It is common for the Western media to characterize the artistry of BTS as "manufactured", "robotic" -- or to quote an arrogant Bowie fan’s response to the comparative analysis I drew up in Part One, "just production".
Gee, I guess "Swan Lake" is also "just production”.
It is fascinating how quickly people will jump in to defend and elevate the authenticity of a Western favourite like David Bowie, as though he didn’t very openly build his whole career identity on artifice, while entirely dismissing the authenticity of a Korean group they have only perfunctorily listened to. If you were to listen only to his greatest hits -- think “Starman”, "Let’s Dance", "Rebel Rebel" -- you would assume that Bowie too was nothing more than a bop machine. Besides, he was an artistic inheritor of the pop art movement, and therefore the supreme leader of Warholian "just production". He verbalized this on many occasions -- he was fixated on it both artistically and philosophically.
"Sometimes, I don’t feel as if I’m a person at all. I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas"
— Bowie, 1972
Against a contemporary backdrop where many Western charting songs do not even belong to the performers, as we will see, the Korean group BTS have quietly arrived while cutting their own uniquely authentic path. A culture of self-direction embedded within broader production values, rather than the scattered and diluted creativity culture of the West or the bland company standards of other K-pop idols, is behind the quality and success of their music.
Obsessed with a specific, static and fairly outdated image of authenticity, however -- generally a lone singer-songwriter strumming a guitar -- it is near impossible for many Westerners to imagine that genuine, self-composed music could come out of a choreographed Korean group.
As someone who can speak from both corners —classic rock *and* BTS — I guarantee that their reality could not be further from this manufactured notion, so let me fill you in.
Calling ourselves a nation is wrong / when you’re being apathetic / Vote is yours, but future is ours.
In the winter of 2012, six months before the debut of Bangtan Sonyeondan, a short music video was quietly dropped onto the YouTube channel "BANGTANTV". With rap and an altered popular melody superimposed onto a stream of provocative images, the D.I.Y. piece was an assertive clarion call for Korean citizens, particularly young people, to exercise their civil duty -- to vote and to challenge present figures of authority in recognition of the relative privilege they have over prior generations who lacked their political freedoms.
With a tight flow and a confident, aggressive tone, the self-made video -- bluntly titled "Vote, Or Just Shut Up" -- is a prototypical example of the creativity and sociopolitical persuasions of Bangtan’s lead rapper, RM.
The three original core members of BTS (the first ones to be signed; vocalists were added later so that they debuted together as a septet) had their origins in the self-made space of the underground hip-hop community. With no prior intention to form an idol group, their groundbreaking decision to utilize the pre-existing idol platform as a way of distributing self-expressive music earned them much scorn and abuse from the indie scene they chose to diverge from.
Thinking outside of the box is a sure-fire way of garnering vitriol from one’s culture, but it is also the crucial factor in the ongoing evolution of art -- to take the risks other people refuse to take or else let yourself melt into obscurity with the rest of them. In the unfortunate case of Bangtan, they have become the ultimate poster children for misunderstood pioneers, with hostility grinding its gears from not one but *three* different sides -- Korean hip-hop, Korean idol music and the West.
K-pop wasn’t always the "manufactured" industry it is today. When the archetypal choreographed K-pop act Seo Taiji and Boys burst onto television screens in the early 1990s, the concept of company-based idol music was little more than a twinkle in industry executives' eyes. With an earthy hip-hop identity, subversive fashions and music that confronted the social norms and censorship issues of the day, Seo Taiji was an especially brave beginning for a fledgling industry, bringing the promise of a new wave of culturally-specific, authentic popular music to the nation’s entertainment scene.
"Classroom Idea,” a heavy track complete with death growls, is probably the most infamous example of their socially conscious song-writing. Extremely critical of the educational system, it initiated a moral panic and garnered accusations of thinly veiled satanism. It wasn’t their first artistic collision with the conservative norms of Korean society, but it is probably their most directly subversive piece. The group’s cultural reputation, however, gradually grew and evolved from these seeds of controversy, eventually earning the lead artist Seo Taiji the informal title of "President of Culture" for his creative daring.
It is in this subversive vein of artistry, and not the later domain of mass-produced K-pop groups, that BTS belongs. With a whole narrative universe to their name (filled with struggle, poverty, violence and death), Seo Taiji recently proclaimed Bangtan Sonyeondan to be the true heirs of the original Korean pop ethos he gave birth to decades previously.
If these topics sound angsty, it's not without national precedent. There's a unique melancholic sentiment to be found in Korean culture, which goes by the name of "Han".
“There is no literal English translation. It’s a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there’s hope.” – The West Wing.
This adult "Han" element also explains why Bangtan’s fandom cohort is unusually diverse for a K-pop artist. Although Korean history is uniquely saturated in themes of melancholy, struggle and hope, they are ultimately ageless, universal concepts. Therefore, unlike other K-pop fandoms, BTS fans span every age, gender and ethnic group -- BTS is not a "crazy" teenage phenomenon, it is an intellectual phenomenon. It’s about time the media started treating it like one. You will find as many adults as teens within the fandom, often working voluntarily on top of their employment or studies -- for example, teachers may function as translators while accountants, attorneys, engineers, librarians and other professionals work as our record-keepers and statisticians. I can vouch for this anecdotally, too, as I have personally befriended a nurse and a nuclear engineer.
Besides being crowned music’s hereditary princes by Korea’s "President of Culture”, some other prominent supporters of BTS include Korean music critics, philosophers, Jungian psychologists, Brazilian authors, American painters and even the President of the Republic himself; medalled and culturally decorated to an unusual extent for a K-pop group, the band have also recently earned the distinction of having a psychology book dedicated to them. Western journalists, K-media and pseudo-intellectual classic rock fans may be woefully inadequate at comprehending the group's art, but one fact is undeniable: the intellectuals are on Bangtan’s side.
Now that we've discussed their personal artistic motives and the attractions of their music, let's elaborate on some specific ways Bangtan's production style deviates from the Western model.
Firstly there’s the cinematic, narrative nature of their music; their "Wings" era, in particular, with its dark neoclassical themes, is a stupendous work of art, rivalling the cinematography and musical mixing of any number of great films. Fans consider it to be the ultimate masterpiece of their discography, akin to a "Dark Side of the Moon" or "Ziggy", except with coherent storytelling.
Their recent collaborator Halsey has herself cited their scintillating cinematic pieces as partly the reason for finding herself drawn to their music.
"... They are an absolutely amazing group, who put so much love and so much dedication into everything they do. Every music video is so inspiring, and so cinematic and perfect, and it was something I really just wanted to be a part of."
Secondly, the members have prodigious self-directed talent, with a precocious grasp on their mediums (choreography, rap and vocals) akin to that of the classical music scene; fans also sometimes use musical theater as an apt comparison. They are a curious mix of underground experience and polished artistry. Allow me to cite an example.
Jimin, a vocalist and dancer, is classically trained and supernaturally adept at portraying emotion in contemporary dance pieces (for chills, I’d recommend his performance of "Lie" on the Wings Tour, which exquisitely portrays the feral anguish of an entrapped youth). J-hope, on the other hand, who leads the danceline and also contributes to the rapline, started out as a teenaged street dancer. Notoriously eagle-eyed and sharply reflexed when it comes to movement, the consequence of many years of autodidactic study, he is known as something of a dance master-general during group choreography work. It is personal contrasts like these that meld together to aid their genre-crossing artistry; perhaps nothing better reflects this eclectic synergy than their 2016 MAMAs performance of “Boy Meets Evil”.
Thirdly, and most importantly as it’s the most misunderstood element of who they are, there’s the mini-company that they’re housed under, with a small and intimate coterie of long-time producers who work alongside them to aid in the members' creative goals. Their composition work relies on a unique interpersonal dynamism between individual creative ownership and ensemble output. The members write the lyrics and generate a lot of their melodies, while a small in-house team tackles other aspects, like video direction, mixing and album design (GRAMMY-nominated, by the way); they’re open to collaborations and partially received pieces too, so long as it serves a pre-existing narrative purpose.
This is not cheap, soulless out-sourcing but comprehensive creative execution, just as a composer may write a whole symphony but ultimately only be able to play one instrument at a time -- he needs an orchestra for that. The direction, content and spirit of the art, however, ultimately belongs to Bangtan -- meetings are held between members and their close production team, discussing the issues of the day and the emotional currents that presently occupy the members' personal lives, in order to corral resources and determine the destination of the orchestration.
For anybody with in-depth knowledge of their process the authenticity of the members’ work is in no doubt. RM, a genius lyricist, even takes it upon himself to personally discuss the production process of each new album with the fans (fun fact: he reportedly has an I.Q. of 148). He streams Skype-style from his own personalized studio (the three rappers plus the vocalist Jungkook each have their own) as he sits at his desk and elaborates on the personal backstory of each song, describing the intricate, sometimes gruelling ways he molded it into its final form.
"In this album, I was [metaphorically] a lyric writing bot! Except for SUGA [...] and j-hope’s parts, I wrote the lyrics for about 80% of it. It was a tough process but thankfully, it came out great."
"Writing the lyrics [...] came very organically to me, with feelings of gratefulness, etc. I feel really satisfied with the lyrics. These days, a lot of people don’t pay attention to lyrics, they simply enjoy the vibes or sounds of the lyrics. It is trending towards this side of things. But personally, I’d like to go the opposite way from this and counter away. In a time where the melody gives you good vibes, as someone who wanted to be a poet and recognize the beauty of the lyrics, and since they are the words that I am raising to you, I really worked hard and focused on portraying the messages properly. So as you listen to this album, my request is that you please pay attention to the lyrics, I really want to emphasize that."
— RM, "Persona" Behind Log (trans credit : cafe_army)
That BTS happen to have a small, intimate team to aid them in the production endeavour does not make their work any less authentic, and it differs fundamentally from other K-pop companies. Besides, Bowie had his own lifelong producers, Visconti and Eno, who constantly deflected and directed the evolution of his sound, and like Bangtan he mostly delegated the production of his album designs by dictating to other artists. A self-confessed magpie, he was fundamentally fed by the people around him. Furthermore, he spent half his career making music as part of one band or another, be it the very early dog-eared machinations of the 60’s ensemble "Davie Jones & The King Bees" or his final, Blackstar-era friends. The cult of the independent white auteur is a myth.
"I think rather than approach K-pop as a genre, a better approach would be 'integrated content’. K-pop includes not just the music but the clothes, the make-up, the choreography. All of these elements I think sort of amalgamate together in a visual and auditory content package. That I think sets it apart from other music or maybe other genres."
— Suga, BTS In Conversation At The GRAMMY Museum
If having any element of production -- be it utilizing diverse forms of media, being well trained or needing someone else to hold the camera for you while you dance -- was a sufficient criterion for rejecting a work of art, we in the West would have to jettison not only most audiovisual pop musicians but also most of our favourite movies. Are "Titanic", "Singin' In The Rain" or "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" less emotionally salient masterpieces just because they were produced professionally and not by a nerd in a backyard garage? Such a narrow-minded attitude is nothing more than adolescent pedanticism writ large on an adult ego.
So -- if possessing production values is not inherently evil, why is it so maligned in the context of Bangtan's music? I think there are two major explanations here, though I could easily cite more.
Firstly, there's the poor authenticity-optics of the idol industry itself, which is mostly built upon stripping idol music of any personal or cultural identity and conforming to transnational standards (simultaneous localization/"de-localization," in the industry's words) for the sake of global export.
BTS have resisted this since day one and instead remain true to their original hip-hop agenda of self expression; they have always refused to produce their discography in English and actually never had any deliberate agenda to break into the Western market. Their rise was organic and unexpected, as the breakthrough Billboard ascent of the stateside-unpromoted 2016 album "Wings” shows. Additionally, they incorporate traditional Korean elements into their songs, choreography and videos. For reasons like these, many fans and some critics suggest removing the K-pop label from BTS entirely in order to divorce their identity from the highly strategic, manufactured image of their idol cousins.
The ultimate example of the members’ creative independence from their company is their personally composed, freely released mixtapes. Not only do they reflect each member’s individual personalities and creative orientations, but they also climb the American Billboard charts without an ounce of promotion effort. The quality and authenticity speaks for itself.
Still don’t believe me? Think I’m twisting my words? Well, the members are recognized songwriters in their own right, listed by the Korea Music Copyright Association. The piano-playing Suga, a genre-versatile rapper known for his prolific daily composition, is an award-winning producer.
So, back to the idol industry.
It continues to shoot itself in the foot and perpetuate its own reputational problems by not learning from the lessons of Bangtan’s self-directed approach, maintaining instead the standard of "factory music". Inevitably this poor reputation gets smeared all over the place, regardless of whether it applies to a particular artist. Poorly trained, lazy and downright unprofessional critics in the West thus inevitably fall into this stereotype trap when attempting to describe BTS.
Which brings us to the second explanation of Western bias and double standards: plain old xenophobia (and pea-brained misogyny). When one does not have a valid intellectual criticism to rely on and yet is determined to protect one’s own confirmation bias, one will inevitably stoop to such aforementioned stereotypes. If the innovation is yours, it’s pioneering. It’s utterly genius and the best thing invented since sliced bread. But when someone else does it, fingers end up in ear canals; it’s incomprehensible, backwards and anti-art -- a threat to the status quo. It’s the devil incarnate.
"Ceci n'est pas une pipe," anyone?
In conclusion, production does not weaken the authenticity of BTS, despite the West’s perpetual attempts to demonize and infantilize it -- or worse, present the members as being locked into some kind of contract slavery. They are not manufactured, they are simply enabled; production is a core *strength* that enhances their ability to convey a message or experience. They are pioneers of long term, generational narrative, and this is an undertaking which necessarily requires a small creative family.
How authentic does Western music look in this new framework? If you compare the long-term Visconti-esque relationship BTS have with their few producers with the uncentered and itinerant “music camp” production of the West, it is actually BTS that come out looking like the more authentic artists.
Their narrative and cinematic focus also make Western songs look less well-realized -- certainly less thought-out, less invested-in, less contextualized. The Bangtan Universe, akin to a contemporary opera, makes the orphaned songs of a Western singer-songwriter look like nothing more than an existential doggy paddle.
If by any chance their approach should take off (oh, the West has a long history of riding the coattails of new musical movements that they originally derided -- just look to the black origins of rock music and its later white dominance) ... if this "in-house execution" should become a future model of musical production, a new multi-dimensional way of delivering self-directed, authentic music reflecting the experiences of global generations, just remember this:
Korea did it first ... and we were b*stards about it.