I’m not going to preface this article with a “Why the world should respect K-Pop” rant or anything, because, as goes for all music industries, this one has its ups and downs. A machine-like production process often describes the formation of an idol group and the creation of their music. Scouting agencies prowl the country to find the most appealing individuals for their projects. Once discovered, these youths undergo years of formal training, at which point they may or may not even be assigned to debut with a group. While this process appears to abolish all forms of creativity, a few independent groups have gained an outlet and risen to the top to achieve world domination.
Seven-member boy group Bangtan Sonyeondan (known as Bulletproof Boy Scouts), or BTS, debuted on June 13, 2013, after formation by producer Bang Si-hyuk, better known as Bang PD. Bang PD, who is CEO and founder of Big Hit Entertainment, had the intentions of creating a hip hop style group when he stumbled upon member Kim Nam-joon, or RM, rapping in public years earlier.
Confident in RM’s talent, Bang PD planned to debut a new act with an assortment of scouted members, including a street dancer, a modern dance student, a rising saxophonist who had shown up just to watch auditions in the city of Daegu, a hip hop producer and rapper, a singer-dancer who gained exposure on an audition television show, and a visually appealing film student.
Big Hit had the odds stacked against them, as typically the groups with mainstream success only stem from one of the “big three” idol agencies: JYP, YG, and SM Entertainment. For Big Hit, uniqueness and continuous effort became inevitable for any exposure to be possible.
Five years later, BTS is one of the most popular K-Pop groups internationally and at home, winning the Mnet Asian Music Award for Artist of the Year in both 2016 and 2017. Their newly announced world tour sold out in minutes, with them making stops at some of the largest arenas in the world, including London’s O2 and four nights at Los Angeles’s Staples Center.
Their international growth continues, in part due to the expansive artistic elements of their work. Bang PD graduated from Seoul National University (considered the most prestigious university in South Korea) with a major in aesthetics. This shines through in their music videos, with structural storylines that began as early as 2014 continuing to come full circle in the new album trailer that was released on May 6.
A recurring secondary reality plot initiating with their album series “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” features each member as being symbolic of a specific human insecurity: one escapes their troubles with pills, another struggles with domestic abuse, one is repeatedly seen in water, drowning emotionally and physically, one is publicly beaten, one deals with addiction, and another plays with fire. A possible interpretation is that the viewer is in central character, Kim Seok-jin, or Jin’s, mind, and each human flaw is one experienced while growing up. The sequence of events represents a struggle to let go of fleeting youth and enter adulthood amidst all of one’s insecurities.
Since then, this plot has continued through their recent projects, and in the “Love Yourself: Tear” album trailer, it manifested through one of the characters, member Kim Tae-hyung, or V. Different white masks surround V as he carries the recurring Smeraldo flower in his hand. Smeraldo, a white flower painted blue, symbolizes the false images that people live under in the public eye. The line “Have I lost myself? Or have I gained you?” encapsulates the change that one undergoes as they grow further away from their true self and become this manufactured persona. It is a search for identity and belonging, and the moody R&B tone of the intro leads directly into the new album’s central theme.
Where previous album “Love Yourself: Her” centers around a very uplifting and prideful expression of passion, “Tear” fills in the gaps of concern that are jointly present with love. It hits upon the concept revealed in the highlight reel for “Her” of holding onto the positive elements of love, while acknowledging the fear that exists within beauty, a fear that everything good in life can come crashing down. “Tear” takes an approach directly at this fear, rejecting its status as an end-all in a relationship with another or with oneself.
In life, individuality can tend to be rejected for a more ideal image. The single off the album, “Fake Love”, is an apology for lying about what meant the most to a person in a relationship and beyond. The music video reveals the members trading in their correlating fear for momentary bliss at a metaphorical “magic shop”. In return for a painful memory, the characters receive significant objects from throughout the built-up story line that remind them of benevolent memories. Yet, by the end of the video, the happiness wears away and only darkness persists.
In the past, the storyline appeared to revolve around Jin’s character, and this video presents member Jeon Jeong-guk, or Jungkook, as Jin’s inescapable darkness. Jungkook’s awareness of the fleeting joy of the other members allows him to ultimately sacrifice himself for the others to be able to hold onto their light. As he approaches the trader at the magic shop, he receives a key, and upon discovering the lock, he faces only himself and the decision to put his darkness to rest forever to ensure everlasting peace for the others.
The music video for “Fake Love” received 39.5 million views in 24 hours, ranked third in this stat behind only Taylor Swift’s previously set record for her song, “Look What you Made Me do”, which received 42 million views, and Psy’s “Gentleman”, with 40 million views.
The 11-track album displays BTS’s prominent experimentation with new sounds and themes, with ballad “Sincerity That Couldn’t Be Delivered” featuring musician Steve Aoki on his second BTS song after his remix of “Mic Drop” received positive feedback in 2017. It also hits upon artificial identities: “I can’t show you a run down part of myself, I wear a mask again.” There is an awareness of the problems with insincerity, yet the relationship drags on.
Another song, “Anpanman”, discusses a need to retain confidence even when one may seem insignificant or not strong enough to conquer the world (Anpanman is a Japanese superhero whose power is pooping out bread crumbs). A similar idea resurrects itself in a different form in “Magic Shop”, with a pre chorus stating, “Would you believe me if everything felt fearful to me too?”. Here, strength can be found in the sympathy of others, recognizing that no one needs to struggle alone, as pain is a universal barrier.
Also noteworthy is an interesting stylistic choice heard in “Airplane Pt. 2”, where elements of Latin Pop are very prominent.
Members of BTS had a more-than-active hand in the album production, with member RM topping involvement by aiding in writing and producing all 11 songs, and member Min Yoon-gi, or Suga, working on eight of the 11.
BTS debuted their comeback with a performance at the Billboard Music Awards, where they also scooped up the Top Social Artist award. They received 85 million votes for this category in a single day. The next closest nominee was Justin Bieber, who received 708,000 votes.
BTS’s recent industry domination signifies a clashing of different worlds of music. As of May 28, BTS have become the first Korean act in history to top the Billboard 200 chart. Their song “Fake Love” landed at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100, making BTS the first K-Pop group to have a song in the top ten.
The depth of lyrical content that many listeners admire, along with the group’s inviting image, will no doubt aid in their exponentially increasing fan base. People are more willing than ever to support acts of different cultures, and America’s welcoming of this group fuels greater anticipation for future BTS comebacks.