This month, BTS celebrates their fifth anniversary. The past five years have brought a sea of changes for the group, and seen their music evolve as well. Amidst the transformations, though, one thing remains constant: their commitment to voicing their stories through their songs.
Casting my mind back across their discography, it seems that it is in the most vulnerable, honest B-sides where BTS’ most compelling, most human side rests. These tracks lie at the crossroads of contrasts, drawing out the group’s dreams and hardships, and their hopes and fears, through evocative production that supports candid lyrics.
Opening The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part.1 on a strong note, “Intro: The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” features breathtaking production that evokes intense solitude, a feeling that often characterises Suga‘s songs. The song starts curiously, as though it is ending rather than a beginning, with a synth that glides wistfully, like beams of evening sunlight let in by a curtain flapping in the breeze. This is punctuated by faint, ragged breaths, an aural motif that recurs throughout the song. The bleak soundscape highlights how Suga’s journey towards his dream, fraught with hostile circumstances, seems to be ending before he has even started.
A thumping beat, accompanied by the squeaking of rubber soles on a court, enters together with Suga’s rap. It’s the thudding of a basketball, but it’s also the beat of his heart, pumping, with adrenaline or with terror. Suga spits forth his bitter fears about his choice to pursue his dream:
My grades are on sweeping on the floor but
I’d rather do this
. . .
But the world actually gives me horror
. . .
Instead of the ball, I throw my future
The horoscope that others paint
Disqualified from the criteria of success
Thanks to [these] the worries spread like cancer
Every time there is a spark of hope, it is flooded over by a torrent of insecurities. Yet for all the doubts they express, the lyrics are delivered without pause. There may be hesitation, but there’s no stopping in this shot towards the rim of a seemingly impossible, but still coveted, dream. Against the backdrop of the steady thumping beat, Suga’s rap charges towards a moment of self-questioning: “Am I happy right now?”
“That answer is already fixed,” Suga realises, and the thumping stops as he reveals it. His delivery of this final line is ingenious, as it plays with the structure of the language to create tension. In Korean, the main verb, “happy”, has to be conjugated with a supporting verb, “am” or “am not”, to determine its meaning. By pausing right before the main verb is conjugated, Suga leaves the listener in suspense over whether he is happy or not, thereby heightening the poignancy of the declaration he pants out: “I am happy.”
The song is a drama of catharsis: Suga has to spit out all the fears that are eating him up inside before he can see the gut feeling that remains. The gliding synth returns; the sun is setting on the court, and the day is drawing to a close. But Suga’s ultimate realisation is a reminder that with endings also come beginnings: his morning awaits.
“Intro” proved uncannily prescient; The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part.1 turned out to be the big break that BTS had been slogging towards. By the time the group wrapped up the second part of the series with The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part.2, they were on a dizzying climb to heights they had set their sights on, but never quite dreamed of reaching this fast. It seemed only natural that the final installment of the series, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever, should celebrate their achievements.
Yet at this euphoric high of their careers, they delivered “Epilogue: Young Forever” out of the left field, squarely confessing fears on the transience of their success:
When the heat of the show cools down
I leave the empty seats behind
. . .
The thundering applause, I can’t own it forever
The soundscape is, like “Intro”, deeply evocative in the sensory images it creates. It opens with gently echoing synths and a faraway shimmer like a shooting star slicing across the night sky. A beat that falls like sweat drops enters with RM‘s verse; it also sounds like a slowing heartbeat after the adrenaline rush of a performance.
The reverbs ushering in Suga’s lines bring to mind the empty stage that he references. The image is reinforced by the echoing of the last words of each line in his second verse and J-Hope‘s first. The auditory effect of emptiness forms a striking parallel to the emotional hollowness they express. As J-Hope’s verse builds up to the central theme, quick, percussive beats accent every syllable, but suddenly, the instrumentals drop away, exposing a bare, poignant confession of the truth: “I want to stay young forever”.
An anthemic chorus hits, but with each iteration of it, the instrumentals are stripped away layer by layer. The final chorus resembles a campfire song sung the night before breaking camp, with an air of bittersweetness. Some moments you can already see as a memory, even as they are still happening; that’s the effect the production choices evoke here. The song is in turns vulnerable, stirring, sad, and beautiful.
The theme of “Young Forever”—the transience of success—is one that BTS would return to again when their trajectory as artists rocketed to a height they could never have imagined when they first debuted. Coming in the wake of their Top Social Artist win at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, Love Yourself: Her is a playful, buoyant album, signalling the beginning of a new trilogy. Yet ensconced within its upbeat vibes is “Sea”, a song released as a hidden track on the physical album because it expresses their worries that fans, BTS believe, will understand better than anyone.
Within the K-pop scene, stories of hardship are often given an encouraging slant, following the pattern of “It was hard, but now we’re happy”. “Sea” tears away the illusion that with success, everything falls into place, and trials come to an end. It exposes how competitive and capricious the industry is through the metaphor of contrasting natural landscapes:
I want to have the sea, I gulped you all down
But I get even thirstier than before
Is everything I know truly the sea
Or is it a blue desert
The song begins with the sound of lapping waves, but this quickly retreats, replaced by a placid motif on the guitar that evokes the barren landscape of a desert. A distant rattle that follows Jungkook‘s vocalising conjures the image of a rattlesnake. The instrumentals are calm, but their evenness produces unease when contrasted with the roiling uncertainty of the vocal lines.
The chorus is delivered with haunting resignation. The lyrics give a twist to the usual rhetoric of struggles reaping rewards, emphasising instead that “Where there is hope, there are trials”. A steady, thudding beat injected into the second part of the chorus builds up momentum, promising a more optimistic sound, but it disappears before the last line. The instrumental falls back into the quiet, unsettling guitar motif from before, underscoring how BTS’ fears that their success is really a desert mirage continue to return. Both the lyrics and the musical aspects of “Sea” express this vulnerable side of them frankly, without trying to turn it into something more hopeful and inspiring.
Other tracks strike a balance between conveying feelings specific to BTS and opening up broader meanings that listeners can relate to. Jin‘s solo on Wings, “Awake”, voices the struggles he faces as a member scouted primarily for the role of a visual. The lyrics express a painful awareness of his inadequacy in contrast with his members’ talents, but they also reveal his determination to never stop trying. It’s his story, but the sentiment can be shared by anyone who has ever felt that trying their best is still not enough.
A flourish of strings opens the song, with glissandos reminiscent of 1930s Swing music. The effect is theatrical, but there is a surprise drop into a minimal piano instrumental that lets Jin’s earnest voice take center stage. The verses are pensive, like a monologue delivered in the intimate setting of a black box theatre. There are no bells and whistles in the instrumentals; rather than drawing attention to itself, the production supports the crest and fall of Jin’s vocals as he tells his story.
Through expressive tremolos in the opening verses and glissandos rounding off each line of the pre-chorus like a sigh, Jin reveals his uncertainties at his limitations. But at the same time, his stable, well-supported delivery of the melody shows how he has slowly begun to transcend these limitations.
2018 ushered in more records for BTS and further forays into the American music scene. The group matched these leaps forward with a move inward on Love Yourself: Tear, retrieving some of their deepest fears from the corners of their hearts. Coming from the same producer who channelled a different hype into a remix of “Mic Drop”, the pared-down sound of “The Truth Untold” is a visceral shock, a stunning hit of intense vulnerability.
BTS’ maturity as lyricists is evident in how the song conveys a very specific fear but still remains open to interpretation. For the group, it could be the gnawing feeling that what they are showing fans is not all of who they are, but really just the best sides of them. This is a gap that weighs heavily on them, considering how one of their goals as artists is to connect with listeners not as perfect idols, but as people, flawed and human.
At the beginning of their recent documentary, Burn the Stage, Suga remarks, “They think we show our lives without filtering anything, but we hide a lot of things.” To this RM adds, “I actually . . . have these other sides as a person. But if I let them see it . . . they might not like me.” This fear is fleshed out in “The Truth Untold”:
I have to hide
Because I am ugly
I’m so afraid
In case you too leave me in the end
Once again I put on a mask and go to meet you
For some listeners, though, it captures the struggles of living with depression. The melody is accompanied by a lone piano that, at times, brings to mind Evanescence‘s haunting ballad, “My Immortal”. The vocalists of BTS may still have some way to go technique-wise, but there is a level of sophistication in their emotional delivery as they lay bare the conflict between their fears and desires. Jungkook’s plaintive line in the post-chorus, “But I still want you,” is particularly heart-wrenching.
Reviewing these B-sides, it’s clear that there is something moving about BTS’ honesty in confronting their imperfections. Courage does not have to come in the form of being able to change yourself; it can be, quite simply, facing the ugly sides of yourself without hiding behind excuses. Here’s hoping that even as they experiment with new sounds and themes, BTS never lose sight of the fact that vulnerability can be one of their greatest strengths.
(YouTube, Images via Big Hit Entertainment, Lyrics via Bangtan Subs, Ktaebwi on Tumblr.)