K-Pop, BTS, Youth, & Hesse

BTS (Bulletproof Boy Scouts), also known as Bangtan Boys. Wow. Where do I begin? 

For the past five years I have been slowly perusing the Korean Wave (The Korean Wave is a neologism referring to the increase in global popularity of South Korean culture since the 1990s), especially the phenomenon of K-Pop. I would not say I am a fan of K-Pop in general, but I would definitely say I am now a fan of a handful of groups that stand out to me because of their talent in singing, rapping, composition and lyric writing, depth (shock!) and overall vibe.

For an industry that can seem shallow, flashy, and money grabbing, (sounds like any music industry, right?) BTS really stands out with their down-to-earth vibe, superb talent in dance, rap, and singing, their use of symbolism, metaphors, and themes within their music, and with all seven members contributing to composing, lyric writing, and producing their own music, their passion shines though. BTS, a K-Hip Hop (If you don’t like K-pop, check out the Korean Rap scene – it’s phenomenal.) group that debuted in 2013, consists of Jin, J-Hope, Suga, Rap Monster, Jimin, V, and Jungkook (Rap Monster and Suga are outstanding artists on their own). 

BTS has caught the eye of the world, with their album, The Most Beautiful Moment In Life, Part 2 charting at number one on the Billboard World Albums Chart for multiple weeks, making BTS the first K-Pop act to achieve that status.*1 The group’s outstanding performances won them the Best World Performer award in the 2015 Mnet Asian Music Awards.

What I love about BTS, and what really stood out to me as I listened to their music, was their honesty and ability to tackle serious, cultural issues within their country. Jeff Benjamin from Fuse labeled BTS as the "K-pop's Social Conscience" stating that BTS found "a way to speak honestly about topics they deem important, even in a conservative society."*2 Jeff goes on to write,

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…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.
— Jeff Benjamin, Fuse

This is very evident in their song Spine Breaker, N.Oand one of my favorite metaphoric songs, Silver Spoon.

Storks (황새;”hwangsae”) are large birds with long legs, while parrotbills (뱁새; “baepsae”) are among the tiniest birds. A parrotbill cannot walk like a stork no matter how hard it tries, because it was born with a smaller body. Hence, the proverb “a parrotbill that tries to chase a stork will break its own legs” means that one should live within one’s means.
In this song, the storks represent those born with an economic advantage, while parrotbills represent those who were not. Just like a parrotbill cannot overcome the physical advantage of a stork, the common people cannot compete with the upper class. The unequal advantage that the rich receive from their parents, such as inheritance, better education, and job connections, has led to social immobility so great that it is as if the people were born as different species.
Such problems have led to a generation (N포세대 / N-po generation) that has lost hope and “given up” dating, marriage, and childbirth, due to financial difficulties arising from stagnant wages and unemployment. The repetition of the word “노력” (effort), or, as I have translated it, “try harder,” refers to some (mostly elders and the people in power) who put the blame for those problems on the youth, saying they do not work hard enough.
— yhdt774, https://youtu.be/978LmAvwEm0

Sound familiar? ;) Another favorite song and live performance is Let Me Know, which Suga produced and composed with Rap Monster and J-Hope. 

What blows my mind further, is just this week BTS started to release a series of short films titled WINGS, with #1 BEGIN, #2 LIE, #3 STIGMA, #4 FIRST LOVE, and just today, #5 REFLECTION, with more on the way. The BTS fandom (known as ARMY) has been going crazy, posting theory videos about what the short films mean and how they are all connected. Just from the first five films, fans are seeing a theme in their lyrics and music videos that seems to go all the way back to the beginning of BTS’s debute in 2013! Fans have discovered the theme comes from German novelist Hermann Karl Hesse’s*3 novel, Demian:The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth*4 (This makes sense).

Emil Sinclair is a young boy raised in a middle class home, amidst what is described as a Scheinwelt, a play on words that means “world of light” as well as “world of illusion”. Emil’s entire existence can be summarized as a struggle between two worlds: the show world of illusion (related to the Hindu concept of maya) and the real world, the world of spiritual truth. In the course of the novel, accompanied and prompted by his mysterious classmate ‘Max Demian’, he detaches from and revolts against the superficial ideals of the world of appearances and eventually awakens into a realization of self.
— thanks wikipedia.org

Whew. What a fascinating and heavy concept for a K-Hip Hop group to produce musically and visually. I am looking forward to this theme evolving more and seeing all the little connections come in place musically and visually.

This is just the tip of the BTS iceberg, but I hope my little praise essay encourages you to check them out. Now I’ll leave the last word to Jeff Benjamin:

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.
— Jeff Benjamin, Fuse
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*1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Hesse, *2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demian, *3 http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/6835246/bts-most-beautiful-moment-in-life-pt-2-returns-no-1-world-albums, *4 http://www.fuse.tv/2015/12/bts-kpops-social-conscience