Bowie, BTS And The Beatles: Artists As Generational Messengers
David Bowie is commonly described as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. There’s unlikely to be a single person alive who hasn’t heard his music somewhere, somewhen, somewhy. Be it “Life on Mars”, “Let’s Dance” or “Space Oddity”, casual listeners of a certain generation will associate his name not only with industry influence but also genre-bending, gender-demolishing bisexual concepts spanning several decades of musical output.
I first became a fan of David Bowie six years ago -- drawn in by the introductory riff of “Rebel Rebel” imposed loudly and un-self-consciously over a trailer for the documentary film Five Years. An androgynous red-haired Halloween Jack descending a set of stairs, his clothes outrageous and his mullet aflame ...
The image set my ever-curious brain alight. Who on earth was this guy? An ignorant youngster born on the cusp of the era of Generation Z, I had grown up just before the era of Spotify with my own set of musical experiences which were entirely different from the older era that Bowie represented. And yet, pulled in I was.
Sixteen years old and musically naive, as I tuned in to this documentary film I had no idea that I was about to be thrown into a maelstrom of art, fandom and historical study, eventually spanning three years of my life until his death in early 2016.
Major Tom ... Hallowe’en Jack ... Ziggy Stardust and his funky Spiders ... Bowie’s early musical canon is replete with unusual characters living in distorted dystopian societies. Born into the generation of rebellion, norm-destruction and self-confessed narcissism, Bowie’s music told the story of one young white man navigating a deeply disorienting, nascently modernized 1970s society. Birth control, divorce, drugs ... a pantheon of new norms were beginning to settle into place. Psychology began to decry the ills of society rather than the individual, the civil rights movement had begun their expansion a couple of decades prior, and his generational peers had just survived the kaleidoscopic Summer of Love, a drug-fuelled musical phenomenon that swept the West in the late 1960s.
He is mostly known for his trademark bops from this era (mostly from the albums Hunky Dory, Ziggy, and his Berlin Trilogy), but his artistry spanned much further and dove much more deeply than this. He wasn’t just his generation’s Pretty Thing or a Beatnik bop machine -- he was a great artistic experimenter with profound relations to the arts and humanities, interweaving the zeitgeist’s baby boomer angst with philosophical references and multi-disciplinary embellishments. Being a painter and a voracious reader, his music was, in short, a sort of Kierkegaard-in-robes affair, with himself as the main protagonist -- a representative (whether intentionally or not) of his generation’s particular experiences, wrapped up in a funky artistic package.
“I like the idea that I’m in there changing the plan of what society and culture look like, sound like. I did change things, I knew I would. It feels great, and very rewarding.” — Bowie
Though he consistently resisted being identified as actively didactic or preachy, he produced his own plentiful share of societal critique -- whether it be the early despairing 60’s wails of "Cygnet Committee", in which he criticized his particular generation’s crop of "fake wokes" (peers who fetishized intellectual themes and cannibalized their own kind), or the more recent "I’m Afraid Of Americans", a 90’s grinder of a song infused with the fears and confusions of an outside observer (in Bowie’s case, a white middle-aged Brit) of the contradictions and hubris of an intensely commercial, erasive and revisionist American pop culture.
“In the seventies, people (of) my age group were disinclined to be a part of society. It was really hard to convince yourself that you *were* a part of society. It’s like, ‘Ok, you’ve broken up the family unit, and you say you’re trying to get out of your mind and expand yourself and all that. Fine. So now that you’ve left us, what are we left with? Cos here we are, without our families, totally out of our heads, and we don’t know where on earth we are’. That was the feeling of the early 70s.”
— Bowie, 1990, on social disintegration.
Much of his discography, during initial release and in hindsight, reads like an extensive, anxiety-riddled conversation with the world that he found himself in.
BTS, Bangtan Sonyeondan, "Beyond The Scene" or (my favourite) the "Bulletproof Boy Scouts", a Korean group currently taking the world by storm, have regularly been described as the 21st century equivalent of the Beatles.
I became a BTS fan in early 2018, initially drawn in by their independently-produced comedy show Run! BTS. I stumbled across the show entirely by accident -- forwarded by a friend after expressing a casual interest in one of the members. Their personalities, which seemed genuine and laid back, confronted and pulverized my pre-conceived notions and prejudices regarding idol musicians. And not only were they authentic, relatable and immediately lovable, I felt I was witnessing an unrestrained, affectionate brotherhood having oodles of fun -- lacking the usual toxicity of male relationships I'd seen before.
The original intro theme for this series (a BTS song named Blood Sweat & Tears, as I later discovered) was a curiosity to me -- its aural feel was pleasantly unlike anything I’d heard in the western charts, though that admittedly could also be an expression of my own generalized-avoidant pop-phobia. A lot of popular music just ... had never been to my taste. I learned eventually that that was probably because I was unconsciously seeking the unconventional artistry of musical auteurs and world-builders, which aren’t generally represented in the charts.
One binge-watch-a-thon later, I finally sought out the song in question. Singing in Korean and with a vast discography to their name, it wasn't immediately obvious that I'd be able to engage deeply with their work or descend into their wonderful world-building abyss ... but descend I did.
The Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa Universe, HYYH Universe, Bangtan Universe, or BU for short, is a narrative universe first begun in 2015 with BTS’s album HYYH Pt.1. There are seven main characters, each represented by a member of the band.
“If we can rewind time, where should we go back to? Once we reach that place, can we correct all the errors and mistakes, and can we then become happy?”
— Seokjin, Highlight Reel
The oldest, Seokjin, who is the wandering, time-travelling son of a parentally neglectful businessman, centers the narrative; Yoongi, who is a despairing soul, fixates on committing himself to the Big Sleep; Hoseok, who was abandoned as a child and grows up in an orphanage, struggles with seizures; Namjoon is his poverty-stricken family’s bread-winner trapped in a cycle of child-labor, later living semi-homeless under the perpetual shadow of gentrification.
Among the youngest trio we have Jimin, who is hospitalized for mental illness and hidden away as a family secret; Taehyung, whose alcoholic father commits domestic violence against him and his sister, is driven to homicide; and finally we have Jungkook, the youngest, who is desperately seeking a place to belong, contemplates self-destruction and miraculously survives a traumatic road accident.
Through music videos, short films, reels, a book and a webtoon, this universe unravels elegantly to tell the story of universal struggles faced not just by Korean youth but also, inevitably, the global generation too.
Though the initial HYYH music trilogy is now complete, the universe continues to be told. The Love Yourself era and now Map Of The Soul both expand and elaborate on details of the narrative, reflecting the fact that a life story is not one moment but many moments adjoined over many years.
Songs like "Go Go" (a commentary on Korean millennials' monetary carpe diem, a behaviour exhibited when faced with a sense of financial hopelessness) and "Anpanman" (an extremely weak, working class superhero who literally feeds himself to others) both read much darker than their melodies would have you believe. "Dope", appreciated by fans as the ultimate proletarian anthem despite its band-history specificities, summarizes succinctly the spirit -- the hustle and grind -- of the millennial life as we attempt to survive the dual worlds of intensely competitive academic landscapes and a plethora of lethargic or failing economies.
The concept surrounding the new album Map Of The Soul: Persona is very deliberately self-referential; they purposefully revisit old themes in order to achieve healthy closure. It is a valid artistic device, as Bowie’s own conceptual history attests. Major Tom, the cosmonaut lost in outer space at the end of the 1969 bop “Space Oddity”, was revisited a decade later in “Ashes To Ashes”, a commendable attempt at self-reflection on his past, drug-related bad behavior.
If Bangtan’s deliberate (currently one-off) era of self-referential personal growth is lost on a critic and quickly dismissed as a conceptual failure, the failure is on the critic’s part to research Bangtan’s intentions; it is also a failure to understand the conceptual intent of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
Even Namjoon’s reading list, which was released to the relief of all the theorists trying to piece together the HYYH story, is very reminiscent of Bowie’s own publicized booklist. Psychiatry and fiction figure prominently, from works by the likes of Camus and Jung to famous novels like “The Catcher In The Rye" and "Demian". Every symbol, be it in a music video or on a t-shirt, is automatically taken as suspect. Anything and everything is a clue, as long term theory ARMYs will testify. In regards to the attention paid to the direction of storytelling, the Bangtan Universe actually *surpasses* Bowie; as a lonesome auteur Bowie struggled for a lifetime to maintain a coherent narrative, and he only managed to complete the writing of a musical a couple of years before he died.
There are contrasts as well as similarities here. While Bowie’s narrative was a one-man story, dressed in visual wonder and lyrical elegance to present himself as a supernatural prophet, Bangtan’s narrative is something of a seven-billion-strong story. BTS utilize the same artistic and musical devices, complete with costumery, make-up, and references to literature and art, but in reverse : they maintain an intimately familiar, symbiotic relation with their fanbase, seeing them as friends as much as they see them as fans.
Responsive to both admiration and personal critique, growing and learning in a way that reflects the intensely self-critical nature of millennial/Generation Z personhood, they are not idols in that unattainable, ethereal way that the idols and musicians of old would exhibit. They are idols-as-role-models, idols-as-normies, idols-as-friends.
Bowie and BTS are two artists of equal status and quality, but represent contrasting historical demographics. While baby boomers largely *turned* inwards on themselves for individualistic reasons, millennials *look* inwards for pro-social reasons.
Bowie, lost-alone ... Boy Scouts, lost-together.
A common experience when becoming an ARMY, especially back in the early days, is to have BTS dismissed as just another bubble-gum K-pop group (in fact, they're probably the least bubble-gum group out there). "Passé", "derivative", "unoriginal" ... there's a whole thesaurus of dismissals out there, and while it's generally negativity not worth engaging in, I feel it's important to elucidate a few points at this juncture.
There's an element of cultural and racial chauvinism in dismissing Bangtan's artistry in this way, considering that white western artists like Bowie and Gaga have engaged in versatile visuals and concepts for decades already. Bowie himself opined on the feeling that much of his own work felt "borrowed" -- in fact, he embraced it.
“Lower case art is always best. And anyway, a lot of what was considered art in 1978 is now just part of our vocabulary.” — Bowie
A side effect of the postmodern mindset is the defeatist and often selectively (read : xenophobically) applied proclamation that something has been "done before". That vague sense of borrowed-ness, however, is not of the unoriginal, "plagiaristic" sort, but a reflection of the fact that we already have thousands of years of art history and a century of popular music under our collective belts (cultural appropriation is a different discussion, of course). Human culture is unavoidably syncretic. What matters is imbuing it with meaning, embracing new techniques and media where possible, and loving the art for its own sake.
I personally feel that BTS are actually more original and genre-bending than most western charting artists; the fact that they can bend genres *while singing in Korean* without compromising chart success speaks volumes about their talent and relevancy.
Though the Beatles comparison usually emphasizes Bangtan's sheer global status or the passion of their fans, I'd say it stretches further than that -- but I'd also say that it's not the most equivalent comparison either.
Like Bowie and Bangtan, the Beatles were a narrative conduit for their generation’s experiences and struggles. Like Bowie and Bangtan, they had a fanbase that was more-often-than-not simplified to the word "screaming". And like Bowie and Bangtan, they utilized deviant intellectual thought and cycled through various conceptual eras. In contrast to Bowie, however, the output of the Beatles necessarily sputtered out in the 70s as they began to pursue their various, individual courses as artists. They had no coherent, collective mission to speak of. Condemned to new, fragmented solo careers, the Beatles could not maintain themselves as narrators of the zeitgeist in the consistent way that Bowie has managed to; and Bangtan, under their supremely organized mini-company BigHit (their tagline : "music and artists for healing"), have managed to communicate their message consistently and in diverse ways for six years already.
"What a relief that we are seven members. What a relief that we have each other." — Yoongi
There’s a common saying in the fandom, attributed to the rapper Yoongi, which is just one of many articulations of solidarity and an enduring spirit of long-termism within the family-esque band -- "What a relief that we are seven". Putting aside the inevitable military enlistment schedule, the members have expressed multiple times their intent to keep themselves together for, if possible, decades longer. In addition to this, members already produce solo works -- it’s not seen as post-band labor but labor conducted alongside the band’s career.
The millions-strong fandom is diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, nationality and religion, but the band channels the spirit of the most immediately relevant generation -- young people. Young people don’t disappear, they grow. With a fanbase intensely organized at the grassroots level and committed to the group’s wholehearted, passionate messages, BTS are certainly in no immediate danger of dropping into irrelevancy.
Obviously I am no prediction prophetess, but if anybody is capable of channelling the long-term zeitgeist of a generation, embodying our struggles, hopes, dreams and joys, Bangtan Sonyeondan are the most equipped group of artists we could possibly wish for.
I often wonder if BTS was ever on David Bowie’s voracious listening radar before he died. While Bangtan didn’t see major international success until sometime after his death in 2016, Bowie was extremely keyed-in to new waves of music and changes in the industry, going so far as to praise young new artists like Lorde and discovering, appreciating and collaborating with even the most obscure of global musicians right up until his latest years.
“David really liked Lorde, and he felt like she was the future of music” — Mike Garson, Bowie’s pianist
Fandom culture and his apparent auteur-sensibilities aside, I like to think his all-seeing eye would have noticed something norm-shifting in Bangtan's approach to idol music. The HYYH universe was around for almost a year before his death, and though he was decidedly not an active preacher of social critique due to his nihilistic mindset, I think he would have appreciated their authenticity and world-building. At any rate, their music is top notch in its own right, and they're practically incapable of releasing a bad or "pointless" song, so they must've been somewhat noticeable.
Anecdotal word had it among Blackstar-era Bowie stans that before he died, he proclaimed 21st century pop culture to be too alien and young for him, so the value of BTS might have missed him entirely. But then, we’re also talking about a dude who utilised nursery rhymes, absurd sound effects and musical amateurism as musical inspo, so we’re talking about a *very* musically open-minded artist.
I've never known any artist to concept-switch, flex visuals for a specific purpose, make relevant social points or seriously reference literature or the fine arts as much as Bowie -- that is, until I discovered BTS (Janelle Monae is a rare exception -- oh, how I would sell my kidney for a Janelle/BTS collab!). Namjoon's intellectual tastes, Taehyung's love of art and old music and Yoongi's undying musical commitment remind me a lot of him too.
“The sound of cicadas that chirred like showers ends in an instant. In the abrupt silence, I realize how beautiful the world is. Just the fact that you are in it makes all the difference. Even if all of these moments are just a lie, I still want to remain here.”
— Seokjin, Highlight Reel
A common word Bowie used to use in describing his chameleon-like lifetime of musical output was "through-line", by which he meant a common backbone. His through-line, as we have already discussed, was "the self as ego". BTS, however, embody the new generational zeitgeist of self-reflection, their group acting as a vector of transmission for a new, intimately connected global humanity which is now reflecting on itself. Their through-line is "the found self". As a person fascinated not just by generational dynamics but also global development and social progress, the BTS phenomenon is very exciting to witness and take part in -- it is global therapy in musical form.
I, who became a hero in this world / The cheers that search for me, along with my hands, trophies, and golden mics / All day, everywhere / But all of this is in order to reach you / For you’re the answer to my travels / I sing in order to find you
— Make It Right by BTS (trans credit: twitter @ doyou_bangtan)
If the 20th century was a time of losing and destroying oneself at the ultimate expense of society, the 21st century must be a time of finding and respecting oneself in order to fix society.
The "kids", both young and old, have not finished their news. The "kids" won’t let the earth be a b*tch anymore.
The "kids", in summary, are going to be alright.