K-Pop’s Biggest Boy Band BTS: ‘We Write About Things People Don’t Want to Say’
Rap Monster, leader of the South Korean boy group, discusses their intense lyricism, addressing taboo topics, fan theories and Daler Mehndi
If you’re a millennial with an Internet connection, chances are, you have seen the letters ‘BTS’ flood your social media timeline at least once in the last few months. Tidbits of information about the Bangtan Boys (also called Beyond the Scene and labeled as “South Korea’s biggest boy group” by publications) make numerous rounds on the Internet everyday–articles from prestigious publications gush about multiple accolades (their recent Billboard Top Social Artist victory over pop giants Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez is a common favorite) and the awe around the seven-member group’s Herculean social media power often precedes their music itself.
After six months of trying to score a conversation with the group that Time magazine declared as one of the most influential artists on social media, it’s a little surreal to receive a confirmation. When the day arrived for the conversation with Kim Namjoon aka Rap Monster, the main rapper and leader of BTS, it went from dreamlike to nerve-wracking. However when we finally do connect via Skype, he takes the lead and breaks the ice immediately, asking how I’m doing and, “What time is it there?” It is 6:33 pm in Mumbai to Seoul’s 10 pm and just like that, talking to him is the easiest thing in the world.
A lot of the time BTS’ seven members– Rap Monster, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook– serve as the gateway for most people discovering the glittering world of K-pop. They are the biggest hook in the recent fad of reaction videos on YouTube and while many fans feel it’s just a way for YouTubers to glom off the group’s fame, it’s also the number one method to blow “Gangnam Style”-influenced stereotypes right out of the water; the power-packed, gleaming music video for their 2015 single “Dope” or 2016’s baroque-infused “Blood, Sweat and Tears” are prime examples of South Korea’s commitment to stellar music production, after all. However, as Rap Monster explains, becoming a bridge between cultures is not a simple task. “We never expected that, you know,” he says, adding that while it’s an honor, it’s a lot of responsibility for a group who are all still in their early twenties. “If we are the first ones to be introduced to people in the West and India and Europe, it makes us think, ‘Okay we should be greater’.” With the influence the group has on the global music scene currently and as representatives of their country, the pressure is immense. “We feel the weight. It’s quite heavy.”
So why is BTS in particular catching so much attention in comparison to groups like EXO, BlackPink, GOT7 and Twice, especially since there are a plethora of Korean artists to choose from? “I still didn’t figure out what exactly it was,” admits Rap Monster. It’s impossible to pinpoint one single reason– there are even differences between the way Korean audiences consume entertainment versus the way international audiences do. “I think international audiences are more sensitive to trends,” he says. “[They know] about what’s going on Billboard, in pop music. In Korea, since there are so many Korean artists in K-pop right now, I think it’s mainly a difference in taste [in genres/style.]” He explains that K-pop is a total art package: music, lyrics, storylines, music videos and choreography mixed with daily experiences via YouTube vlogs, tweets and posts on V-Live (a Korean live streaming app). It’s often the right combination of these things that get an artist noticed. “Since we write stories of our own and we try to communicate face to face to not just the Korean audiences but also the international audiences, I really think that helped us. But I’m still finding out actually!” he says with a laugh.
BTS have proven that while this formula may sound simple on paper, it’s a tough road to actually get to the top spot as a Daesang-winner, and that too as a group the public didn’t expect much from at the beginning. Although they debuted in 2013 with 2 Kool For Skool, the group only caught South Korea’s attention in 2015 with 화양연화 (Hwayang-yeonhwa) or The Most Beautiful Moment In Life series. The two-part album offered raw lyricism and intense storylines which took a different trajectory from the hip-hop/bubblegum pop saturation in the K-pop industry and surprised audiences with rock and R&B-infused takes on heavier topics like politics, depression, suicide and loneliness. The music videos for the singles “I Need U” and “Run” from the album were particularly career-defining, allowing the group to tear away from the flashy superficiality of the “big house, cars, big rings” trope [lyrics from their 2013 debut single “No More Dream.”] Suddenly they were no longer ‘just another boy group’ trying to make it big; they morphed into a mirror to societal realities.
Rap Monster turns to Star Wars to explain the reasoning behind this transition. “Stars Wars came out tens of years ago, but a dad and his son still go to the theater to see [it],” he says. “It’s not just like a five-year or a 10-year thing, you know what I mean? So our company knew that and they always told us about how important it is to make a world like Star Wars or Marvel [did].” BTS understood they’d have to create a legacy, a storyline that would resonate with audiences long after they themselves were gone. Rap Monster explains that before making a music video, the entire group sits down with their label to discuss where the story will go. “There are characters, seven different characters in the videos, so we try to not be so far away from our real characteristics and our real life. We’re always [discussing] our experiences, our hardships and our sadness and that really helps in coming up with the character in the videos.” While the larger concept is crafted by their label Big Hit Entertainment, the boys ensure that their individual stories are communicated as accurately as possible.
When it comes to solo endeavors, the group are given even more free reign. RM (2015) and Agust D (2016), Rap Monster and bandmate Suga’s respective solo debut mixtapes, took it a step further and let fans glimpse the core of who they are. Suga especially dove into his personal battles with social anxiety and depression, topics that idols don’t usually open up about. I ask Rap Monster if he ever gets afraid of the possible consequences of bringing out something so personal on a public platform and he doesn’t hesitate when he answers, “Honestly speaking, I’m always afraid of it.” He explains that there are so many opinions people have and with the rise of keyboard warriors and critics in more recent years, the group needs to be aware of the weight of their words. “There are tons of different kinds of tastes, thoughts and opinions so when I try to say something, I always think, ‘What if somebody hates on this, or makes this a huge problem worldwide since we have some power on an international level?’” he says. “But we cannot stop because this is what we do and it’s what we want to say.” Rap Monster explains that the group consults professionals from their company and other experts from various fields before they release anything, but he is firm in the assurance that BTS will not stop singing about topics people prefer to stay away from. “I don’t think I’m always right, or that I’m the one who can explain everything. I’m just a man who wants to be better and make better things. That’s it.”
Most entertainment companies in South Korea tend to be careful about what they allow their artists to say and songs often stay clear of topics around politics, depression and suicide. It’s a similar climate within India, the process a little more self-restrictive; artists rarely want to write about their own mental health or the government or political situations (there were rumors that BTS’ 2017 comeback track “Spring Day” was centered around South Korea’s tragic Sewol Ferry disaster, a topic artists were often blacklisted for discussing.) Rap Monster feels that Big Hit Entertainment’s prerogative to grant the boys lyrical freedom is one of the key reasons for the attention BTS is currently receiving. “We try to stay raw. We can’t be 100 percent raw because we are still idols in Korea, but we try to make our own stories and write about things people don’t want to say. We still make our mixtapes and produce tracks. I think that’s one of the most important things to BTS and maybe to [the group’s fan club] A.R.M.Y. too.”
This thought process led to the birth of a three-year storyline and alternate universe within numerous music videos, short films, photoshoots and album art. The release of their sophomore full-length studio album Wings in 2016 propelled the mythos to new heights, pushed the seven characters of The Most Beautiful Moment In Life from reality into surrealism and allowed symbolism to run rampant; there were underlying hints about lies, temptation, knowledge, love, life and death and everything from biblical references to Greek mythology were fair game. You Never Walk Alone, Wings’ 2017 reissue, was no exception; fans were sent into a tizzy, dedicating several hours of their lives to deciphering what it all meant, creating numerous theories on YouTube every time BTS dropped anything new. When it comes to these fan theories, Rap Monster immediately shares how impressed he is with fans’ attention to detail. “Actually, I’ve seen some and I don’t know who it was, but there was a video– like an interpretation of the whole thing– that was really close.” He doesn’t remember who made it, but it definitely shocked him. “I think they’re getting too smart and too talented,” he says with a laugh.
We talk a little more about BTS’ relationship with their fans, the ever-dedicated and powerful A.R.M.Y (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth) and Rap Monster’s tone is fond. “When we go abroad and they shake our hands or in the letters when they’re saying, ‘Namjoon, you changed my life,’ or ‘Your song inspired me’… That was one of the biggest things that kept my energy for years,” he recalls. He explains that when there are times he feels like he can’t go on in this industry, he thinks about A.R.M.Y. “Their voices that say, ‘All your songs, all your lyrics changed me, changed my life and made me chase my dream again…’ I see that and I just cannot quit. I really appreciate that. They are changing my life by saying I changed their lives.” Perhaps that’s another reason they have such a powerful fandom and sold-out tours no matter which country they head to; they give back love as equally as they get it. In fact I tell him about a brilliant fan-made video I came across recently and he immediately asks for a link, his interest in A.R.M.Y.’s projects a 100 percent genuine.
As for what comes next, it’s no surprise that BTS are determined to outdo themselves. Their recent English rebranding to adopt the full-form ‘Beyond The Scene’ is an indicator that the members are gearing up for a new artistic chapter in their lives and ready to proceed as international artists. Their own work has set the bar high and Rap Monster divulges a little bit about the group’s thought processes when making new music; while they do have the freedom to express themselves, a large part of it does include keeping their audiences in mind and how to best cater to them. “So it’s not 100 percent for me or like my kind of thing,” admits Rap Monster. “But it’s still fun to work as a producer for the team because there are good vocalists like Jungkook and Jimin, V and Jin.” Another interesting note he adds is that they also have to think about how well the song would translate onstage, while producing and writing it. “In my expression I would say we try to ‘see’ the song when we make it because we have to think about the performance later.”
BTS’ arsenal of music spans a vast number of genres including pop (“Dope,” “Fire”), hip-hop (“Cyphers Pt 1-4”), alternative R&B (“Save Me”), moombahton (“Blood, Sweat and Tears”), jazz (“Stigma”, “House of Cards”) and more. Personally, Rap Monster’s base is hip hop and R&B, but he wants to branch out and experiment even more. “I’m thinking about bringing Korean traditional instruments to our sound so that we can introduce the original Korean things to the people in the world,” he says. “It’s just my individual opinion, but that’s one of my wishes.” There are tentative plans for new solo material as well. “I’m making songs and some of them… I think it’s good,” he says. “RM took a short time because I didn’t make the beats. But for the next one I want to make songs from scratch.” He is assures me that he will indeed release solo work, but whether it’ll be a mixtape or an album or on SoundCloud is still a mystery to him. He instead shifts the spotlight to J-Hope, the third rapper in the group. “J-Hope is working on his mixtape. I think that’s next for us.” There’s no date yet, but Rap Monster reveals things are looking good. “I’ve listened to a couple of songs and I really liked it.”
When the conversation turns to India, Rap Monster laments the fact that BTS haven’t had the chance to visit yet. “It’s very famous here. We see it in textbooks, in fairytales. So we got so many fantasies; the mystery, the Taj Mahal, the beautiful people…” He lists the usual things foreigners often hear about our country but suddenly, in true BTS fashion, there’s something he says that catches me off-guard. “I could say that the most famous Indian song in Korea is ‘Tunak Tunak Tun’,” he says about the very random 1998 Punjabi pop mega-hit by Daler Mehndi that went viral before ‘going viral’ was a thing.
“It’s really famous. I sang it when I was a middle school student when I was 14.” We both laugh about it and compare the track’s meme-age value to “Gangnam Style” and it hits me that besides our professions and locations, as people we’re not that different. Relatability has always been a key part of BTS’ appeal, but an actual conversation with their very down-to-earth leader makes me understand what that truly means. Perhaps there is no need to analyze the big ‘why’ behind the fame because it could all just be as simple as this: they’re a bunch of talented, hilarious guys with a winning work ethic, a supportive label and a fandom that won’t quit on them. Regardless of language barriers, fans tend to see a bit of themselves in BTS and India is no exception; I tell him about the requests Vh1 India has been bombarded with on Twitter to air BTS’ tracks on television in India and he is surprised but happy. “I hope that BigHit is planning to go to India,” Rap Monster says, adding that while they’ve traveled to several countries the globe, India is one place they’ve been eager to explore for a long time. “Maybe we’ll be there soon. So let’s meet in India.”
All photos courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment.
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Watch BTS’ video for “Not Today” below: