In the stories that they tell, BTS’ lyrics can rise above any language barrier and is part of the reason to why the group is so highly regarded by many.
Recently, BTS were invited to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in which they addressed young people to express their truths. The move to have a Kpop group speak at a prestigious stage might come off as questionable to some, however, looking through the event through such lenses reduces its significance to entertainment spectacle, removing the event’s social focus on empowering youth.
Ultimately, BTS have earnt their position as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors; they are a music group who have provided comfort to young people on a universal scale. Here is a collection of songs that resonated with today’s current generation of young people. The following tracks tackle the heartbreaks and wistfulness that characterise youth whether found in the flaws of the education system, the struggle of mental illness, society’s demanding expectations, and the anxieties of entering adulthood. The list will only include songs from their debut up until their 2016 ‘Wings’ album with a follow-up soon to be hopefully posted.
School of Tears (학교 눈물)
Released before the group’s official debut, ‘School of Tears (학교 눈물)’ is a 2013 cover of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ by members RM, SUGA, and Jin. The track was named after its main inspiration; an SBS documentary centred on student life in South Korea with an emphasis on severe bullying in schools. In the song, school is thematically transformed into micro-society governed by adults as the members tackle student bullying with a focus on the bystander unwilling to be involved in fearing the consequences they would face if they were to take action. They express that within the classroom ring with no referee; there are no victors.
No More Dream
This exploration of the anxieties that characterised student life spilled to the group’s official 2013 debut track, ‘No More Dream’. In the track, BTS challenge today’s young people what their goals and aspirations were. The song is reminiscent of first generation groups like H.O.T and Seo Taiji and Boys in its criticism of the South Korean education system for moulding students to only perform academically well without consideration for their future. In a 2015 interview in Hiphopplaya, leader RM disclosed that the song was based on his own experience as a top student, asserting that the flaws of the education system a decade ago were still a reality for many students today.
The ongoing call for young people to realise their truths extends into BTS’ second title track, ‘N.O.’ In the song, the group continues to encourage students to reject conformity and the voices that will speak over them. Instead, they urge them to tear away their school uniforms that constricts them and to pursue their dreams. ‘N.O’ challenges society’s conventional ideals, deconstructing the myth that pursuing economic stability would guarantee happiness and the expectations set by parents. The song makes references to South Korea’s top universities, Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, and the music video borrows the red pill film trope.
A favourite among fans, ‘Tomorrow’ comes from BTS’ second mini album, ‘Skool Luv Affair.’ Member SUGA takes the lead with composing and producing the track, commenting the songs had contained lyrics he had written from his days as a trainee in ‘SUGA의 Skool Luv Affair Album review.’ The song tackles the universal uncertainty for the future instilled into youth, especially when lacking drive or the clear dream that BTS had addressed in their previous title tracks. However, in spite of the described monotonous days that are a struggle to get through, ‘Tomorrow’ provides comfort in its hopeful chorus. BTS motivates their listeners not to falter or give up on their dream, to live for tomorrow.
등골브레이커 (Spine Breaker)
Another song off of ‘Skool Luv Affair,’ BTS addresses the pressure for young people to conform to the trends at the expense of their parents in ‘등골브레이커 (Spine Breaker).’ The song takes a specific focus on the 2009 North Face jacket craze that lasted till 2013. The expensive padded jacket became a symbol of status; an object of division, bullying, and peer pressure in classrooms between those who have and those who don’t. The track criticises young people for taking advantage of their parent’s labour to keep with the trends. RM’s rap verse, while claiming independence in spending his own money to buy the foreign branded jacket, still reasons that he does so in fear of being an outcast.
핸드폰 좀 꺼줄래 (Could You Turn Off Your Cell Phone?)
The group continues their call to youths in ‘핸드폰 좀 꺼줄래 (Could You Turn Off Your Cell Phone?)’, shifting from their usual message to address the need to maintain offline relationships in a society where most of our interactions take place on the online sphere. From their 2014 album, ‘Dark & Wild’, the track comments that while smartphones are continually upgrading, people are losing the ability to engage with others when removed from the digital screen. The song makes references to social media conventions, BTS asserting that they would rather spend time face to face than receiving likes or mentions.
RM’s 2015 debut mixtape, ‘RM’, gave its listeners an intimate insight into the many faces to the BTS leader with ‘Life’ taking a more existential focus. In the ninth track from the now self-titled mixtape, the rapper addresses the idea of loneliness, implying that it as a natural and necessary experience. He reasons that people are to become familiar with pain and destruction to understand beauty, especially when such beauty is not meant to last. RM confronts human nature, suggesting that it is innate for us to be wrong and to be blindsided by the future. Ultimately, he reflects if we are living to die or dying to live.
Featuring Drake’s ‘Lust 4 Life’ as the backing track, ‘표류 (Adrift)’ is the tenth track from ‘RM’ and continues the rapper’s introspection. In track, RM questions his meaning and purpose as he finds himself advancing aimlessly in life. ‘표류 (Adrift)’ opens as RM questions life’s purpose. The rapper comments how this self-doubt had spilled over into his sense of self, unsure when he had been led astray from his path or if he was always lost from the beginning. In the face of such bleakness, RM speaks of a standstill, unable to persist through such life and unable to face death. ‘표류 (Adrift)’ speaks of an experience, rarely explored, that a number of people can understand.
Intro: 화양연화 (The Most Beautiful Moment In Life)
2015 also marked the beginning in which the group would explore the intense final days of youth, the reckless joy and heartbreak before adulthood. Named after the album, SUGA opens the series with ‘Intro: 화양연화 (The Most Beautiful Moment In Life)’. The track uses a basketball game as a motif, the sound of the ball hitting the ground becoming its beat. In his impassioned rap, SUGA urges to resist judgement and to measure personal lows to the standards set by others. Instead, he asserts that peace of mind is to come from seizing the fleeting moment as the sun begins to set on the basketball court that is life.
Intro: Never Mind
In ‘화양연화 pt.2 (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2), SUGA once again takes the lead with opening the album with ‘Intro: Never Mind’. Similar to his intro track for the previous album, the rapper preaches to live with passion in spite of personal failures and anguish when stepping into a world anchored in reality; that these heartaches are inevitable, but fear of them shouldn’t ground our actions. The central difference, however, is that ‘Intro: Never Mind’ reads more like an autobiography as SUGA reflects on his career in BTS and own growth up until that point; how he became his family’s pride as BTS found more success as a teenage idol rapper, and his pursuit of music despite the reservations he received.w
In continuing the theme to chase your passions, BTS shift their focus to relationships with a more adventurous take in ‘RUN.’ As the lead single to ‘화양연화 pt.2 (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2),’ BTS takes a more romantic approach and sings of an individual’s desperation to make relationship bound fail work. However, the track’s overall message is to ignore pain and grief in favour of persevering, even when in vain. BTS urge to continue chasing what makes you happy. While that could be a relationship, it could also be hope, and dreams. Ultimately, ‘RUN’ assures that one mistake or repeated failures will not determine all.
Also from ‘화양연화 pt.2 (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2),’ BTS addresses the feeling of loneliness in ‘Whalien 52.’ A subject rarely explored without romantic attachment, the track uses the metaphor of the 52-Hertz Whale to tackle feelings of isolation and being misunderstood. Described as the loneliest whale in the world, the song’s subject is unable to communicate with other whales given its unusually high-frequency call. The 52-Hertz whale appears to be the only one of species with only one individual call at its pitch having been recorded. The group explores a sense of disconnection even in the company of others, an ignored voice.
뱁새 (Silver Spoon/Baepsae)
Another favourite among fans is뱁새 (Silver Spoon/Baepsae), also from ‘화양연화 pt.2 (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2).’ BTS empowers the young generation in challenging the critique from a society maintained by those who have come before them. The track’s theme comes from an old South Korean proverb, that if a small crow-tit attempts to walk like the long-legged stork, its legs will tear. The group takes a sarcastic approach as they express their frustration in having to meet the expectations of achieving the same feats set by their predecessor, a critical older generation who, in comparison, were afforded more opportunities in their time.
Wishing On A Star
BTS provides comfort to dreamers in ‘Wishing on a star’, the title track from their 2016 second Japanese album, ‘YOUTH.’ Even in another language, the group still keeps true to their core message of never losing hope and that the future will, like a pearl, shine brightly if an individual is to stay true to themselves. The track sends a message to keep dreaming despite the inevitable hardships that may be encountered as j-hope refers to the mythological Pandora’s Box. In his verse, the rapper also reassures that it’s okay to take these steps at your own pace, to take breaks as long as you continue to move forward.
Thoughts? Did you spot some of the songs that spoke to you? Were any songs from their discography before ‘Wings’ that were left out? What songs do you expect to see on the follow-up list? Tweet us at @ForeverBTScom!