BTS, a seven-man K-Pop hip hop group, has been a creative inspiration to me in ways that I didn’t believe would be possible for my cynical-of-mainstream heart and mind. With their recent win of Mnet’s Asian Music Awards (MAMA)’s Artist of the Year Daesang, they have literally started from the bottom to win the most prestigious award for Korean musical acts. Thus I found myself writing about why this phenomenal group resonates with me and my creative development, and why I think it transcends borders for so may fans.
BTS is the English name based on their Korean name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”. It’s quite a high-flown title and reminded me of something like “Fullmetal Alchemist” at first. As they’ve explained in a few interviews, they chose this name because their music is meant to reflect the issues that teenagers and youth in their 20s in society, and use their songs as a shield against prejudice.
And I’ve been delighted to find BTS’s name and motto remains true, in their musical production as well as their visual direction that engage with social consciousness themes for a youth age group. They have done this in an unpretentious way that allows young fans to have open conversations about difficult topics on family, mental health, inequality, sexuality, and more. As someone who has enjoyed Cinema Studies in university, some have called my cultural media interests esoteric and niche and out of touch with what’s “popular”, but BTS has shown that you can have it both ways; Their strength lies in their simultaneous presentation that is both accessible and self-reflexive, with both breadth and depth.
Throughout the rest of this winding article, I will present what ingredients in their oeuvre makes them such a creative and commercial success, and key points that I believe any commercial artists of any medium who strive to talk about social consciousness in their work can learn from.
School Stress = Societal Stress
BTS’s first single kickstarted a thematic trilogy in three albums that deftly tied school stress with societal stress. They debuted on June 13, 2013 with the song No More Dream. Writing credits for No More Dream include BTS rappers Rap Monster (Rapmon), Suga, and J-Hope. Although the song’s MV production has straight-forward dance numbers and appeal shots with a rebellious school theme, the lyrics are brimming with the youthful empowerment of what’s to become iconic of their music.
“What is the you that you’ve dreamed of?
Who do you see in the mirror? I gotta say
Go on your path
Even if you live for a day
Put away your weakness”
“… Sick of the same day, the repeating days
Grown-ups and my parents
keep instilling confined dreams to me
Number one future career is a government worker?
It’s not a forced dream, a ninth inning relief pitcher
Throw a fast ball at the waste of time that is night study sessions
Rebel against the hellish society,
Dreams are a special pardon
Ask yourself about your dream profile
Become the main subject of your life
That has always been suppressed”
Three months later, the boys released N.O., with an MV that very obviously criticized the competitive nature of school without necessarily fermenting creative and intellectual capitals. Instead, the members are shown as puppets who literally swallow pills and are brainwashed into doing schoolwork obediently. In the lyrics, it also neatly tied in desire of material wealth with competitive education. The song’s writing credits include Rapmon and Suga.
“A good house,
A good car,
Will these things bring happiness?
To the SKY,*
Will parents really be happy?
… Who is the one who made us into studying machines?
They classify us to either
Being number one or dropping out
They trap us in borders, the adults
There’s no choice but to consent
Even if we think simply,
It’s the survival of the fittest
Who do you think is the one who makes us step
On even our close friends to climb up? What?
Adults tell me that hardships
Are only momentary
To endure a little more, to do it later
Everybody say NO!
It can’t be any later
Don’t be trapped in someone else’s dream
We roll (We roll)
We roll (We roll) We roll”
For reference, South Korean culture deeply exalts education as the key to modern success. I cannot think of many other nations in which there is this much emphasis placed on secondary and post-secondary education, insofar that it is expected of secondary students to spend much longer hours than in Western societies in regular school classes, followed by cram school and night classes, for the sake of landing a stable desk job. However, it creates competitiveness that feels much more like a rat race, and where success is not guaranteed unless you are number 1. BTS’s bold debut singles criticize this system, where creative problem solving, innovation and learning are secondary to winning at all costs.
If you know about the work that I do, I write stories related to systems of authority that entrenches power, and I often examine youth and how they negotiate with a society that they are coming to terms with, but often dispossesses them as it’s not created to benefit them. Students are often at the forefront of movements because they have the most to gain in supplanting outdated visions of society, even though history underrepresents their stake, expression and decision-making.
BTS, in their cinematic and lyrical storytelling, have created an affective allegory for the fractures of power between students and society. Their early works are literal, straight-shooting and keenly aware of the hearts of many students, Korea and beyond. N.O’s MV’s representation of the teacher on the same side as the police paints a stark picture of sociopolitical forces that have no obligation to protect students, who are powerless except when it comes to their voices and their dreams.
* SKY is an acronym that refers to the best ranked three universities in Korea: Seoul, Korea, and Yonsei University.
From humble beginnings
The first time I really took note of BTS was shortly after their debut in June 2013. I had seen their debut MVs and thought their rapping sounds a lot better than most mainstream Kpop, but there was that “first moment” where I thought this was a group with heart.
It was part of their media play at the time that three members of BTS come from underground hip hop roots, and there was nothing like it in any of the rest of the Kpop stars and debuts at the time. The leader, Rap Monster (Rapmon), and Suga, were underground rappers in their respective hometowns, and lead dancer J-Hope was part of a street dance crew. In Aug 2013, Rapmon and Suga were interviewed by Korean underground Hip Hop artists at a local cafe, and the reception was downright frosty. The underground seniors denigrated Rapmon and Suga of selling out, subjected them to homophobia (of looking “effeminate” and “gay”), of not being real to hip hop, of not having endurance, because they became part of the Korean idol industry instead.
The Kpop idol industry as a whole has been criticized as “manufactured”, as agencies scout talented teens and put them in groups where they train for years in performance skills, with dance, vocal talent, and interviewing as a requirement, and foreign languages, acting, modelling, MCing, composing, and other performance arts skills as strong recommendations. It can take years before trainees debut, if they ever do, and many trainees end up leaving the trainee life because it requires a lot of hard work, economic struggle and interpersonal sacrifice. It is also a highly stratified industry where big name agencies not only have the largest marketing reach with large production values, but also ensure that their idols get the best broadcasting exposure. Depending on the company, some idols may not have any say in their music’s visual and lyrical concept. And in 2013, there were only a handful of Kpop household names that produced hip hop. Thus, to those jaded underground hip hop seniors, this isn’t “real, talented work”.
What the underground hip hop nay-sayers don’t understand is that something that works within the existing commercial paradigm can also be revolutionary and artistic. They feel threatened by their own singular identification with machismo and explosive individualism, their stronghold on this certain style of hip hop that avoids fan service, homoerotica, and male beauty like the plague. What they forgot is that hip hop is a medium to tell stories, not just of one monolithic type, but to reflect upon society.
But what got me was Rapmon’s and Suga’s respectful and thoughtful responses to the underground seniors. They said that they see their point of view and understand hip hop culture, but that it doesn’t mean their current music path is not meaningful. They are polite but firm that they sought something different than their rapper hyungs, and their measured responses really showed a brotherhood. It made the underground seniors look jealous, homophobic, and outdated in their hold on culture; That the true split isn’t about art but about having financial stability. Suga even said that he hated the reality of starving and only performing to two people at his stages in the underground, and that admission of difficulty isn’t a weakness. As individual artists, they pivoted, they found and developed their audience, and they are humble about their opinions and thankful towards new artistic opportunities. They treat each opportunity as potential for further collaborative growth. This is something that any artist can learn from.
Of course, Rapmon and Suga responded to the feud in their iconic mixtapes, true hip hop style:
In 2015, Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s agency, became the second highest selling agency in terms of number of album sales. This is noteworthy because Kpop has been monopolized by the Big 3 for nearly a decade. They are SM Ent, YG, and JYP, three agencies who take the vast majority of all music awards, sponsorships, sales, broadcasting rights, and has huge fan-bases internationally that form loyalty not only to the idols but to the agencies themselves. But here’s the kicker: Big Hit Entertainment started out as a small company, and has only BTS and the ballad duo Homme on its roster, whereas the Big 3 has many other groups. And they look fit to repeat the paradigm-breaking sales again this year.
Big Hit’s CEO, Bang Shi Hyuk, received three awards this year for Best Executive Producer and Composer. In one of his interviews, he said that he promised to help them become an established team if the members “not only compose and write lyrics but also independently participate in producing and stage management. They are steadily fulfilling this”. Bang Shi Hyuk also encouraged BTS members to tell their own stories through music, and thus there has been a creative flowering of personal songs, ranging from Rapmon rapping about his anxiety about his place in hip hop, Suga’s struggles with depression and wealth as a marker of success, to vocalist V’s guilt over his own expressive personality, and songs about the homes that all of the members left behind.*
And it makes so much sense. The best executive producer is the one that finds opportunities for the company’s talents to grow for years and years to come, and it’s only going to enrich the industry and future networks for generations to come. The underground seniors, by comparison, squandered opportunity and didn’t encourage two of their own to grow in their arts.
Just for fun, here’s a video of BTS members roasting their CEO and staff (and each other) during their debut summer:
* Due to the rigours of idol training, broadcast and production schedules, all young Kpop groups stay in a dorm together, and only get to see their family a few times a year within a promotional or trainee year. The youngest member, Jungkook, was 13 when he first began as a trainee.
The Aesthetics of Complex Storytelling
Kpop wouldn’t be the phenomenon that it is without its visual appeal that crosses linguistic boundaries. Beautiful, model-like aesthetic and sleekly synchronized dances are the expected arsenal of any Kpop group, and each group aims to have high production value in their MVs, concepts, and live stage performances. But there is something that sets BTS apart in this aesthetics competition, and it’s their relentlessly intricate and sensible visual and lyrical storytelling.
It wasn’t until 2015 that BTS reached their breakthrough year to truly rival the popularity of groups from the Big 3. By the end of 2014, BTS already gained recognition for their strong dance numbers, their rebellious visuals, their hip hop lyrical finesse, and their straight-shooting social consciousness lyrics. The advent of a new album trilogy highlighted a new maturity in 2015. It’s entitled “The Most Beautiful Moment In Life” (in Korean: Hwayang Yeonhwa, henceforth HYYH), and it changed their fates.
HYYH tackled a subject that the vast majority of youth experience, but few pop musicians articulate well: Mental health and the desire to belong in society.
The first single of HYYH Pt. 1, I Need U, was a departure both in terms of musical style and its visual aesthetics. Instead of a complicated, dynamic dance number, the 5.5-minute MV wove an intricate story starring all seven members. Scenes of happiness together as a group contrast with scenes of social isolation and disorder. The intermingling of the scenes was aptly edited to the swells of music, suggesting that each member is reliant on the wellbeing of the others. Gradually, psychological violence and mental suffering tear the group apart, cumulating in scenes of hurt, death and suicide of all seven characters. It was the very image of youth who burned too strongly at the fringes, and burned out without proper societal support. The lyrics warble: “It goes round & round, why do I keep coming back/ I go down & down, at this point, I’m just a fool.”
Taken in isolation, I Need U could have functioned as a beautifully executed but melodramatic fare. However, it became the first of a series of films in which I Need U functioned as the dramatic climax to a vignette of seven lost boys and their lives, and thus the rest of the films and media tell a story out of order. Less than four months after the release of I Need U, BTS released a 12-minute film entitled Prologue. The creative direction with non-linearity, temporal lingering over character expression and set pieces, and self-reflexive cinematic techniques speaks the language of arthouse films. It lends the series a sense of self-awareness and depth that I have not seen the like of in K-pop (apart from indie and solo Korean artists).
By watching Prologue, viewers question if the catalyst for psychological breakdown was due to domestic violence, or if everything that happened in HYYH was a dream brought on through loss of identity and depression. In any case, these “lost boys” have no outside authority figure that they respect, but they survive by supporting each other through their latticed friendship. And because HYYH respects that the topic of mental health is difficult to articulate, the films takes a poetic, experimental and handcrafted feel.
The non-linearity, indirect articulations and memory-like fragments (using film-within-a-film techniques) echo the uncertainty of figuring out one’s identity despite mental anguish. Instead, viewers work through allegory and the gesture, presence and motion or its lack in the characters, and how different sounds and light conjure unique emotional feedback. For example, the oldest vocalist Jin is frequently seen with a camera or camcorder. His footage mingles with that of the broader cinematographic frame, creating a messy feedback loop of multiple organic perspectives, memories, and realities, insofar that we don’t know who is the reliable narrator anymore. The self-awareness that HYYH has of its difficult subject matter shines through in how the camera relays the scenes with simultaneously measured and apprehensive configuration – natural sunlit scenes interspersed with scratchy film footage, flat environments and wide angles interrupted by tall structures – and it all contributes to a non-exploitative exploration of mental health.
“I don’t know if this is reality or a dream
My Kafka on the seaside
Don’t go to those woods over there
My heart is still shattering on you”
In November, six months since I Need U, the album HYYH Pt. 2 released with its new single, Run. This MV pushed non-linearity and allegorical storytelling to a fever pitch, creating montages that seem surreal, dream-within-a-dream, and like reels of memory unbound. Two key characters break the fourth wall, creating troubled pauses that seek psychological resolution. The pacing in this MV is more upbeat, filled with youthful mischief and delinquency, but with an underlying tension of social dissatisfaction. The youngest vocalist, Jungkook, says, “If I Need U had happiness in sadness, [Run] is about sadness within happiness.” Produced by the largest number of members thus far – Jungkook, V, Rapmon, J-Hope, and Suga – Run’s lyrics suggest the complexity and necessity of loving someone with psychological suffering (including oneself):
“Memories are crumbling like
Dried flower leaves
On my fingertips and under my feet
And behind my back
Like chasing butterfly or wondering in dreams
I follow your traces
Please guide me please stop me
Please let me breathe
Let’s run run run again! I can’t stop running
Let’s run run run again! I can’t help running
Only thing I can do is run
Only thing I can do is love you”
The HYYH-themed stories were also spread out over different sources, creating a transmedia that encouraged fans to ask questions and seek out the next source of Big Hit releases. Physical albums had photos that gave hints to the characters’ fate, while interviews, live performances and behind-the-scenes shared more context for the storyline. Even the choreography gave suggestions about the characters’ inter-relations. Additional MVs such as Dope and Fire answer the premise set out in HYYH as alternate realities, satires, and imaginations. For example, in Dope, the boys are in the costume of the careers that they idealized in contrast to their I Need U realities; V dresses as a private investigator who could put a stop to his character’s domestic violence traumas, while Jungkook dresses as a cop in contrast to his character’s unpremeditated street beating.
And all the while, it fostered an open environment where fans shared their personal experiences and challenges with mental health. There are countless comments about how BTS’s music brought them from the dark. BTS has done something important: It’s music and art that listen to and acknowledge the concerns of its own generation.
Just when we thought that BTS concluded its HYYH epic, BTS launched a series of seven mini-films in Sept 2016, one for each member’s solo in promotion of a new album called Wings. The seven mini-films are designed on minimalist sound-stage that once again breaks the fourth wall with shifting sets and spatiotemporal abstractions. It expands upon the old relationships and psychological conflicts in HYYH of when the friends were present and absent from influencing each other at key pivotal moments. And the promotions clearly engaged an audience who sought layered, experimental cinematography with great music: Wings’ album sales broke U.S. Billboard records for best-selling K-pop album.
The single, Blood, Sweat and Tears (BST), is the start of the new era of the Wings album. BST examines the psychology of shame and temptation, of a reality where there is not only godliness, but also demonization and sin. In a country where Christians account of 29.2% of the population, BTS has begun to engage its young audience with questions of embodied shame and sexual identity politics with overtly Roman Catholic and Neoclassical aesthetics and symbolism. Dozens of fine art pieces, including Herbert Draper’s Lament for Icarus, a statue of Laocoön, Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels, and Ceiling frescoes of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas tease at deeper metaphors in the storyline. Where V was the first to fall in HYYH, he became the fallen tempter in BST. Where Jin was the lens through which the viewers understood the boys in HYYH, he became the Dante looking into the inferno in BST.
The beauty of BTS’s success from the HYYH era onwards is that their aesthetic and music allow both surface enjoyment and deeply cultural examinations. And that kind of design is very difficult to do, as visual directors and producers must be aware of countless aesthetic details and how they may be perceived across cultural climes, but simultaneously make it an accessible spectacle that engages the senses. For something like transmedia, that coordination complexity intensifies because there’s even more moving parts. But the payoff for BTS has been incredible: It makes both new discoveries and continual engagement with their audiovisual performativity an absolute joy to behold.
Stay tuned for Pt. 2! It’ll come out faster with the more encouragement I receive. ^^