because we’re fighting ourselves–our own emotions and instability–it can seem like our problems aren’t as serious as people who are fighting “real life” problems like rent and unemployment and physical illness. But I’m learning to understand that every battle is a battle, and this goes not only for ourselves but for the people we encounter. We’re made to be here for each other. And, well, my bias said it best:

I hope 2018 is a year you’ll keep healthy, and tell people when you’re hurting, and be there for hurting people too.

That’s it from me for now, but I’ll try to update again soon with more things that keep me afloat. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I love telling you these stories.

Until the next one, stay healthy, and I remain:

~aRoamingTsinay~

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[travelogue] Coming Out of My Cage (And It Feels Just Fine)

A/N: Submitted this as an entry to World Nomads’ travel scholarship competition. I didn’t win, but it felt like a piece of travel writing worth sharing.

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It’s June.  The night is humid, glowing amber in the lights of Armenian Street.  I’m twenty-three, and girls much younger than me have done this before—wandered off at night in search of adventure—but I’d always been the “tame” one.  At home, they call me tita (aunty), lola (grandma). The girl whose idea of partying is having tea in bed after work.

Certainly not the girl who’d be rounding the corner of a graffiti-covered alley at half-ten at night, the remnants of a sangria buzzing in her blood.  But it was my last day in Singapore, and I’d found myself wanting to live a little.

Emphasis on a little.  There would be no shared drinks with strangers.  Instead, I was looking for new music, and Timbre at The Substation was supposedly the best place to find it.

Back home in Manila, I balanced a responsible, serious job as an agency strat planner with a self-proclaimed “career”—profitability be hanged—as a singer/songwriter for a rock band.  When my bandmates heard I was traveling to Singapore, they’d filled my head with stories of underground gigs with inspiring acts.  It was this promise that got me to wander a foreign city at the oddest hours of night.  I’d tried to find it in Clarke Quay, but the bands there sounded professional when I was looking for raw.  A quick Google search for “indie music gigs Singapore” pointed me in the direction of Timbre.  

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Several attempts at a cab ride later, I’m elbowing my way into the dark, open-air club, dodging a bunch of finance-looking bros nursing beers.  I grab a stool near the bar and, just as I catch my balance, there’s that familiar screech of an electric guitar being sound-checked.  Then, the mics crackle to life as a raspy mezzo-soprano (just like me) launches into the familiar first line of The Killers’ hit, Mr. Brightside.

Soon, it’s midnight. Though the sangria’s worn off, I might as well be drunk. I’m dancing in my seat, shout-singing along with those finance bros through a series of pop-rock hits. Later, I’ll notice my phone battery is dead.  Later, I’ll catch my first ever bus.  Later, I’ll huddle, scared, at a deserted taxi stand in a different part of town (How did I get here?!) until an off-duty cab takes pity on me and brings me back to my hotel.  

Later, I’ll wonder what possessed me to wander around at night, in an unfamiliar city. But, with rock music blasting from crackling amplifiers, later hardly matters.

For the first time, I’m coming out of my cage, and right now, it feels fine.

~aRT~

 

Searching for “Wow.”

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My Facebook page has become one long trigger warning for a quarter-life existential crisis. My college schoolmates are speaking at TEDx or traveling the world. My high school batchmates/schoolmates are setting up businesses, becoming bloggers, getting engaged, and/or auditioning for reality TV shows.

I amsick. With yet another cough and cold.

A few days ago, I started learning guitar again. The last time I picked up Elinor for any extended stretch of time, I was in college, hefting her on my back from class to class, stealing practice time between reviewing for finals and crunching out the beginnings of my thesis.  I would play and sing everywhere, puzzling over tabs and timing, discovering a world of music made outside of my body, a method that physically challenged my idea of control.  It was exciting, then–every new song was a small victory against a nagging feeling of being “lost” that I’d had since leaving my college theater org.

Now, I’m only just re-learning what it means to be excited, what it feels like to have a world of music that’s really only mine (or, well, as “only mine” as you can get when you’re born with the urge to constantly be documenting things for posterity).  See, that feeling I had back in college–of being lost, set adrift, having to start over–is back and in full force, tugging away at the last constant I have: my music.  Or, specifically, my dreams of music.

It’s taken me a while to admit this, because it feels like a character flaw, but I am a natural performer. I like to “wow.” On that stage, in front of a crowd, you are both able to connect with so many, and remain at a safe distance, where none of those people can hurt you, like friendship without the risk of familiarity (and, ergo, contempt).  That moment of approval feels so much like being liked, the amazement and/or curiosity silencing self-doubt, even for a moment.  For a girl with a lot of very loud self-doubt, those moments can be intoxicating, and the constant quest for them all-consuming, because isn’t it elemental human instinct to run for safety?

That “wow”–and the things I’ve done to get it–have been my safety for years, to the point that I’ve come to define myself as what–or, rather, the very many whats–I do.  Except, now, things are changing. It’s harder to juggle all the hats I’ve chosen to wear. Music, arguably my “number one life priority,” has now become my biggest struggle: it’s hard enough to steal time from your thesis, but reaching for guitar after work, when your body is screaming for mindless TV and sleep? Nigh-impossible. I’ve had to watch my slow stagnation, standing still in stark contrast to my bandmates who improve in leaps and bounds, threatening to render me obsolete. They have side-lines and gigs and a future.  I have…Keynote.  That, and a nagging sense that my chance at “wow” is getting farther and farther away, possibly too far away to ever reach.

It all came to a head when I lost my voice.  Jian–bandmate, remember? I mention him a lot, so you should.–is probably going to kill me for admitting this, but I got extremely sick recently and had to be forced into vocal rest. I say forced because I only called time after pushing through with a gig I had no capacity to sing, my bullheaded determination to “be professional” and not back out at the last minute causing a vocal catastrophe.  We took a break for two weeks, which became a month, and now, six weeks after my vocapocollapse (see what I did there?) my bandmates are back refreshed, ready, brimming with ideas and new experiences…while I am struggling to find my footing, afraid I’m being left behind.

For the first time, at twenty-three, I am having to look in the eye the chance that this glittering dream of a music career may dissolve in the murky reality that is a corporate nine-to-five, with its “adulting” and financial responsibilities and reality checks.  I never saw myself becoming just another working millennial, but ironically the truth is I might have to trade security of identity for security of a more terrestrial, pragmatic kind.

A girl has bills to pay.

Am I scared? Very. Watching the highlights reel that is my newsfeed, with everyone on it doing something new and big and different, it’s hard not to start fearing obscurity. The promise of having a stage and leaving a mark have become such constants in my life that having to face the very real possibility of those things never happening again has left me more than a little shaken. What do you do when the destiny you spent all this time preparing yourself for turns out to not be your destiny at all?  How do you start over, take back the years you feel you wasted building a dream that was made to fall apart anyway?

If there are easy answers for these questions, I don’t have them. But I have my guitar. And my iPhone camera. A few days ago, when I decided–or, rather, was half-encouraged, half-coerced–to try learning guitar again, I turned on Facebook Live and started recording a video of what it looked like to start from zero–a throwback to the first days of Elinor and I, those private video diaries that showed me fumbling with painful steel strings and dreaded chord shifts. I took a while to ramble, talking about my bandmates’ advice and my new guitar set-up and the song I was about to do. Then, I started to play.

The first time, I screwed up, and had to start over. That happened again a second time. And a third. Over and over, I missed notes or hit wrong ones, laughing nervously as I noticed the numbers of live audience rise and fall.

Frustrated, I stopped looking at the screen and instead stared at my fingers, picking slowly through the pattern until…I got it.  And again. And again. The notes were clean and sharp in a way they hadn’t been in ages.  I tried to sing along, but the timing failed me, and my playing fell apart again, so I kept quiet and watched as my fingers plucked at the strings faster and faster until the tempo nearly matched the original.

When I looked up, no one was watching. But, oddly enough, that didn’t matter. I’d done something I thought I couldn’t, and that was exciting. That was new, and different, and doing it felt like something slotting back into place, an anchor finding its mooring. Perhaps no one would ever know what I could do, but I did.  I did, and the “wow” that resulted from discovering that perhaps it was still possible to grow and reach and try and be myself–a self that I liked–without those big dreams to propel me…

…in that moment, it was enough.

~a Roaming Tsinay~

LINER NOTES: I wrote this as part of an assignment for an office writing workshop where we were asked to write a short essay based on a random word we’d drawn from a hat. For the curious, my word was, well, “wow.”

Also, this post is partially inspired by the work of a fellow MGC New Life alum. If you’re recovering from dreams of athletic (versus musical) stardom, I recommend you check out this blog by Johansen Aguilar.  

…I can’t believe I just plugged an HS classmate. What is the world coming to?