The international superstars BTS are well-known for their artistry and lyricism. Part of their appeal stems from their willingness to address hard topics. The group dedicated their concept to the experiences of youth. The group’s original full name, though they have since added Beyond The Scene as an alternative, is Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boy Scouts). According to the main dancer and rapper J-Hope in Affinity, “It has a profound meaning […] ‘Bangtan’ means to be resistant to bullets, so it means to block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that aim at adolescents like bullets, to preserve the values and ideal of today’s adolescents.” ARMY, the name of BTS fans and fandom, stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth.
Throughout their 10-year career, Bangtan has stayed true to their message of acknowledging the struggles of the youth. From BTS’s debut to now, let’s look at their songs that address social issues. Since there are so many, these songs will be grouped by their theme. Furthermore, we will not be counting solo releases; we will only use OT7 songs from Korean releases. Some of the tracks will repeat since all social issues are intersectional. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get into it!
Anti-Establishment and Corruption
Songs: “No More Dream”, “N.O”, “Not Today”, “Spring Day”, and “Am I Wrong”
Let’s start with the most prominent themes from the start. Since their debut, BTS has always urged youths to think for themselves. Many young people can relate to the idea of lacking a dream that’s truly their own. They want a successful future, so they seek paths leading to financial security. They study hard in school to get into a top SKY university (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University), all to land a cushy government job or the latter. But these aren’t really their dreams — these are the dreams society places on them. They are pressured by their parents, family, peers, teachers, and others to work for these “dreams.” In their debut song “No More Dream” and their second title track “N.O,” BTS encourages them to follow their dreams instead of following their parents’ dreams for them. Listeners are reminded that their life is their own, and they should choose what they want to do instead of following the conventional paths of society. The idea of having the courage to follow your truth extends throughout BTS’s continuing music career.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke these words at a college rally: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving.” BTS reflects these words in “Not Today”:
“If you can’t fly, then run
Today we will survive
If you can’t run, then walk
Today we will survive
If you can’t walk, then crawl
Even if you have to crawl, gear up”
Although King encouraged activists to never give up in their pursuit of equality, the message is still the same in “Not Today” — never give up, and break the glass ceiling. King’s speech and BTS’s song embody the spirit of hope as a means of resistance — to find the hope within you to fight against that which oppresses you. The will to fight against oppression is in and of itself an anti-establishment notion. Hope as resistance requires fighting against the established status quo, echoing the earlier sentiments of “No More Dream” and “N.O.”
Another track from the same album as “Not Today” that also expresses hope is “Spring Day.” Although “Spring Day” is predominantly a message of hope, the song’s music video echoes a spirit of resisting oppression. “Spring Day” has long been suspected to be an allusion to the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, which has become a symbol of corruption in South Korea. The Sewol Ferry Tragedy was a maritime incident that occurred in 2014, in which 306 people died. About 250 of these victims were high school students from Danwon High School on a school trip. The ferry capsized and sank due to the negligence of those in charge of operating the ferry, and hundreds of innocent lives were lost too soon.
The tragedy spurred widespread criticism of the ruling class of South Korea, and questioned their inability to protect those they were sworn to protect (in this case, the children of South Korea). The sinking of the Sewol Ferry became so controversial that the government attempted to suppress even non-critical conversations about the tragedy. So, the act of acknowledging the Sewol Ferry by any artist was already an act of defiance that sent a message of speaking out against corruption. Despite the lyrics of “Spring Day” never directly referencing the Sewol Ferry or corruption, the music video references the incident. The yellow ribbons on the carousel are reminiscent of the yellow ribbons commemorating the Sewol Ferry Tragedy.
The story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin is also named-dropped along with the film Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Both pieces of media depict privileged people living well, but at the cost of the well-being of the underprivileged. The underprivileged are suffering, exploited, treated inhumanely, and ignored. But what both The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Snowpiercer portray are acts of resistance against exploitation. In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the peace of a utopia is contingent on the perpetual suffering of one single child. However, despite the idyllic life in Omelas, some people leave Omelas because they do not agree with the suffering of that child.
In Snowpiecer, the protagonists move to the front of the Snowpiercer train. They fight to end the segregation that separated the poor, who lived in the back of the train in squalor, from the rich, who lived in the front in grandeur. These acts of resistance are vital to both stories as symbols of hope, and the music video of “Spring Day” decisively illustrates that concept.
Shortly before the release of “Not Today” and “Spring Day,” “Am I Wrong” was released in the album ‘Wings’ at a time of political unrest in South Korea. The government at the time was involved in a slew of corruption scandals including, but not limited to, inaction during the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, suppression of information, bribery, and censorship. Many Korean artists spoke out against the government but were blacklisted and suppressed. The plethora of scandals indicated an omnipresent problem within the South Korean government. However, these issues are universal and are not limited to South Korea. These are widespread issues that plague societies every day, empowering corruption and oppressing the underprivileged. This song suggests that listeners shouldn’t ignore these issues, because the craziness in the world shouldn’t be normal.
Happiness vs. Capitalism
Songs: “Paradise” and “Go Go”
In line with their anti-establishment messaging, a few BTS songs contain anti-capitalist lyrics. This is most prominent with “Paradise,” which leader RM has explicitly stated was inspired by Marxist ideas. Karl Marx, a philosopher and sociologist, viewed capitalism as exploitative of the working class. Under capitalism, the workers are unpaid for their labor, as in they are alienated from what they produce. According to Marx’s alienation theory, laborers under capitalism are alienated from 1) the product they labor to produce, 2) the act of production, 3) themselves, and 4) other workers. Let’s delve into each one; first, alienation from the product. Keep in mind that Karl Marx lived during the 1800s. So much of the labor back then was in factories during the Industrial Revolution, which began the mass automation of labor, as opposed to, say, how people lived before mass production. Think assembly lines and machines, although these principles still apply today.
Under capitalism, the product doesn’t belong to the laborer. This is despite the laborer being the one who made the product. The rights to that product belong to the owner of the means of production (the employer). The product is not the laborer’s own, and they are making it solely to make wages. They have no input on what the product is or what product they’re making. Thus, it is an alien object separate from the laborer. The second type of alienation, alienation from the act of production, is similar. The laborer has no say in how the product is made, and they don’t get to choose when or where they work. The work is highly repetitive, and the choices on how they make the product are externalized to their employer. They don’t have any creative freedom, so they are alienated from the production as well. Because of this alienation, their work isn’t satisfying or fulfilling. Workers are then alienated from the self (themselves).
Marx stated that work that is fulfilling is essential to the human experience, so under a capitalist system that alienates the workers, they lose themselves. Workers are also forced to relinquish their sense of autonomy to production and are unable to pursue their true selves because they are being reduced in value by the demands of capitalism. This takes us to the final type of alienation, alienation from other workers. Because workers are reduced to mere cogs in the machine of production, they begin to view each other as objects and tools. They are only there to produce a product and maximize profits for the owner of the means of production. Workers aren’t viewed as human, they don’t view themselves as human, and they don’t view each other as human. They are all tools.
Taking Marx’s alienation theory, let’s look at what a rat race is. A rat race is a pointless, never-ending competition where we fight and struggle in vain for power and resources. We are all part of the rat race — every day, we subject ourselves to meaningless and soulless work that brings us nothing, all so we can earn wages. We force ourselves to do work we don’t want to do, because society expects us to. The world forces us to run in the rat race, and we don’t have a say in what the end goal is. Our worth is based on our productivity. Under capitalism, we are worth nothing, and we deserve nothing if we are not constantly producing something in the name of capitalism. Society and capitalism tell us what our dream is: to work hard, be productive, be a good worker, and keep sprinting ahead without reason. Our “dreams” of getting a well-paying job and studying hard — for many of us, it’s not our dream. We do it because we have to survive. Think of how much of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Who is benefitting from our meaningless desk jobs? Why are we studying so hard for a job we don’t want? Wouldn’t we rather be doing something else? Is the rat race worth sacrificing our personal lives for?
According to “Paradise,” the answer is no, because it’s okay to live your life how you want. We toil away and produce alienation from our work, ourselves, and each other, forcing us to live life as a marathon – always running, toiling endlessly to contribute to a society that doesn’t care about us. But “Paradise” encourages us to stop, slow down, and enjoy life. We should take introspection and think about what we want to run for instead of what others or society insist we should run for. We shouldn’t work to live; instead, we should live to work. But under that model, we get to define what our “work” is. Whatever work is, whatever we do, it should fulfill us and make us happy. And it’s okay to not have a dream. Our work should be whatever makes us happy at the moment.
“If having a future is the only dream existing
Then what is the dream you had last night in your bed?
It’s alright if the name of the dream is different
Be it buying a laptop next month
Or just eating and sleeping
Not doing anything at all yet still having a lot of money
Who says a dream must be something grand
Just become anybody
We deserve a life
Whatever big or small, you are you after all”
Our inherent worth should not be based on our productivity, because we already have worth just by being on this earth. We can make of our lives what we want, and we should not overwork ourselves for something that doesn’t mean anything to us. Despite the quite depressing tone of this track, “Paradise” pleads with us to do/produce our life wholeheartedly. Our lives are the product, and we can take charge of what we make and how it gets made. In doing so, we can find our true selves and pure happiness, and find true connections with others once we abandon the rat race. This is what paradise looks like, not superficial dreams forced on us by social conventions. For everybody, there should be more to life than being alive but not living.
Contrasting the somber yet hopeful tone of “Paradise,” “Go Go” is ironically upbeat for its subject matter. The lyrics of this song can be interpreted in multiple ways (see the next section for more). One such interpretation suggests that people should spend how they like. Within a capitalist economic system, people overwork with little to no compensation, all maximize profits for the company. Workers must sacrifice their (not literal) lives and happiness to make money. So, we should “go” and spend the money we make instead of staying a slave to the capitalistic machine. The young might as well spend the money they make, because the meager savings they manage to accumulate are just that– meager. Or, as BTS puts it, “gathering specks into specks”/”pinching pennies.” There’s a Korean proverb that says, “Gather specks into a mountain,” which means to save your money, and it’ll accumulate into wealth. But for today’s generations, no matter how much you save, it’s still specks and not a mountain because the current economy doesn’t allow anyone to afford to save money. This interpretation encourages people to live their lives according to today rather than living in fear of the future.
Songs: “Spine Breaker”, “Go Go”, and “Pied Piper”
In a capitalist system, participants are encouraged to buy and spend. Materialism is a sign of wealth, and “flexing” your wealth is a status symbol. Status symbols can be anything from big houses to puffer jackets, the latter of which is the subject of the song “Spine Breaker.” The track references a huge trend in Korea when almost every student had a puffer coat. These puffer coats were extremely expensive, yet even students without the means to buy one begged their parents for one to fit in. The demand for puffer coats signifies a materialistic trend that makes people want something they don’t need purely for the sake of having it. The companies encouraged the trend despite its dangers, because they saw huge opportunities for dollar signs. In a capitalistic society, companies and corporations don’t care about the stakeholders who are impacted by their actions — their only obligations is to the shareholders, that is to say, they only care about making money/profits. “Spine Breaker” implores the students to think of their parents who are “breaking their spines” to afford these coats. The parents already work hard to provide for their children, yet work even harder to buy the coats to satisfy their children’s materialism. Through their lyrics, BTS mocks the students’ greed at the expense of their parents. Moreover, they persuade the children to recognize what’s important in their lives (their parents and sense of morals) before it’s too late.
As stated in the previous section, “Go Go” has many interpretations. The most prevalent interpretation is that “Go Go” is about young people’s willingness to waste money. A “YOLO” mindset is dangerous when it comes to money because spending it all at once means there’s no security for the future. Some workers have lost hope for their future, so they spend their earnings frivolously as a form of escapism. Most young people nowadays can’t afford to have a life outside work because of overwork and underpay, so they want to squander money for immediate happiness. The problem with this is that this kind of happiness is fleeting and doesn’t give anyone any lasting substance in life. Spending money on partying is ultimately harmful in the long run.
Critical to a lesser extent, the sultry track “Pied Piper” both chastises and rewards fans who partake in fan culture. Fan culture is fun, but overindulging is harmful if they neglect their real lives. Some fans are overly dedicated to consuming BTS content, collecting merch, and analyzing music videos. They abandon their work and obligations, which BTS thanks them for, while simultaneously criticizing this type of behavior. Even though this mindset may not technically be traditional consumerism, it still demonstrates the same idea of misunderstanding what’s really important in life. Instead of prioritizing something that gives you artificial happiness, people should try to lead fulfilling lives.
Class Inequality/Class Conflict
“Baepsae (Silver Spoon)”, “Spine Breaker”, “Go Go”, and “Am I Wrong”
No phrase can summarize class and wealth inequality better than a silver spoon. Having a silver spoon means that you’re privileged financially. Being “born with a silver spoon in your mouth” means that you were born privileged. This same concept applies to “Baepsae” which is based on a Korean proverb: “뱁새가 황새 걸음을 걸으면 가랑이 가 찢어진다.” English translation: “When a crow-tit (baepsae) walks like a stork, it will tear its crotch.” The proverb is used to tell people to know their place — the underprivileged (baepsae) will hurt themselves trying to imitate the privileged (storks). Using the proverb, the song “Baepsae” details the struggles of the younger generation to imitate the success of the older generations. The younger generation is constantly told by the older generation that if they just work hard like the generations before them, they can also be successful. This is mocked repeatedly in the lyrics:
“Ah, stop going on about “effort” and more “effort”
Ah, it makes my skin crawl
Ah, try harder, ah, try harder
Ah, you really don’t have a chance
As expected from the ones before us”
The reasons why being told to “try harder” is mocked is because the youth are baepsae and the elders are storks. Working hard to be successful only works in a world with true meritocracy, in which people are chosen for their roles based solely on their merit and capabilities. In reality, it is nearly impossible to achieve financial success in a world with increasing income inequality, a competitive job market, and worsening economies. While elders grew their lives and careers during a time of economic growth, the times have drastically changed for young people. Just like the older generation was born into a time of economic prosperity, the younger generation have been born into a time of economic crisis. Furthermore, youths are subjected to wage disparities and other means of exploitation through neo-liberal capitalism. They are unable to pursue their true passions because they won’t be paid fairly for their work. However, their elders and superiors refuse to change the system that favors them and instead blame the youth for their inability to achieve the same success.
As such, younger generations have given up hope for their futures. This is brought up in “Dope,” which references the 3 given-up generations and 5 given-up generations; The 3 given-up generations (sampo sedae) have given up hope for dating, marriage, and children because of economic instability. The 5 given-up generations (opo sedae) have given up not only dating, marriage, and children but also home ownership and social life. All of these were considered the standard success for older generations. The younger generations work hard to imitate this success but to no avail. The baepsae work hard to imitate the long strides of the storks, but they rip their crotches trying.
“Spine Breaker” explores a more niche expression of class inequality. As discussed before, “Spine Breaker” primarily implores students to give up materialism for the sake of their parents. Nevertheless, it also lends sympathy to those students who were forced by class conflict to beg their parents for things they couldn’t afford. Bullying is a prominent issue in Korean schools (and worldwide), and students can be ostracized for being a “have-not.” The song directly references the trend of puffer jackets in South Korea, which pressured students to buy and wear expensive puffer jackets. These puffer jackets were a status symbol, much like expensive shoes or flashy cars. The puffer jacket trend was exacerbated by the homogenous culture in Korea, which encourages people to fit in and not stand out. Thus, those who couldn’t afford the puffer jackets would be bullied and ostracized by their peers. Those who had the puffer jackets were storks and those without were baepsae. Although, it could be argued that all of them were baepsae unless they were rich since they were all trying to imitate the trends of the wealthy, which is what made the puffer coats a trend in the first place. As such, the puffer coats became a symbol of class inequality in Korea.
Speaking of class inequality, let’s look at “Go Go” again. Another interpretation of “Go Go” is that the “Go Go” is a commentary on wealth disparities. This interpretation takes into account the colorfulness of the song. The upbeat sound mixed with the lyrics, talking about squandering money and “YOLO” (you only live once) is sarcastic because the young have no money due to economic issues. Wage disparities prevent newcomers to the job market from building savings, and they live paycheck to paycheck. Any money they earn is immediately spent on food and bills, so they aren’t living a “YOLO” type of life. They want to spend it on partying and fun, but they can’t because they’re broke. They aren’t actually “wasting” their money; They’re forced to use it to live because of their economic status. “Go Go” laments their inability to grasp a stable future and fun life despite their hard work.
The last song that explores class inequality and class conflict is “Am I Wrong.” “Am I Wrong” is an anthem for anti-establishment, mainly against the privileged ruling class (those in power). The privileged view the poor as animals who can be exploited and controlled. They also don’t see them as human, thus seeing them as expendable. In fact, “Am I Wrong” even references a senior education official who expressed support for a class system that separates the privileged from the public. He also thought that the public should be treated like “dogs and pigs,” who he thought were essentially brainless and incompetent. The ruling class believes themselves to be more entitled than the working class. Thus, those living without privilege are dealt a losing hand in life, while those with power get to exploit those beneath them. “Am I Wrong” encourages listeners to open their eyes to the hellish conditions forced upon the underprivileged and the conflict against a corrupt ruling class.