Content warning: mentions of suicide
I’d be surprised if you said you’ve never heard of BTS. The K-pop idol group has a long list of accomplishments: they’ve sold out four shows at the Staples Center, set Youtube records with their music videos, collaborated with Nicki Minaj and the Chainsmokers, and have dominated the Billboard charts. But even if you step away from their prestigious awards, their famous friends, and their sold-out world tours, and instead understand where BTS came from and who they are, you’d see the importance of what they’re doing.
The seven members who make up BTS — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — have achieved unprecedented success. They were underdogs in the K-pop world, coming from a small agency with little money. A song of theirs, “Sea”, explains their hardships: “Countless times edited out of broadcasts / Some people said our company was small so we wouldn’t make it / Even back when the seven of us struggled to sleep in one room / The trust before sleep that tomorrow would be different”.
The members’ openness with their struggles puts them in a unique spotlight. Unlike most K-pop groups, BTS write and produce their own music, and they use their platform to raise awareness on social issues that particularly affect the youth. Their early music digs into the Korean education system ("N.O") , the wealth gap across generations ("Baepsae"), and the harsh expectations society burdens young people with (“No More Dream”). Though they have increased in popularity since their 2013 debut, their music remains extremely political and socially conscious, touching on subjects like feminism (“21st Century Girls”) and consumerism (“Spine Breaker”).
The biggest and potentially the most controversial topic that BTS confronts is mental health. Rapper Suga has been transparent about his battle with anxiety and depression, especially on his mixtape in a song titled “The Last”: “Around the age of 18, social phobia developed in me / At times I’m scared of myself / ‘I don’t give a shit, I don’t give a fuck’ / All those words are said to hide my true weak self”. Later, he sings: “Dream, you will fully bloom after all the hardships / Dream, though your beginnings may be humble, may the end be prosperous” (“So Far Away”).
These messages are not to be taken lightly. South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates per country — research has found that every 40 minutes, one suicide occurs. Due to stigmatization, Korea largely ignores mental health issues as they are seen as weaknesses. While K-pop idols are often portrayed to represent perfection, BTS rejects this notion to instead present themselves for who they are: people who deal with serious issues. Their genuineness and honesty contributes to a much needed conversation on mental health in Korea, emphasizing that those who struggle are not alone (see: "You Never Walk Alone" / "We may be covered in scars, but we can smile if we're together").
BTS’s music videos accelerate these messages. Since their “I Need U” video in 2015, majority of their music videos follow a storyline about a group of friends falling apart as they reach adulthood. Each friend has a plot — RM’s character lives in poverty, V’s character has an abusive father, J-Hope's character fights drug abuse, and so on. There’s a chance you might have seen their “Fake Love” music video, being that it is one of their most well-known songs in America; if you did, and had no idea what was going on in it, that’s because it is part of the greater storyline (J-Hope laying on a bunch of candy bars has purpose, I swear). Each video is packed with deeper meaning. The videos from their 2016 Wings album era (see: "Blood Sweat & Tears") are based off of Hermann Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian that asks the question: if God created the whole universe, why do we not hold darkness sacred? This relates back to the struggle over self-love, and accepting the light and dark parts of ourselves. (Everyone, the point I’m getting at is that BTS is seriously deep and really smart.)
This has all led up to their Love Yourself: Answer album that dropped in August. After confronting issues of mental health, social hierarchy, and insecurity, the theme of this album, not surprisingly, focuses on loving yourself for everything, including your flaws. It is literal character development. RM went from rapping “I wish I could love myself” in 2016’s “Reflection” to “You can’t stop me loving myself” in 2018’s “Idol”; members went from singing “Give me your hand / Save me” in 2016’s “Save Me” to “I’ll let go of your hand now / I’m feeling just fine” in 2018’s “I’m Fine”. Below is the "Save Me" image that has been a common theme in BTS music videos and concept photos; they have finally flipped it to make "I'm Fine". (I repeat: BTS is really smart.)
BTS inspires social change and conversation through their music, their videos, and even their style, as they often express the fluidity of masculinity through their clothes, makeup, and hair — the “they look like girls” comment people throw in attempted insult doesn’t affect them. In fact, they have aced the class on how to address haters. Their most recent “Idol” music video is packed with commentary. It’s flashy, colorful, and purposefully over-the-top to embrace Westerners’ stereotypes of K-pop, while throwing in many traditional Korean elements to laugh at those in Korea who criticize BTS for becoming too “Westernized”. It ultimately reaches the conclusion they’ve been trying to get at this whole time: they love themselves for who they are. This message was recognized by the United Nations, who invited BTS to speak on September 24th, 2018 about self-love and their UNICEF campaign to empower youth. In this UN speech, leader RM said, "No matter who you are, where you're from, your skin color, gender identity: speak for yourself."
Transforming from underdogs into the most successful K-pop group in the world, the seven guys who make up BTS have remained as humble as can be. Though the work they do can be physically and emotionally draining, they're always promising to push themselves harder, even singing in "Sea", "We have to achieve more". And with each achievement, their appreciation is never short of genuine. Just look at their faces the moment their name was called for their first major award:
I think people need to approach BTS with an open mind. It’s easy to write them off as a weird K-pop boy band who for some reason are becoming big in the US. But if you truly pay attention to BTS for who they are and what they stand for, not for who they might be presented as in media (especially given inevitable prejudices), you’ll see they're extremely talented people with a deep passion for music, dance, and storytelling. They're changing the industry, and people who decide to listen to them are in for a treat. RM wasn't lying when he said, "Music and performance transcends language and countries and races.”
Check out some of the links listed for recommended songs, as well as some videos below.
Euphoria (a 10/10 bop)
Outro: Tear (for rap fans)
Idol (cause I haven't mentioned it enough. Tip: turn captions on!)