BTS’s Social Commentary per Album, Explained
While BTS has made music spanning various issues, it is the scrutiny of society that separates their discography from the rest.
In 2020, through a detailed interview with Esquire, Min Yoongi, known as Suga, remarks that, except their latest album, BE, “no BTS album would be complete without a track that scrutinizes society.”
As an avid listener of their music and an ARMY for the last five years, I decided to scan through each album and find a social commentary from each one. Here’s a record of what I found.
2 Cool 4 Skool, No More Dream
BTS’s first single from their first album, No More Dream is a bold take on how societal norms and expectations burden young minds with having dreams which fit their standards.
The song begins with how many of our dreams don’t fit the usual “big house, big cars and big dreams,” and how we often find ourselves without a goal or purpose in life.
With references to what school life is like for students in Korean society, what’s more, the song also comments on how, no matter how much we want to change the system, we can’t because we inevitably end up following the paths society sets out, out of the fear of not fitting in.
Why aren’t you saying anything? You said studying isn’t your thing
You’re actually scared to drop out of school, right? Look at you, you’re already preparing to go to school
Therefore, the chorus of the song calls out the “hypocrites” who are more concerned about making sure that the students of today follow societal expectations, and the “hypocrites” who crib about the system, but inevitably comply to it anyway.
As an extension to No More Dream, N.O talks about how our “dreams” are often ruined or non-existent because of societal norms, but with this song, BTS call out the exact people who are responsible for this — the previous generations, the “adults” to the schoolchildren of today.
Who are the ones that made us into studying machines?
That the ones who categorized us into number ones and stragglers
and locked us in a trap
The song connects to No More Dream, by talking about how many of us are often trapped between dreams and reality, because of what we want, and what others want.
In the chorus, BTS scream out a no to the system of grades and schooling that pits students against each other, a system that BTS yet again describes with references to the Korean society, thus extending on their very first single.
Skool Luv Affair, Spine Breaker
Spine Breaker is a personal favorite, because it brings into scrutiny a system that idols and celebrities themselves benefit from.
Youngsters, especially school children buy goods endorsed and used by celebrities, and in turn they purchase these goods to follow trends. While this system benefits the celebrity, the producer of the good, and the child, it adversely affects their parents. To see BTS call out this system that might as well benefit them is a thing of bravery.
The song, in its origins, particularly brings in focus a craze of “padded jackets” that began in South Korea around 2008–2009. Ultimately the jackets became so expensive out of demand, that they were called the spine breakers, for the burden that children put on their parents for these jackets.
BTS sing about how children who should actually focus on education, are focusing on chasing trends, and the implications it has on the parents, and the mentality of the students.
It brings about two perspectives, of the child who follows the trend, and the child who doesn’t. Both call the other out, mock each other, and put forward why they live the way they do.
Interestingly, the music video for the song is a funnily shot video where the members are seen wearing mismatched clothes, to signify students who wear the clothes that are so expensive that they don’t match their lifestyles.
Dark & Wild, Could You Turn Off Your Cellphone?
With this song, BTS expresses the notion of “smartphones make people dumb” with a take on how the usage of smartphones amplifies the usage of social media and further drives people away from each other, specifically making cultural references to how the smartphone craze has taken over the youth of their country.
The song describes the disadvantages of excessive smartphone usage by describing a situation where the members go to meet a friend, but the friend is busy with their cellphone.
It remarks incidents we see too often happening with cellphones — people taking pictures excessively, escaping social situations to use their phones, and the fear of missing out and the addiction that spurs from cellphones.
The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Part 1, Dope
Dope is a testament to the faith that BTS have in the sheer power of hard work, and the song explores how it is often undervalued by others who complete their successful journeys through connections and external support.
This song is also a testament to BTS’s journey, which began without the help of any industry support, and came from a new company at a time when only three companies ruled the K-Pop industry.
The song is a social commentary because it emphasizes the power of originality, dedication and hard work in a society which shows the path of success quite differently through pop culture.
Think of how in many movies and books, we often see the “CEOs” and other famous persons partying and enjoying themselves rather than their harsh journeys, which is only saved for autobiographies.
Many people, therefore, in real life, often strive for a lifestyle where zero effort brings them maximum benefits, and with Dope, BTS calls out such people who will never be able to be as “freaking awesome” as them, as the Hangul for the song, 쩔어, can be translated to.
The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Part 2, Silver Spoon
The song is created out of a Korean saying which roughly translates to this — if a crow-tit tries to follow a stork, it’ll split its legs. This means that a person should only “dream” within their capabilities, lest they’d “split their legs” and ask for more than they can handle.
The Hangul for the song’s title literally translates to a crow-tit, which is a bird with short legs, used to signify the underdogs of society with no external help or resources. If they dare to go beyond the chances provided to them, they’ll either be removed from the rat race of success, or if they’re very hard working and lucky, they might just make it ahead, like BTS did.
In English, the song is titled Silver Spoon, which may be to signify the privileged “storks” of society. With cultural references, the song gives its listeners a sight into how deep socioeconomic inequality runs through the society they live in.
For example, the song makes references to the N-po generation, where N signifies the number of things left behind out of the fear of societal pressures.
Sampo Generation refers to a set of people who have abandoned courtship, marriage and having kids. Opo Generation has those which leave behind 5 things — courtship, marriage, having kids, employment, home ownership. Dope also makes references to the n-po generation system. You can read more about this system here.
BTS mentions how the people of these generations are scrutinized by the media and in society every day, to make sure that the “storks” of the society stay in popularity and power.
The song also extends the idea of hard work and its value from Dope, and talks about how the privileged, at least, shouldn’t talk about the value of hard work because it’s not like they had to do any to get to where they are.
Wings, Am I Wrong
This song essentially asks its listeners, “do you not see the wrongs of the society we have to live in? Am I wrong for thinking the world is crazy for living this way?”
The song picks up the conversation on socioeconomic inequality from Silver Spoon, and talks about how the war between the privileged and the underdogs (being referred to as crow-tits and storks) has driven the former to do things which would be ethically wrong, but are often overlooked or forgotten quickly, thus calling the world crazy for it.
The song also calls out those non-privileged people who simply choose to not take a stance or be apolitical at a time when society should be speaking up instead.
If you see the news and don’t feel anything,
if you see that comment and don’t feel anything,
if that hatred doesn’t make you feel anything,
you’re not normal but abnormal
Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’, GoGo
GoGo is a satirical spin on how the youth of today is often criticized for a mindset of “living in the now” — low savings, high spending. While the idea of it seems appetizing, society and its race of success make it very hard to do so. This is something that the critiques of this generation fail to see, and this is what the satire of the song is based on.
The song, just like many of BTS’s commentaries, makes many cultural references, especially to the economic state of their country and how it affects their livelihood, pushing them into the “low savings, more spending” lifestyle.
While the song and its choreography make it sound and look like they’re having fun living the way they are, the lyrics highlight how most of it is just fantasy because most of them don’t have the money for squandering at all.
BTS respond to this criticism by singing about how it will never matter if they squander or overspend, because with the economic obstacles they have to cross everyday, the worries will never end, so why not go crazy and just spend however we want?
Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’, Anpanman
A conventional superhero, like pop culture tells us, are seen with a uniform set of features — physical strength, good looks, popularity, and what not.
However, many of us might not know it but among us there are many heroes who are not the traditional superheroes the movies show, but these unconventional people are dedicated to making life easier for others and often save them.
From the homemakers to the NGOs to whoever keeps the show going in the background, BTS creates Anpanman as a tribute to these heroes. One can also watch performances of the song, where BTS is often seen wearing construction worker-themed outfits as well.
The song’s name is based on an Anime character of the same name, who doesn’t have superpowers but tears himself off to give food to those who need it.
Throughout the song, BTS sings about how their only power is to give solace to those who need it, because who’s going to do it if they don’t?
Love Yourself 結 ‘Answer’, Idol
With Idol, BTS sing to redefine what the word “idol” and “artist” mean to them. Throughout the Love Yourself series, the group dabbled with the various aspects of love, and in the finale of the trilogy, they decided to end it with the most important of them all — self-love, and how societal norms crush it.
The song is a social commentary which rebels against the strict societal norms that artists have to confine themselves to, which also affects their ability to love and respect themselves.
With a grateful nod to their culture with traditional Korean elements, the song rebels against those who aim to tear down artists, put them in the “idol” category and make them forget their own worth. The song has BTS singing about how, first and foremost, they are themselves before being an idol, and how they will strive to love themselves for it.
Map of the Soul : Persona, Dionysus
This song comments upon how hard it becomes to keep making art when external forces of society that come with fame, turn the beauty of creation into pain.
The god of viticulture and fertility, Dionysus is a Greek God who was known for two things — on one hand, he spread ecstasy and joy, and on the other he could spread massive rage as well.
This nature of duality is expressed throughout the song for the art that BTS make; while this art brings joy to its listeners, for them, it gives rise to uncontrollable greed and anger that comes with the pain of the creation of art.
Moreover, just like Dionysus’s Thyrsus, considered to be a symbol of prosperity and pleasure, BTS liken it to their mics, which spread the art that blurs the lines between hedonism and mere pleasure for them and for their listeners respectively.
Just like Dionysus traveled the realms of life and death, BTS describe how they often move between the realms of being idols and artists, and how it has stopped mattering now, just like they concluded in Idol.
Map of the Soul : 7, UGH!
Anger and the consequent intolerance have serious consequences on a large scale in society. The rap line unit of BTS explores anger from three perspectives in this song.
In the first verse, Yoongi begins by saying that just like a player in a video game, many of us fail to understand the consequences of the actions we take out of our anger, sometimes even forgetting to keep our morals in check.
Namjoon continues the conversation by remarking that throughout history, the right anger has started revolutions to justice, but if wrongly used, this anger just becomes a waste of energy. Hoseok continues the scrutiny on misplaced anger in society, by talking about how the wrong anger drives our attention away from the things we should rightfully be angry about.
The chorus shows their anger over misplaced anger, but instead of being loud and destructive, throughout the song you will notice how their voices are inquisitive and demanding; they are rightfully angry, and they don’t need to be loud because they know they’re right.
In one of their online concerts, UGH was performed on a stage set like a boxing ring, where the right anger can win you the match, but the wrong kind can destroy you permanently. This speaks volumes about what the song means to scrutinize.
These songs were just the tip of the commentary iceberg; BTS’s entire discography is filled with elements that speak upon the society they live in, and with what the youth of today goes through.
However, all it takes is an ounce of genuine interest, and the will to listen to what they’re saying to understand their messages.
You can read a compact version of this article on a thread I made on Twitter.
You can also connect with me on Twitter if anything in the post seems unclear, or you would like to continue the conversation on their songs forward.
All lyrics quoted from Doolset Lyrics. Thank you for reading!