When BTS first debuted in 2013, they were supposed to be just another South Korean boy band.
They were all but seven teenagers — Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — hailing from different parts of South Korea and like so many young Korean hopefuls, trying to make it big in the K-pop music industry.
Backed by a modestly sized production company and recording label, Big Hit Entertainment, they were outfitted with all the necessary accoutrements typically associated with popular K-pop acts: aggressive dance sequences, heavily stylized visuals, and an old school hip-hop track.
But at the time, even BTS knew that there were no guarantees in the super competitive world of K-pop. Groups could easily go bust after a mediocre debut and just as likely disappear into obscurity. Trendier groups were always on the rise and ready to knock you out of the spotlight. And worst of all, a single mistake could mean a career-ending move in a society that was relentlessly on the watch.
This past February however, all was moot when BTS found themselves stomping across Grand Central Station in one of the splashiest comebacks in K-pop music history. Featured on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in New York City, BTS premiered their latest single “On” complete with a real marching band in a performance that not only surprised fans but also rocked the K-pop universe.
No longer teenagers of past, BTS dialed down the bravado and delivered an edgier narrative from their newest album “Map of the Soul: 7”. Lyrics from their lead track “On” had a more disconcerted feel unlike the rousing interludes from their previous album “Love Yourself: Tear.” Their song “Black Swan” is similarly discombobulating which was released earlier this year as an interpretative dance film.
The Map of the Soul album series is only the latest development in the emotional roller coaster that BTS started nearly seven years ago. From their early days of preaching teenage angst and rebellion (School Trilogy, Dark & Wild) to lamenting the vagaries of youth (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Wings) and quest for authenticity and self-acceptance (You Never Walk Alone, Love Yourself), BTS comes full circle with an album that is both mature and vulnerable in its exploration of adulthood.
Since their creation, BTS has tagged themselves as “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” who were immune to the mounting pressures of Korean society. True to their millennial roots, they rallied against conventional social norms and the rigors of South Korean education. This self-actualization phenomenon would later form the basis of BTS’s success as they not only spoke to the invincible power of Korea’s seemingly disenfranchised youth — they anthemized it.
Coming back from a well-deserved break during their Love Yourself world tour, BTS continues to scale new heights by collaborating with a diverse set of English-speaking artists ranging from Halsey and Becky G to Ed Sheeran and Troye Sivan. But if it lately seems like they’ve lost a little of their swagger, it may not be without good reason. As BTS inches closer to military conscription, they stand to lose more than just a couple years worth of recording contracts.
For South Korean male idol groups, military service is a kind of death knell since an extended absence could signal the end of their careers. Two years of compulsory military service (an artifact of the Korean War) can seem like an eternity in K-pop, fans evolve and new groups are constantly on the move.
To plead military exemption though, could be just as disastrous for a society that can easily turn on a group for shirking what many Koreans perceive as civic duty and a source of national pride. Even now, many South Koreans will duly recall the public outcry against former K-pop artist Yoo Seung Jun (also known as Steve Yoo) for skipping out on military service at the peak of his career in 2002.
Aside from the issue of military conscription, this past year in K-pop has been an especially tumultuous one. A recent plague of sex and drug scandals along with an alarming spate of suicide has cast the K-pop industry in an unfavorable light. Rival music agency YG Entertainment behind the group Blackpink was nearly toppled last year on charges of bribery and corruption as former K-pop celebrities were indicted on various crimes including prostitution, drug trafficking, and extortion.
Map of the Soul could be BTS’s answer to all these things which includes the pressures of international fame, the grueling demands of the K-pop music industry, and the encroaching date of their military enlistment. One might even be tempted to call this BTS’s “quarter-life crisis” album given its confessional nature and musings on ego, shadow, and persona. Throughout their career, BTS has solemnized the importance of preserving their identity in their music but could it be that they have, in effect, become their own worst enemy?
Because if that is indeed the case, therein would like the greatest irony: the bullets that they so artfully dodged so early in their careers may no longer be coming from outside, but from within.
No Kevlar vests required.