Words: Anna Marie
Image: BIGHIT Music
BTS’ 2020 album BE is one of their shortest and most spontaneous, but it’s also one of the most timely, nuanced and well-rounded responses to the pandemic that the world has seen so far. Its musical influences range from neo-soul to disco, and the lyrical influences are just as diverse. In just eight (seven?) songs, BTS manage to encapsulate the human condition better than most artists do in their lifetime.
Prior to the release of BE, BTS had already had an intense 2020. They started the year with the release of singles ‘ON’ and ‘Black Swan’, the first of which reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, despite inordinately high filtering rates, which was their highest charting single to that point. Then came the beast of an album that is Map of The Soul:7, a nineteen-track exploration of stardom, art and Carl Jung’s psychological theories of the persona, shadow, and ego archetypes.
That all came to an abrupt end though, as the pandemic hit and we watched the music industry come to a grinding halt in real time. Their global stadium tour was indefinitely postponed, and eventually cancelled, suddenly they had no plans, and perhaps felt as though they had no purpose, for the rest of the year. As member V (Taehyung) described in their reality holiday show In The Soop, (which was in itself a reactionary measure to provide content last year) without seeing ARMY in person, he “couldn’t feel certain that [he] was someone who was receiving love.” A desperately sad notion, but BTS being BTS, they channelled all those emotions in a productive manner, and thus we received the true gift that is BE.
BE offers us a sensitive and textured exploration of pandemic life. BTS’ intentions with this album were to spread messages of hope and healing to fans all over the world, and it was truly mission accomplished, the tender comfort this album brings to the listener cannot be overstated. From feeling frustrated that life isn’t progressing fast enough, to feeling overwhelmed when it does, BE allows the listener to slip into their problems, before being pulled back out and into a world of hope and delight.
BE was also a different album for BTS to make. They have always played big parts in writing and producing their songs, but they had more of a hand in the other, oft forgotten, creative aspects of BE, each taking on a distinct role on top of their work as artists. Jungkook directed the music video for ‘Life Goes On’, V directed the concept photoshoots with help from RM (Namjoon) and stylist j-hope (Hoseok), Jin and SUGA (Yoongi) worked on the albums cover art and packaging, whilst Jimin took on arguably the most daunting role of all, Music Project Manager, receiving songs and ideas from each member, and trying to fit them into one cohesive concept. BTS’ dynamic is first and foremost a democracy – they vote and discuss on everything, and whatever songs or ideas are chosen, it’s whichever serves the art the best.
One of the smartest things about BE, is that it is an album of two clear halves – to have an album so distinctly split without feeling disjointed is a feat in itself, though one BTS have achieved before with Love Yourself 轉 Tear. The first is a contemplative, honest, yet not hopeless, reflection of our 2020 situation. The album opens with mid-tempo single ‘Life Goes On’, co-written by RM, j-hope, and SUGA, and the lyrics “One day the world stopped / Without any warning” – there hasn’t yet been a better distillation of how we all felt last spring. ARMY and BTS scored a number one for ‘Life Goes On’ on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first non-English song to ever reach that milestone.
‘Fly To My Room’, a neo-soul and synthpop inspired bop and unit song performed by Jimin, j-hope, V, and SUGA, is a balm for those of us who have spent the past 20 months feeling restless, all about the importance of finding pockets of happiness where you can, and learning to enjoy being at home, even if what brings you joy is a takeaway and spending the day playing video games. Much of the concept art (and photocards!) centred around the idea of us all being stuck in our rooms, with each member in their own, decorated to fit their personality and style. This concept perfectly displays how intimate the entire album feels, both in scale and in vulnerability.
Track three, ‘Blue & Grey’ was originally written entirely in English by V, for his unreleased solo mixtape. When the song’s destiny changed, RM and SUGA both wrote options for the Korean verses, before SUGA’s were eventually chosen. ‘Blue & Grey’ is a stand-out, not only within this album, but throughout BTS’ immensely rich discography for its crooning vocals and wistful production.
The fourth track marks the turning point of the album and BTS’ first skit since 2017. It’s a joyous conversation between Bangtan members celebrating in the studio the day they hit Billboard Hot 100 number one with smash ‘Dynamite’, serendipitously on youngest member Jungkook’s 23rd birthday. The magical thing about this skit is that it is exactly the kind of snapshot of joy BTS wish themselves and ARMY to find – a moment of pure celebration in an otherwise disappointing time. Perhaps it was inevitable for BTS to get the Stateside fame they have now, but it probably wouldn’t have happened last year if not for ‘Dynamite’.
The album really hits its funky stride with ‘Telepathy’, a discopop track about feeling close to ARMY despite the current physical distance, and longing for the day they can tour again. Following that is ‘Dis-ease’, an old-school hip-hop track with maybe the best wordplay in a title ever. The lyrics tell the story of a person with a ‘disease’ of being unable to truly rest, feeling like they need to keep working all the time, i.e. unease or ‘dis-ease’. There’s something beyond charming about a song which discusses the frustration of your work not moving forward, using so many of the same musical influences as some of BTS’ earliest tracks. Then comes ‘Stay’, a house and EDM unit song performed by Jungkook, RM, and Jin, with lyrics expressing gratitude towards fans, and to the technology that allows artist and fan to stay connected even when physically kept apart.
Of course, the finale of this album is truly a grand one – ‘Dynamite’. A 70s disco pop track, with a little funk and soul, the song was created as a balm for listeners, once again celebrating the little happy moments of life in dark times. The song was a commercial smash success. It was BTS’ first Billboard Hot 100 number one for a total of three weeks. They broke the record for first week pure sales, previously held by Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, plus so many more records, many of which have only been beaten by BTS themselves in the year since.
‘Dynamite’ racked up plenty of awards to back up the stellar critic reviews it garnered, including Mnet Asian Music Awards, an EMA, an MMA, Gold Disc Awards, and countless more, including a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, making them the first ever South Korean act to be nominated.
Another thing that sets BE apart from many of its peers is that whilst BTS have experienced this pandemic alongside us, they’re also aware of their privilege. Many of the albums released in the last eighteen months, or at least those rooted in ‘reality’ can feel slightly disingenuous and tone-deaf, as the singers croon about how we’re all in this together from their mansions in the hills and their star-studded parties with no masks as we all sat in lockdown. BTS’ communications with ARMY have been far more self-aware and sincere. The joy of BE is that it is vulnerable without being whiny, happy without being tone-deaf, and comforting without being vapid.
BE, and its two singles have allowed BTS’ global fame to reach new heights – there is no ‘Butter’ or ‘Permission To Dance’ without ‘Dynamite’. BTS couldn’t have had the 2021 they’ve had – breaking records for everything from YouTube views to online concert tickets to replacing themselves atop the charts (twice!) – if they hadn’t had such a prolific and intensely dedicated 2020.
As we celebrate the first anniversary of BE, we also wait with baited breath to see what BTS’ next album era will bring. A full year is the longest BTS have gone since their debut without an EP or album release, and whilst they’ve still been very busy with the success of ‘Butter’, ‘Permission To Dance’, and ‘My Universe’, ARMY excitedly wait to see which direction Bangtan head in with a full body of work. For now, BTS have their first in-person shows at So-Fi Stadium Los Angeles next week, and we look forward to BTS and ARMY breaking even more records in 2022.
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