By Team EarPeace
by S. Jae Jones
I’ve always been obsessed with making myself understood.
To some extent, I attribute this to the fact that English was not my first language. I might have been born in the United States, but my primary caretaker was my Korean grandmother, who spoke to me solely in her mother tongue. It wasn’t until I preschool that I began learning English at all. My parents unceremoniously dropped me off at the curb, armed only with five essential new words to get me through the day—home, hurt, hungry, bathroom, water.
Children’s brains are elastic, of course, and at age three, I simply acquired English alongside the Korean I spoke at home. Sometimes I wonder if my love of reading and writing aren’t the product of always feeling put on the back foot during my earliest years, from the extra effort I had to make in order to understand and be understood. Asking what someone else meant became second nature—sometimes asked from place of necessity, sometimes from a place of confusion, but most often from a place of curiosity (and occasional trolling). My parents often complained that my favorite word as a child was why, repeated ad nauseam until there were no more questions to be had or the person being asked had thrust their head through the wall in frustration.
I’ve always been quick to decipher meaning. Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty good with foreign languages; I studied French and Spanish for grades, ancient Greek, German, and Japanese for fun. In college, I majored in Literature and Art History, writing paper after paper after paper deciphering the meaning in someone else’s words, someone else’s images, someone else’s Art.™ After graduation, I worked as an editor in a NYC publishing house, where I quickly learned that I was uninterested in reading anything that didn’t have A Point. If the author had nothing to say, then what was the point?
I’m not precious about what constitutes Art,™ or rather, I’m of the belief that anything can be Art,™ no matter how insignificant, indulgent, or inane. Art does not have to be high-brow or pretentious; it can just as well be low-brow and mainstream. Twilight can be considered art because it has something to say—that once you find your group of people, you can finally become your truest, most powerful self. People can argue the meanings they take away from text, from music, from images; art is subjective. The thing all art has in common is that all art has something to say. Good art is when the meaning of creative work is both clear and open to interpretation at once. Bad art is when the message is merely incomprehensible.
The most common note I gave as an editor was What are you trying to say? How are you trying to say it? This isn’t to say that I don’t think pure entertainment isn’t reason enough to write a book, but it’s often not reason enough for an audience to keep reading. To keep coming back, an audience has to care, and for an audience to care, they have to connect. We find it easier to connect to creative work that speaks to us, that has something to say.
And BTS has a lot to say.
The Music of Angry Young Men
It seems to be a common assumption in the music industry, both in the west and abroad, that hip-hop and rock is the music of angry young men. This isn’t to say that people of all genders and temperaments don’t enjoy either genres, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a kernel of truth to this. I knew I had grown old when I realized my music tastes had calcified to the British indie rock scene circa 2005, the year I myself was an angry young person. My brother and I sometimes joke about ZZ Top and Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd being dad rock, but what is dad rock but the music our own father had imprinted on when he was an angry young man?
Debut BTS (or fetus Tan, as ARMY affectionately refers to their earliest years) was angry. Loud and angry, like the young men they were. Although the occasional boy band ballad sneaked into their discography here and there, for the most part, their albums directly (and often aggressively) addressed all the Shit That Made Them Mad. As the average age of the group in 2013 was seventeen, a lot of topics addressed schooling and education, but more in the vein of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall than the Jonas Brothers’ What I Go to School For.
BTS’s debut single was No More Dream, a very...well...2013-sounding rap song railing against a system that tells them there is only one narrow path to success—education and an office job. South Korea is poor in natural resources, so the vast majority of available jobs in an increasingly neoliberal society (thanks to their American occupiers) are in white-collar industries like technology, finance, medicine, law, and government. They see no point to any of it, and keep asking their audience Hey you, what’s your dream?
For a country still holding on to the vestiges of traditional Confucian values, this attitude of fuck your parents, fuck your elders was radical. It was especially radical for an idol group, as company policy usually required their performers to be inoffensive, apolitical, and likable. (BTS’s label, as we’ll discuss later, is somewhat unusual in this regard.) And despite the pressure and hate they received from all sides, their next album was just as angry, although they had begun to get a bit more subversive about expressing it. In Paldogangsan, a cute faux battle rap song in which the members playfully rep their hometowns in their native dialects, they openly reference socialist political movements from South Korea’s history as a point of pride. The title itself could also be interpreted as a sly reference to unification, as it refers to the eight historical provinces of Korea (half of which currently lie north of the 38th Parallel). Unification is a touchy topic in South Korea, as more conservative people in society tend to view any attempts at reconciliation as an embrace of communism. Although BTS was learning to be coy about their progressive beliefs, they hadn’t lost the aggressively angry edge to their music.
But anger can only deliver a message so far. It’s no surprise that a lot of angry young men fizzle out, their fury fading into complacence or bitterness, turning into old men shouting at kids to get off their lawns. There is so much good music made by angry young men, but the anger can only be sustained for so long. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Rage Against the Machine’s first album is still their best known, nor the fact that they didn’t last a decade as a band.
How then is BTS still going strong, as radical and as subversive as ever?
The first BTS song I ever heard was Fake Love, the lead single from their 2018 album, Love Yourself 轉 Tear. By then, the band had long since put their braggadocios yet insecure posturing of aggressive masculinity behind them, having grown comfortable in writing and producing more thoughtful, more emotional pop songs. Fake Love is about a toxic relationship, a standard topic for a lot of pop music, and I didn’t think much about the song—or the band—then. I like pop just fine, but not a lot of pop has something to say. Although I had to admit that as far as pop songs went, Fake Love slaps. The production was excellent, the writing superb, and it was just different enough for it to stick out in my mind. It might have been pop, but at least it didn’t sound mindless.
At the time, I didn’t recognize that Fake Love didn’t sound mindless because it had something to say. In many ways, it’s a song about abuse in relationships, about gaslighting, and the inability to flourish and grow as your own person in such toxic circumstances. Where other pop songs might describe the abuser’s behavior, Fake Love delves deep into the sufferer’s mental state. The specifics of the relationship are left out of the lyrics, but the emotions are universal.
It was then I realized that BTS might be worth checking out. And as I delved further into their massive discography, I began to understand just how radical they truly were.
The angry young men who don’t grow into complacence or bitterness become subversive. Being subversive requires a lot more nuance and emotional intelligence than anger, because yelling at a system can only take you so far. How do you persuade people? How do you convince someone of your point of view? Strong-arming people to your cause only makes you a bully; you have to convert your followers into true believers. You have to become introspective, to understand why you’re so angry, in order to give voice the same anger inside other people. It requires looking at all the ugly parts of yourself and naming them, before you can look at the ugly parts of others with grace.
In 2015, after releasing four albums with that hard-edged and aggressive posturing, BTS began releasing a series of albums called The Most Beautiful Moment in Life. In them all, they explored not just their anger at injustice, but their grief, their anxiety, and their actual feelings about what they were experiencing. Consequently, their image became softer, more vulnerable and boyish, and their sound evolved as well—incorporating pop, R&B, and EDM as well as rap. This isn’t to say they didn’t still make songs more directly critical of their society, but their radical ideas began to get woven into less overtly political songs.
Dope is mostly a fun EDM pop song about taking pride in their hustle, but in the verses, the rappers subtly (and not-so-subtly) critique the same capitalistic hustle culture that brings them success.
The word 쩔어 (jjeoreo), or dope, is slang for something awesome, and can also be interpreted as sick. The drug pun on dope and sick exists in both English and Korean here. The message remains the same as it always has, but the method of delivery has changed.
Even in their more overtly radical songs, the tone began to shift from outright anger to one of contempt. Contempt is next-level anger, because it is anger that has become righteous, anger that is able to look past rage and toward disdain. Baepsae (sometimes listed as Silver Spoon) directly rails against South Korea’s neoliberal values, all with hip thrusts and a tone of ok boomer.
There’s a saying in Korean: the crow-tit that tries to keep up with the stork will tear its crotch. Essentially, it means don’t bite off more than you can chew. A crow-tit (baepsae in Korean) is a very small bird, and if it tries to keep with a stork—a very tall bird—it will have to split its legs in order to keep up, a very apt metaphor when it comes to the economic prospects for both millennials (crow-tits) and boomers (storks).
Cue hip thrusts on the last line. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
What a genius way of radicalizing your audience.
The brilliance of relating millennials to crow-tits and storks to boomers is that, in one great banger, BTS has given an entire generation of people something to call themselves. In the context of the song and the saying, baepsae has come to mean something like “try-hard” or “underdog,” a rallying cry for all the put-upon people in South Korea.
It’s also funny.
The thing about anger is that it can be just as off-putting as it is invigorating. While BTS may take their music seriously, they don’t take themselves very seriously. The downfall of so many angry young men is their inability to turn their anger inward, to look and learn to laugh at themselves. What is a hill worth dying on? Why is it worth dying on? Sometimes, in our anger, we don’t understand there are other hills around us. Sometimes, we don’t realize that there are mountains up ahead.
BTS has looked inward, stepped back away from their aggression, and gotten the lay of the land.
It’s probably (part of) the reason they are as successful as they are.
I guess I’m still trying make myself understood. As an artist, as an author, but also as ARMY. How can I phrase my words, how can I persuade, convince, convert, and radicalize you to BTS? If I can’t radicalize you, then how can I get you to respect them? I feel the language barrier looming between us as it once did when I was a kid, but there are a myriad translators for BTS’s work out there much better than myself. BTS are artists with something to say.
And I think it’s worth listening to.Need more BTS? Check out
S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the New York Times bestselling author of Wintersong and Shadowsong. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives on the wrong coast, where she can’t believe she has to deal with winter every year. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, her newsletter, and her website.