Map of the soul: how BTS rewrote the western pop rulebook

Contrary to their dismissive framing as manufactured robots, South Korea’s BTS use social media, documentary and storytelling to make themselves into profoundly human stars

BTS’s leader RM looks up from under a black baseball cap, then stares back down at his hands. “Doing the promotional interviews, [I kept saying], ‘Music truly transcends every barrier.’ But even while I was saying it I questioned myself if I indeed believe it.”

It’s late September, and the rapper is confiding in over one million fans live from his Seoul studio. His “complex set of feelings” about the explosive, record-breaking success of Dynamite – the first fully English-language single from the South Korean megastars – is not the celebration you’d expect from a band that just topped the US Billboard Hot 100, the first K-pop act to do so. But this kind of frank, unfiltered conversation is exactly what their global “Army” fanbase love: BTS’s candid social media presence has included their fans in every step of their artistic journey, and, as they release new album Be this week, has made them the biggest pop group on the planet.

Since their debut in 2013, the seven-piece boy band – rappers RM (Kim Nam-joon), Suga (Min Yoon-gi) and j-hope (Jung Ho-seok), and vocalists Jin (Kim Seok-jin), Jimin (Park Ji-min), V (Kim Tae-hyung) and Jungkook (Jeon Jung-kook) – have prioritised self-reflection in their music. Inspired by US hip-hop, they drew on RM and Suga’s reputation as underground rappers and j-hope’s credentials as a street dancer to push an emotional, rebellious image: debut single No More Dream attacked societal expectations for their generation, quipping: “What’s your dream? / Number one future career as a government official?”

Watch the video for Dynamite

Although they’ve since ditched the sleeveless shirts, heavy chains and regrettable hairstyles of their earliest years, the group’s ability to ask weighty questions of themselves remains. Inspired by philosopher Carl Jung, BTS’s most recent album Map of the Soul: 7 used seven solo tracks to showcase each member’s personal self-enquiry, from RM’s anthemic rap-rock chorus “Persona / Who the hell am I?” on the album’s opener, to Jungkook’s My Time, a neo-R&B song about swapping his childhood for his career. Black Swan, the record’s dark, theatrical single, openly discusses the possibility of falling out of love with music: in its eerie video Suga confesses, crouched low on a shadowed stage: “That would be my first death / I’ve been always afraid of.”

So it’s no surprise that RM would muse openly about music lacking transcendent power – particularly as the group’s Korean-language singles have received markedly less support from western radio stations – and speaks to how BTS’s frank examination of their own artistry has challenged standards for authenticity in pop.

“I don’t know that any other K-pop idols play off authenticity as well as BTS,” says Professor Suk-young Kim, head of theatre and performance studies at UCLA, and author of K-pop Live, a 2018 book exploring K-pop’s unique relationship to digital media. “What fans prize most in BTS is their stories about their authentic feelings of knowing who they really are.” She says that “K-pop idols are well known for providing excessive emotional labour” to their fans, often conveyed through elaborate meet and greets or low-key, intimate-feeling livestream conversations, and points out that BTS’s debut coincided with the mainstream popularity of useful tools including Twitter and YouTube Live. Their label Big Hit even created bespoke social media platform Weverse to facilitate closer dialogue with fans.

Not playing ball ... BTS.
Not playing ball ... BTS. Photograph: PR

Moreover, the seven members have undeniable charisma. Early in their career they stopped appearing on South Korea’s popular Idol variety shows, where pop stars are sometimes put in awkward positions, to create their own version of the format: Run BTS! now has more than 100 episodes, all involving the group competing in daft, meme-generating challenges. This summer Big Hit produced a miniseries featuring the band cooking, eating, hiking and napping in a beatific lakeside cabin – and little else. No drama, no conflict, the show was designed to give fans an even greater insight into the group’s friendship. The most extreme moment? Probably when Jimin got tipsy and accidentally body-slammed a mosquito net.

Reality TV is a major part of the western pop playbook, too: Cardi B span her unfiltered appearances on Love & Hip-hop: New York into major label gold and uses Instagram to speak frankly with her fans. Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift have similarly mastered the appearance of down-to-earth realness on social media, reaping great success from it. But BTS put their own twist on these often gendered, tried-and-tested storytelling devices, emphasising them as storytelling devices, and directly involving their fans in shaping these narratives.

Prof Kim says: “There’s no such thing as an authentic self: it’s about how you frame your story.” In her opinion, BTS’s boldest exploration of authenticity is in the elaborate Bangtan Universe. Contrasting with their cosy, tactile reality shows, the Bangtan Universe, or BU, is a dark origin story for the group that plays out over many BTS music videos between 2015 and 2018. The characters are named after and performed by the members, but it’s completely removed from autobiography: V did not kill his father, after all, nor can Jin turn back time. The complex, non-linear narrative is told through clues, easter eggs and elaborate motifs, and has driven fans to create entire websites dedicated to unpicking the mystery.

“We know, fans know, that this narrative is not ‘authentic’,” Kim says, but argues “the degree of intensity and involvement [that fans have] in this narrative universe” enhances an even closer, authentic connection. This bold act of storytelling develops the idea that K-pop should be a “total production”, as Bang Si-hyuk, the founder of Big Hit, once called it. More than a music genre, K-pop is a 360-degree mode of performance that puts an artist’s singing, dancing, rapping, fashion, personality, and digital presence all at stake. It’s why most K-pop artists begin their careers as trainees at a label, spending years becoming a complete all-rounder before they debut.

But this aspect of K-pop is also what reaps the most criticism in the west. “The antagonism against K-pop [artists] is that they’re just manufactured robots, and that’s so dehumanising,” Kim says. “There’s a highly orientalist view that sees K-pop idols as not authentic enough for a western audience, which is problematic and insulting. I mean, what is authenticity in this hyper-commercialised music business?”

Western pop prizes authenticity, and not just in Cardi B’s lack of filter, but an older notion that still drags on: “real” music is made on real instruments, written by the person performing it. Taylor Swift’s recent album Folklore received her best reviews in years, partly because her obvious songwriting talent is read as more authentic when it comes on a quiet, folky record made with musicians like Bon Iver and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Even Mojo – a legacy magazine with Bob Dylan currently on its cover – included the record in its albums of the year. Other major stars, often past the peak of their fame, have turned to the supposedly authentic album for a boost: think Justin Timberlake’s faux everyman turn on 2018’s disastrous Man of the Woods. Then there’s the notion of the lone genius – the Ed Sheeran model that suggests that anyone could crack the industry with just a dream and an acoustic guitar, and that talent should just come naturally, whatever that means.

Western view … Jimmy Fallon interviews BTS on New York’s subway for The Tonight Show last February.
Western view … Jimmy Fallon interviews BTS on New York’s subway for The Tonight Show last February. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

K-pop doesn’t play into these performances of authenticity, and so accusations of “manufactured-ness” persist in western coverage of Korean pop stars. This paper’s review of Blackpink’s debut album provided one such example in October: patronisingly addressed to the “parents” of the group’s fans, it lamented that the girl band “eschewed the need to show a human heart at the centre of the K-pop machine”.

It would be easy, then, to consider BTS’s new album Be as a play for authenticity as the western pop market perceives it: promotional images show the members holding wooden, analogue instruments in a vintage studio setting. Although RM, Suga and j-hope have always been involved in writing and production, the group have taken on additional creative roles. Jungkook has filmed their next music video, Jimin is the album’s project manager, Jin is rumoured to be on fashion duties, and V is directing the record’s visual aesthetic – this is the type of authenticity the west often craves.

Authenticity … the band discuss video ideas for their new album

The group have also documented the making of this album through a series of mysterious yet revealing videos: one shows the members writing laboriously by hand, in others they are choosing between analogue cameras or checking lyrics in the recording booth. It’s clearly designed to showcase their artistic credibility, but in a way that’s strikingly different from the cringey Man of the Woods model. BTS document a self-effacing learning curve: Suga recently spent two hours livestreaming his guitar practice, reporting that he took up the instrument over the summer. They never hide their label’s involvement, either: Big Hit staff are ever-present in their videos, supplying them with equipment, advice and technical help. It confirms their career-long narrative, that to be “BTS-ish” means to be a work-in-progress, always making room for future growth.

You could of course argue that this is just another form of manufactured authenticity – and it is, in the sense that all authenticity is manufactured. What makes BTS revolutionary is their willingness to address that, while showing their doubts, flaws, and sources of support. They undermine both the myth of the lone musical genius and the stereotype of the K-pop automaton. Be’s homespun aesthetic suggests a new articulation of the group’s identity, but it centres yet again around their fanbase, using the easter eggs, clues and in-jokes developed over years of sharing storytelling duties with their fans. This is authenticity in a language only they and their Army speak – highlighting the hypocrisy of “authentic” pop music is just a happy side effect.


Katie Hawthorne

The GuardianTramp

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