Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University
BTS’s BE is a Solace for the Soul in Quarantine
Gianna Sibal | Jan 21, 2021
When Taylor Swift released folklore, its words provided ease and comfort in an unprecedented time, and exposed a vulnerability the world largely resonated with. Singing of acceptance, recognition, empathy, and hope within our solitary spaces, folklore was a consolation to many.
No different from the mood of folklore, Korean group BTS’s latest release BE emulated the same soulfulness, comfort, and sincerity. After topping the Billboard charts with their hit single “Dynamite” last August, BTS’s sound and message rose to meet a weary yet determined and hopeful global mood with this eight-track document.
As the band’s world tour was postponed, the time off the road gave the members a chance to reflect on themselves, and illuminate their thoughts and feelings through music made in a global depression. It gave the artists room to engross themselves in and be more hands-on with the entire production of the album.
Since the start of their career in 2013, BTS’s music has always been authentic and daring, experimental and open, emotional and sincere. They commit themselves to the writing and production of their music, immersing themselves in their creative process and craft they even once called “birthing pains.” What they put out is a culmination of research and ideas translated into careful thought. Although they’re commonly known for exploring fascinating, meaningful, and taboo topics in their discography, BE differs in its personality, emotion, and rumination within this time, imbued in sound and lyric; a page out of their own diaries, open for millions to read. It is no surprise then that all the members have co-writing and production credits for all the songs in BE (apart from “Dynamite”), and were heavily involved in its creative choices—concept, style, composition, and production.
In this feature, Heights discusses the visuals and content of BE to illustrate how BTS writes and sings of unfiltered struggles and emotions within an unprecedented time to fans and non-fans alike.
In the house they built for BE
While each member has their own room, there is one that brings them all together in a space full of musical instruments. In the room, the seven members are huddled together, clad in half-pajama and half-black tie outfits. To many fans, this is an image of the group relaxing together after a long day of making music. The calm colors, the lax poses, and the loosely formal outfits convey the comfort the band shares with one another after seven years in their career; what they show in this photo is the inevitable closeness they have built over a long period of time. This level of comfortability translates into the visual of the album, showing that, in quarantine, they experience work and life at the same time in one house.
On the days leading up to BE’s release, BTS’s concept photos gave a glimpse into each member's rooms which were tailor-made and decorated to their personalities. Attached to each photo are voice recordings from the members who curated and discussed their personal choices in visual direction and style. Kim Taehyung’s (V) room is customized to mirror an art gallery, with a scarlet velvet couch and violins mounted high on the wall. Park Jimin (Jimin), clad in all black, is surrounded by contrasting, warm-toned flowers. The third room, leader Kim Namjoon’s (RM) space, is designed with a wood-tone color scheme exuding moods akin to a warm “embrace”. In Jeon Jung Kook’s (Jung Kook) dark purple space, speakers of different sizes fill the room. As the main vocalist of the group, these speakers represent how he started to dedicate his life to music at only thirteen years old, and continues to do so even a decade after at twenty-three. As for Kim Seokjin (Jin), his room is bright and bejeweled. Rapper Min Yoongi’s (SUGA) feet rest on a mirror in the middle of his blue room. This object also references his solo track, “Interlude: Shadow”, where he sits in a hall of mirrors in the music video. “Mirrors show a reflection of you. All the members took part in the making of BE to make it a true and faithful reflection of ourselves,” he explains. Lastly, Jung Hoseok (j-hope) sits on a pink blow-up couch, surrounded by bright colors, graphic screen prints, and a line of shoes to represent his passion and dedication to dancing.
What translated into BE’s visuals was BTS’ desire to show their natural and authentic selves at home. With months into quarantine, their photos express that they, too, are enclosed in the four walls of their rooms; they too share in the sluggish and monotonic days that have become clockwork.
Heightsers Sim and Jacob, from the Heights Online staff, who are new to the band, also find these visuals personal. Sim says hearing them talk about these “humanizes” the band. “I like how there was careful directing and decision-making for each of the rooms. It’s almost like we’re having a peek into their minds,” she says. Jacob agrees, saying that each room showcases the members’ individual personalities, almost like they’re introducing themselves to the world. He also notes that the first room, where they’re all together, is the only photo in which the members are holding musical instruments. “It’s only when they’re together that they can [make] music,” he says.
Pages out of BE
To BTS, every song is a story. Their debut song “No More Dream” speaks about the anxieties of being pushed to fulfill dreams that aren’t your own, and “N.O.” is about the pressure built by the Korean education system. “Baepsae” or “Silver Spoon” is based on a Korean proverb about social hierarchies and the polarization between the older and younger generations, and “Blood Sweat & Tears” was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s book Damien, which talks about temptations and uncertainties as essential parts of life. “Persona” is about a social mask, and “Black Swan” is about an artist’s fear of losing love for their passion.
In exploring these themes, BTS weaves together a meaningful, rare, yet resonant writing style for listeners who seek context and translations of their songs. They use peculiar metaphors such as a Calico cat to describe things that have extraordinary meanings in people’s lives, a 52-hertz whale as an image of loneliness and being misunderstood, and rain as a dear friend who knocks on your window when you feel alone. They approach two or more sides of one narrative in the same song, “Tear”: in expressing their feelings about a breakup, the word ‘tear’ is used as a noun by one rapper, as a verb by another rapper, and formed as ‘fear’ by the last rapper. They stray from conventional rules, use wordplay in two languages, appropriate the concepts to make it their own, and create and recreate stories to send the message they want to convey through their music.
BE’s lead single, “Life Goes On” is a letter of longing for better times. Musically, it’s a relaxed tempo with a contemplative mood. Lyrically, it’s less a promise and more a fact: the world may have stopped without warning, but this will pass—even though right now, it seems impossible.
“Fly to My Room”, a sub-unit R&B influenced track between SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, and V, mimics the slow, dragging feeling of time spent in quarantine. They sing of frustrations of being boxed in our own little rooms with lines like this room is too small / yes, to contain my dream, and of what little comfort they’ve also become: this is the safest place / somehow there’s no joy, no sadness, no emotion / it’s just me here / sometimes this room becomes an emotional trash can / it hugs me.
The melancholic guitar ballad, “Blue & Grey”, with its evocative lyrics, describes the pandemic-induced loneliness and the yearning to be happy at this time: I just wanna be happier / am I being too greedy?. The following track is a recorded conversation, entitled “Skit”, between the members after being the first South Korean artists to achieve a No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Dynamite”. “Skit” being inserted right in the middle of the album, after the brooding tones from the first three tracks says: there are some victories, however small, that you can still celebrate, even at this time.
The second half of the record embraces a savvy and uplifting pop. “Telepathy” uses funky rhythms while it tells a story of artists missing their fans: even though we’re far away now / our hearts are still the same / even if I’m not by your side / you know we’re together. To BTS, who have a very close and personal relationship with their fans, this song means to be an assurance and consolation that they will see each other again soon. “Dis-ease” is bright in its old school hip-hop tune, but its message is not. Rather than a direct confrontation to the pandemic in spite of its title, the lyrics speak of uncertainty and unease: is it the world or me that’s sick? / I’m too young / my body’s the only grown-up / the limp of life. The song also refers to the emptiness BTS felt when their tour was cancelled; while they were given time away from their hectic schedules, there’s also a pressure and discomfort to resting, as if the song is asking: how can we rest in this time of unrest?
RM, known for his wordplay in lyrics, raps: this glass-like bottle hits my head / whether it’s the world or me that’s ill is confusing. He uses the word, 병 or ‘byeong’ for ‘bottle’. Translated, this Korean word also means “disease” in English. Similarly, he uses the word ‘work’ in Korean, 일, pronounced il which sounds like the English word ill. In these lines: my heart needs a holiday too / ah, just do work as work / I’m ill, sure I’m work itself / that friend called “rest”, oh, I never liked him, he calls himself ‘work’. While the song alludes more to the lack of ease rather than the actual sickness (dis-ease or without ease), the disease they’re pertaining to and experiencing emanates from their genuine inability to rest in this time.
“Stay”, sung by the last three members of the group, RM, Jin, and Jung Kook, is an EDM dance track, and another letter to their fans: every night and day / I know you always stay. Finally, BE closes with “Dynamite” with its cheerful energy, reminiscent of fireworks at the end of a concert.
BTS’ storytelling in their lyric and content build their identity as artists who speak through their music. In spite of their discography racking up Korean (and some Japanese) tracks, and although their largest fan bases are on the other side of the globe, they put in the work in their music even in the possibility of words getting lost in translation. It’s what they say through their art, and how they say it, that thoughtfully craft their lyrics—word by word.
It’s easy to fall into sheer ignorance with the remark: “But you don’t even understand what they’re saying”. In the territory of music, however, “the world is not that wide,” as RM would say. He and the group believe that language is not and should not be a hindrance when they speak through their lyric and art, and many share in their sentiment.
After BTS’ huge success with all-English song “Dynamite”, they return to using most of their own language in a soulful album like BE, singing proudly with it while charting all Korean songs, too.
“It’s very genuine to me,” Sim explains: “As a non-fan, I [still] resonated with the lyrics even though I had to search up English translations, because [the lyrics] have very universal feelings: hopelessness, optimism, the sad attempt at looking towards the future—[these] are all things we’ve all felt lately.” Jacob, who agrees, mentions that he appreciates the diversity of their genres and the overall production of the album, but where the album shines most is in the sincerity of its lyrics.
Although the album contains only a few tracks, it forms a seamless litany of both proclamation and promise: to rest, to exist, to be. For figures as big as BTS, speaking candidly on universal emotions is as comforting as a cozy sweater or a warm hug. Almost as if—with their thoughtfully-crafted lyrics, relaxing tunes to laze on the couch to, and upbeat tracks to dance to in our rooms—they’re telling listeners to take a breath and just be for a moment, because the collective sadness and frustrations we’re feeling must be heavy—it can’t not be.
In providing solace and comfort, the album achieves what it inadvertently set to do. It’s a safety blanket for most of its listeners because the message of ‘life goes on’ and the other unfiltered emotions present in its songs are consoling and much-needed at this somber moment. BE embraces the “pandemic album” label with sincere songwriting and remarkable visual direction in crafting their art—which has always shone in their music. BE is solace for a soul in quarantine—it’s a dose of energy to get through the day just enough to dream at night.
It might have been born from a sense of powerlessness, but for a band who values their work and their listeners, the distinct quality of BE is in its empathy. In the house they built, they introduce themselves again to the world as people whose doors are open. While their individually-tailored rooms vastly differ, the feelings in those spaces are all the same. They say: we feel your sadness and frustrations, too. Let us feel it with you, too.
In taking more creative control with BE, the authenticity in its lyrics and story resembles an empathetic exchange and a personal conversation shared in a heartfelt understanding. While BTS comes from a starkly different and almost unrelatable profession, it is through BE that they remind us of an affinity that makes us human: soul, heart, minds, and body. They remind us of the feelings that loom in our private spaces today: fear, distress, and sorrow, as well as comfort, determination, and hope, as, in “Dis-ease”, they sing: we’re all just people / ain’t so special.
BTS takes on a big chance in their album by acknowledging that there is a space between sorrow and hope—and in that space, you can just be.
Art by Dagny Yenko.
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