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I Got High And Dove Into The World Of K-Pop Sensation BTS: This Is What I Can Tell You

By Lola Sasturain via El Planteo. First published on December 2020.
The idea of this chronicle comes from a little boomer initiative: everyone is talking about BTS and I didn’t want to be left out. Not only had I never seen or listened to them, but I didn’t know where to start.

I’m thirty years old, I’m from a big city and I listen to all kinds of types of music. Not only because I like it, but also because my job demands it. However, kpop had always been an elusive universe to me: in synthesis, I was locked in the Gangnam Style joke.

At first glance, I wasn’t too interested musically, beyond the hits, so I didn’t understand why should I make the effort, being a world too big, too complicated, too strident to encourage me to dive into it.

I knew this from BTS: I had to dive in. It was more than songs, more than videos, more than live shows, more than the biographies of its members.

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When I thought about doing this chronicle under the effects of cannabis I didn’t know if I should start reading or enter in the subject randomly, wherever I felt like, whether I should start with the news about them or if it was important it was to know them beforehand.

So, I decided to ask Eugenia “Buji” Mariluz, host of QMEE on Vorterix and BTS fan. Her comments and recommendations guided this research.

BTS is a world that can seem overflowing, with multiple entry-points, its research requires a radically different exploration than the one we usually do when we want to know a music artist in the Western Hemisphere.

“Buji” told me not to approach it chronologically because I was going to get myself in a muddle. “Start with the last,” said Buji from the beginning of our conversation.

What can I know about the BTS world, without previous knowledge, or judgments, stoned while following the friendly advice of a fan?

Let’s start from the beginning: whatever that means. 

The Necessary Data

BTS is a South Korean male pop idol group (an equivalent of Western boy bands). Their genre is k pop.

Like most idol groups, it was created by an agency (in this case Big Hit Entertainment), from which each member was carefully chosen based on their talent, looks, and stage personality.

BTS is composed of seven members: Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungcook.

As it happens in the idol dynamic, each one fulfills a certain role not only musically but also symbolically. And each has its own fandom with its own characteristics. Thanks to a video provided by Buji, I was able to understand more or less what is the role of each one.

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They debuted with the single “2 Kool 4 Skool” in 2013. Since then, they maintained a regime of one EP per year, reaching massive international success in 2015 with the trilogy The Most Beautiful Moment in Life.

With their 2018 era, Love Yourself, they became the first Korean artists to top the Billboard 200 chart, a status they maintained with the follow-up album: Map of the Soul.

They recently released their latest album, Be, with two smash hit singles worldwide: “Dynamite” (released in August, it was one of the hits of the year) and “Life Goes On.” They are prolific at an unimaginable speed for Western pop.

They also star in different audiovisual products: they have a reality show called Run BTS, which has more than 100 episodes, a four-season series that accompanies them on vacation called Von Voyage, and a one-season series called In TheSoop.

In turn, several of their tours were immortalized in movies.

Today, BTS is considered a key part of the outbreak of the “Korean Wave”. The Asian country is internationally fashionable and is a trend-setting platform, not only with its music but also with its cinema, fashion, skincare, and even its food.

And its fans, known as ‘Army’ around the world, proved to be a potential progressive political force, organizing themselves in various activist actions.

Disclaimer: Stoned, you won’t understand a thing

If what you are looking for is not to be amazed by their choreographies, listen to their songs or marvel at the art of their videos, but to understand the dimension of the phenomenon, cannabis will not work.

Everything becomes too confusing.

BTS’s production has little to do with what we know. To begin with, it makes sense to speak of eras instead of albums. An Era is a temporal unit that includes several studio albums or several EPs with a common aesthetic and conceptual thread.

In addition to their particularities, each era is crossed by a fictional universe. The main plot and the parallel plots that emerge from it are extremely complex and were incomprehensible to me.

It is not an easy task to understand who is who and what role they play in the group.

The fictional universe, which began in the group’s second era (with their acclaimed sound Young Forever) is called BU (Bangtan Universe) and is developed from music videos and notes from their albums.

In BU, all the members carry forward their own stories. Even our expert can’t follow them clearly, but she still did her best to summarize the information for me.

“These stories include time travel (what?), that one has killed the father for being abusive (double what?), that one was abandoned by the mother in a park (triple what?). I still don’t understand the Bangtan Universe (BU), but they confirmed that next year the TV series that will narrate this universe will be released,” says Buji.

According to its creators, the idea behind these universes is to show seven best friends not only in good times but also in bad, delving into alternative realities where, as individuals, they must face their deepest anxieties, fears, and frustrations in order to move forward and become better.

Surprise: everything, everything is a narrative

In this era, boundaries are blurred and in BTS there seems to be no such thing as a differentiation between the private lives of the members and the “content” of the band.

Yes, the Bangtan Universe videos and plots are fictional, but the members’ off-duty lives and even their personalities and inner world are also a fundamental part of the greater BTS narrative.

Their everyday micro-stories and their ways of being, which are seen both in the reality shows and in the constant interaction with their fans through social media, intertwine and overlap calculatedly with the macro-stories signified by the eras, their lyrics, and the BU plots.

Sometimes like little Chinese boxes, sometimes like interwoven tapestries.

These narratives, both real-life and entirely fictional, always follow the same arc: that of self-improvement, self-love, and embracing hardship, and facing one’s own and others’ demons in the pursuit of doing good.

For example, RM (Kim Namjoon) is considered the leader of BTS, he raps and produces and his story is the closest thing to a heroic epic in this artificial world. He was an underground hip-hop prodigy and embodies the contradiction of becoming a pop idol that is despised by the scene he belonged to.

At the same time, is known for being the pop idol who does not embody the (impossible) aesthetic standards of k pop, which always looks for young girls with angelic and childlike faces. This tension was overturned in his 2015 solo mixtape RM, where he talks about this identity crisis and responds to criticism. Also, their “leader” status apparently exceeds the scenic and apparently is who keeps the group focused on their goals.

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Among these real-life narratives that are as important as the fictional ones, there is also the friendship between Suga and J-Hope. The two artists knew each other before BTS was consolidated. Both members complement each other in their personalities: Suga is introverted and serious while J-Hope is the funny one.

Together they enhance each other and bring out the best of them, being one of the favorite duos of the Army (fan community).

They also flesh out their message of love, togetherness, and acceptance in a deep friendship and closeness they show to each other. They are best friends, every fan knows about their relationship and how they understand each other. And, in fact, they celebrate their anniversary every year, not only as a band but as chosen brothers.

Another surprise: they not only sing and dance but also produce and compose

Although the label “k pop” is a catch-all, Western ears will find BTS songs in almost every mainstream dance genre of recent years: EDM, hip hop, pop, trap, house, even dubstep. And also, a lot of romantic ballads that consolidated their international popularity.

With all the mystique surrounding Asian pop idols, chosen by CEOS for their beauty, charisma, and youth, I was surprised to learn that BTS write their own songs and that Suga, RM, and J-Hope are also in charge of the production of many of the tracks.

The notion of prefabricated, then, is misleading.

While the band was formed by a company, the members are an essential part of the creative process and are largely in control of the product.

Yes, in addition to being cute, they are talented. And while they all dance and sing, the roles are delineated by what each does best: rapping, singing, or dancing. They have main and secondary roles. An organization that has little to do with pop groups on this side of the world.

Conclusions

It is inevitably true that, had I reduced the BTS experience to simply listening to their songs (let alone being a Spanish speaker without any knowledge of Korean), I would never have understood the value and relevance of the group.

And, at least personally, I don’t consider them a piece of weed-friendly music at all: watching their videos is another thing.

Their songs are too radio-friendly hits, too glossy sounding, too ‘Disney’.

That’s why, musically, and only musically, it’s hard for me to find the soul, the feeling, that which in some cases makes me move and in others makes me jump out of my chair to dance. But after digging a little deeper and trying to tie up the loose ends, I understood that BTS is all about the soul and that is why they are who they are today.

K-pop has a very characteristic visual and sound aesthetic within its infinite variety.

BTS is always grandiloquent, ambitious, solemn, lustrous, perfect. They are blockbusters where even the recognizable places are covered by a cloak of sci-fi strangeness, where the choreographies are asphyxiating, millimetric, featuring figures of unblemished complexions and impossible looks that don’t seem human.

And the melodies are sweet and bubbly to the max.

In our relationship with pop, we are not used to finding depth in this type of product. What’s more, we naturally tend to place them at the antipodes of honest, constructive, or relevant. If it looks and sounds like that, it’s pure entertainment: and entertainment lacks a message.

But not so with k pop, nor is that what is expected of its referents.

Since the second EP of their first era, Skool Love Affair, they made clear their will to talk about deep and transcendental issues: “It’s not about them complaining about school, or saying ‘boo, I don’t want to study’. It is something around ‘this system is designed so we can’t progress'”, explains Buji, still a bit stunned.

Their previous era, Map of the Soul: Persona, is inspired by none other than the work of psychologist Carl Jung and his description of archetypes.

Is everything about BTS a spectacle? Sure, but the question would be what isn’t. With the constant overexposure about their lives on and off stage, BTS shows that behind all the glitz there is also a lot of work, loneliness, frustration.

Yes, maybe showing the dark side of the show was not invented by them and is part of the show itself, which absorbs everything and capitalizes on it.

But BTS goes beyond the eventual documentaries about the real life of the pop star.

The members of BTS are in constant direct interaction with their fans around the world. They take on their role as role models more than any Western music star, by far. Thus, it is not odd that k pop fans are generally said to be socially and politically conscious people.

They are a band and a fandom tailored to this era, where not taking a stand is almost the same as aligning oneself with the oppressors (and the injustices) of the system, and where the youth have assumed their responsibility as agents of change.

With a unique mastery of network communication, Internet algorithms and belonging mostly to generation Z, the Army is not only in contact to share information about their idols or talk to them through any of the communication channels.

In fact, it was a group of BTS fans who sabotaged a Donald Trump rally in Oklahoma, making reservations en masse only to later not attend. They also raised $1 million to support #BlackLivesMatter, among many other solidarity actions they managed.

In 2018, the members of BTS gave a speech at the UN encouraging their followers to commit to the causes they believe are just. The content of their songs and videos nucleate young people around the world with similar ideas about building a better future, acceptance of the different and love, as a transformative force.

It is also worth noting how our Western eye also finds it refreshing and constructive to see a new type of male idol, adored by men and women alike, without the need to make distinctions of sexual orientation.

For us, they are idols who challenge toxic masculinity.

They are prodigious dancers, they produce, wear makeup, talk about their feelings, and cry in public. Their sexuality and private lives are rarely a topic of conversation, while we know almost everything about their friendships or all the hardships they had to go through to be where they are now. And, indeed, much of their fandom around the world belongs to the LGBTIQ+ community.

Their personal stories, the lyrics of their songs, their videos, their public appearances, everything is based on a message of positivity, acceptance, and self-improvement. And they get young people all over the world to come together and take an interest in making the world at least a little bit better.

Probably, such a scale of reach, would not have been possible without a message that comes in a glitzy package of spectacle and entertainment.

I may not fully understand their music and I may not find their reality shows or movies entertaining to watch, but I can understand that there are few pop products that have such transformative potential and few youth idols that so explicitly embody social responsibility.

And under the influence of novelty and surprise, from the West, we have much more to learn from them, from their fans, and from their way of consuming beyond the music itself.

Cover Photo Via YouTube. 

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