Song of Myself - or, The New Princes of (K-)Pop
Since late 2017, the Korean boy band BTS (an acronym for Bulletproof Boy Scouts) has shattered expectations about what a k-pop group can achieve on the world stage. They are the first k-pop group to perform at the American Music Awards; to win at the Billboard Music Awards; to perform a US stadium show; to have a #1 single on the Billboard Top 40. They have also become diplomatic stars: the South Korean president has thanked them for bringing strength to young people everywhere; they addressed the UN at the launch of UNICEF’s ‘Generation Unlimited’ initiative in September 2018.
How have BTS succeeded where their counterparts haven’t? Why do they attract fascination and fanaticism around the world?
Their lyrics are one place to start. BTS write many of their own songs, and many a think-piece will point to their honesty, personal vulnerability, and social awareness - still rare in the stylised world of Korean pop. In his UN speech, band member and ‘leader’ Kim Namjoon (stage name: RM) talked about the importance of ‘finding your own voice’. In this spirit, we present the band in their own words through two songs, translated and recited for an English-speaking audience.
Here’s why these songs were chosen.
I have been thinking about this K-pop / BTS audio-reading that we’re going to do for content journal - I actually have two suggestions for songs that together tell a story about why BTS are fascinating and fanatically loved by so many (across nations, age groups…).
The first one, “Intro - The Most Beautiful Moment in Life”, is off their 2015 EP. So at that point they had had some moderate success in Korea and Japan, but weren’t really succeeding in America … at all (even though they were trying hard). Up until then, they’d done a lot of schoolyard crush/teenage hormones/student pressure-related concepts in their albums - but with this ‘Beautiful Moment’ EP, things got really interesting in terms of their band and brand evolution. They started to move into more universal human territory, using their most hard-core rapper, Suga, to awesome effect. Suga has spoken openly about his personal struggles with depression, and this song (which captures him mid-panic attack) is one of their first steps into being fearlessly open and transparent through their music. They’re also showing people that beneath all this hyper-produced stuff, there’s raw musicianship - and they’re going to disrupt K-pop convention to unleash a voice worth hearing.
The second song is IDOL (from their 2018 album Love Yourself: Answer) - which you probably know by now because it nearly broke the internet (the music video set the world record for most Youtube hits in 24 hours, beating out Taylor Swift). It’s all about owning the radical positivity and bravado to stand up & out despite the haters (of which BTS has so many, and vicious ones too). The video makes several visual references to how they’re venturing out into the world (beyond all expectation), whilst also honouring traditional Korean heritage (a rarity in K-pop, which aims to be culturally-neutral and therefore easily transferable across ‘markets’). So they’re telling us that they’ll conquer the world, but on their own terms - a stunning power play!
Put together, these songs tell a story that I love … not only about how far BTS has come in terms of their position of power in music and pop culture, but also that living their ‘love yourself’ motto means that you will go through very hard times as well as sparkling moments - and that both are okay and necessary to being gloriously human :P
RM echoes this in his speech to the UN in September - so cheekily, I leave you with this...
"Some people might not believe, but most people thought we were hopeless, and sometimes, I just wanted to quit. But I think I was very lucky that I didn't give it all up. And I'm sure that I, and we, will keep stumbling and falling like this. BTS has become artists performing in those huge stadiums and selling millions of albums right now, but I am still an ordinary 24-year-old guy. If there's anything I've achieved, it was only possible that I have my other BTS members right by my side, and because of the love and the support that our ARMY fans all over the world make for us."