BTS Centers Musical Narrative on Fans in "MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA"

In the past couple of years, South Korean boyband BTS has seen an immense rise in global popularity at a speed and scale that is absolutely unprecedented. Not only have they won Billboard Top Social Artist for two years in a row in 2017 and 2018, this year, BTS is also nominated for Top Social Artist again and Top Duo/Group. They have been named TIME’s top 100 most influential people of 2019, alongside musical powerhouses such as Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Khalid. It is no doubt the entire world is eagerly looking forward to BTS’s latest release, MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA — a seven-track EP. Indeed, with such intense global anticipation, one has to wonder if the seven-member boyband will live up to expectations with this release.

After MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA dropped on April 12, it broke multiple records: the music video is the most-viewed 24-hour debut in YouTube history with 78 million views in the first 24 hours, BTS had their first live performance of the title track “Boy With Luv” on Saturday Night Live, becoming the first-ever South Korean musical guest on the show, and so many more. The public’s reaction to the EP has been, without a doubt, overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

Interestingly, as indicated in the band leader RM’s thank you note at the end of MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA, the EP is put together specifically for ARMYs, their fans. BTS’s discography up to their last full length album, Love Yourself 結 'Answer', has always been accompanied by intricate symbolism, high conceptualization, and cryptic storytelling of an extended narrative surrounding BTS called “Bangtan Universe.” Any video that is marked, “BU content certified by Big Hit Entertainment,” is held to this standard, including FAKE LOVE, Epiphany, and Blood Sweat & Tears. All of their albums have been connected to tell the saga of Bangtan Universe. However, RM has made clear that MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA is nothing but dedicated to the ARMYs. Relieved of the enigmatic symbols and obscure references, the EP brings a new, refreshing energy to BTS’s discography as they center ARMYs as the protagonist of this new chapter in Bangtan Universe.

MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA opens up with RM solo’s “Intro: Persona”, with bombarding rap verses, captivating guitar, and a catchy refrain that makes you want to chant out loud with the biggest crowd. Here, RM has remixed the sample in BTS’s 2014 release “Intro: Skool Luv Affair” in Skool Luv Affair. Combined with the EP title’s explicit reference to Carl Jung’s book Map of the Soul, the opening track is a clear announcement that BTS is going to look deep into their psyche, starting with “persona.” In Jung’s theory, “persona” is a public image that a person creates and presents to the outside world. As RM calls out to ARMYs, “Tell me all your names baby. Do you wanna die? Oh do you wanna go? Do you wanna fly? Where’s your soul? Where’s your dream? Do you think you’re alive?” he is inviting fans to engage with these questions, to join BTS on their exploration of the soul, and of course, to explore their own soul — a fitting successor message to their self-love advocacy in the last album.

The title track “Boy With Luv,” whose alternate Korean title is “작은 것들을 위한 시” (“A Poem For Small Things”), is a funky summer anthem that you can’t resist bobbing your head to. The title harkens back to Skool Luv Affair’s own title track, “Boy in Luv”, whose lyrics express an aggressive hyper-masculinity; however, “Boy With Luv” takes on a more gentle, playful language that shows BTS’s impressive ability to reflect on their past selves and grow. In addition, Halsey’s feature adds a refreshing flavor to the song as well as BTS’s discography as a whole, for she is the first female voice in a BTS track (excluding female backup vocals). However, her significance in this collaboration doesn’t stop there. It’s a popular understanding among ARMYs that Halsey in “Boy With Luv” represents ARMYs: her voice is not only the female voice, but also the voice of ARMYs, and her appearance in the music video is ARMYs dancing, singing, and having fun together with BTS. It’s only fitting, then, that Halsey’s “oh my my my” is part of the fanchant for the song. With lyrics that ask, “I’m curious about everything, how’s your day? What makes you happy?” the cheerful title track picks up where “Intro: Persona” left off, addressing ARMYs directly and pulling them into BTS’s world.

After the public acknowledgement of the collaborative relationship between BTS and ARMYs in “Boy With Luv,” “Mikrokosmos” follows suit with celestial choruses and a tasteful mix of instruments that immediately puts you in outer space. If the title track addresses ARMYs directly, then the layered choruses can be considered a musical representation of a community that has gathered together. The title “Mikrokosmos” literally means “micro cosmos,” a small universe, which the lyrics also expand on: “In one person, there is one history. In one person, there is one star. Shining with 7 billion lights, 7 billion worlds.” As the musicality of the track brings a sense of connectedness, the lyrics also acknowledge that they’re all different people with different stories. Connected but different, different but connected. Although the EP as a whole has a bright, uplifting concept in contrast to previous releases, it is through BTS’s brilliant lyricism that we see they haven’t lost sight of the sincerity that can’t be divorced from their music.

“Make It Right,” a track written by Ed Sheeran for BTS, takes us to a slightly calmer note, though the groovy horn sample repeated throughout makes sure we stay focused. Continuing from the understanding of the small universe within each individual in “Mikrokosmos,” “Make It Right” looks into the small universes of BTS members. At the heart of these seven boys’ musings is the question of why they create art. The answer is clear: for ARMYs. No matter how big BTS has and will become, no matter the number and size of their accomplishments, at the end of the day, they’re making music for their fans. j-hope, RM, and Suga have put this sentiment into words eloquently in their rap verses, respectively: “But, everything is for me to reach you, who is the answer of my journey”; “Everything is to come back to you”; “I survived through hell not for myself, but for you.” In other parts, the lyrics also allude to the sea and desert metaphor in “Sea,” a hidden track in their 2017 release Love Yourself 承 'Her', where they reflect on the conflict and anxiety that come with their skyrocketing global popularity. Hence, “Make It Right” can be seen as a response to BTS’s fear back then. In “Sea,” they ask, “Is this place [their success] that I’ve reached really the sea, or is it a blue desert?” In “Make It Right,” they answer, “I know that the sea without you [ARMYs] will eventually be the same as a desert.” Regardless of their success, it’ll only be meaningful to them if their fans are with them. The dedication of MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA to ARMYs is BTS’s self-reminder of their raison d’être.

What a great place then, for the EP to transition into its fifth track, “HOME,” an unapologetic love letter to ARMYs that can be little corny to some, but nevertheless endearing. Easily one of the most musically flavorful tracks on the record, it features lively synths, groovy beats, and soulful vocal delivery from the Jin, Jungkook, Jimin, and V. A cheerful track without escalating into a full-on party anthem, “HOME” reinforces again the conclusion BTS has arrived at in “Make It Right”: “Though I have everything I’ve ever wanted, I feel something is missing now — the feeling of unfamiliarity, of someone who achieved everything [...] At the fork of the road, I keep thinking of you, who recognized me who had nothing. I was able to smile thinking of you. The place where you are, perhaps that place is my home.”

The sixth track, “Jamais Vu,” is a heart-wrenching unit song featuring Jin, j-hpe, and Jungkook, as it opens with Jin’s staggeringly beautiful vocal and gentle yet pounding staccato piano chords. Once again referencing psychological theories, “jamais vu” is a French borrowing meaning “never seen,” referring to the phenomenon where one sees something that they recognize, yet that feels unfamiliar at the same time. The track uses this framework to explore the band’s fear of disappointment. “I just wanted to do it well… damn. I just wanted to make you smile... damn. [...] It keeps hurting, ’cause of trials and errors and of all the other things.” As artists, BTS members go through this anxiety every single time they create new music. It’s a pain that happens all too often but “hurts every time as if it’s the first time.” Towards the end of the track, however, BTS is reminded again of the reason why they do what they do: ARMYs. “I’ll concentrate and make sure to reach you no matter what.” Motivated and energized by the thought of ARMYs and their support, the boys are determined to pick themselves back up and keep running, once again.

Despite the sorrowful melancholy of “Jamais Vu,” MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA concludes with an absolute banger, “Dionysus.” BTS’s use of Greek mythology dates back to as early as 2016 with Blood Sweat & Tears, and in this EP, they reference Dionysus, the god of wine, ritual madness, and theatre — basically an art man of absolute debauchery. Although the entire EP carries sounds never before heard in BTS’s previous releases, “Dionysus” is a wild hybrid of hip-hop and rock, a truly musical embodiment of the god himself. Jason Lipshutz from Billboard has written an in-depth review of the song, and I would definitely recommend checking it out to understand better how BTS fearlessly tackled and experimented with this track. Interestingly, it’s also the only track that doesn’t address ARMYs, but instead acts more as a self-portrait of BTS as “mad artists,” “drunk in art,” as if this is the dark chaos of an artist’s subconscious. The EP is also the only one that doesn’t have an outro song. Could “Dionysus,” then, be a transition to their next release, where BTS turns to another Jungian archetype to explore themselves?

The ARMY-dedicated MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA has demonstrated not only BTS’s ability to push boldly out of their comfort zone musically, but also their skills as singers, lyricists, and storytellers. Most importantly, it shows their humbleness, love, and genuine gratitude towards their fans. Not just among other K-Pop artists, but also among musical acts across the globe, we rarely see a community of fans so loved and appreciated by their favorite artists. BTS’s sincerity, compassion, and integrity are without a doubt some of the many reasons they have touched the hearts of millions of people around the world.


Image credit: X X

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