BTS Are on the Front Line of South Korea’s Generational Warfare
With their new single, the supergroup continues a playful assault on youth unemployment, career pressure, and social inequality
Toward the end of the second verse in “Dope,” the 2015 rap-dance single that helped catapult South Korean group BTS to pop stardom, singer RM declares furiously: “잠든 청춘을 깨워 go.” Translation: “Wake up the sleeping youth, go!”
Since their debut in 2013, BTS has progressed to become South Korea’s biggest music act. The group’s latest release, “Interlude: Shadow,” features rapper Suga deftly ruminating on the pressures of success over a pulsating trap beat. The video reached nearly 30 million views in two days — a startling feat for any song but especially so for a nonradio release that features only one of the group’s seven members.
The success of BTS has helped spark a steady expansion of Korean culture to the rest of the world and especially the U.S. — a trend better known as the Korean wave. Even years after their debut, the band contributes nearly as much to South Korea’s GDP as Korean Air.
Yet, unlike fellow South Korean artist Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite was just nominated for six Academy Awards, BTS are often not taken seriously by Western critics. Given Western media’s apparent desire to cover K-pop as an industry of artifice and scandal—as well as the edgelords who get a kick from triggering K-pop’s young, female-skewing fans and their unwanted representatives—the chances of BTS being given the same artistic credence as someone like Bong Joon-ho are slim to none.
BTS stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” a name that alludes to their ethos of youth empowerment.
That hasn’t stopped BTS from commenting — albeit cautiously — on South Korea’s social mores and power imbalances. BTS stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” a name that alludes to their ethos of youth empowerment. The band members conceived themselves as a group designed explicitly to stand up for the youth. Rapper, producer, and lead dancer J-Hope explained that the name “means we want to protect our generation’s thoughts and values from the prejudice that pours down on us like bullets.”
In “Dope,” RM raps the phrase “sampo-generation, opo generation.” The pejorative label “sampo” refers to young South Koreans who have given up on courtship, marriage, and children (“sam” meaning “three”) in favor of their career success, which has become increasingly hard to come by in a country where more than 10% of youth are unemployed. In “Dope,” BTS are essentially voicing their support for such fiscally heterodox individuals.
BTS’s messaging is empowering to South Korea’s younger generations, who have been brought up in particularly turbulent times. Their debut single, 2013’s “No More Dream,” speaks up for students under pressure to become affluent civil servants: “We’re just trying to plainly express the reality of now,” says RM. Their 2017 track “Go Go” playfully ruminates on the unsettling reality of young Koreans’ frivolous spending habits in the face of financial plight. Speaking about “Go Go,” RM told Billboard, “We wanted to say something about it and emphasize to the world that it’s not their choice, but the brutal reality that forces people to live and spend as if there’s no future.”
“In our parents’ generation, it was possible to climb up the socioeconomic ladder if you worked hard enough; this is not an option for us.”
Though many BTS tunes take up subtle, even playful approaches to pressing subjects, some are more explicit, offering the listener politically charged messages. The 2015 song “Baepsae” is premised on an old Korean metaphor about privilege. It dismisses the notion that youths’ struggles come down to lack of hard work; instead, they directly chalk up the wealth gap to spoon theory. “My teacher is born with a gold spoon,” begins J-Hope’s verse (roughly), “at the part-time jobs, there’s passion pay.” “Passion pay” is a Korean term that “satirically refers to the reality that interns and apprentices are supposed to be passionate enough to put up with poor treatment,” according to the Korea Herald.
“In our parents’ generation, it was possible to climb up the socioeconomic ladder if you worked hard enough; this is not an option for us,” says Vernal Bom, a prominent BTS fan translator and millennial. “BTS referring to social issues in their music feels like they are giving a voice for Korean youth to speak out.”
In 2016, South Korea’s opulent president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached after months of disapproval by the Korean general public. The charge at hand regarded a fund extraction scandal with a trusted unofficial aide, but rejection of her presidency had been building after years of deaths and failures sourced to weakened infrastructure. These issues were magnified by Park Geun-hye’s apparent apathy, including an inexplicably poor reaction to one of the nation’s greatest tragedies in the Sewol Ferry disaster.
Amid eminent revolts in South Korea, BTS took to national television to perform “Am I Wrong?” a song that not-so-subtly addresses inequality in South Korea. It begins with RM bellowing, “The world’s going crazy; how about you? You think it is okay?” Suga then raps a verse calling out a comment made by then-government official Na Hyang-wook demanding a caste system and referring to average citizens as “dogs” and “pigs.”
“Fans were actually worried they’d be blacklisted,” says Vernal Bom. “It’s the kind of anxiety maybe only BTS fans can feel. In the midst of all that, BTS decided to do that song.”
Such comments would be noteworthily rare for any major pop act in a televised performance, but given the K-pop industry’s tendency toward homogeneity and apolitical entertainment, BTS’s activism is almost unheard of.
Suga once famously commented that “it isn’t a BTS album if there isn’t a track criticizing society.” In February, BTS will release their comeback record, Map of the Soul: 7, marking their seven-year anniversary. In those seven years, they’ve spoken out publicly on pressing issues ranging from chart manipulation to homophobia.
Outlets and celebrities still focus on the group’s tropes; the cute makeup, the colorful hair, the devoted young fans. But in this cultural moment, wherein ostensible K-pop boy band BTS is the biggest pop group on the planet, why not discuss what they actually have to say?