K-pop group BTS has become a global brand. Thanks to the band’s dazzling dance moves, layered music videos, engaging social media posts, and references to everything from Erich Fromm and Nietzsche — not to mention vocal abilities on the level of the best in the current pop arena — members RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V and Jung Kook have made the music of their South Korean roots universal to those who love pop and appreciate the genre for its sonic optimism.
But for many, the message of BTS’ lyrics is a major draw, even when delivered almost entirely in Korean. What resonates for fans not fluent in Korean? Their candor and honest reflection with issues like depression and societal pressure as well as ideas like the importance of self-acceptance.
BTS took its message to the UN back in 2018 during a speech to launch a UNICEF-affiliated campaign to improve youth education opportunities. They returned to the UN General Assembly again, virtually this time, in late September with a pre-recorded message encouraging people impacted by the pandemic to feel less alone. Said RM: “We must try to love ourselves, and imagine the future. BTS will be there with you.”
Additionally, they’ve this year encouraged fans to engage in deeper ways with contemporary art through their “CONNECT, BTS” project, which commissioned 20 artists in five cities to create public art that resonates with BTS’ philosophy.
Unlike other K-pop groups, BTS first gained momentum abroad — and in the U.S. market in particular. The band spoke with Variety about going global, how they view their Korean identity and what it’s like to bear the burden of being a role model to so many in a world where so few Asian stars have seen such massive success.
With BTS having such a broad global footprint, it seems like a big responsibility as far as being role models. How do you see your own role, beyond the music?
RM (in Korean): We do of course feel a considerable sense of responsibility. … We understand the impact and influence that we have — it’s an impact that goes across regions and borders, because the things that young people feel and experience in Korea is not exactly the same but is probably similar to what young people feel and experience in the U.S. In full understanding of that, we are always careful of what we say and what we do. This [informs] our campaign with UNICEF and other charity efforts.
But at the same time, we want to make sure that this does not impact our creative activities — that we are not so consumed by this overwhelming sense of responsibility that it affects our creative process. Striking this balance is very important to us. So far, I think we are doing this balancing act quite well.
How did it feel to be on Youtube’s “Dear Class of 2020” virtual graduation event in June, sharing a stage with the Obamas, Beyonce, and so many other global figures?
j-hope: It was a very special and important event for us. We had a chance to talk to the graduates and perform. It also was an opportunity for us to remember and think about our own identity — the fact that we have this sort of impact on people, and that this is the sort of life that we are living now, and how we should have more of a sense of responsibility. It also gave us a chance to think about our own plans for the future.
BTS is indisputably a phenomenon. Do you consider yourselves more of a global phenomenon or do you consider yourselves a Korean phenomenon? How important is the “K” in K-pop to you, and to your success?
SUGA: A lot of people have said, as you do, that it’s a phenomenon, or use a lot of fancy adjectives. But we’re the same as when we started out — a group of guys just doing something that we wanted to do, something fun and interesting for us. We’re the same as we were seven years ago. … This is not something that we really obsess over.
RM (in Korean): The ‘K’ in K-pop is, of course, important. We all grew up in Korea. None of us studied abroad or spent a lot of time abroad. It was only after we began to perform on global stages and really go outside of Korea that we really started identifying as Korean. It reaffirmed that we are in fact Korean and have a Korean identity. But of course, we live in a very cosmopolitan world. Our Korean identity is very clear, but we also increasingly have a more global mindset.
Do you see a conflict between going global and staying Korean? How have foreign markets factored into your success?
Jin: We just made music that we liked and that people liked in Korea, and then people outside of Korea began to like it — in the same way that we hear pop songs from outside of Korea and enjoy them too. We never made a conscious effort to spread globally. I think it sort of happened organically; this connection happened on its own. Can other groups or people enjoy the same kind of success? I’m sure it’s possible.
What artists are you listening to right now who are inspiring you? Who are your current dream collaborators?
Jimin: Ariana Grande!
Jin: I’d love to collaborate with Shawn Mendes — he’s great!
Jung Kook: Lauv and Rain.
V: Sammy Davis Jr. is who I’m listening to these days a lot. Kurt Elling is someone who has the vibes I really like — someone I’d like to collaborate with.
Do you have any rituals you guys do privately amongst yourselves when you’re about to release new content?
RM (in English): We always turn livestreaming on and share the moments right before an album or single release. That’s our ceremony. We don’t do anything special, just for us. I think it’s because we always stick together and eat together [anyway].
Jimin (in English): Eat together!
You’ve said in press conferences that the English lyrics clicked better with the melody and feel of “Dynamite,” but just last year, RM said that if the band sang fully in English, it would no longer be BTS. Can you speak a bit further as to why you’re choosing to sing in English at this time?
RM (in English): Yeah, I admit that I had an interview some time ago where I said that I think it won’t be BTS anymore if we sing in English. I admit it. At that time, that was my real, honest thing. I think I have to now admit that many things have changed: the virus and pandemic, [the fact that] we can’t be on stage and have concerts anymore. Many things have changed, and my thoughts and my mind and myself have also changed, and now we’re giving a little crazy shot called “Dynamite.” That’s all I can say.
When we first listened to the “Dynamite” demo, I actually tried different titles or lyrics in Korean. I tried to write some rap on that track, but nothing worked out really well. So, ok, well, why not keep it this way? Let’s give it a shot! It’s 2020, why not do some crazy things?
When I write lyrics, I always have these deep thoughts and different concerns and confusions about, do I have to do this in English or Korean? When you say, “I’m hungry” in Korean, you say, “baegopa.” The sounds and the waves are really different. I believe each language has its own texture, and I believe that each song has to have its own waves and texture.
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