Map of the soul: How BTS rewrote the western pop guidelines

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In contrast to their dismissive portrayal as manufactured robots, the South Korean BTS use social media, documentaries and stories to make themselves deeply human stars

  • By Katie Hawthorne / The Guardian

BTS leader RM looks up from under a black baseball cap, then stares back down at his hands.

“Do the advertising interviews, [I kept saying]”Music really overcomes every barrier.” But even when I said it, I wondered if I really believe it. ”

It’s the end of September and the rapper trusts over a million fans live from his studio in Seoul. His “complex feelings” about the explosive, record breaking success of Dynamite – the South Korean megastars’ first all-English single – isn’t the celebration you’d expect from a band that just topped the US Billboard Hot 100, the first K- Pop act who does this. But this kind of open, unfiltered conversation is exactly what their global “Army” fan base loves: BTS’s open social media presence has drawn fans into every step of their artistic journey and with the release of the new album Be This week brought the biggest pop group in the world.

Photo: AP

Since their debut in 2013, the seven-piece boy band – rappers RM (Kim Nam-joon), Suga (Min Yoon-gi) and j-Hope (Jung Ho-seok) and singers Jin (Kim Seok-jin) – have Jimin (Park Ji-min), V (Kim Tae-hyung) and Jungkook (Jeon Jung-kook) have prioritized self-reflection in their music. Inspired by US hip-hop, they drew on RM’s and Suga’s reputation as underground rappers and J-Hope’s references as a street dancer to promote an emotional, rebellious image: The debut single No More Dream attacked and attacked the social expectations of their generation quipped: “What is it? your dream? / Number one future career as a government official? ”

Though they have since dumped the sleeveless shirts, heavy necklaces, and unfortunate hairstyles of their earliest years, the group’s ability to ask weighty questions of themselves remains. Inspired by the philosopher Carl Jung, BTS’s latest album Map of the Soul: 7 used seven solo tracks to showcase the personal self-examination of each member of RM’s anthemic rap-rock choir “Persona / Who the Hell am I?” on the album’s opener to Jungkook’s My Time, a neo R&B song about swapping his childhood for his career. Black Swan, the dark, theatrical single on the record, openly discusses the possibility of falling in love with music: In his eerie video, Suga, crouched deep on a shady stage, confesses: “That would be my first death / I was always scared from.”

No wonder, then, that RM would openly think about music without transcendent power – especially since the group’s Korean-speaking singles have received significantly less support from Western radio stations – and talk about how BTS ‘open scrutiny of their own art challenged the standards of authenticity has pop. “I don’t know that other K-Pop idols are as authentic as BTS,” says Professor Kim Suk-young, director of theater and performance studies at UCLA and author of K-Pop Live, 2018 book about the unique relationship from K-Pop to digital media. “What fans love most about BTS are their stories about their authentic feelings about knowing who they really are.”

Kim adds that “K-pop idols are known to do excessive emotional work on their fans,” often conveyed through elaborate meet and greets or low-key livestream conversations with an intimate feel, and points out that the debut by BTS coincided with the popularity of the mainstream of useful tools like Twitter and YouTube Live. Her label Big Hit even created a bespoke social media platform Weverse to facilitate a closer dialogue with fans.

In addition, the seven members have undeniable charisma. Early in their careers, they stopped performing in South Korea’s popular Idol variety shows, where pop stars are sometimes placed in awkward positions to create their own version of the format: Run BTS! Now there are 100+ episodes where the group participates in stupid, meme-generating challenges. This summer, Big Hit produced a miniseries in which the band cooked, ate, hiked and napped in a beautiful cabin by the lake – and little else. No drama, no conflict, the show was meant to give fans an even better insight into the group’s friendship. The most extreme moment? Probably when Jimin got tipsy and accidentally hit a mosquito net on his body.

Reality TV is also an important part of the western pop playbook: Cardi B spans her unfiltered appearances on Love & Hip-Hop: New York into the major label Gold and uses Instagram to speak openly with her fans. Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift have similarly mastered the emergence of down-to-earth reality on social media and have enjoyed great success from it. But BTS has given these often gender-specific, time-tested storytelling devices a twist of their own, highlighting them as storytelling devices, and engaging their fans directly in creating these narratives.

“There’s no such thing as an authentic self: it’s how you make your story,” says Kim.

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