BTS is taking over the world with catchy melodies, flawless choreography and epic productions. The South Korean K-pop group now has millions of fans, fills stadiums worldwide, and will undoubtedly put up an unforgettable show in the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam next Saturday.
Their music may sound perfect and very cheerful, but did you know that there’s often a very serious message behind it? This is thought to be so topical that they’ve even spoken about it during a meeting at the United Nations?
Curious about what BTS has to say? We’ve selected (and translated) the most important messages in their lyrics. Let the anticipation for their show this Saturday in the Ziggo Dome begin!
For everyone who, until reading this introduction, had no idea that K-pop is an abbreviation of ‘Korean Pop’, I will explain how this phenomenon originated and what it entails in An introduction to K-pop.
If you’d rather go straight to the preparations for the BTS show, I’ll briefly outline the key features of K-pop:
- How did K-pop originate? In 1996, South Korean businessman Lee Soo Man saw a gap in the market; he started producing South Korean music as an export product. He founded an entertainment company, soon after which two competing companies followed;
- How is a K-pop group formed? The ‘big three’ developed a success formula with which they compose boy and girl bands in an almost factory-like manner. At a young age, talented children are selected, they undergo years of intensive training and if they’re good enough they are prepped for a life like an idol;
- What is typical K-pop? The magic word in K-pop is ‘perfection’; the music, the video clips, performances, and image of the idols are extremely polished. The K-pop groups sell a dream;
- How does K-pop sound? Different genres are often combined into one song. The K-pop songs have one thing in common; they’re all so catchy that you won’t get them out of your head;
- Since when has K-pop been conquering the world? Since PSY scored a world hit with Gangnam Style in 2012, K-pop has been gaining ground internationally. Since 2017, groups like BTS have really gained a foothold in the United States and are becoming increasingly popular in Europe;
- What are the most popular K-pop groups? BTS is one of the biggest K-pop groups, together with EXO and BlackPink;
This is BTS
The ‘idol group’ BTS was founded in 2013 and consists of Kim Nam-joon (RM), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Min Yoon-gi (Suga), Jung Ho-seok (J-hope), Park Ji-min (Jimin), Kim Tae-hyung (V) and Jeon Jeong-guk (Jungkook).
The name BTS is explained in multiple ways. It stands for Bangtan Boys, Bullet Proof Boy Scouts and they have recently added the meaning Beyond The Scenes. According to the Wiki Fandom page the concept behind BTS is that the boys stop the stereotypes, criticism and expectations that are fired at young people like bullets. Their goal is to protect the values and ideals of young people.
BTS was not developed by one of the big three entertainment companies, but falls under the independent label, BigHit. They were underdogs for a long time as a result, and the 7-man boy band had to fight for their success. Their musical roots lie in hip hop, but over the years the sound of BTS has become more ‘poppy’ and mainstream.
In South Korea and Japan, BTS became quite popular with their first ‘school trilogy’, existing of 3 albums, 2 Cool 4 Skool, O!RUL8,2? and Skool Love Affair. Their international success started in 2016, when they launched the album Wings.
Wings broke all K-pop records in the American music chart Billboard 200. A year later, they surpassed themselves when they brought out Love Yourself: Her. This album reached 7th position in the American music charts and with 1.4 million physical copies sold, they became the bestselling K-pop album worldwide.
BTS has millions of extremely dedicated fans worldwide: they are called ARMY ‘Adorable Representative MCs for Youth’. The boyband has 55.5 million followers on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube and this number is growing every day.
The fanbase is not only large in numbers, but also very active online. A tweet of the boys is followed by 252,200 retweets on average, with which they easily surpass the previous Guiness record of 98,000 retweets and likes per post (held by none other than president Donald Trump).
The online army is tightly organized and is regularly deployed to spread news about the group or to help them climb the music charts. For example, they coordinated a campaign to ensure that BTS received the Top Social Artist Award during the Billboard Music Awards in 2017 and 2018.
This large social media involvement is probably one of the reasons of their worldwide success, but the fact that BTS is even more popular than their K-pop competitors is likely for artistic reasons.
BTS is a real ‘K-pop-product’ in the sense that the group originated from a predetermined concept. The boys have undergone a strict training program just like other K-popstars. But there is one big difference compared to their competitors: BTS has (more) artistic freedom.
Whereas the music of other K-pop groups is often written by international producers, the Bangtan Boys are responsible for a lot of their own lyrics. They also have a say in the choreography.
Mythical worlds with a mission
BTS doesn’t sing about love, friendship, and partying like most K-pop groups, but in their music you’ll hear socially relevant topics.
RM (short for ‘Rap Monster’ and leader of the group) says in an interview with Rolling Stone that he is inspired by books like Demian by Hermann Hesse and writers/philosophers such as Camus and Murakami. With their lyrics and videos they build mythical worlds around certain topics. He says:
“We try to make our own BTS context, maybe it’s risky to bring some inspiration from novels from so long ago, but I think it paid off more. It comes through like a gift box for our fans. That’s something you can’t find easily from American artists.”
In this way they can be open about topics that play a role in their own lives and in South Korean society. They deal with themes such as mental health, LGBTQ rights, and women’s emancipation. They also promote a thing which may seem very normal in the West, but still needs some groundwork in Korea: personal independence. As RM states:
“Especially in Korea, there are all these standards: Get married, go to a nice university.”
They engrain these messages in lyrics that contain a great deal of empathy, honesty and independence. This is exactly what makes BTS so popular among their fans.
These are 5 songs by BTS with a very special message.
5. Go Go (고민보다 Go) – BTS (Love Yourself: Her, 2017)
In November 2017 BTS started their ‘Love Yourself’-campaign. Their goal was to raise awareness for violence against children and teenagers all over the world. In September 2018 they were invited to talk about this during a meeting of the United Nations. RM held a special speech where their main message was that: “true love begins with first loving myself”.
The number five in this list is the song Go Go from the Love Yourself: Her-album. This cheerful sounding song may expect that there’s a positive message about a luxurious lifestyle behind it. But if you listen to the lyrics attentively it appears an extravagant lifestyle is spoken about indeed, but not in a positive way!
Go Go is a parody in which the boys criticize the squandering of money on parties and lavish luxury.
Worked hard to get my pay
Gonna spend it all on my stomach
Pinching pennies to spend it all on wasting it
Squandering it all in one day
Run, run, man I spend it like some party
Yolo yolo yolo yo
Where my money yah
Squandering fun, squandering fun, squandering fun
Go Go – BTS
During the press conference that was held to promote the album Love Yourself: Her, group member Suga says the following about the idea behind Go Go:
“The current generation uses phrases like YOLO and having fun squandering money, but I don’t think people think about why they use such terms so much even while using the terms. It isn’t a BTS album if there isn’t a track criticizing society”.
Who knew this song was so multi-layered?
4. 21st Century Girl (21세기 소녀) – BTS (Wings, 2016)
With songs like Just One Day and Serendipity, the boys melt the heart of many ARMY-girls with their romantic lyrics, but they also try to impress their (mainly female) fanbase in a more unconventional way. They promote the empowerment of women.
RM contributed to the lyrics of 21st Century Girl and tells a clear message:
You worth it you perfect
Deserve it just work it
You look elegant, elegant also you’re pretty, pretty
You shine, shine. You’re the truth and the reason
If anyone keeps insulting you (insulting you)
Tell em you’re my lady, go tell them (tell them)
Whatever other people say, whatever this world tells you
You’re the best to me just the way you are
Don’t ever be scared
Whatever people say, you’re okay (Alright)
You are strong
You say yes or no yes or no
Tell them that you’re strong
Tell them you’re enough
21st Century Girl – BTS
This may make 21st Century Girl one of the most feminist songs in K-pop.
3. Am I Wrong – BTS (Wings, 2016)
In 2014 the Sewol Ferry disaster occurred in South Korea. The passenger ship sank and there were nearly 300 casualties, most of who were highschool students.
The parents of these pupils went on hunger strike to demand more clarity about the cause of the disaster. Meanwhile, the conservative following of the then-seated president Park Guen Hung trivialized the event by saying it was time to leave the disaster in the past.
BTS supported the opposition by donating $100,000 to the families of the victims and later released Am I Wrong, which appears to be inspired by this.
The world’s goin’ crazy
How about you how bout ya
You think it is okay
I don’t think it’s that okay
Have ears but don’t listen
Have eyes but don’t see
Fish live in all our hearts
Its name is selfish selfish
In the following sentences, the indifferent attitude within politics is fiercely criticized:
If what you see on the news is nothing to you
If that comment is nothing to you
If that hatred is nothing to you
You’re not normal, you’re abnormal
In general, the boys don’t seem to have the same political views of the Korean authorities. A few months before Am I Wrong came out, an official of the South Korean Ministry of Education was fired after a controversial statement. He was convinced that people are not born equal and proposed a caste system where 99% of the population would be treated like dogs and pigs.
BTS reacted to this with the lyrics:
We’re all dogs, pigs, become dogs because we’re angry
Am I Wrong – BTS
2. Not Today – BTS (You Never Walk Alone, 2017)
With Not Today BTS gives an ode to the underdogs. Seeing as the origins of the group lie in the small entertainment company, BigHit, and that they had to fight very hard to get to the top of the charts, this appears to be inspired by their own experiences:
All the underdogs in the world
A day may come when we lose
But it is not today
Today we fight!
Yeah, we are extra
But still part of this world (part of this world)
Extra plus ordinary
That’s not even that special (that special)
Today we’ll never die
The light will pierce through the darkness
You want a new world too
Oh baby yes I want it
If you can’t fly, run
Today we will survive
If you can’t run, walk
Today we will survive
If you can’t walk, crawl
Even if you have to crawl, gear up
Not Today – BTS
Not Today is also being linked to the emancipation of LGBTQ, quite a sensitive subject in South Korea. It has not been said whether this hit was written with that intention, but BTS has always openly supported gay rights.
In a tweet back in 2013, RM expressed his appreciation for the song Same Love by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis:
“This is a song about homosexuality. The song is twice as good when I listen to the lyrics.”
When he was asked about it by Billboard earlier this year, he dodged the question a bit:
“It’s hard to find the right words. To reverse the words: Saying ‘same love’ is saying ‘love is the same.’ I just really liked that song. That’s about all I have to say.”
But Suga was very direct: “There’s nothing wrong. Everyone is equal.”
It’s rare that gay rights are being embraced in K-pop, and I wouldn’t be surprised if BTS took a step in the right direction for LGBTQ emancipation in South Korea and perhaps even far beyond.
1.The Last (마지막) – Agust D (Agust D, 2016)
The bravest song in this list is Suga’s solo project. In 2016 he released the song The Last under the pseudonym Agust D.
In contrary to most cheerful, polished K-pop songs that convey perfection, The Last is a raw and honest rap song about a sensitive subject. Suga suffers from periods of depression and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), which makes his life as a K-pop idol anything but the dream that has been promoted so often.
On the other side of the famous idol rapper
Stands my weak self, it’s quite dangerous
Depression, OCD, they keep coming back again from time to time
Hell no perhaps that might be my true self
Damn huh feeling estranged in reality
The conflict with ideal, my head hurts
Around the age of 18, socio-phobia developed in me
Right, that was when my mind was gradually polluted
Suicide is common in South Korea and there’s a huge stigma on mental healthcare. This is preventing many victims from seeking help, but luckily Suga did, despite it not being easy:
On the first visit to psychiatric ward, my parents came up with me
We listened to the consultation together, my parents said they don’t truly understand me
I don’t understand myself well either, then who would understand?
Friend? Or you? Nobody knows me well
According to these lyrics, he struggled with his identity:
I’ve denied my nature many times
My address is idol and I won’t deny
The anguish that dug into my mind countless times
There’s no answer at the end of wandering
But now he shows his fans that overcoming his fear has brought him something very valuable:
My pride which I thought I had given away has turned into self-respect
My fans, keep your head high with pride because who can do it like me uh
The Last – Agust D
Hopefully this encourages his fans to also seek help when they need it.
One of a kind
BTS is not only one of a kind thanks to their catchy songs, flawless performance or bold messages. The fact that they’ve mobilized and connected millions of young people worldwide with this is truly unique.
The South Korean president Moon Jae In describes the thing that makes BTS special spot on in a praise on Twitter when they reached first position in the American album charts.
“Young people all over the world are comforted and find courage because of BTS’ songs and dancing, dreams and passion. (…) ‘BTS puts their sincerity into their outstanding dancing and singing. They have a magical ability to turn sadness into hope, and difference into similarity. Each of the seven members put who they are and how they live into their music, and they are overcoming location and language, and culture and institutions.”