Type to search

Artists Features Home Flashbox K-pop Music News & Updates Videos

BTS and The Beauty Of Words

The BTS canon of music is filled with mythological symbolism, classical references and Renaissance imagery. A deep dive into their lyrics is to understand the power of the written word

Ambika Muttoo Nov 12, 2020

Illustration by Eeshita Chinmulgund for Rolling Stone India

Share this:

The morning will come again/ No darkness, no season is eternal.” There’s a reason why this line from “Spring Day” by BTS is engraved in my mind. Much like BTS songs that always have references and underpinnings, this links to a period of my life, two decades ago, when I was a college student. Little did I know then, but that chaotic, eventful time catapulted me into who I am today. To settle the math before this indulgent story begins, I’m what the Internet kindly refers to as an ‘elder millennial,’ and why the band matters to me, requires some context. 

Back then, at 18, I was living in a northern suburb-city of New Delhi with dreams of becoming a writer; one I had harbored since I was eight. An English Literature degree in one of the toughest university programs in India felt like the key to this burgeoning ambition. It would take an hour and a half on a bus to get to college, at the time. Erratic schedules would mean hopping on a tin-can state roadway bus, often, or if fate was gracious, a marginally more comfortable coach. But, I was young and free, and most importantly, had access to the greats: Shakespeare, the Romantics and the Victorians that followed, Homer, Yeats, Milton and Chaucer. Sitting on an unyielding wooden bench, with unforgiving sunlight streaming through a window didn’t matter, but what did was, “The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,” from Doctor Faustus. “Do I dare, Disturb the universe?/ In a minute there is time,/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse,” by Eliot was a line that made me memorize the whole of The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock. It was then that I truly realized the power of the written word. 

A central element to this scenario, tying the texts I was immersed in and the circuitous journey to get to them, was my prized possession: an iPod. I was always plugged in, because while reading provided a gateway into different universes, music did too, in equal measure. Both mediums are two of the most potent repositories of humanity and its archetypal emotions. I am of the firm belief that the authors of all the greatest epics were the rock stars of their time. As far as I’m concerned, who can differentiate between poetry and the lyrics of say Tom Waits or Talib Kweli, or the lyricism of a beat by Frankie Knuckles and a verse by Faulkner? Who can differentiate between the consuming effect of Byron…and BTS? 

My musical tastes have always been heterogeneous. I inherited a deep love for The Rolling Stones, The Who and Mo-town from my mother. My father liked the stuff he could, in his words, ‘boogie’ to, so throw in a lot of Elvis Presley and Osibisa. While my teenage soul, back in the late Nineties, sang every word of the Backstreet Boys, Boyzone (and the OG’s Take That), I was also listening to the Brits — Oasis, Blur, the Chemical Brothers and DJ Zinc. Add some hardcore Goa psychedelic at the outdoor raves we would end up at every weekend (and Bollywood that was playing in every bar in the late Nineties and early 2000s). Everything from the hardest techno, old school hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll’ and synth pop would blaze through my headphones. They still do. I wrote about music for 13 years, after graduating, trading that old iPod for newer technology, college classes for deadlines, a boxy desktop for music festivals and youth for experiences. 

I’m in my thirties now, and when I heard a BTS song for the first time, my abiding, deeply personal love for the written word and music came crashing together in the most evocative way. That song was “Spring Day.” The words were vivid, powerful and set to music that cut straight to my heart. It’s been a while since I was that girl on the bus. It’s a pretty memory to relate, but I knew loss and pain back then. Twenty years later, I know them in far more intimate ways. Heartbreak doesn’t get easier, neither does letting go, even though I believe that when you lose something, you gain something else. Perspective, if you’re lucky. To have someone write about yearning and sorrow in such an empathetic manner, felt rare. “Passing by the edge of the cold winter/ Until the days of spring/ Until the days of flower blossoms/ Please stay, please stay there a little longer,” are the poetic words I wish I could have said, so many times. The lyrics refer to cherry blossoms, which signify transience. With life, heartbreak and childhood, alike, you have to move on. Hope and optimism  truly bloom when you make your peace with something, or someone. I’d like to lay testament to the fact that, while winter can be bitterly cold and gloomy but, “ …no darkness, no season is eternal.” 

“Spring Day” was just the starting point, however. The floodgates opened because I realized that this beautiful, reflective song could not exist in isolation. The fact that BTS rappers RM and SUGA co-wrote it (with a team that included Big Hit Entertainment’s founder, Bang Sihyuk) felt like such an indicator of their artistry. But first, because of my curiosity, I had to know everything about them. What I found out was that, with BTS, the seven members, together as a family, have such strong, distinct personalities. But there’s a collection of interchangeable traits they share between themselves. Vocalist Jin, for instance, might be hysterically funny, and often plays the role of the mood maker, but there’s a quiet thoughtfulness he shares with rapper j-hope, who is also the proverbial ray of sunshine (the duality makes him even more relatable.) Leader RM’s intellect, his poetic way with words and comforting sense of empathy is mirrored in vocalist Jimin. While the former is also lovingly called the ‘God of Destruction,’ the latter is a formidably powerful dancer. It’s also a quality one can find in main vocalist Jung Kook, the maknae (the youngest,) who is legitimately, one of the finest performers of this generation. While playful, he also has a finely tuned creative mind, and a fiercely protective side, much like vocalist V. V, in turn, shares compassionate insightfulness, and the ability to provide perspective, which is something all of us see in SUGA. They complete the circle, within themselves with attributes that make them shine as artists, but most importantly, as people. It’s impossible not to love them and to root for them.

This is also a very abridged version of who BTS are. Writing about them, in detail, their relationship with ARMY (their diverse, beloved global fanbase), and the records they’ve blown up along the way, is a completely different story; one that would fill a book. This narrative is about the time that they were welcoming me into their world, in the best way possible: with an extensive canon of work to absorb. With each album, I couldn’t help but find myself at a crossroad, over and over, where my past and present collided. The literature student whose existence was bookmarked with annotations, and the editor, who corralls words for a living. BTS, through their lyrics, and often, through their music videos, weave the most diverse set of analogies and metaphors that span the worlds of art, history, philosophy and psychology. On top of that, the easter eggs, and the connecting bridges between their own songs, has created an extensive mythology (one I’m still discovering.) The BTS body of work has such a thorough network of neurons, that it spawned the BU — BTS Universe — and all the music videos, short films and riveting content that lie within. Its beauty also lies in the synapses, where the fans ideate, theorize and connect the dots in wholly original ways as well. 

An example here would be another one of my favourite tracks, “Home” from 2019’s Map Of The Soul: Persona. The entire EP takes a deep dive into Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concepts of the psyche, ego and collective unconscious. The ‘persona’ here is a direct reference to Jung’s four archetypes: the Self, the Persona, the Shadow and the Anima or Animus. Fame on a BTS level can be alienating, but the boys sum up their sentiments, and their priorities (that home is where their hearts are) succinctly. They’re debating between the Self and Persona, with, “The world thinks we own the whole world/ Even if we have what I wanted in my dreams/ Big house, big cars, big rings/ The unfamiliar feeling of missing something/ For someone who has accomplished everything, but I go out the door since I know I have something to return to.” 

Their comprehensive set of allusions also come into play here, as they directly reference the song, “No More Dream” from their debut single album, 2 Cool 4 Skool. The song opens with, “Hey, is that you dream?/ I wanna big house, big cars, and big rings/ But in reality/ I don’t have any big dream.” They understood the superficiality of material things, back then, and even with all the success, so many years later, it’s comforting that they still emphasize the importance of home, but more importantly, what that implies. They’re also debating the nature of happiness. Are you supposed to have big dreams, perennially? Are you always supposed to do what’s expected of you and tick off all the boxes society sets up for you? Is that your measure of success, or is there something deeper? I write this, at an age where I’m supposed to have the big house, big car and big rings. Focusing on what you don’t have, instead of recognizing what you do, can turn dreams into nightmares. 

Perhaps it’s the Shadow talking in “Dionysus”, the headiest of songs from Persona, which boldly states, “Drink in one hand, Thyrsus on the other/ Art splashing inside this clear crystal cup/ Art is alcohol too, if you can drink it, you’ll get drunk fool.” Thyrsus was the staff the Greek God carried, signifying hedonism and fruitfulness. There’s also a lot of word play here, especially between, art and alcohol (both intoxicating) but, essentially, as RM himself said, it’s a look at “the joy and pain of creating something.” There are recurring mentions of being reborn, throughout, with one part explicitly stating, “Born as a K-pop idol/ Reborn as an artist/ What does it matter if I’m an idol or an artist, cheers/ Art at this level is over-drinking/ The new record is the fight against oneself.” They’re linking their journey as artists with the Greek god Dionysus, who represents rebirth in classical mythology.

Consider these lines, too: “The light of my future is dimming/ Because of my childish love, I lost my way on a path of a dream/ The venom of my ambition, I sharpened my knife every day/ But because of my uncontrollable greed, my knife became dull/ I know it all/ This love is another name for the devil/ Don’t hold their hand, I shouted but turned away from my conscience/ I feel the sharp reality more every day/ There’s red blood from being torn apart by reality/ I never thought that the greed would become the trumpet heralding hell/ Breathe.” As I was reading this out to my mother, she assumed this was a stanza from a 20th century Modernist poem, due to its form and complex matrix of words. Something written by Eliot or Auden, when it is in fact, j-hope’s solo, “Intro: Boy Meets Evil” from BTS’ 2016 LP Wings. Apart from the splicing nature of the lyrics, this also pays homage to Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, by German-Swiss writer Hermann Hesse; a common motif through the whole album. Let’s not forget that Hesse himself was also deeply influenced by Jung, as are BTS, with Jungian motifs clearly peppering their discography. 

Here, the protagonist of the novel Sinclair, is torn between two worlds— that of illusion and spiritual truth, much like j-hope, who muses between, “too bad but it’s too sweet.” In fact, “He too was a tempter; he, too, was a link to the second, the evil world with which I no longer wanted to have anything to do,” from “Blood, Sweat & Tears” is a quote from Demian as well. The music video is a baroque masterpiece that revels in Renaissance art and classical literature. There’s a scene where Jin stands in front of an ornate mirror, and the German words “Man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können” are engraved on the wall it is hung on. This translates to, “You must have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star,” from  Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. 

As the band walk through the different rooms of a museum, certain paintings and sculptures are highlighted, including Michaelangelo’s “Pieta,”  the “Venus de Milo,” and “Perseus With the Head of Medusa” by Benvenuto Cellini. “The Lament for Icarus” by Herbert James Draper, Pieter Bruegel’s “The Fall of Icarus” and “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” also make appearances. Icarus had one fatal flaw, and that was curiosity — some liken it to arrogance. He flew too close to the sun, ignoring his father, Daedalus’ warning, which is how he met his end. This is mirrored in the scene where V jumps off the balcony, faced by the landscape of “The Fall of Icarus.” There’s also a poignant scene where Jin stares at the camera with deep cracks splitting down his face. It feels like a visual rendition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. There are so many other juxtapositions in the video and all the various Biblical overtones illustrate the temptations of adulthood, and how easy it is to ‘fall.’ There’s so much to interpret here, with the themes of youth, beauty, sin, desire crashing together. Is this a metaphor for a mea culpa or redemption? 

Greek and Roman mythology are also illustrated in a multitude of BTS music videos. Jungkook opening Pandora’s Box and finding the key of hope in “Fake Love,” and V alluding to Narcissus in his devastating solo, “Singularity,” come to mind. Who can also forget their performance at the 2019 Melon Music Awards where each member took on the role of a Greek deity to spectacular effect. Jin was Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. SUGA was Hephaestus, the God of Fire, j-hope was Zeus, RM was Dionysus and V was Apollo, the God of the Sun, Healing and Poetry. Jimin was Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon and Wilderness, while Jung Kook rounded the septet up as Poseidon, the God of the Sea. The entire performance, needless to say, was Olympian. 

It would be remiss not to segue into Map of the Soul: 7 here, which is a colossal album, packed with allegories. Taking their seven-year journey into account, MOTS7 is the motherload, weaving in backstories, tying in the present, and alluding to the future. It’s also a continuation of Map of The Soul: Persona, so it provides an even deeper look into the human psyche, through what is their most deeply personal offering, yet. It also gifted me with the exquisite “Black Swan,” released serendipitously on my birthday earlier this year. Combining leitmotifs of Jungian ‘shadows,’ Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, this contrasts the fear of losing the passion that was discovered in the Wings track “First Love”; SUGA defined his passion for music with, “Back then when I fell into a pit of despair/ Even when I pushed you away/ Even when I resented meeting you/ You were firmly by my side/ You didn’t have to say anything/ So don’t ever let go of my hand/ I won’t let you go ever again either/ My birth and the end of my life/ You will be there to watch over it all.” On his verse on “Black Swan,” this turns into, “The heart no longer races/ When hearing the music play/ Seems like time has stopped/ Oh that would be my first death/ I been always afraid of.” 

The song also has two music videos, including an art film of an interpretive dance performance by the Slovenian troupe, MN Dance Company. Inspired by the movie Black Swan, the video opens with a quote by the dancer Martha Graham that states, “A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is more painful.” It reiterates the band’s collective contemplation on how passion lost, and talent squandered, is a fate worse than death. BTS have also, over time, referenced both the sea and desert in their lyrics. The first signifies abundance and therefore success. The other is arid and bleak, denoting failure. But here, they speak of an, “ocean with all light silenced.” Is that how dreams die, one wonders, as they did on their 2017 track “Sea”, with a rumination on, “Is this the sea or the desert?/ Is this hope or despair?” 

The breathtaking music video for “Black Swan” which features BTS, has them switching from Odette (the white Swan) to Odile (the black Swan) from the ballet, through the clever use of shadow play and styling. Purity of intention versus the corruption of fame? The battle between light and dark? Desire of perfection warring against the fear of failure? Sin and redemption? The ego versus the id? Artistic integrity pushing back against commercialization? The possibilities of critique are endless, but they must arrive at the same conclusion — the song is a triumph of artistry. 

It’s raining outside, on what one would describe as a gloomy day. I’m plugged into headphones, as per usual, listening to the song, as I type this. I’m cognizant of a deep-seated fear of failure in writing about a group who are such a crucial and welcome part of my life. Am I still as passionate as I was 20 years ago, or have I become jaded? Are my dreams valid? Am I what is considered to be a successful person? But, since the subject of this piece has been BTS, I find myself able to change the trajectory of my thoughts. Light exists only in the presence of shadow. The sun shines brightest after it’s dark. In the absence of absolutes, there is only courage and conviction. Self reflection is the key that can unlock all the possibilities that await you. But more than anything, read, dance, laugh, listen, create, debate, fall, fail, heal. This really great guy once said, “Love yourself, speak yourself.” I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take his word for it. 

 

Also See  Watch Lay Zhang Make an Epic Comeback With 'Lit'

Ambika Muttoo has been a writer and editor for 13 years. Music has always been her first love and she has written about a variety of genres, including electronic music and underground scenes in different continents. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, @missmuttoo. 

Curated by Riddhi Chakraborty

This story is featured in the Rolling Stone India Collectors Edition: The Ultimate Guide to BTS

Share this:
Tags:

You Might also Like