The Message of BTS from the Viewpoint of a Korean Teacher: I Sing about Myself (English ver.)


*Korean version: 한국어 선생님이 본 BTS의 메시지: 나를 노래하다

Since old times, music has consisted of love ballads. Professor Han Sung-woo’s (한성우) analysis of Korean song lyrics from 1920 to 2016 shows this quite clearly. The most frequently-used words in Korean songs are “나 (I),” “너 (you),” and “사랑 (love).” The personal pronouns “I” and “you” are used 229,000 and 128,000 times, respectively. Following this, the word “love” is used an overwhelming number of times compared to other nouns (82,000 times), and 65.22% of all Korean songs contain the word “love.” From this, we can gather that most Korean songs are “love stories about you and me.” Though the melodies differ, the messages are the same.

1. What Does BTS Sing About?

In this context, an analysis of the Bangtan Boys’ (BTS) lyrics in comparison with Big Bang’s and Twice’s is very interesting.

K-pop GroupsWordsFrequency
BTS (방탄소년단)나 (I, me)1,000
no, wrong (negatives)166
노력 (endeavor)38
인생 (life)17
Big Bang (빅뱅)baby450
사랑 (love)235
재미 (fun)35
행복 (happiness)29
Twice (트와이스)baby144
sweet12
cheer 12

ⓒ 이지영

In Big Bang and Twice’s lyrics, words like that “baby” that represent “the person I love(d)” frequently appear. However, BTS sings about “I,” “we,” and “society.”

2. BTS’s Authenticity

Countless journalists have credited BTS’s success to the group’s sincerity in forging a new path. According to Billboard columnist Jeff Benjamin, K-pop was considered “music mass-produced in factories” in America. But BTS walked a different path than other idol groups. From their debut, each member had a hand in writing, composing, and producing their music, and perhaps because of this, they’ve sung “their story” from the very beginning.

They began telling their diary-like, private stories of growth in their first album. Three of their early albums were part of a larger project – School Trilogy (학교 3부작) that covered school-life issues. The reason for this was because most members were still students at that time. About this, CEO Bang Si-hyuk of Big Hit Entertainment, the record company affiliated with the group, appeared on a TV program and said, “At that time, people thought that their concept of being ‘rebellious students’ was out of style. It received a lot of criticism. But I thought that it was more important than anything that they tell their own story.” Their stubbornness towards authenticity eventually communicated with fans.

BTS (Bangtan Boys (방탄소년단) – No More Dream (Color Coded Han|Rom|Eng Lyrics)

yankat

3. “We Have to Be Happy”

A few days ago, I watched the BTS documentary film “Burn the Stage: The Movie.” I watched it with the intention of analyzing BTS’s message, but I was most impressed with the attitude of Bang Si-hyuk, who appeared for only about one minute in the film. During the group’s 2017 World Tour, Bang Si-hyuk met with BTS in a hotel room. He had good news for them. It was this: that the possibility of them performing at the AMA (American Music Awards) had increased. Before they had time to celebrate, however, he instantly reminded them about “happiness.” He emphasized that each member must be happy. He told them that if they were not happy, then the message they were trying to send—the happiness they were trying to bring other people—would not work. The members’ faces immediately became serious at his words. This scene is but a short clip in the movie, but it allows us to see just how much the group cares about “authenticity”—even in normal times.

4. Life Becomes Lyrics

BTS members have written the lyrics to more than 90% of their songs. What they are thinking and feeling is turned directly into lyrics. Because of this, the group’s lyrics bear great meaning for fans–especially those in their fan club “ARMY (아미).” When a new BTS song comes out, fans tirelessly translate the lyrics and analyze them one by one. Because BTS write their lyrics themselves, their individual speaking styles and personalities can be found throughout their songs. Their fans take notice of this. For example, BTS member Suga (슈가) utilizes a simple and direct style of speech. On the other hand, the leader RM loves to speak through metaphors. RM, who had originally planned on becoming an author, has dropped lines from Hermann Hesse’s “Demian” and Kim Chun-soo’s poem “Flower.” Fans who consume BTS’s content enjoy this type of extra layer to the music. It also shows the power of the content made directly by the members.

5. Singing about More Than Just “Me”—Singing about “Us”

In fan interviews, there are many fans who say that the communion they feel with BTS’s music is their only source of comfort. Reporters, both domestic and international, have noted that the societal messages contained in BTS’s lyrics are critical in attracting fan sympathy. Billboard said “Most K-pop groups hesitate to put controversial topics into their music, but BTS has dealt with a number of heavy issues, including mental health, bullying, and suicide.” Billboard further judged that, “This unconventional approach has increased BTS’s popularity in the United States.” This aligns with CEO Bang Si-hyuk’s own philosophy.

He stated, “By making music that’s true to who they are, BTS has been able to commune and grow with their generation. They’ve shown that if they sing about universal themes, barriers and cultural xenophobia can be overcome to communicate with a global audience.”

Ever-deepening competition and unjust allocations in life cause anxiety and depression that aren’t unique to Korea, but instead are universal phenomena. In the middle of competitive worldwide neoliberal regimes, BTS has proven that the message of one youth can become the voice for his entire generation. Their story is my story, and my story is our story. And this is the reason why one Korean group can make us feel and bring us comfort.

 

Featured video:

bulletproof vibes

Reference:

  1. Bulletproof Vibes. “BTS Spring Day MV EXPLAINED | Sewol Ferry, Snowpiercer & Survivors”. Youtube, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tye1ONFeKis. Accessed 29 Oct 2018.
  2. 최원형. “국어학자가 방탄소년단에게 상을 주고 싶은 이유는?”. Hani.Co.Kr, 2018, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/culture/book/836347.html. Accessed 29 Oct 2018.
  3. 한성우. 노래의 언어. 어크로스, 2018.
  4. yankat. “BTS (Bangtan Boys (방탄소년단) – No More Dream (Color Coded Han|Rom|Eng Lyrics)”. Youtube, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgzmRvGUAmE. Accessed 1 Dec 2018.
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  7. 박준수. “Burn The Stage: The Movie”. 2018.
  8. 박수진. “방탄소년단이 빌보드 차트 1위에 오를 수 있었던 이유”. Hani.Co.Kr, 2018, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/culture/music/847125.html. Accessed 29 Oct 2018.
  9. Herman, Tamar. “7 Factors That Helped Propel BTS To No. 1 On The Billboard 200”. Forbes, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/tamarherman/2018/05/31/7-factors-that-helped-propel-bts-to-no-1-on-the-billboard-200/#1f7a47ce12a4. Accessed 29 Oct 2018.
  10. 민경원. “프로듀서 방시혁이 말하는 프로듀서로서 방탄소년단”. 중앙일보, 2017, https://news.joins.com/article/22191679. Accessed 29 Oct 2018.