Understanding the (Not So) Unlikely Bond Between John Cena and BTS

Lots of people are fans of international Korean pop sensation BTS. Like, lots of people. Probably more people than are fans of literally any other thing in 2020. And one of these people is WWE legend, iconic jorts-wearer, and owner of too many suits John Cena. Interviewers LOVE asking him about this. They think it’s charming and weird, two words that describe a lot of elements of John Cena’s public persona. But to BTS’ fans (known as “ARMY”), it makes perfect sense. In fact, ARMYs proudly claim Cena as one of their own. (Look at the replies to literally any of his tweets and see for yourself.)

The first indication that Cena might be a fan of BTS came back in February 2018 when he posted a picture of BTS’s resident dancer, rapper, and “ray of sunshine” J-Hope (since confirmed to be Cena’s favorite member) to his famously inscrutable Instagram page. (Cena never posts captions on his photos, his insta bio stating that the images are “For [our] interpretation.”) Over the next few weeks, more and more pictures of J-Hope, the whole group, and references to their music began to show up. BTS ARMY had unmistakably gained a member. 

Based on his Instagram activity, Cena seemed to really get into BTS during the spring of 2018, around the time when he and his then-fiancée Nikki Bella split. In the days before and after Cena’s hilarious Comic Book Guy announcement of their breakup, he posted multiple BTS-related images. Lots of ARMYs talk about BTS helping them get through tough times in their lives, and I can totally imagine a heartbroken John Cena watching endless BTS dance rehearsals and video compilations on YouTube, charmed by their charisma and in awe of their work ethic. (I found BTS during a similar time in my life, but I at least didn’t propose to my ex in the ring at WrestleMania.)

One ARMY I talked to actually discovered BTS through Cena’s posts. Marty, a 17 year old American fan, told me she grew up watching WWE: “Cena posted about BTS on his Instagram, and I didn’t know who they were, since he posts random pictures on his account. Then in the next two months, he posted a screenshot of himself listening to one of BTS’s songs. I gave myself a chance to listen the song, and that’s when I became a fan.” Marty says she still catches the occasional WWE pay-per-view, and has since seen BTS live twice. “[Cena] really supports the boys, and isn’t just using them for clout. He doesn’t just like their music, it’s about their message, because he has the same message as them— self love and positivity.” 

A lot of BTS fans I talked to mentioned how genuine Cena’s fandom feels. ARMY is famously defensive of their beloved BTS, and they don’t take kindly to people jumping on the bandwagon if they perceive the appreciation to be at all disingenuous. But if you scroll through clips on YouTube of Cena talking about the group, all the comments left by ARMY speak to Cena as a real deal fan. 

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Just check the feedback on Cena’s appearance on James Corden’s show earlier this year, where he rapturously explained the BTS phenomenon to January Jones, who, despite meeting them, had no idea who they were (Cena, who has yet to meet the band, was understandably jealous). Chelsea, a 20 year old BTS fan from Canada, found out about Cena’s fandom from seeing the Corden clip. “You could tell he genuinely enjoys them,” she told me. 

Some BTS fans have actually become Cena fans through his continuous BTS shoutouts. Ellie, an 18 year old ARMY from Florida (creator of this incredible J-Hope/Cena fancam), told me she was aware of Cena, but didn’t watch wrestling or have much interest in him before she found out he liked the group. “Previously he seemed pretty intimidating. I suppose I had this view of wrestlers being intense people just because of the profession they were in. After finding out he liked BTS I have learned more about him and come to see how kind and genuine a person he actually is. Really different than how I previously thought he was. He’s the type of person you wouldn’t expect to be their fan but it’s so awesome that he isn’t afraid to say he is. I really respect that.”

I think a lot of the bemused interviewers who ask Cena about his fandom take Ellie’s initial perspective— why is this muscle-bound 43 year old man who’s spent most of his career body slamming people so interested in a boy band? To the casual observer, pro wrestling and kpop couldn’t seem more different. But I think what Cena has caught onto is the fact that ultimately, his aims and the aims of BTS are the same— transcendent entertainment for as many people as possible as a result of immense effort and discipline on behalf of the entertainer. Basically: Hustle, Loyalty, Respect.

Hustle

John Cena is a worker in every sense of the word. Whatever role he’s in— pro wrestler, actor, reality TV star, Kids Choice Awards host, Bin Laden death announcer— he is going to do whatever he can to go above and beyond to fit that job description. He’ll be whatever you need him to be. He doesn’t even mind if you boo him for it! People I know who’ve worked with him say that while he’s friendly, talented, and easy to work with, he is at his core a hyper-efficient entertainment industry workaholic who never takes a day off. He’s spoken at length about his admiration for BTS’s work ethic and their clear commitment to quality— their choreography is intricate and sharp, their musical production lush. “That takes so much practice and so much repetition”, he said in a red carpet interview from 2018. Both Cena and BTS manage to be keenly aware of the fact that they are hugely popular entertainment products without ever coming across as cynical or inauthentic about it. On Corden, Cena commends BTS on the “development of the personalities” in the group— that’s not something you say to a real live person, but it’s still a compliment, and it’s still true. BTS and Cena both understand that selling yourself as a commodity is a necessary part of existing in show business on an international level. In fact, it’d be unhealthy and crazy-making not to offer a highly mediated version of your persona up to the public in this way. Game recognize game. 

Loyalty

The thing about Cena, though, is that for all his hustle, he doesn’t seem to be especially interested in fame and fortune as an end in itself. For one thing, he doesn’t appear to have much of an ego (I mean, have you seen the butt chugging scene from Blockers?), and while as any viewer of Total Bellas knows he’s… particular about his living space, I don’t think he’s especially driven by the desire for wealth, either. From what I know of him, his intense dedication to his work makes it hard for him enjoy much of anything else, let alone the trappings of his success. No, I think John Cena works as hard as he does because he believes that’s what a person in John Cena’s position in life is supposed to do. I think he feels he owes it to the people who like him. That’s why he’s always dressing up like a younger version of himself and visiting all those sick kids (more than 600 of them so far). I think he sees BTS making these same sorts of personal sacrifices for their fans— all that hustle takes its toll, but you do it because there are people counting on you, and that’s loyalty.

The loyalty is plain to see. Chelsea, the BTS fan from Canada noted that she “can see similarities in the way [BTS and Cena] interact with their fan base, and the passion they have for the industries that they work in.” Cena often talks about being moved by the loyalty of the BTS army, although sometimes that dedication can get a little scary— he’s also joked about coming on as their bodyguard.

Respect

John Cena and BTS are both aggressively positive in their messaging. In one interview, Cena says: “I love the band for their message, they’re giving people who are misunderstood the belief that what they’re doing is right, that you should love yourself, and that’s important. I try to send that same message.” But it’s not just the words they say that give this message. The last and maybe the biggest reason I think Cena is into BTS is because of their ability to reach so many people with this message— to transcend. 

Cena has explained that his initial interest in BTS was due to their ability to connect with fans outside of their own language and culture: “They’re a Korean pop band, but they were able to connect everybody throughout the world. So, being in live entertainment, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, how do they do this?’”

That ability to transcend cultural barriers is one of the most magical things about pro wrestling. I think wrestling is one of the purest forms of entertainment there is— its spectacle lights up parts of my brain that seem to precede linguistic understanding itself. I don’t need to speak Japanese or Spanish to know that Hiromu Takahashi vs Ryu Lee is exciting. Watching a BTS music video or performance is a similar form of spectacle to me— it doesn’t matter that I can’t understand the exact words, I know the vibe. I’m being treated to an experience that seems specifically designed to flood my brain with serotonin. People who don’t understand either spectacle criticize them for being artificial or manufactured, not realizing that being awed by the artifice is part of the point.

Just as both kpop and wrestling can transcend cultures, they can also allow a willing spectator to transcend their own alienation. Enjoying both artforms demands a total lack of ironic detachment. On the surface, there’s much to be cynical about, but when executed perfectly (and I’d argue that BTS and John Cena are some of the most perfect executors of their respective artforms around), they overwhelm you to the point where you can’t help but be swept up in them, enjoying them in spite of yourself.

And when your guard is down, when you least expect it, that’s when a 43 year old professional wrestler from Massachusetts and a group of South Korean twentysomethings tell you to love yourself. And you do. 

You can listen to John Cena’s favorite J-Hope song, “Baseline,” here.

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Kath Barbadoro

Kath Barbadoro is a stand up comedian, writer, and podcaster based in New York. She is a cofounder of the podcast Wrestlesplania and has a self-imposed restraining order against Tim Thatcher.

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