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BTS: The Rolling Stone Interview

The global superstars get candid about the philosophy of their music, the experiences that inspired their upcoming record ‘BE’ and the ever-evolving definition of success

Riddhi Chakraborty Nov 09, 2020

After three years of a steady climb to the top, it's pretty clear that BTS are not a passing fad--they’re here to stay and change the way the world sees what makes a pop icon. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

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The day before I began writing this piece, I decided to listen to BTS’ discography in its entirety. It’s not my first cruise through their impressive arsenal of hip-hop, jazz, blues and glimmering pop–far from it, in fact–but it’s a powerful reminder as to why we’re doing this interview in the first place. 

BTS isn’t the overnight sensation you’ve probably been led to believe. The rise to the top of the charts didn’t happen as a result of a fluke, a ‘rabid’ fandom or paid views. A lot of the time I see articles in mainstream media or reaction videos splashed across YouTube that demand to know how this happened, or where exactly BTS emerged from. There’s been everything from admiration and dismissal, obsession and skepticism, all of it leading back to questions about ‘how’ and ‘why.’ 

Their music isn’t for a certain group of individuals; it is for everyone who has moved through the stages of life. BTS’ lyrics break down moments that the majority of us living on this planet have in common, including experiences during school days, bonds (forged and broken) with friends, expectations placed upon us by our parents and the roles thrust onto us by society, all leading to the seemingly unavoidable fate of falling into the rat race. By addressing these stages of our lives, the core of this band’s message ties into the examination of what it means to be human, to understand where you lie in the grand scheme of things. There is no limit to who can be a fan or who can see themselves in these seven men from South Korea, and with this very simple truth, it is a legacy cemented for all generations to discover and fall in love with.

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Rolling Stone India Collectors Edition: The Ultimate Guide to BTS. Cover photo by Yeongjun Kim.

While working with BTS on this project over the last couple of months, I learned a lot about them as professionals. Their schedules were stretched tight as they completed photoshoots, videos, production and everything else that could revolve around the release of a new record. In that particular span of weeks, they were also rehearsing for and would eventually conduct ‘Map of the Soul ON:E,’ their record-breaking live concert that finally allowed them to perform the COVID-cancelled tour they had planned for their 2020 LP Map of the Soul: 7. Despite this flood of activities in the members’ days, all of Rolling Stone India’s deadlines were met, release dates were scheduled, and I truly understood how much BTS and their team focus on precision and timing. There is attention to detail on levels that most audiences are not privy to–and probably never will be. But it is this commitment to the craft and teamwork that sets them apart from any other musical act on the planet. 

Comprising rappers RM, SUGA and j-hope plus vocalists Jin, Jimin, V and Jung Kook, BTS were last on Rolling Stone India’s cover in September 2017, right before the start of their overwhelming ride to the top of the Western charts. At that point during our conversation, the group’s leader RM had felt that their rising popularity was due to the Western audience’s fascination with trends, stating, “I think international audiences are more sensitive to trends. [They know] about what’s going on Billboard, in pop music.” But since then BTS have gone on to break and set multiple records, establishing themselves as titans in an industry that would otherwise see boy bands (especially those of color or foreign) come and go as quickly as an ocean wave. They smashed through preconceived notions surrounding Asian men, K-pop, and artists with female-led fandoms, building a path that opens doors for all those who were previously rejected by Western standards. After three years of a steady climb to the top, it’s pretty clear that BTS are not a passing fad–they’re here to stay and change the way the world sees what makes a pop icon. There’s a certain assurance in knowing that BTS aren’t going anywhere. It’s a strength that those of us who are people of color–especially Asian and overlooked–feel when we see them fight to build us a platform.

BTS and I connect several times over a span of a few weeks in October. It’s a vibrant back and forth between India and Korea, and a conversation long overdue, spread out over several days to accommodate their hectic schedule. They answer more of my questions than I expected, and open up about facets of their artistry and identity they haven’t before, including their thought processes while writing certain tracks, their fears that inspired the themes in their glorious cinematic universe, their ambitions, and the ever-evolving meaning of success. We discussed topics that aren’t often brought up in other interviews, focused on revisiting past work and the evolution of the members’ viewpoints on life. It’s a rare glimpse into the creative process of one of the most important artists of our generation, and makes me feel as though I’ve been trusted with something monumental.

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Congratulations on debuting at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. Did you have a feeling that the song to accomplish this feat would be “Dynamite?”

V:​ We had no idea “Dynamite” would become such a success. We just wanted to share a burst of energy and deliver a message of hope in these difficult times. We’re grateful to our fans, ARMY, for enabling us to achieve that goal.

You also put out music frequently in Japanese and now with “Dynamite” you took a leap into recording in English. How is the creative process different there, and what are the challenges of recording and performing in a foreign language?

V:​ We gave extra attention to the English pronunciation, since this was our very first full English track, but it was a fun process overall. In general, we put more effort into clearly communicating our messages whenever we sing songs in a foreign language.

Outside of all your charting success, what would you consider a significant turning point in your evolution as artists, whether solo or as a team?

SUGA:​ When we began touring and performing in front of live audiences all over the world, we felt that we had evolved one step further in our journey as artists.

“We need a balanced mix of happiness and sadness and light and dark to act as nutritive elements in our lives.”— RM. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

What is the process of choosing a title track for a BTS album? Is the title song the one that best represents the album, or are there other factors that are considered?

RM: The lead single is usually the song that we feel best embodies the overarching theme of the album.

RM, I remember when you did your livestream for Love Yourself: Tear and you showed us the demo for “Fake Love,” it had more of a raw, rock vibe to it compared to the final release. What affects how a track changes from when you create or receive a demo, to the version you finally decide to add on the album?

RM: Because there are seven members involved, many adjustments are always made before the final release of a song. Our vocals and tones are so unique that it’s difficult at times to even come to an agreement about the key. However, we repeat the process of trial and error as we try out different things and finally discover what feels right for all of us.

When you guys are putting your music out there, how much does feedback matter to you? Or are you the type to put out something you want, stay true to yourself and not look at comments from the public?

Jin: ​The opinion of our label, producers, as well as our fans are all important. Their feedback is invaluable since we know they have our best interest in mind. However, we try to focus on the message we want to deliver to our audiences since that is the true purpose behind why we do music in the first place. External factors play a role in helping us further develop that message and reflect it in our music.

“Self-acceptance and insecurity are topics that I honestly didn’t want to address. I didn’t want to reveal my dark side, but talking to our Chairman and producer Mr. Bang helped me open up.” —Jin. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

When you record, do you go for capturing the right feeling, or perfection of the sound?

Jung Kook: Ihighly prefer capturing the right feeling. I don’t like being restricted by boundaries.

How do you deal with lulls in creativity and inspiration? Do you ever feel pressured by production timelines?

Jung Kook:​ I try not to be affected by pressure and just do as I feel. If I feel creative, great, if not, then that’s okay too. 

So much of your artistry is about relatability. The Most Beautiful Moment in Life​ is what made me a lifelong fan in 2015. When you were making this album series, did you know then that it would resonate on such a massive level? And if not, why was it surprising that it was this record that did it?

Jimin: ​The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt.1 was the album that first allowed us to win awards at music shows in Korea and attract more fans. Nobody expected it to be a first win and a massive hit, but it became a key stepping stone for us moving onward. We’re not completely sure why it was this specific album that played that role. Jin, however, claims he anticipated its success because whenever j-hope says that a song won’t do well, it turns out to be the other way around.

There’s a fascinating shift in how your music describes success over time. For me, a great example of this is the use of the lyrics, “I want a big house, big cars, big rings” which appear in three BTS songs over several years: your debut track “No More Dream,” “Home” from Map of the Soul: Persona and “Interlude: Shadow” from ​Map of the Soul: 7​–each used with different context. You’ve also done live performance versions of “No More Dream” that change the lyrics and omit the “I want.” How has your definition of success changed from when you debuted to now?

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j-hope: When I was young, there were times when I thought debut was the meaning of success. When I first faced what I believed as ‘success,’ I found how lacking I was and that was the beginning of my journey of learning. Talking about success is a bit embarrassing, because I think I’m still learning. Everyone has a different definition and standard for success. I find comfort in knowing that I will do my best to reach the level of success that I have set for myself. That is how I currently view success.

On that note, j-hope, you once said that “Airplane” from your 2018 mixtape Hope World was a product of the moment when you realized that you are now living the life you always dreamed of as a kid. Do you still have moments like that where it all seems just unbelievable?

j-hope: It’s still unbelievable that our singing and dancing, which we began out of pure enjoyment, has spread such an impact across the world. It leaves an even greater impression since no one even imagined that this would happen. I still can’t believe we reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100.

When you wrote your earlier albums, whether it was Dark & Wild​ or The Most Beautiful Moment in Life​ series, you were adolescents. Now when you look back at these records as successful adults, how has your perspective on what the youth need to hear in music evolved?

RM: When I was younger, I thought that sadness had to be dealt with sadness. Now that I am older, I realize that is not always the case. We need a balanced mix of happiness and sadness and light and dark to act as nutritive elements in our lives.

Map Of The Soul:7 deals with the various levels that make up the psyche of a human being, but is also deeply connected to the evolution of BTS as you guys climb the ladder of fame. Was it very difficult to show your global audience such a personal side of B​TS?

j-hope: The album looks back at our seven year journey together as a seven-member band. It talks about the stories that made us who we are today and our true feelings in a candid manner. It was as if we’d opened up a grand, detailed account of our diary of the past several years. It’s showing ourselves as we are– so we felt proud and blessed that we can present ourselves in such a way.

“When I was young, there were times when I thought debut was the meaning of success. When I first faced what I believed as ‘success,’ I found how lacking I was and that was the beginning of my journey of learning.”— j-hope. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

Black Swan” involved a fear of losing your love for your art. Were there real life moments that inspired this track or is it more of a fear that lurks in the future?

Jimin:​ I used to have fears that my pure intentions towards my work might deteriorate and that I might look at what I do strictly as a ‘job’ when I become too exhausted from tight schedules and commitments.

There were so many great  moments in this record that were throwbacks to previous works, especially Skool Luv Affair, Wings, “Sea”, “Save Me,” O!RUL8,2? and so much more. Why was Map of the Soul: 7 the right album and 2020 the right year to explore this full-circle moment?

Jin: ​This year marks our seventh anniversary and so while working on this album, we got to look back at those years together. We took a trip down memory lane, and naturally the ‘reboot’ concept seemed fitting for this project.

There’s a saying about BTS in the fandom: ‘You come into our lives when we need you the most.’ It’s certainly true for me when I found your music. What is your take on this collective opinion and the fact that you have saved many lives with the music and content you contribute to the world?

SUGA: Hearing our fans saying that we changed their lives changes our lives in turn. We got to know about the weight that our words and music carry, and we’re truly thankful for that. We’ve realized that despite our love for music, the most important thing about this job is to have people who listen to you. We thank our fans for listening to our messages and music.

How do you picture ARMY in your mind?

V: ​ARMY is the light that leads us in our journey as musicians. We would not be where we are today without them and they will continue to guide and motivate us to be greater with our music.

RM, you said at one point, that if you can bring people’s pain down “from a 100 to 99, 98 or even 97, the value of [BTS’] existence is enough.” How does it feel when people reach out to you and tell you the songs you wrote and performed saved their lives?

RM: I’m doubtful if I’m worthy of receiving such comments. On the contrary, it’s those very people who have pulled me back from the edge of the cliff down to 98, 97, so you can say we are saving each other’s lives.

You’ve worked on various projects outside of music that have helped us get to know you better over the years–Run BTS!​, Bon Voyage​ and In The Soop​. What were your motivations behind launching these series and what’s the biggest reward you’ve gotten out of them?

Jin: ​These are fun projects not only for us to show a comfortable and relaxed side of ourselves to our fans, but also tighten the bond with one another within the group. As you might have seen in In The Soop most recently​, ​we were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery in Korea and take time to catch up with one another as friends rather than bandmates.

How do you create the balance between who you are outside of BTS versus the members we see on our screens? Is it difficult to hold on to the public persona?

V: ​It would be difficult if my public persona was fake, but it’s not, so it’s not difficult.

“ARMY is the light that leads us in our journey as musicians. We would not be where we are today without them.” — V. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

Your growth has been exponential–coming from small towns and a small company, it was a series of milestones even your seniors and predecessors never saw. How do you navigate this success? Who are your mentors or guiding figures?

Jung Kook:​ None of us imagined this success when we first started. That’s why it’s still hard for us to believe sometimes. We’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved, but we remember to never lose sight of the reason why we all started this journey. Performing and making music is everything to us and we hope to continue to spread our message this way even through all our successes. We especially express our gratitude to our producer Chairman Bang who has guided us from the very beginning and helped us get to where we are today.

What is BTS’ greatest strength and what is still a work in progress?

Jung Kook: Our relationship with one another has been our greatest strength. The transparency in our group is reflected in our music through the honest messages that we deliver to our listeners. We as individuals as well as a group will always be a work in progress. We’ve learned over the years that no matter how hard we try, there is always room for improvement.

You’re very well known for your philanthropy, especially your partnership with UNICEF for the Love Myself campaign. When did you first get involved in charity work and how do you want to grow this message of giving back?

RM: We have always wanted to be a positive influence in the world whether it may be through our music or our actions. We’re grateful that we’re able to take that further through partnership opportunities like the UNICEF Love Myself campaign. We’re also thankful to our ARMY who are involved in many charitable works.

Let’s talk a little bit about each of your solo endeavors and interests as well. SUGA, as a producer and a songwriter, you have made music for various artists. How do you distinguish music you have written as the artist and producer SUGA for BTS, as Agust D for Agust D and as the producer SUGA for other artists like Epik High, Suran, Heize and IU? Is there a distinction in your approach to the music?

SUGA: The focus of those three roles is different, so there is definitely a distinction in my approach. I focus on the harmony of BTS as a team member, on the unpolished rawness of music as Agust D, and on the popularity in the mass market as a producer for other artists.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece called ‘​The Philosophy of Agust D,’​ about what we as fans perceive Agust D to be to us and what he means to our generation and society. What is Agust D to you? Is he a vessel of catharsis, a messiah for the people or perhaps something completely different?

SUGA: It’s just one of the many sides of me. It might even be a more accurate depiction of who I really am. I don’t think too deep into it since it’s just one of the many methods I use to freely express my thoughts.

“Hearing our fans saying that we changed their lives changes our lives in turn. We got to know about the weight that our words and music carry, and we’re truly thankful for that.” — SUGA. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

I particularly loved “People” from ​D-2​ because it was about the impermanence of humanity, especially in the way we change as human beings as we transition through various experiences. Is there something that’s changed or evolved about you as a person in the last few years that you are particularly proud of?

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SUGA: We all change, but some people say that change is bad by saying we should hold on to our original intentions, etc. It’s our nature to change, and I believe that change is good if it is positive. I’m glad I’ve learned to think this way.

You’ve mentioned you’re working on developing your singing skills and learning the guitar. What inspired you to do so and how is it going these days?

SUGA: It just crossed my mind that I wanted to be like the Nineties folk musicians whom I’ve been listening to. I’m not trying to limit myself to a specific genre. I simply want to be able to sing while playing guitar when I get older. That’s all.

V, there’s a lot of speculation about your upcoming solo mixtape because of the snippet you shared on Twitter. In addition to the bluesy vibe from the clip, what other genres have you explored and is it very different from all the singles you’ve released in your career?

V: I’m exploring many different genres at the moment. I’m trying out different styles within a deeper and wider range, so there will be songs with more depth as well as styles you haven’t seen from me before.

Does your love for art and photography also influence your music?

V: Art, photography, my current emotions – I’m inspired and influenced by a lot of things and make sure to write down what I feel at the moment.

You’re very expressive with your diverse vocal tone as well as facial expressions–both are some of your strongest points as a performer. Was this something that came naturally to you or does it take a lot of practice and honing?

V: I’ve experimented with many facial expressions. I’ve practiced a lot and continue to practice. I want to become someone who can be expressive through a variety of genres.

Jimin, you worked on the track “Friends” together with V–as someone with best friends who I also consider my soulmates, this song resonates so much. How long did it take to write and was it difficult to encapsulate this relationship in a song?

Jimin: Our song writing skills are still a bit rusty, so it took us a while to finish working on that song. However, it was an enjoyable experience for the both of us. We reminisced about old memories and included them one by one into the song to create a piece that is precious to us.

Is there a difference between Jimin as a singer and Jimin as a dancer?

Jimin: Not necessarily! I’ve never considered the two to be separate.

Your discipline and hard work are traits that a lot of fans really admire about you. What motivates you to strive for excellence?

Jimin: Our fans who are waiting for us, and the thought of my future self who will have grown into an even better artist.

“I used to have fears that my pure intentions towards my work might deteriorate and that I might look at what I do strictly as a ‘job’ when I become too exhausted from tight schedules and commitments.” — Jimin. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

Jin, what made you want to address self-acceptance and insecurity as an artist with tracks like “Epiphany” and the album series Love Yourself​? The lyrics on “Epiphany” even say ‘I’m the one I should love.’ Where do you see yourself now on this journey of self-acceptance?

Jin: Self-acceptance and insecurity are topics that I honestly didn’t want to address. I didn’t want to reveal my dark side, but talking to our Chairman and producer Mr. Bang helped me open up. I think I have now accepted that part of me, and learned to understand and love myself.

What are some of your favorite genres of music that you listen to on your own time? Do you feel you are able to explore these as BTS?

Jin: I enjoy listening to pop the most, but it’s also a genre I’m least confident in. I’m naturally being more exposed to it, though, as we explore pop music together as a group.

What is a philosophy or motto you live by?

Jin: Live Happy.

As you start to hit more and more legendary milestones, how do you set your aims for the future?

Jin: I don’t give it much thought. I’m just happy enough to live in the moment with people I love. Carpe diem! 

RM, in 2018, you released your second solo mixtape mono. There was a vulnerability, openness and softness to this album that was distinctly different from your first mixtape, 2015’s RM.Can you talk about this transition in your music as a solo artist?

RM: My color and identity have completely changed again since mono, but I wanted to address that dark and monochrome side of myself then. I hope it can comfort anyone who is in a similar chapter in their life.

The term ‘Namjooning’ has become synonymous in the fandom with taking time to yourself or going on nature walks. How do you feel about ARMY adopting these little wholesome terms from you and incorporating it into their own lives?

RM: I’m very thankful, but also feel a sense of responsibility. I began music because I wanted to share my story and become a positive influence to many people, so I would be honored if I can continue to show my hard work and the results of my efforts.

You love reading books–have you ever considered writing one?

RM: When I read, I realize that everyone has one’s own area of expertise. Will I write a book? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem like an impossible idea someday once I gain more knowledge and experience.

j-hope, you mention your younger self a lot, both in your artistry and when you speak about your struggles. What about today’s j-hope makes the young Jung Hoseok most proud?

j-hope: My passion and hard work towards my dreams! I never wanted anything more than to be on stage, so I think that eagerness made me who I am today.

Blue Side” gave us a glimpse of a more melancholic, reflective side of your artistry. Is that something you’d like to explore in detail in the future? Is there a darker side to j-hope that you have yet to unleash artistically?

j-hope: Ibelieve we all have shadows as humans. I am grateful that music can act as a mechanism to beautifully express those dark sides. I want to continue to try new things by exploring new genres and telling my stories. I’m doing my best to prepare at the moment, so please look forward to it.

Jung Kook, I feel you’re the right person to answer this: what’s the best and the most challenging part about creating content, something that is outside the scope of pure music?

Jung Kook: First of all, I think ‘color’ is the most important thing and how well you can digest them naturally. And I also think it’s important to find familiar yet unfamiliar novelty and strive to improve, which is always difficult.

What kind of media inspires your filmmaking style?

Jung Kook: There isn’t a specific media that inspires me. It’s rather time that influences my filmmaking style. I’m sure if I make specific attempts, it might improve my contents, but I prefer things to be natural and effortless. That said, I think my life itself inspires me.

Both “Begin” and “My Time” are two of my favorite tracks of yours because of how honestly you convey your emotions about your life with BTS. How did growing up in the limelight with your members make you the individual you are today, and how do you hope it shapes the person you become even 10, 20 or 30 years from now?

Jung Kook: The members are the ones who taught me to never settle and influenced me to always improve and move forward. I think the time spent with them has steadily shaped my personality, singing, dancing, and filmmaking. Of course ARMY has given me the most, but the simplest things such as talking, performing on stage, eating meals, recording music, that I have shared with the members make me who I am today. I think they will continue to play a huge role moving forward as well.

“O​ur relationship with one another has been our greatest strength. The transparency in our group is reflected in our music through the honest messages that we deliver to our listeners.” — Jung Kook. Photograph courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

How did all of you feel being back onstage during ‘Map of the Soul ON:E’? What would you say was the biggest advantage of an ‘Untact’ show like this?

Jimin: We were thrilled to meet our fans through our online concert. It would have been even better if we had been able to meet ARMY in person, but we were very moved when seeing and hearing our fans through the screens. It was a relief that we could at least close the gap between our fans and us, and communicate with many more fans all over the world via the untact concert powered by the latest technologies.

The production for ‘Map of the Soul ON:E’ was outstanding–you went above and beyond to incorporate special effects that wouldn’t be possible at a live concert and give audiences an unforgettable experience even though they couldn’t be there in-person. What was your most memorable stage of the show?

V: ​I got very emotional seeing ARMY during my “Inner Child” performance and it made me miss them even more.

How did the pandemic impact your artistic process and the creation of your upcoming album? What makes this record unlike any you’ve done before?

Jimin: The pandemic unexpectedly put a lot of our original plans to a halt. However it provided us an opportunity to step back and focus on ourselves as well as our music. We reflected the emotions that we felt during this unprecedented period into this album. We were also able to take a step further by taking roles in overall production, such as concept development, composition and visual design.

Can you tell us about why you chose the title ‘​BE’​ for your upcoming record? What will this new era say about the evolution of BTS to this point?

Jin: ​This album is like a page in our diary of the times we are currently living in. The album title ‘BE’ represents ‘being’ and captures the honest thoughts and emotions we are feeling at the moment. We’ve included a lot of chill and laid-back songs that anyone can enjoy, so we hope many people can find comfort through this album. I think this album will give us an opportunity to grow further as artists who can represent the current times through music.

You’re about to drop a new record, you performed live again with ‘Map of the Soul ON:E’ and you’ve got fantastic odds of breaking more world records with your remaining releases. What are your thoughts now that we’re approaching the end of 2020? Any last words of wisdom?

j-hope:​ We’re sure everyone agrees, but 2020 hasn’t gone at all as planned. We would have been on a world tour if it had not been for the current situation. In turn, we were able to release “Dynamite” and reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Through the many ups and downs we realized that “life goes on,” which is the message we wanted to deliver through our new upcoming album BE. We hope our audiences can find healing and comfort through this album.

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