4:26 pm - 12/04/2015

BTS: K-pop's Social Conscience

With the release of their new album, the septet is singing and rapping about topics the usual boy band wouldn't dare touch. Understanding the impact of that bravery.

As any K-pop fan would uncomfortably admit, sometimes it's hard to get a handle on the personalities of a group's various members. It's not their fault: In the K-pop industry, the slightest "slip-up" (like, say, an imperfect Twitter photo or the way you flip your hair) will earn a singer loads of hateful online comments that typically translate more rapidly to the Internet-obsessed general public. Most Korean pop stars are trained to give very formal answers in interviews, and sing about safe topics—first loves, parties, break-ups—to stay as much in the good favor of a society that banned PSY's "Gentleman" video because kicking a traffic cone was deemed "abuse of public property." These obstacles are particularly tough for international fans trying to get on board with K-pop but are used to the bombastic personalities of artists like Kanye West, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj.

While it will be a long time until Korea's entertainment industry gets to a point of Western outspokenness, young boy band BTS is a shining example of a group that's finding a way to speak honestly about topics they deem important, even in a conservative society. And their importance to the genre is cemented with the release of their new album, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2.

Earlier this year, Fuse named BTS' Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1 one of the year's best albums: The group found a balance of angst-ridden raps and emotionally charged arrangements, best felt in the lead single "I Need U." It was not only an artistic breakthrough, but a professional triumph, as the single became their first Top 5 hit in Korea. That trajectory is further continued in Pt. 2, which not only consists of some of BTS' best songs, but their most complex, prodding and relatable lyrics.

Lead single "Run" is a follow-up to "I Need U," with an aggressive hip hop sound blended into a lush and soaring chorus. But the album opener "Never Mind," which was co-written by member Suga, feels like one of the most honest rap performances the group has given to date, as they explicitly detail how they've stayed themselves after facing not only the pressures of youth, but of success. They spit, "We are still young and immature, don't even worry about it / Moss surely grows on a stone that doesn’t roll... If you feel like you're going to crash then accelerate more, you idiot / Never mind, never mind / We're too young and immature to give up," according to the translated lyrics.

Meanwhile, "Whalien 52" explains loneliness through a yet-undiscovered whale species that speaks at the atypical frequency of 52 hertz and has been named the "the loneliest in the world." They croon over a hip-hop beat, "In the middle of this ocean, one lonely whale cries / No matter how much it shouts, no one can hear it...Lonely lonely lonely whale I sing again / This song that receives no reply / I sing till it reaches someone tomorrow."

On Pt. 2, BTS expresses all the different emotions their young fanbase is experiencing; loneliness is not a sexy topic that most pop acts can sing about in a convincing way, but it's a feeling that can be inescapable in childhood, and BTS successfully captures it with a fantastical metaphor. The band has said that their albums and EPs look to express different points of youth, and Pt. 2 encompasses the moment that a young adult is beginning to think about the world in more complex ways than "I love you"/"I hate you"—something their fanbase will soon experience, too.

In past releases, BTS has tackled school bullying, the pursuit of happiness and rejecting society ideals in its lyrics. And while what they're singing about now is important, listeners should also focus on what the members of BTS are saying outside of their music.

In an interview with the blog Kpopism earlier this year, BTS leader Rap Monster hints at mental health issues, admitting he's not always happy and deals with dark and light times. Meanwhile, Jin casually talks about how he uses a pink phone case because "it's pretty." Rap Monster has shown public support for gay rights—which don't currently exist in South Korea, is taboo to talk about, and whichvery few celebrities vocally support. He did it by recommending Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Same Love" to fans on Twitter, writing that, when he read the lyrics, he liked the song twice as much.

BTS isn't the first Korean act to speak about substantial topics, but it is one of the acts doing it in a clever, shrewd way--and it's only getting more popular by doing so. This year, BTS sold out two small stateside tours, and it's no coincidence that The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2 has been hovering in the upper ranks of U.S. iTunes' Top Albums chart, and could potentially make a rare K-pop appearance on the Billboard 200.

In a world of social media and overexposure, everyone has a platform to speak as loudly as they want and potentially reach millions. BTS is taking that platform and talking about things that are not only brave to tackle in modern music, but especially in its traditional community. This is the type of group that will not only boast a more passionate fan base for the way they made them feel from a certain hit single, but also one that can help push a society forward while they're at it.

Source: FUSE, ibighit (1, 2), Spotify
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maebyfunke 4th-Dec-2015 04:09 pm (UTC)
I still can't stop listening to their mini. They continue to top themselves with every release <3
seroquels 4th-Dec-2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
Same. It's been on repeat since Monday. I play it at my desk at work, I play in when I get in my car to drive around, I listen to it on my phone while I'm at home.
missshallelujah 4th-Dec-2015 04:36 pm (UTC)
awwww this was a really good article, I'm a bit emotional. They've come so far and I'm so proud of them <3
obscureauthor 4th-Dec-2015 05:24 pm (UTC)
me too :( :)
eelgirl13 4th-Dec-2015 04:45 pm (UTC)
OT but that's the first time I've seen baebsae translated as silver spoon.

This was a nice read. It's funny because I was recently thinking how nice it was they have sets in their discography (like the school trilogy and now hyyh). It really shows their growth. I've had all their albums on repeat since pt2s release and you can really see a difference.
happydirections 4th-Dec-2015 05:23 pm (UTC)
the song is named silver spoon when you buy the album on itunes.
i've been listening to dark & wild today and while listening i realized how much they've grown in the past year and a half musically. even though the songs on that album are still amazing, there's definitely a change in the quality etc. so i definitely agree with you!
classicfire 4th-Dec-2015 04:50 pm (UTC)
Great article on my favorite boys so proud of them.
demonology81 4th-Dec-2015 04:55 pm (UTC)
"the septet is singing and rapping about topics the usual boy band wouldn't dare touch"

This. I've been telling people around me why I love their music since their debut -- they don't just write your typical love song.

This article. The whole article.
gray_fairy 4th-Dec-2015 05:12 pm (UTC)
they don't just write your typical love song
Totally agree. That's one of the things I like the most about them, they don't simply sing about the tired ass hetero love stories but about other more interesting topics like the struggles of the youth or rebelling against a conservative society.

gray_fairy 4th-Dec-2015 05:09 pm (UTC)
I love how they've differentiated themselves from the usual try hard "hep hap" boy groups. Like they had a "badass" hip hop image at first and somewhat still do, but they go WAY BEYOND that and their concepts and music are way more deep, mature, bold and risky. They're one of my bias groups right now without any doubt.
ChulaSinMoolah 6th-Dec-2015 03:22 am (UTC)
"their concepts and music are way more deep, mature, bold and risky."
You mean BAP?
(no subject) - Anonymous
gray_fairy 4th-Dec-2015 05:19 pm (UTC)
The worst about the love songs is that it's almost always about romantic heterosexual love as if it was the only type of love that exists and that's a really dangerous, one-dimensional point of view that makes people reject everything that's not like that, so props to them for presenting concepts putting emphasis in friendship instead of just romantic love, or adding that slightly homoerotic vibe in contrast with the typical straight love story.
staaan 4th-Dec-2015 05:42 pm (UTC)
Rap Monster has shown public support for gay rights—which don't currently exist in South Korea

nnnnn not the way i would've phrased it, especially as a westerner

i'm not a huge bts fan but i definitely need more non-romantic songs in kpop (everywhere, really). i've never been in love so there is such a disconnect between some of the lyrics and myself. not that they should cater exclusively to me lol but there are so many intriguing topics to write about other than your first love
happydirections 4th-Dec-2015 06:01 pm (UTC)
i've never been in love so there is such a disconnect between some of the lyrics and myself

same. i mean, i've liked people but i don't think it was love. so i can never really completely relate to those kinds of songs.
overflowers 4th-Dec-2015 06:47 pm (UTC)
I've enjoyed reading lyric interpretations from this album, especially the stuff that's being brought up in Whalien 52 and 뱁새-- and Never Mind's lyrics resonated with me the most. I thought this analysis/interpretation of Hoseok's Ma City verse was fascinating. I saw a few korean articles talking about his references too (not translated but if you're curious, you can run it through google translate to get a vague idea: 1 + 2).
happydirections 4th-Dec-2015 06:52 pm (UTC)
the explanation to hoseok's verse was so interesting. i wanted to post about it, but i was waiting for an article to be written about it since i wasn't sure about if the source would be allowed. i did some reading up on ilbe and it's terrible really...
yw7 4th-Dec-2015 07:28 pm (UTC)
I appreciate the article as this was a good read and Jeff Benjamin is clearly devoted to the genre of kpop but I would like to see other well informed music writers tackle kpop albums/songs. A majority of reviews are done by him under Billboard and Fuse, but I guess that just reinforces the idea of how niche kpop really is in some ways. If people know where else I can find kpop album critiques please let me know!
overflowers 4th-Dec-2015 09:45 pm (UTC)
I'm kinda bummed about the fact that even within kpop music journalism, the most prominent writers are white males. There's this guy and Jakob (on Pitchfork and a bunch of other publications). I'd love to read more from woc.

Speaking of which, I enjoy Madeleine Lee's kpop/khh articles. She writes for Noisey and her own blog is worth a read. Especially this post on being a critical kpop fan.

There's The Singles Jukebox, which is a music blog that reviews songs. A song's selected and their roster of writers can submit a review/blurb about it (if they so choose) and an average score is tallied from all the reviews. While I tend to gravitate to the same writers (Madeleine being one of them), it's fun to read various opinions on the same song. It's not exclusively kpop, but kpop songs do show up on there sometimes. I find their song selection more varied than the standard music publication.

I honestly cannot think of any others off the top of my head. Sometimes you'll see a random article on the Fader/Complex/Stereogum/Dazed etc. about kpop but it's not that often.
soyymilk 4th-Dec-2015 08:15 pm (UTC)
their album is SO good. they should be super proud. i relate to their music/their struggles more than i expected to so i thank them for stepping out of the norm and challenging themselves and their audience.

bts are the reason i got into kpop in the first place. they have a very special charm about them.
lostintheechoes 4th-Dec-2015 10:51 pm (UTC)
part 2 is one of those few albums you can listen to beginning to end without skipping a song and love it.
921227 4th-Dec-2015 11:57 pm (UTC)
This was a good article. BTS does have their fair share of 'love' songs, but they're one of the groups I can recall that consistently release b-sides that deal with other topics. I know some fans aren't as excited about hyyh because of the lack of upbeat, energetic songs, but I've always been a fan so these albums have been nice
jaelissi 5th-Dec-2015 12:11 am (UTC)
That freaking whale makes me cry every time!
happydirections 5th-Dec-2015 01:53 pm (UTC)
same! it's so ridiculously sad :( the fact that they've written a song about loneliness using the whale as a metaphor is both amazing and sad.
violoncelliste 5th-Dec-2015 02:40 am (UTC)
not reading the comments just in case but i'm proud of them and that album is a wonder :))
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