Building The BTS Cinematic Universe
How a series of music videos led to the creation of lore, the search for meaning and fans’ self-immersion in art
Over the past hundred years, the visual medium has solidified its place as most powerful for storytelling. So much that in 2020, we’re all visual storytellers. We have the ability to create in the palm of our hands, even if it’s with a tool as simple as a mobile phone. Which is why I think we live in a time in which a story well-told is all the more appreciated and, therefore, all the more powerful.
Music videos, as a cinematic genre, have always served as a vehicle for the music, complementing it in a way that enhances the meaning or mood of a song – a secondary medium. More recently, with the growing popularity and easy access to video, the increased artistic focus on the music video has allowed it to transcend that secondary status into an art itself. No one has done it quite like South Korean group BTS, however.
BTS’ music video for “I Need U,” the lead single for their album series The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, was released on April 29th, 2015. Straying from their previous music video format of dance choreography focused videos, “I Need U” had a fictional plot. It showed the members of the group as different iterations of young men who were troubled—by violence, heartbreak, grief, addiction and loss. It was a powerhouse of emotion, delivered not only by the heart-wrenching lyrics and music, but dark and gritty visuals that stood in stark contrast to the glamorous, shiny, aspirational visual identity of K-pop at the time.
What BTS started with “I Need U” in 2015 was a series of narrative-focused music videos and short films. Released in a sequence, they were connected to each other thematically, without giving the audience anything but clues as to how. From “I Need U,” the thread continued with the release of the music video for the single “Run” and “On Stage: Prologue” from the 2015 record The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2. The extended six-minute version of the track revealed more of the story, giving it more of a short film vibe than that of a music video. Fans began to theorize how the videos were connected—what was the story being told? How did it all come together? What was the meaning of it all?
This observation and study into the semantics of BTS’ music videos is what drew a lot of fans to the group, myself included. I had been listening to K-pop for a long time and had marvelled at the high production quality of K-pop music videos, but this was on a different level. This was intricate storytelling, allowing the video to not just complement the music but take on a life of its own. BTS were one of the groups that helped popularize the narrative-style music video format in K-pop. It had existed before, but choreography-focused music videos had dominated the culture prior to the mid 2010s.
Since 2015, K-pop has seen several other artists adopt this format of music video, focusing on creation of lore and universe, making space for a similar sort of fan engagement. Narrative-based music videos don’t just immerse you in the art as a listener and viewer, but also make you actively involved in the act of consuming and appreciating the art. Different people in the fandom have different theories about the videos of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life era. Many have similar theories for the videos of the Wings (2016), Love Yourself (2017-2018) and Map of the Soul (2019-2020) album eras. Some have even theorized that all BTS music videos, starting from their 2013 debut music video for “No More Dream,” are all intertwined in some way—perhaps one massive story that delves into alternate timelines, time travel, death and the afterlife, plus more. Over the years, the universe of BTS’ music videos has formed into an extensive web of lore that is constantly observed, studied and theorized by fans and now academics. But that’s what makes it a great part of the fandom experience; it gives the fans a sense of agency over the art they love, and in doing so, makes them even more connected to the group, their music and the story.
It almost feels like the fans have ownership over BTS’ music videos— not in a proprietary way but more in a sense of assigning meaning. What drew audiences to The Most Beautiful Moment In Life music videos the most in 2015 and 2016 was not just that the videos had hidden visual clues as to the story being told, but that the themes BTS were portraying felt relatable and hit close to home. You wanted to figure out the story, you wanted to understand why they were in pain, because you had felt it too. Themes as universal as friendship, the loss of youth, of grief, anger and melancholy made it easy to empathize with the story and made the audience eager to find the catharsis sought by BTS as characters and themselves as viewers. For BTS, this extensive worldbuilding in the music videos and other promotional video content from the The Most Beautiful Moment in Life era was only the beginning. The immense popularity and significant impact of the story also led to the release of supplemental projects such as Save Me, a webtoon based on the fictional universe, by Big Hit Entertainment and LICO, plus a ‘BTS Universe’ drama series set to release later this year. Besides official content released by the label, fans are constantly on the lookout for familiar themes or visual cues in music videos that could potentially add to the lore.
Despite the several hundreds of theories regarding the true meaning of the music videos that now make up the BTS cinematic universe, neither Big Hit nor BTS themselves have ever confirmed what the story actually is. The content around the universe that the label has created for the fans to enjoy, serves only to supplement the story. Because the way I see it, the meaning of the videos belong to the fans. They derive what they can from the videos, what speaks to them, everybody something different. In doing so, they become a part of the art, they carve a space for themselves in the story.
During the band’s goodbye speeches at the ‘BTS Map of the Soul ON:E’ virtual concert in October, the group’s leader RM said, “BTS is not just a story of seven people. It is the story of you, me and everyone.” The power of the music videos that make up the BTS Cinematic Universe is their ability to transport, to immerse, to resonate with every viewer. In creating a visual universe of seven familiar boys searching for catharsis, BTS have been able to help the audience, the fans, find theirs. Now that’s a good story.
Ruchi Sawardekar is a film producer and is part of the curation and programming team for the International Kids Film Festival for the past four years. She has been an avid fan of K-pop since 2012 and routinely imagines and re-imagines music videos in her mind.
This feature is part of the November 2020 Collectors Edition of Rolling Stone India: The Ultimate Guide To BTS. Click here to purchase your copy.