In 2020, BTS has released three albums- Map of the Soul : 7, their Japanese album Map of the Soul: 7- The Journey and “BE,” made history by garnering a Grammy nomination(first Korean group to do so) hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for Dynamite and Life Goes On, and shared credit with Jason Derulo and Jawsh 685 on Savage Love.
BTS also bagged accolades such as Asia Society’s Game Changer of the Year, the Van Fleet Award from the Korea Society and TIME’s Entertainer of the Year. Their astronomical success and popularity has even led to comparisons with The Beatles, though V pointed out a few key differences between the two (see here).
For casual listeners, BTS might just be a boyband with dynamic choreography and unbeatable charisma, singing and rapping mostly in Korean. For their multicultural and multilingual fan base, BTS is far more. Their art tackles issues such as inequality and injustice, while offering delectably addictive tracks one after another.
BTS’s bond with the ARMY runs deep. This year, when BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, ARMYs across the world matched that donation. Jin told Variety magazine, “When we are abroad or in other situations, we’ve also been subjected to prejudice. We feel that prejudice should not be tolerated. It really has no place.” Suga added, “We aren’t trying to send out some grandiose message. It’s about us being against racism and violence. Most people would be against these things.”
They know what they are talking about; BTS is no stranger to racism.
BTS has been about taking on difficult subjects, uncharacteristic of an idol group, from the outset. In their first single No More Dream (2013),the lyrics (co-written by RM, J-Hope and Suga) tackled oppressive school systems and societal restrictions placed on young people.
In 2017, BTS released Spring Day, and for a long time, many fans thought it referred to the Sewol Ferry disaster. While BTS has never directly confirmed this, the yellow ribbons in the music video were the symbols used for the victims of the tragedy.
In 2020, BTS released Black Swan which delved into their artistic insecurities. In it, Jimin sings, “No song affects me anymore. Crying out a silent cry.” Black Swan is a testament to how deep and meaningful their artistry is to them.
With the onset of the pandemic, BTS’s plans (of going on tour for their album) had to change. That led to the genesis of “BE.”
This eight-track album is a reflection of life during a pandemic. All the members participated actively in the songwriting and composition. Jungkook took on the mantle of music video director, Jimin took on the role of project manager and V took on the title of visual director. Life Goes on is reminiscent of Spring Day, in its sense of longing for a better future and the meshing of acoustic sounds and electronic beats. The song begins with the members grappling with their world coming to a standstill without warning.
RM, BTS’ leader uses luminous imagery to describe his state of mind, rapping, “ I’m soaked to the bone today/It won’t stop/running faster than that cloud of rain.” V sings his verse with despondency, wondering if there is a way out. Jungkook comforts the others, reassuring them that even in this quagmire, they are there for one another. Suga’s verse signals that the members have not just come to terms with the pandemic, but are aware that nothing has changed between them and their beloved ARMY. The song ends on a happy note, reassuring their fans, that one day when this is over, there will come a time when it will feel as though nothing ever happened.
The second track, an R&B number named Fly to my Room, is one of two sub-unit tracks in the album, comprising vocalists V and Jimin, and rappers Suga and J-Hope. Jimin has stated that the song came from them wondering whether “the notion of travel would change, going forward.” It reveals the frustration of being stuck indoors. In it, Jimin uses the word “stolen” to describe 2020: a year that did not go according to plan for anybody. The track cleverly deploys superhero imagery, pondering on ideas of “flying”, but instead of exploring faraway lands, they can only fly to the comfort of their rooms.
However, being stuck indoors for so long has made a place that is usually a sanctuary, unbearable. They reconcile with this fact and sing “sometimes we gotta know, broken is beautiful”. The song acknowledges their struggles and frustrations of being isolated, while holding on to hope for better days, and looks at the brighter side of a bad time.
The third track, Blue and Grey, co-written by V and co-composed by singer-songwriter Nive, bleeds melancholy and heartbreak. It sheds light on the effects of burnout, depression, loneliness, anxiety and the silent battles that are individual yet universal. The soft piano while Jungkook sings “ I guess everyone’s happy/can you look at me cuz I am blue and grey/” is just as heartbreaking as Jin and Jungkook’s harmonizing on the refrain, “I hear the fast beating sound of my heart/ as I walk down the streets in the colder winter”, followed by Jimin and V singing, “please don’t leave me alone”. Sonically, this is a glorious moment.
Jimin and V’s friendship is well documented, with the duo singing Friends on Map of the Soul :7. That particular lyric stands out with two individuals with deep love and compassion for each other, struggling alone, but also struggling together.
The fourth track, Skit is a documentation of the members’ euphoric reaction when Dynamite hit #1 on the billboard Hot 100, while Telepathy the fifth track, is an upbeat song produced by Suga. “Let’s have fun together, remembering together / a small island in the middle of the blue sea”, sings Jungkook, on Telepathy. Telepathy makes you want to get up and dance – an unabashed love song for ARMY.
Dis-ease, the sixth track was co-written and co-composed by J-Hope, and draws upon traditional hip-hop in a modernized format, as he raps, “ Di-di-di-di-disease, Throw it away, the fear, Fe-fe-fe-fe-fear.” J-hope has said of the track that everyone “has their own chronic psychological disease. For me, going through the pandemic, even when I was given time to rest, it did not feel like a complete rest. Unlike their other albums which comprise Mic Drop, and the Cypher Series, “BE” does not really have a “diss track”. Dis-ease acknowledges toxic social elements but does not lash out at detractors unlike the aforementioned songs.
The seventh track Stay is all EDM. Co-written by Jungkook, RM and Jin, it was originally supposed to be a part of Jungkook’s mixtape. The meaning of this song is “although we are far apart, we’ll always stay together,” says Jungkook, the maknae or the youngest in the group. “I quietly cast a spell /A star that looks brighter than ever /In this moment, whenever it is, wherever we are /Wherever you are /I know you always stay”, go the lyrics, another tribute to ARMY.
Dynamite, the last track, is their only English song, the song that broke into Billboard and made them the musical demigods they are right now. “The release of ‘Dynamite’ wasn’t in our plans at all,” RM has said “As soon as we heard it, we thought it was really fun and exciting, a fun and cheery song that wasn’t that serious. It just made us feel good when we heard it,” he explained. “We really wanted to share this energy with the fans as soon as possible.”
Since release, “BE” has been raising poignant questions about the perceived boundaries of K-pop, calling to sharp critique the imagined ceiling that the Billboards-dominated media expects K-pop to respect. With their latest album, BTS has decidedly smashed through that ceiling. Along the way, they have also created an enduring, almost giddily-irreverent work of youthful art that now exists in defiance of a world obstinately preoccupied with its own misery.