There is nobody like BTS. They are a global phenomenon that has proven conventional wisdom is outdated and has triumphed simply by staying true to themselves. With their second English single “Butter” only a few weeks old, RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook celebrated 8 years of BTS on June 13th. And it’s been an eventful 8 years, to say the least. We’re talking record-breaking, boundary-smashing, success and as Rolling Stones journalist, Brian Hiatt, said they “feel like a glimpse of a new and better world”.
Of course, with FESTA this month, everyone has been feeling a tad nostalgic, so now seemed like the perfect time to revisit the BTS eras that came before. While “Butter” and “Dynamite” are catchy songs with an outstanding vigour that you can’t get out of your head, I have noticed that during the promotion for these English singles, a large consensus of American media outlets have done this group an injustice by glossing over what these men and their music stand for. Notably, this is not in reference to all interviewers as a lot of radio and television hosts such as James Corden, Jimmy Fallon and Zach Sang have set an example as presenters who know what they are talking about. Though, it’s still a wonder how BTS leader, RM, manages to come up with a different eloquent answer to every repetitive question he gets.
Though, you might ask, what else is there? They’re just another boy band, right? Well, I’ll let you decide as I go back to the very beginning. Apart from the sheer talent and magnetism these boys possess, this pop hybrid of music is riddled with complexity and meaning. However, I will not be able to touch on every small detail and a lot of this is a matter of personal opinion, I’ll be touching on the most prominent of messages which can help fathom an understanding as to what is so different about these guys.
School Trilogy (2013-2014)
First up, is “School Trilogy” that kicked off in 2013. Notably, everyone must start somewhere, and you can’t be too critical with the early BTS eras. The growth and improvement that came from this period was necessary for the making of the group we see today, and at just 19 years old, Kim Namjoon (RM) gave up the chance to attend an elite university to pursue a career as a rapper. Recruited by former JYP producer, Bang Si-Hyuk, he formed a group that was set to defy the system – just with a ton of eyeliner and gold chains. Aesthetically, if your inner teenager doesn’t relate to this then I’m not sure what to tell you. I’m positive that in their late twenties, there are some moments the boys question when looking back at Bulletproof Boyscouts, but this was a group of minority boys fighting against prejudice with a scream of teen spirit, and it was ground-breaking.
Furthermore, every release from this era was a product of conviction and passion manifested into a fresh take on 90s hip hop. Their debut single “No More Dream”, featured on their first album “2 Cool 4 Skool”, made a strong impression within the K-Pop industry for its honest and motivational lyrics at the time. “Become the subject of your own life that’s always been suppressed”, raps J-Hope as the strong hip-hop beat criticises the lack of passion in young people. Talking of “big house, big cars and big rings”, the boys urged their audience to “disobey the hell of society [and] grant a special pardon to your dream”. Taken from their own experience, leader RM and main rappers, Suga and J-Hope wrote these songs as harsh commentary on the culture of the older generation imposing their dreams on young people.
Albeit there were songs that you’d expect from a group of teenage boys who are discovering the growing pains of love and ambition, but there was still an urgent demand to defy the limits. Keep in mind that the youngest member, Jungkook, auditioned for BigHit at just 13 years old and debuted at 15 – he was super young in this era but still managed to keep up with his Hyung’s (older brothers). Together, the boys indulged in thematic expressions of idealistic romance in later songs like “Just One Day” and “Coffee”. Though, going into their mini-album “O!RUL8,2?” there was a clear pattern in the intentions of this era: arrogance towards oppressors. Because what does it really mean to be successful and why are schools so focused on safe careers and wealth as a symbol of this?
Well, the boys continued to pose this question in album concepts and even concert visuals that begun and finished just like a musical would. This was where the fictional narrative they carry out in the next few eras started: with seven, lonely, misunderstood boys who were late for school and brought together in detention. Sick of the system and the pressure of societal standards on them and their dreams, they found solace through each other and the music that continued to aid their personal growth.
Youth Trilogy (2015-2016)
Furthermore, the “Youth Trilogy” was a continuation of this coming-of-age narrative. As the older members started to enter their twenties, their narrative and lyricism were dedicated to the struggles of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Formed to be protectors of youthful dreams and desires, this era was about letting go of the abundance of anger and pain that was in their youth. Each track was a distilled poetic and pop emotion that wished to hold on to the moments that made up their “most beautiful moment in life”. It was an expression where beauty could coexist with uncertainty as these boys grasped onto those final moments of childhood. This is one of my favourite BTS era’s as I was always a perfectionist when it came to schooling and grades, probably a good example of “the study machines” they refer to in “School Trilogy”, but this instalment delivered a resonance that made me feel I could breathe again. While the music video for “Run” made me regretful of rejecting the frivolous and reckless parts of being a teenager in my fear of failing school, it felt easier to embrace the uncertainty and insecurity as life isn’t always beautiful; this is one of my all-time favourite BTS music videos to date.
Nonetheless, BTS continued to run forward with fire in their hearts as they fought against the powerlessness that comes with youth. Songs like “Dope” and “Burning Up (Fire)” were a brilliant change of direction that returned to the edgy style the boys were known for, but with a twist. “Even if our youth rots in the studio, thanks to that we’re closer to success” and similar to a lot of their lyrical messages, “Dope” was a refusal of rejection accompanied with an infectious beat. While more mature themes were explored in “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” series, these types of songs radiated character, musical prowess and powerful choreography that showcased the boys’ capabilities in the performing arts.
Though, a real standout visually was “Save Me”. This was a one-take music video that was at odds with the usual production of K-Pop that is usually to a high-calibre standard of aesthetic and editing. However, “Save Me” remains one of BTS’s best artistic achievements and was written as an ambigram for the song “I’m Fine”, released in 2018. Depending on which way you layer the two titles, they can be read either way. This is the beauty with BTS symbolism – it’s adaptability to each individual mind as they rarely, explicitly clarify exactly what a lyric or image means so that their audience can interpret it however they wish.
Then, as the curtain closed on their youth, BTS took hold of the uncertainty in adulthood and surged into the next era: “WINGS”. I believe this era truly defined BTS as successors of symbolism and emphasised the magnetism and talent they possess: this the most gorgeous era for its lyricism and aesthetics. A darker but more poetically expressive thematic is explored as they conquered humanity’s accepted ideas about morality. To “Begin” the series, BigHit released the first short film that features the opening of Jungkook’s solo song and continues the narrative from “The Most Beautiful Moments in Life”. While I’m referring to face-value imagery and BTS’s own growth, take note that a lot of videos from these early era’s (whether a trailer or music video) is a continuation of the “School Trilogy” fictional narrative, as each member continues to play a character. Therefore, the short film is riddled with theories and symbols of previous eras but also with symbols of birds as BTS begins to break out of their shells and take flight for the first time.
Additionally, RM read an excerpt from the literary piece “Demian” by Herman Hesse that is also quoted in the interlude of the “Blood, Sweat and Tears” music video – “he too was a tempter; he too was a link to the second”. Demian was a real character in Hesse’s life that made him question his morality one too many times and his metaphor of the dark and the light world was used to urge his readers not to be so influenced by what is considered good and evil. BTS then thematically related this sentiment to their own journey as they blended Hesse’s sentiment of temptation with a willingness to sacrifice everything for love, success as their determination to flourish only grew. J-Hope kicked off the introduction of the album with “Intro: Boy Meets Evil” saying he’d “lost [his] way on a path of dream”, this because of a “childish love” that has distorted his journey in this new, twisted reality. Again, this can refer to this coming of age as there is still some childhood innocence that he clings onto.
Moreover, when reissuing as a repackage of “WINGS”, they added three new songs: “Not Today”, “Spring Day” and “A Supplementary Story: You Never Walk Alone”. This was an epilogue of closure as they offered a message of warm consolations and hope in times of suffering. “Spring Day” was a staggering stop as the boys longed for the past, a lot of fan theories in reference to the music video have said this song alludes to the 2014 April sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea. However, the eldest member, Jin, told Esquire magazine that it’s “about a sad event […], but it is also about longing” as he feels “Spring Day” personally represents his struggle. The nostalgic tone can thus be inferred to keeping the memory of the disaster alive, but by using the seasonal metaphor it deliberates that things get better; “no darkness, no season can last forever”.
Additionally, “Not Today” was an intense track that felt like the sequel to “Fire”, just with a cleaner and consistent sound. With similar tones to songs like “No More Dream”, they urged young people to stand up for themselves and keep fighting – you see a recurring theme at this point. This concluded with the “Outro: Wings” as BTS decided “it’s time to be brave” as they take that next step but with the accompaniment of their “Supplementary Story”. This reiterated the most endearing aspect of BTS as they promised their audience that “we can smile if we’re together” and that they will always be by ARMY’s side, “even if it’s tiring and painful”.
Love Yourself (2017-2018)
Then, came the “Love Yourself” era in which the music released came as a four-part series made up of two mini albums and one album: signifying a new beginning, development, twist, and conclusion. Lyrics mainly told stories about four key stages of romance: meeting someone new, falling in love, an inevitable breakup, and an epiphany about self-love. This again emphasised the beauty of everyday life thus building from their “Youth Trilogy” but with the mature sentiments, they had learnt from the “Wings” era as they intertwine. The first mini-album titled “Love Yourself: Her” is introduced by Jimin’s angelic solo song “Serendipity”. As he sings about a “world different from yesterday”, this sweet melody perfectly highlights the nuances and smaller details of Jimin’s vocal expression these albums featuring a solo song for each member to authenticate their own nuances and talents in writing, producing, and singing.
Contextually, this was a significant era for BTS as their popularity in America was skyrocketing. 2017 consisted of many record-breaking achievements and awards as they entered a strong streak of perfection. Their hit song “Idol” was their highest peaking single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 11 and they became the first K-Pop act to perform at the American Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards. “Idol” felt as if they had taken every climatic and energetic portion of their previous songs and strung them together in this one song. At this point, BTS were well and truly “idols”, just now at a global scale.
Moreover, “Idol” explored the concept of identity with a wish to be an idol for themselves, rather than what anyone else wants. RM expresses “I know what I am, I know what I want” and that he’ll never change for anyone. This came at a convenient timing as the media suddenly couldn’t get enough of this genre-defying group and everyone had an opinion on their every detail: including their casual non-toxic brand of masculinity. At the end of the day, this seven-piece are just purely themselves, which I find is quite rare in such a manufactured industry and it takes guts. Although, there is always a light side and a dark side (especially where the media are concerned), and BTS became targets of ridicule and attack as there were various comments on “plagiarism”, their “masculinity” and other accusations that were proven untrue.
Therefore, it was with this new territory that consisted of uncertain success and struggles that the “Love Yourself” campaign emerged. On September 24, 2018, BTS became the first K-pop group to speak at the United Nations. As the only fluent English speaker, RM delivered a speech at the General Assembly as a part of launching this new focus in partnership with UNICEF’s “End Violence” programme. Reflecting on his childhood and what loving yourself meant to him, his message was a feel-good sentiment that thanked his BTS brothers and ARMY for their support on his journey to understanding that “I am who I am with all of my faults and mistakes”. Notably, this speech was not fully covered by the media who reported the campaign, thus it’s important I mention it here as his message is one of importance and meaning that I feel some might find uplifting.
Furthermore, “Love Yourself” was a lot more vulnerable and less edgy than previous eras and songs like “Magic Shop” (inspired by the research of Dr. James Doty) highlighted this emphasis on exchanging fear for happiness. While the previous era’s offered an understanding of struggles, “Love Yourself” provided solutions. Concluding with “Answer: Love Myself”, BTS expressed their gratitude to their fans for helping them understand the importance of loving yourself “with no exceptions”. This was a true projection of what BTS continues to stand for: offering a source of comfort and inspiration as they truly become “music and artists for healing”.
Map of the Soul (2019-2020)
Building from this, “Map of the Soul: 7” was the most personal and self-referential body of work that took on Jung’s analytical psychology as a narrative guide that showcased the true galaxy of their hearts. This album was a repurposing of the five-song preface “Map of the Soul: Persona”, continuing on with Suga’s interlude “Shadow”. The introductory instrumental was the same as the intro to their 2013 album “O!RUL8,2?” as it set the tone for the intense exploration of the boy’s inner shadows. Authenticity has always been a part of the appeal and with this era, they embarked on an introspective journey as both individuals and a group to produce an album that tapped into something enchanting.
Moreover, sampling the intro for “Skool Luv Affair” there is a tonal shift in RM’s “Intro: Persona” that furtherly develops concepts of identity explored in “Idol” and “Fake Love” but with a personal perspective that encapsulates their message. BTS were now in the spotlight and as misconception and rumours continued it was time to set the record straight and continue this fight against prejudice. RM poses the question “who am I?” (a question he must be tired of now) but answers swiftly while “other people come out and put the pearl necklace on [him]”, “I’m still not so sure”, but that’s okay. The music video that accompanies this has multiple hidden gems that reference their older eras, each member’s solo track and video in this era riddled with their own individual symbolism from both past and present. I personally would interpret this imagery to remind us of what RM disclosed in “Idol”, “I ain’t ever gonna change”, though I’m sure it’s been demanded by societal standard. While we’ve come a long way, there are still barriers to be broken and despite all the accomplishments BTS had made, especially for the Asian community, now is not the time to let up. To give in and conform now would go against everything BTS stand for. So, while there are a lot of twists and turns, the thematic, tone and lyrics shift for each song lets us dive into each member’s individual psyche that upholds the distinctive rejection of conformity, even well into their global takeover.
Finally, we have the “BE” era, which came at a time we needed it most. By 2020, the boys had taken on several genres and conquered many triumphs, however, the single album released during this era was a special one. There isn’t so much as a narrative, nor is it as long as the others as this was a time for healing. The one album consisted of seven songs and one skit that manifested the perfect balance of encouragement and reassurance as the members once again shared their own dark cloud with the world. The pandemic had struck mid-way through the promotions of “Map of the Soul” and the world came to a standstill. However, out of the anxiety and sadness emerged the most vulnerable musical encapsulation of pandemic life. Track three, “Blue & Grey”, is a gorgeous guitar ballad that V had written originally for his own mixtape, but the members had liked it so much that they worked it into “BE”. As V explained, blue is universally symbolic of sadness and grey was a colour that RM often referenced in his songwriting to convey the same, so he used both these colours to describe that feeling of an artist’s burn-out.
Overall, this album was something that felt more mature but was wholly their most relatable piece. It did not pack the same punch to their previous singles like “Boy with Luv” and “ON” but instead recalled the sentimentality expressed in “Spring Day”. While this expressed warmer months during times of darkness, “Life Goes On” recognised that there seems to be no end to our current predicament and strength can only come from within oneself. At the beginning of the music video, the logo for the BigHit label is displayed with their tagline “Artist & Music for Healing” which in this sense is the most on-brand video BTS has made. While “Fly to My Room” (featuring just Suga, J-Hope, Jimin and V) describes the frustrations regarding “this year taken away”, they realise that this has only deepened their bonds with ARMY and one another which in itself is fulfilling. The album entirely successfully recognised the hardships but offered hope and healing to our current pain and anxieties which is what this group has been about from the start.
In conclusion, while this may appear thorough (more essay-like than the article), surprisingly I’ve only touched on the basics of each completed BTS era and there are a lot of worthy mentions I have missed. There’s so much more depth for a new ARMY to explore and the best part about all these songs, concepts, and narratives is that they appear different to everyone. There is no wrong nor right answer when it comes to theories and opinions – it’s just what feels right to you. Nevertheless, through various narratives, lyricism and visual arts, the group has talked about both utopian and dystopian futures as they have better adapted and utilised their platform to voice their brightest, and their darkest, moments growing up. BTS has taken to their creative art with such a raw vulnerability that was once scarce and continues to navigate the Asian music market as well as the Western sphere with a genre-defying demeanour that is changing the standard of music for the better.
At this point, whether you were there with them from the start or just recently joining their journey, you really get to see these boys grow up. Thankfully, they don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon and as Jimin promised during their 8th Festa celebration “I will sing until I die”. While BTS and ARMY continue to miss seeing each other in person, the desperation only builds for the most perfect comeback that for sure will elicit fireworks and tears when they can perform again.