Bangtan Sonyeondan Breaks U.S. Musical Language Tradition

On Oct. 10, Korean boy group Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) released their second full-length album Wings, which debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ Top Albums chart for all categories in the United States and 14 other countries, and currently sits above Beyonce’s Lemonade (No. 30) and Frank Ocean’s Blonde (No. 33), at No. 26 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

America prides itself on having an ear for the next big thing in music but tunes out most non-English music. Daft Punk is French, Shakira is Colombian and Avicii is Swedish, but they all sing in English. Our monolinguistic tendencies make it nearly impossible for foreign acts to become popular with songs in their native tongue.

Here we have BTS, a Korean pop (K-pop) group that doesn’t sing in English, did not promote their album in the U.S. and didn’t have a viral music video like Psy’s 2012 hit, “Gangnam Style.” It is fitting that BTS, which is breaking norms in South Korea, is also breaking the U.S.’s conventional monolingualism in music.

K-pop groups are formed by entertainment companies that select individuals through auditions and scouting processes based on their singing and/or dancing abilities or sometimes just based on their looks. Selected individuals train to become idols until their company is ready for them to debut, which can take months or years from when they enter the company.

K-pop music is designed to have universal appeal. Idols are overworked, underpaid, have little to no say in what they do and are held to a standard of perfection. Their music is created by entertainment companies to be catchy but most idols have minimal creative license.

BTS has dance routines with some of the hardest choreography in K-pop. The choreography for their songs “Fire” and “Save Me” from The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever  exemplify this, and they have worn outfits ranging from schoolboy to bad boy. Still, the group is breaking K-pop stereotypes and receiving global recognition for it.

BTS debuted in 2013 as a seven-member group formed by Big Hit Entertainment consisting of three rappers (J-Hope, Suga and Rap Monster) and four vocalists (Jimin, Jin, Jungkook and V) ranging in age from 15 to 20. Suga and Rap Monster were active in Korea’s underground hip-hop scene before becoming idols, which heavily influenced BTS’ style and image. BTS debuted with the song “No More Dream” off of their mini album, 2 Cool 4 Skool, a song with a music video that included them dressed in chains and bandanas while aggressively rapping about wanting “a big house, a big car and big rings” and how nothing, including school, should get in the way of your dreams.  

What sets BTS apart from other groups are their lyrics and the fact that BTS writes them independently, which is atypical of the carefully curated and managed K-pop groups.

Over time, BTS’ sound gradually morphed from aggressive, underground hip-hop to a more mainstream sound with balance and depth, while still maintaining their musical roots. Wings preserves BTS’ bombastic style, as seen in “21st Century Girls” and “Am I Wrong,” but also displays their versatility and individual personalities as each member has a solo song on the 15-track album.

Wings contains songs ranging from Sam Smith-esque ballads (“Lie”) to aggressive raps (“Intro: Boy Meets Evil” and “Cypher Part 4”) to moombahton trap songs (“Blood, Sweat and Tears”) that give Major Lazer and Justin Bieber a run for their money.

In their 2015 song “Dope” from The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 1, they sing “our youth rots in the studio / because of it we’re closer to success.” They are well aware of their deviation from the standard K-pop formula; they are willing to work as hard as they need to make it and they do it their own way.

BTS contrasts South Korea’s conservative society Psy’s “Gentleman” music video was banned because he kicked a traffic cone, an abuse of public property. Most K-pop focuses on safe topics like love, heartbreak and partying. BTS does not play it so safely.

In their song “Silver Spoon” from The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2, they directly criticize South Korean society. The song title references the metaphor that equates wealth and social class to spoons. In “Silver Spoon,” the septet labels themselves as “try-hards” and describe how hard they must work because they were born without silver spoons in their mouths.

While BTS has some songs that fit the cliché K-pop stereotype like “Just One Day” from Skool Luv Affair, they also discuss important topics, even though they may land the band in trouble: bullying, depression, struggles of youth, pursuit of happiness, forsaking society’s ideals and temptation. A refreshing shift from generic upbeat pop songs, BTS’ songs are aurally seductive and resonate with common experiences.

Just as K-pop has a tendency to revolve around the same few topics, American music also falls prey to having too many songs about love, sex and partying.

BTS’ music provides a different and innovative story told over hypnotising melodies, hardcore raps and club-worthy dance tracks. Behind the heavy bass, coordinated outfits, perfectly disheveled hair and practiced smirks is music with meaning. Their lyrics and the emotions they try to convey feel more genuine than songs about getting wasted or living the dream. BTS isn’t selling songs about how the rich live and party; they are telling relatable stories with authenticity and passion — something that has been desperately missing from mainstream American music.

In “Cypher Part 3: Killer” from their first full-length album, Dark and Wild, J-Hope raps, “Yeah, I’m from Korea so all you bastards who try to rap in English look and see who’s on top of you right now.” BTS doesn’t need to sing in English to be successful, and they knew it years ago.

With the success of Wings, an album with a diverse mix of tracks that showcases unique sounds and struggles, BTS has been vindicated for breaking the K-pop mold with their innovative sound and sincere lyrics. BTS has something to say, and they won’t allow a language barrier to prevent them from saying it to the world.

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