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In the Philippines, superfans of BTS are not limited to the younger crowd

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The South Korean band BTS is on hiatus. But the music and the fandom goes on. NPR's Ashley Westerman takes us to the Philippines, where super fans are not limited to the younger crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERMISSION TO DANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) I want to dance. The music's got me going...

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: This may sound like a BTS concert, but it's not.

(SCREAMING)

WESTERMAN: Some 40 women have gathered in this small Korean bar in metro Manila to celebrate two of the group members' recent birthdays. They call themselves the Titas of BTS. And, yes, I do mean that BTS, the K-Pop global phenomenon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER")

BTS: (Singing) Smooth like butter, like a criminal undercover. Gon'...

DEMAI SUNIO-GRANALI: There is food and drinks for everyone, games and raffle and, you know, mingling.

WESTERMAN: That's Titas of BTS founder 38-year-old Demai Sunio-Granali. She started the group in 2020 on Facebook with a handful of friends who love BTS. Since, they've grown into an online community of thousands of titas. But before we go any further, what's a tita?

SUNIO-GRANALI: An direct translation is an auntie, so somebody who is an older woman. Even if you're not a relative, you address someone who is an older female as tita out of respect.

WESTERMAN: Most of the women and men in the group are in their late 30s and above. But they call themselves titas anyway. Sunio-Granali says they all found their way to BTS through different paths, some through family members, others through friends, even their own children.

SUNIO-GRANALI: I'm a pandemic army.

WESTERMAN: Well, yes, BTS calls their fans army.

SUNIO-GRANALI: Since we didn't have to go to the office, we didn't have to go out. So the only way to waste away your time is to watch K-dramas on TV.

WESTERMAN: Korean dramas are a popular first step for many Filipinos who fall into K-Pop, which, as a genre, has gripped the country in near obsession. Sunio-Granali says she fell in love with a song she heard on one of these Korean dramas, which happened to be sung by a member of BTS. This led her to another one of their songs, then another, then another. And soon she realized this group was very different from anything else she'd come across.

SUNIO-GRANALI: I connected with them because of how they express themselves through lyrics, how they told their story, how they describe their struggles.

WESTERMAN: Well-written lyrics are just one part of the full BTS package says fellow tita Jabba Tantay.

JABBA TANTAY: It's not just the entertainment factor. It's not just how great they dance. It's also their personalities. It's also their relationship with each other.

WESTERMAN: Tantay says, because the titas are a little bit older, their fandom is just a little bit different.

TANTAY: When you're a teenager, it's a different kind of fangirling, right? It's more of, he's so handsome. He's - you know, he dances so well. There's a different appreciation. When you're a little bit older, you see other things. Like, we focus more on their relationships with each other. And we focus more on the way that they would convey their messages.

WESTERMAN: Tantay says, for many of their members, there is no other safe space for BTS fans of a certain age. Back at their in-person event, the diverse community these women have created is on full display.

TANTAY: I mean, all of these women are professional. Like, during the daytime, they're all serious women. They hold high-level positions in their companies. And look at them. Look at them now (laughter).

WESTERMAN: But what will they do while BTS, the thing that's brought them all together, is on break? Sunio-Granali says they'll keep the Facebook group running and will support the band until they get back together, hopefully, in 2025. But regardless of what happens to the K-Pop group, the real-world friends they've made along the way are what really matters, she says.

SUNIO-GRANALI: I would consider that the best gift that we have received from being fans of BTS. At the end of the day, you know, we're going to be left with this friendship.

WESTERMAN: Friendships that can only be described as no less than dynamite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYNAMITE")

BTS: (Singing) Light it up like dynamite. Whoa.

WESTERMAN: For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila, Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYNAMITE")

BTS: (Singing) Dyn-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na - life is dynamite. Shining through the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.