BTS Helps The World Feel A Little Smaller — & We Need It More Than Ever
Like the rest of us, the South Korean group had to put their 2020 plans on hold. Here, they tell Refinery29 how it let them just BE.
There’s a funky retro hip-hop song playing in the video announcing the theme of BTS’ annual end-of-year merchandise. The South Korean music juggernaut’s devoted global fanbase will instantly recognise it as the group’s 2013 track “팔도강산(Paldogangsan).” It seems like an odd choice for BTS to bring back the seven-year-old B-side — a rap battle in which the members boast about the merits of their native provinces around Korea, first through arguing, then later coming together. When it comes to BTS, however, nothing is a coincidence. The BTS of 2020 may seem worlds away from the scrappy team that made its debut all those years ago: Since trading in their cutoff shorts for Gucci flares, BTS regularly speak at the United Nations, sell out stadiums across the globe, and have several times made history with their musical achievements. But despite the unparalleled fame and recognition, the spirit of unity that has been at the core of everything they do since day one remains untouched and unchanged.
BTS has a record-breaking handful of Billboard chart-topping albums, a historic place (or two) on the US charts, and most recently a 2021 Grammy nomination, but the unique connection with their audience out-values any accolade. These are the stats you don’t often hear about: A voluntary census of the BTS fandom (called ARMY) conducted by a research team during the summer of 2020 was translated into 46 different languages. This year, the septet launched the educational series “Learn Korean With BTS,” which has drawn more than 2 million viewers from 200 countries. The band closed this year’s American Music Awards with a performance in Korean streamed from South Korea. Every step forward that the members of BTS take isn’t a step beyond the crowd, pulling ahead while leaving others behind. Like the Earth’s gravitational pull, their steps forward bring everyone around them even closer to each other. With every barrier they break, they reinforce the bridges they’ve built. BTS doesn't just top charts — they move culture, and make the world feel a little smaller.
With BTS’ newest album, BE (Deluxe Edition), the group reaches out and pulls the world even closer. BE is so imbued with each member’s unique spirit, in both its tangible appearance and the music inside it, that those who listen to it can feel even more connected to the septet, no matter the distance. “To the one who watches over me, who is currently reading these words — to you do I desire to send my greatest love and thanks,” Leader RM wrote in BE’s acknowledgments. “In the hopes that these sounds pass over boundaries and gaps. That they’d pass over person and person. That they’d pass over ‘Bangtan’ and ‘ARMY’ and get through to you.”
Before the global pandemic threw the world into uncertainty and turmoil, BTS had just released Map Of The Soul: 7 on 21st February, with plans to bring even more fans into their orbit during a world stadium tour. “There’s nothing like seeing a full crowd in a sold-out stadium concert,” warm vocalist V told Refinery29 over email. Unfortunately, BTS had to cope with a new reality — one that didn’t involve huge venues packed with thousands of passionate fans. But instead of wallowing in disappointment, the group members decided to do what they do best: harness their feelings into something that has the potential to heal. Their full-length can be called a “pandemic album,” but it’s also a diary. Its eight tracks (including English-language “Dynamite” and a spoken word “Skit”) are like delicate, worn pages chronicling each of the members’ thoughts, hopes, fears, and anxieties during this turbulent time — feelings that they know are very likely shared by those listening — and acknowledging that everyone grapples with hardship in their own way.
Music holds tremendous power. It can even change your life completely. That being said, I’ve come to realise how important it is to write positive lyrics.
V is awash in the gloom of the moment, as illustrated in the lush acoustic ballad “Blue & Grey.” He says that the song’s final lyrics — “after discreetly picking up the words floating in the air/ I now fall asleep at dawn” — are his favourite he’s ever written. The old school hip-hop track “Dis-ease” describes the feeling of total burnout, and the struggle of having to quiet your own brain. “Everyday it consoles me/ we’re all the same, ain’t so special,” spits rapper J-Hope. He explained, “It’s my favourite line because it makes me feel like I can take some of the pressure off my back about being where I am now.”
The 20somethings have never been afraid to share their unease. But now, as we’re all perched on the edge of a cliff with no obvious road forward, they aren’t afraid to envision a brighter future. This is the comfort that fans rely on the group for. In BTS’ 2020 documentary Break The Silence, the ever-introspective Suga said that the music you listen to growing up is crucial in building your value system. “[Growing up,] I learned that music holds tremendous power,” the rapper says now. “It can even change your life completely. I’ve come to realise how important it is to write positive lyrics.”
“My favourite lyrics from the album are, ‘The day will come back around as if nothing happened’ from ‘Life Goes On,’” tenor and affable oldest member Jin observed. “It gives hope that a good day will come once we endure this period.” The self-described introvert notes that he makes sure people “feel happy and receive positive energy” when they see him. “I have a dark side like everyone else,” he admitted. “However, I try to show my best self to those around me.”
BE is arguably the group’s most unique fingerprint yet. Each member took an even more active role than usual in the album’s creation beyond writing and producing. Doing the bare minimum has never been in BTS’ vocabulary.
While writing will likely always remain closest to RM’s heart (“My favourite part of the album-making process is when I complete writing the lyrics to a song and listen to the final master track for the very first time”), the 26-year-old additionally flexed his artistic muscles and took on an album design role for BE. Noted aesthete V, who tells us he credits Claude Monet’s La maison du pêcheur, Varengeville and Impression, soleil levant as the art pieces that changed his life, took charge of the album’s visual direction.
Jin, Suga, and J-Hope had their hands in a little of everything as BE’s production coordinators. The latter, however, feels most at home in dance: “I can express my feelings and emotions in ways I can’t in words through dance. The moment my body feels the music is always exhilarating,” the buoyant rapper said. So does the lithe Jimin (“When I dance it feels like my emotions and movements flow with the overall feel of the music, whether it's bright and airy or dark and moody — I think I just let it go”), but his primary focus was on A&R for BE.
Jungkook, affectionately nicknamed the group’s golden “maknae” (youngest) because of his innate ability to excel at, well, everything, was tasked with using his filmmaking skills to helm the music video for BE’s lead single, “Life Goes On.” But even this multi-hyphenate — who feels most like himself when he’s “feeling simple-minded as well as deep in thought” — couldn’t help but feel the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. "Since it was my very first time directing, it wasn’t easy, and I felt some pressure. However, I think I learned a lot through the experience,” he said.
How would the 15-year-old debut Jungkook feel about seeing his artistry evolve in this way, seven years later? “I’m not sure 2013 Jungkook would want to see himself now,” he joked. “If I knew myself today I wouldn't have tried as hard.” He’s being cheeky: The music video perhaps looks and feels less polished than the highly-produced BTS productions of years past, but that’s what makes it all the more special. We get to see BTS exactly how they see themselves.
Seven years into their meteoric rise, the seven members of BTS are able to use their personal differences to seamlessly work together. BE allows the men to lean into their individuality in full force. It’s reflected most obviously in the concept art, where each member is photographed sitting alone in a room designed to reflect his aesthetic (RM, warm and natural; Suga, sparse and reflective; Jin, dazzling and soft; Jimin, floral and elegant; Jungkook, moody and electric; V, artistic and serene; J-Hope, vibrant and trendy). “The members know how to treasure something and be true to what is precious to them,” noted Jimin — that’s the part of BTS that fills him with the most pride.
One of the most compelling things about this era of BTS, however, is that it reveals a group of men who are arguably more distinct from one another than ever before, but are still somehow just as — if not more — unified. RM, resident metaphor enthusiast, tends to put it like this: "I consider ourselves as seven of us who are in the same boat but looking in different directions. It's okay to look at the other directions. The important thing is that we know that we are on the same boat.” And amid the shared experience of cancelled plans and thwarted expectations that is 2020, they are also inviting everyone to climb aboard. It’s what they’ve been doing since the beginning, and it’s right there at the end of “팔도강산(Paldogangsan):” “Look up, we’re all looking at the same sky/ This may make you cringe a little/ but everyone is awesome/ We can all understand each other, right?”