I grew up surrounded by music. Chart-toppers by the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé were only part of the story. Growing up in a British Asian household, I was raised dancing to everything from Bhangra to Bruce Springsteen. Much of the music I was exposed to wasn’t in English – songs in Urdu (which I can understand) and Punjabi (which I can’t) were the norm. The songs from each year’s Eurovision would be on repeat in the kitchen, or in the car. I was brought up to appreciate the music I was hearing, not the words. Songs came attached with stories and memories, and an encouragement to connect with how they made us feel.
Hence, when I first heard BTS’s ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ in 2016, I wasn’t phased by it being in Korean. It was different from anything I’d ever heard before, and that drew me to the group’s music. No two songs sound the same, and every album has a unique ‘feel’. At their inception in 2013, BTS’s music was underpinned by hip-hop. As their musical direction has evolved, their most popular songs wouldn’t be out of place on mainstream radio – ‘Boy with Luv’ is an upbeat love song, while ‘DNA’ contains elements of EDM and soft rock. Since 2017, the K-Pop titans have experienced a meteoric rise to international stardom, being the first Korean act to perform at the American Music Awards in the same year, and most recently earning their first Grammy nomination.
In the midst of the global pandemic, the septet trialled new ways of connecting with their fanbase, known as ARMY. They held three live online concerts, with their two-day ‘Map of the Soul: One’ concert amassing almost one million live viewers. Many readers of this article will have heard the disco-pop juggernaut ‘Dynamite’, the group’s most successful Western endeavour yet, having hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. With an incredibly uplifting music video and message, ‘Dynamite’ demonstrates the group’s versatility by bringing an innocent, simple and much- needed joy during the pandemic.
The world’s agony was by no means lost on BTS, however. Last year saw the release of some of their most poignant work to date. ‘Blue and Grey’ from their latest album ‘BE’ is hauntingly beautiful, capturing feelings of intense sadness and hopelessness experienced by vocalist V in the past. I was moved by this track, as I suspect anyone having experienced similar emotions will be. ‘Black Swan’ is another introspective and vulnerable piece, expressing the members’ fear of losing love for the creative process. Heavy beats, synth guitar and trap come together to create a moving and masterful piece of art. The song is melancholy but nonetheless upbeat and it very refreshingly echoes BTS’ darker musical roots.
‘Life Goes On’ represents the group’s aims for 2020 – to provide comfort. This calm, soothing track departs from the high-scale performances they’re known for, being their first lead song without choreography. Acoustic guitar and soft vocals give the song a cosy and homely feel. It provides consolation during the endless cycle of restrictions and lockdowns. It’s a reminder that the pandemic will end, and “the day will come back around, as though nothing happened.”
My musical upbringing and knowledge of BTS’s artistry underpin my puzzlement when people wonder why I listen to their music. I can’t understand Korean, so how can I enjoy their songs? Initially I wondered whether I just hadn’t exposed these individuals to the ‘right’ songs – did they like music that was loud, emotional, poppy? Perhaps heavy rap or EDM? Through BTS’s discography, I could show them all of this and more. To no avail, however. I soon realised that the average listener may have an ingrained prejudice against BTS. Perhaps because they see them as another boy group who will fade out of the limelight as countless before them have done. Perhaps because BTS don’t conform to Western standards – of masculinity or music style. Or more alarmingly, perhaps because they are ‘other’ in their culture and language.
In 2021, I encourage music lovers to give BTS a chance, without prejudice. To explore their vast discography, which may surprise those expecting albums packed full of bubble-gum pop and flashy dance moves. BTS expertly convey deep and complex emotions simply with their voices. Their songs can encapsulate how you’re feeling – whether that’s euphoric, saddened or overwhelmed by the current state of the world. It can be intimidating to delve into artistry that’s unfamiliar to us, but that’s the magic of music. After all, music is a universal language, and in a year where we continue to be further apart then we’ve ever been, we would do well to embrace this.
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