Friday, June 8, 2018

Response to Lim's piece in The Conversation on BTS

This post by Susanna Lim, a professor of Korean studies, in The Conversation was making the rounds on English language BTS twitter yesterday and I thought it was worth making a quick response post because I found it interesting. Lim invokes the book The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong as a touchstone for understanding the BTS phenomenon and about identifying with the author’s observation that being Korean didn’t used to be “cool.”

Lim’s conclusion in the post is that BTS has broken through in America because of social media and how they appear to be more authentic than other groups.

But unlike other K-pop groups, BTS have done more than perfect their choreography and looks. They also put their personalities on full display.

Via social media, they’ve been able to connect with and cultivate a community of utterly devoted fans. On Twitter – in English and in Korean – group members give fans a window into their lives, express themselves, and talk about issues important to teens, from mental health to body image.

What I find so interesting about this is that much like Euny Hong in The Birth of Korean Cool Lim has no idea what K-Pop is and how it works. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it very frustrating. Hong was on firm ground writing about her own past and the difficulties in navigating being Korean-American but she had absolutely no understanding of how K-Pop groups work and was unable to shake the extremely American view of “real” musicians being singer-songwriters who write personal lyrics about themselves.

Lim, in her post, says this:

K-pop is a particular style of South Korean popular music that’s distinguishable from other popular forms of Korean music, such as trot and sentimental ballads. Many trace its origins to the early 1990s, but the genre came into its own in the 2000s and 2010s, with acts such as BoA, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Big Bang and 2NE1 becoming hugely popular in Asia and beyond.

The “pop” part of K-pop seems easy enough; you’ll hear American pop musical influences – mostly dance pop, but also rap, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, techno and rock — in K-pop songs.

What strikes me here is the complete lack of mention of Japan. There is a huge feedback loop with K-Pop and Japanese musical tastes because Japan forms such a large part of their export market. BoA, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Big Bang--which Lim mentions--as well as SHINee, KARA, T-ARA, Twice, etc. were/are very popular in Japan and even spent time training there. Most of these groups have had hits that were hits first in Japan in Japanese before bringing them home to Korea.

I’m not discounting the American influence baked into those early 1990s R&B roots of the “K-Pop” genre but Lim here echoes what I’ve seen a lot in English language coverage of “K-Pop” in that the music is heard through a reductive and very American filter. I’ve written this before but a song like BTS’s shimmering pop love song “DNA” with its uneven tempo and perfect for karaoke melody is aimed at Japanese musical tastes and it’s no mistake that of the “DNA/Mic Drop” single, “DNA” was by far the more popular song in Japan while the more jock jams, rap-heavy “Mic Drop” was the song that Americans could make sense of.

But what about the “K”? This is where the unique Korean flair plays a role: infectious melodies sung mostly in Korean, a few English words strategically placed in the sing-along refrain, and single-sex groups made up of seven to 15 members.

Again, this just shows how little Lim actually knows about “K-Pop” because there is nothing unqiuely Korean about this format. Japan, China, Taiwan, and numerous Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam have identical idol group cultures where single-sex groups sing infectious songs mostly in their native language with English words scattered throughout.

I’m going to talk about this in one of my idol podcast series but you can trace a lot of contemporary idol culture in East Asia back to Japanese idol group SMAP (1988-2016), who were extremely influential in recognizing that the key to idol popularity and longevity comes through packaging personas and natural group interactions on television variety shows.

The group dynamic is huge part of the appeal for idol groups and fans love when the members write each other heartfelt letters or talk about their in-group friendships or film group bonding trips. The appeal of the group dynamic is also a big factor in prohibiting idols from publically dating. Fans need to feel that the group comes first and we don’t want a boyfriend or girlfriend to break up the camaraderie. This changes, obviously, as members age and longtime fans feel comfortable in the group bond. Longtime Japanese idol groups like Tokio and V6 have married members without dropping in popularity. And Big Bang’s Taeyang just got married with an overwhelmingly positive response from fans.

K-pop’s global ambition is another quality that distinguishes the genre from other Korean music. Exporting K-pop to the rest of the world is not only a goal of the Korean music industry, but also a government priority.

Ding ding ding!! This is what actually separates K-Pop from other East Asian musical cultures. Korea has a small population and the Napoleon complex that comes from being a proud culture with a history of getting colonized by it’s more powerful neighbors (and, also, America).

The American market offers not just the potential for large monetary gains but also external validation that Korea is now “cool” and have beaten the cocky American cultural hegemony at their own game. And Korea wants that validation more than anything. Other groups besides BTS have tried to crack the American market and with the exception of PSY’s novelty hit none have made more than a small impression. (i.e. check out American coverage in the mainstream entertainment press of Big Bang around when “Fantastic Baby” came out.) Why?

Lim points to social media and how BTS is seen as “real” by fans and not robotic like Americans typical stereotypical impressions of East Asians. The problem with this theory is that literally all idol groups put out cute images and selfies and behind the scenes videos and showcase their personalities on variety shows and so on. BTS aren’t unique in that. As a long time idol watcher I think there are two huge factors in BTS’s American success, such as it is:

1) RM speaks colloquial English and interviews well on American television. Americans are terrible at languages, cannot understand foreign accents, and are uncomfortable with foreigners in general. The fact that RM can speak American English makes him and the group immediately more understandable than a group like Big Bang, who were charting on Billboard back in 2012 but did not speak English.

2) The current teen pop vacuum for girls in America. There is nothing big popping for teen girls right now--no hot young thing like Justin Bieber, no group like One Direction, no franchise like High School Musical or Twilight or Harry Potter--so BTS essentially has an open playing field.

And this second reason is also why I think it’s way too early to take any lessons from BTS’s success in America as anything other than a novelty. Will BTS be able to hold on to the fans coming in who have no context for BTS outside of “they’re a cool boy band like One Direction”? I don’t know. Unlike idol groups “boy bands” are ephemeral and meant to be disposed of after a few years. And Americans have all sorts of expectations that they put on artists that they have no context for coming from the East Asian music world: “Speak fluent English,” “be able to navigate the complex web of American identity politics,” “validate my existence,” “don’t be too fake,” etc.

Not to mention that finding success as a “boy band” is still considered embarrassing and very gay in an American masculine context and certainly not dispelling American stereotypes of East Asian men as “effeminate.”

Maybe some new American fans hooked by BTS will find out about the joys of idol group fandom but I think most of them will move on as soon as the next teen girl craze comes out.

But until then let’s just enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

While I'm waiting for the English Language BTS media hype to end...

I’m in the middle of compiling information for my idol history podcast project--which is definitely happening--and unfortunately I keep coming across articles from English language media about BTS and their chart smashing success in the United States with their new album Love Yourself 轉 Tear that make me want to use the glossy photo cards that came with my (absolutely glorious) albums to poke my eyes out so I don’t have to read any more.

Let’s start with the basics: BTS moved 135,000 “album units” this week in the United States to grab number one on the Billboard album chart. To put that in perspective, this week last year saw Harry Styles top the album charts with with 230,000 “album units”. 135k is not exactly a record-breaking number so why is it getting so much attention? The only answer I can think of is that 1) BTS are Korean and sing in Korean which makes them a novelty and 2) because the English-language media has figured out that BTS is reliable clickbait.

What frustrates me about the majority of these pieces is what has always frustrated me about English-language coverage of Asian popular culture, the inability to understand any cultural perspective outside the American one we’re currently suffocating in. My favorite was this line from Amanda Petursich’s hastily google-researched New Yorker piece:

BTS differs from the boy bands of yesteryear in that its members’ presentation is fairly androgynous—they wear dangly earrings and visible makeup, and when they’re shot in closeup it’s to emphasize their soft, dewy skin.

BTS are not a “boy band” like N*Sync. They are a Korean idol group and that art form comes with a completely different set of artistic and cultural conventions to the “boy bands of yesteryear.” If you don’t understand that much, you have no business writing from a position of authority about the group.

Everything about male idol groups is tailored for women’s pleasure and the female gaze. The aesthetics of boy bands, as we think of them, are much more rooted in the gay male gaze. Luckily for horny teen girls and their horny moms, their tastes in cute boys and catchy pop overlapped just enough with Lou Pearlman’s to make the Backstreet Boys a hit group but that is all that boy bands have to offer women: cute boys and catchy pop. But even the smallest idol groups offer both of those things and a lot more.

(And saying this, please know that I don’t think there is anything wrong with boy bands. I also love boy bands a hell of a lot.)

When outsiders look at an idol group and see a boy band they are missing the full picture. An idol group isn’t just pretty faces on an album sleeve and a song on a radio. Fans develop relationships with the group by watching them interact naturally on television reality shows (sometimes acting silly, sometimes very sincere), by tracking their artistic progress and hard work through immeasurable behind-the-scenes footage from concert tours and music video shoots, by reading their social media posts and devouring interviews so that we know as much about what and how they're doing as we know about our irl friends.

Amanda Petursich expressed surprise at the androgynous look because she didn’t understand that many of us also enjoy taking our style cues from our favorite male idols. There’s a reason one of the most popular BTS fan twitter accounts is a fashion tracker and it’s not because we’re all rushing out to buy this stuff for the men in our lives. The horny teen girl element is only ever part of the idol group appeal, there are far more of us women who simply want to exist in their fantasy world of pretty men who are out there working hard to please us. Wearing a shirt that you thought looked cool when your favorite idol wore it is like being able to capture a piece of that beautiful fantasy for yourself in real life.

Allow me to quote myself from an older post about why I love idols that you should also read if you're interested in this stuff:

Idols exist for us to watch but they also exist for us to identify with and to fantasize about. And, very importantly, they enable fans to bond with each other. Japanese idol culture has a strong lateral component. The top down idol - fan relationship comes first but the fan - fan relationships are almost as strong. I’ve been to a handful of idol (and idol-type) concerts in Japan and at almost every one, people went out of their way to talk to me and help me out with things like… the intricate audience choreography during certain songs. Yes, we want to be waved to by the idol but the overpowering feeling that comes from joining thousands of other fans in a coordinated dance is just as strong.

While the Korean male idol aesthetic has its visual and musical roots with Teddy Riley and Max Martin, idol group culture borrows much, much more from Japanese idol group culture. There are the organized fan clubs that host special activities and help create a sense of a unified fan culture; fans learn special dances and songs to sing at concerts; fans are encouraged to write letters and talk about their lives with their idols. And because idol groups have a much longer life span than any boy band, these fan cultures take deep roots. Fans watch over their idols as they grow from young, inexperienced teens to confident, mature men. We become invested in their success and happiness. We form deep and lasting friendships with each other.

There is nothing equivalent to this in American culture and certainly nothing that exists so purely for women’s pleasure.

The post I read that best hit the nail on the head for BTS’s appeal in the West was from the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis. His review of the album is tepid--which is fine, not everybody likes this kind of pop--but what stood out to be was this:

The reasons traditionally given for BTS’s success back home – their lyrics are, by K-pop’s germ-free standards, pretty raffish and controversial – don’t hold here: you can’t imagine British teenagers are that desperate to hear youthful criticism of societal conventions in South Korea. So theories abound, ranging from the prosaic – they’re filling a vacuum in the market created by One Direction’s split – to the philosophical: if boyband fandom is all about projecting your fantasies on to the performers, then perhaps a group whose lyrics you don’t understand represent an appealingly blank screen.

BTS may not be a boy band but they are filling the boy band vacuum here. At least for the moment. The problem is that it’s a poor fit. In my short time in this fandom I’ve seen fans not familiar idols and Asian cultures project so much nonsense onto BTS. Assigning outsized value to things like BTS writing their own music--plenty of other idols also write music--and attempting to read faddish American/Western identity politics into everything. There was one interview from BTS’s recent appearance at the Billboard Awards where the interviewer asked RM about the meaning of Fake Love and he said something like, if you don’t love yourself then how can love between a person and a person last. English language fans immediately jumped to the conclusion that because he didn’t say “a man and a woman” that meant something huge re: representation or whatever. Nobody considered the fact that he was translating his thoughts from the Korean language where words don't necessarily carry the same meaning or that maybe the song wasn’t about a romantic love at all, that maybe it reads best as the group singing to their fans:

For you, I could pretend like I was happy when I was sad

For you, I could pretend like I was strong when I was hurt

But the funniest part of all the English-language fandom hype over BTS “making it” in America is how we still don’t understand that we’re not the target market for any of this. I watched part of the BTS’s comeback special that aired on V-Live and it really struck me how much they hyped up the fact that the world was watching. This was all meant for the Korean audience. A Korean group had the entire world watching and they, as Koreans, were proud of the fact that they were out representing their country and their culture around the world and the world liked it. The Billboard chart itself isn’t the prize, the American media attention repackaged for the audience back home is. Whether it will turn out to have been worth the effort is another question. Americans aren’t used to not being the center of attention and our demands on BTS (learn fluent English, be authentic the way we understand it, immediately absorb a set of foreign cultural norms you have no context for) may prove to be too much. Or it may not.

Either way, I'll be at the tour this fall. Just try to stop me.

In conclusion, I’ll just leave this here:

A-yo, when it's tough

Doong tah dak, lean on the rhythm, oh

With our song for you

Everyone a-yo, everyone a-yo

translation credit

Friday, May 25, 2018

[REVIEW] BTS: Burn the Stage, episodes 1-8

The eight episodes of BTS: Burn the Stage aired weekly on YouTube Red from March 28, 2018 to May 9, 2018. Although the series was produced in South Korea, the target audience was the United States (and the English-language international market more broadly) with the final episode airing just before BTS returned to Las Vegas for the Billboard Music Awards and the launch of their new album. Each episode of BTS: Burn the Stage mixes talking head “confessional” interviews with video taken from backstage, on stage, and at various hotels during their 2017 WINGS tour. The constant ticking of the tour clock is the main narrative push as the seven members lose passports, sit around hotel rooms, do a bit of sightseeing, and perform all over the world.

I watched the series twice all the way through--once as it was airing and then again before sitting down to write this--and I am here to report that I have very mixed feelings about it. (You can read my thoughts on the first two episodes over here. All of my initial concerns about the voyeuristic elements of the series remain.) But let me start with the good. There were two things I really liked about BTS: Burn the Stage:

(One of many enjoyable, casual dinner scenes.)

(RM attempting to set up his computer.)

1) All of the Terrace House-esque scenes that featured the BTS members having a glass a wine and a chat or just going about their daily routines. There was one incredibly funny sequence in the third episode where the seven members are unpacking their suitcases at the hotel. We see RM, J-Hope, Suga, V, and Jungkook setting up their computers but the director edits it so that footage of RM’s bumbling around and not being able to figure out which plug goes where is intercut with the others smoothly unboxing, hooking up microphones, and getting to work (or in Jungkook’s case: gaming.) It’s a gentle reminder that RM may be articulate and intelligent but he’s also just a normal, somewhat clumsy 20-something young man.

(Suga explaining how he wants to do a warts and all documentary.)
2) Suga’s importance to the group comes across very well in this series. One of the things I’m most frustrated by in BTS’s American and English language media coverage is that RM is the main focal point. This is understandable to an extent because RM speaks fairly good colloquial English and he knows American pop culture references. The American media is very bad at dealing with foreign artists who do not speak English and who do not know these American pop culture references so of course they’d focus on him but it doesn’t give a complete picture of BTS.

When he’s in a Korean language environment Suga (Min Yoongi) is thoughtful and very funny. He’s put a lot of thought into what it means to him to be an idol and into his relationship with the fans and the other members. (Suga fans know that despite his grumpy exterior he really does value us.) The younger members of the group obviously look up to him and for good reason. He may not be the group’s leader but he is a huge influence on the group musically and intellectually and Suga’s interviews in the series were always the most insightful on what it actually means to be an idol.

(A crabby Suga who would rather be home in his studio than on an LA beach.)

What Suga also brings to the group is a grounding in Korea and everyday normal Korean culture. There’s a great scene in episode 4 or 5 where the group is in Los Angeles and go out to the beach for some sightseeing and photos. Suga is dressed all in black and moping around while the others are in hawaiian shirts and splashing in the water. The guys tease him for dressing like he’s in Korea and Suga says something like that’s where his heart is. RM is the guy who taught himself English and has worldwide dreams and Suga is his counterweight, keeping the group grounded.

But I don’t think Suga’s importance comes across in the English language press. In English language interviews, even with an interpreter there, he tends to stay silent and he appears to have little patience for interviewers who clearly don’t know or care who BTS is outside of the “crazy” fan base they have. He also seemingly has little interest in American pop culture. In one of the interviews BTS did for the Billboard Music Awards this past week, the interviewer quizzes them on the music of recent (ish) pop artists and Suga--to my delight--didn’t know songs from any of them other than some classic Justin “Sexy Back” Timberlake. (Also the only one I could answer.)

Which leads me directly into what I really didn’t like about BTS: Burn the Stage. It feels completely untethered from any sort of cultural context outside of the American one. And I think it does a huge disservice to the group because they are not American, do not interact like Americans, and should not be understood as an American “boy band.”

(Jin discussing how moved he is that foreign fans take the trouble to learn the Korean lyrics by ear so they can sing along.)

It’s not just the way that certain interactions can really only be understood in the Korean cultural context--i.e. Jin’s, the oldest member, incredible generosity with the youngest members reads much clearer when you understand the strict hierarchy in relationships baked into the DNA of Korean culture--but also things like when Suga says at one point that he knows this period won’t last forever. In the American context this is read as an acknowledgement of the brief flickering of “boy band” fame [See also: One Direction, 2010-2015, etc.] but fans familiar with Korean culture would understand that he means a race against the military draft. Male K-pop idol groups have a limited number of years before members start cycling out to do their two years of mandatory military service. This may seem like a small thing to nitpick but I think it makes a huge difference whether we understand “not lasting forever” as a frivolous teen craze coming to the end as dictated by the whims of the market or as a discrete period of youth that necessarily comes to an end with mandatory military service.

Then there is the complete lack of any sort of Korean musical context. We see BTS go to the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards but no Korean awards shows or other Asian awards shows. You don’t get a complete picture of BTS’s popularity if you don’t understand that just as the WINGS tour was wrapping up with BTS’s very first dome show in Japan and the final encore performance at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, veteran Korean idol group BIGBANG were launching their massive 6 city-16 date Last Dance dome tour in Japan that would also end at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. Other groups have also performed to similar sized crowds in South America, North America, South East Asia, and China… yet the way the series is edited it feels like BTS simply popped into existence. That these fans cheering for them arrived out of nowhere. It’s surreal.

(RM confessing that he envies America's place in global pop culture.)

I didn’t expect a complete history of “K-Pop” in the series but the complete lack of any non-American context for BTS made the series feel whitewashed in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Adding to the dissociative feeling I got watching this was that as somebody who has enjoyed hours (and hours) of backstage and rehearsal footage from the various WINGS tour DVDs (as well as on special broadcasts like the Kyocera Dome Concert Documentary that aired on Japanese TV and the actual concerts themselves) the series really didn’t have much to offer in the way of backstage and rehearsal footage that added in any real way to my understanding of how the group puts together its concerts. We see a few different cuts of incidents and interviews but for the most part it felt like stuff rescued from the cutting room floor, used as visual filler for one of the many, many (so many) montages. There’s no sense of the artistic process or the hard work that goes into crafting massive stadium show.

And then on top of the dull, scrap pile feel to the concert footage, I found the hyping and drawing out of backstage conflict and injury really, really voyeuristic and uncomfortable to watch. I wrote about this in my review of episodes 1 and 2 but I found it disturbing the way Jungkook’s collapse from overexertion in Chile was hyped up and lingered over. Instead of protecting him, the director deliberately offered up his distress for consumption and hungry fans had no qualms with screenshotting and fetishizing his prone form. Later episodes show RM injuring his foot but soldiering on anyways; Jimin crying and upset over not being able to perform due to muscle pain; V and Jin getting into a heated argument right before a concert is to begin. Who benefits from this? What larger purpose is it serving?

(Jungkook's reaction to RM's foot.)

(BTS discussing the previous day's show on the Korean WINGS tour DVD documentary.)
I can’t help but feel that these moments were deliberately chosen to linger on because of the Americans only want to see “authenticity” and “authenticity” to us means confessing a personal struggle. But “authenticity” is a cultural construct just as much as anything else is and while lingering on Jungkook’s prone form may get some praise as “bravery” in “showing vulnerability” from American reviewers, what I see is the American market’s hunger for the commercialization of personal pain and distress. I much prefer the “authenticity” of the documentary for the Kyocera Dome concert that aired on Japanese television and featured an extended sequence where the group was going over choreography they hadn’t done in a while and laughing among themselves at how rusty they were as members ran into each other.

There is some value to the series, in the interviews and the causal dinner scenes, but the episodes are larded with too many montages and devoid of any outside context. It's certainly worth a watch for people who are already fans but I don't think it serves as a good introduction to the group for American fans new to Asian idol culture. Too many things are left unexplained and it's too easy for outsiders to draw the wrong conclusions.

Towards the end of the series, there is a bit where RM talks about how “unknowable” J-Hope is and the director chooses to use footage of J-Hope mentally preparing to go up on stage for his solo song “Mama.” The normally chipper J-Hope’s face is kind of blank as he glances up at the camera. Is he unknowable or is this an editing choice meant to imply that? Yes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

GSploitation: The Tigers in Hi! London 『ザ・タイガース ハーイ!ロンドン』 (1969)

Apparently, I write about the Tigers every two years. You may want to refresh your memories with their first film The World is Waiting for Us and their second film Fabulous Invitation.


I’d been holding onto the dream of the five of us being the best in the world so Katsumi quitting was a relief. My anxiety dissipated. It was like popping a balloon with a needle, effectively the dream was shattered. What was left behind afterwards was like, it already seemed empty. While performing I started to think, is all we’re doing selling our youth?

2011, Hitomi Minoru (1)

(L-R: Shiro, Sally, Taro, Julie, and Pi on drums)

The Tigers final feature film 『ザ・タイガース ハーイ! ロンドン』 (The Tigers: Hi! London) was released on July 12, 1969, not quite three months after they’d finished shooting in London and not quite half a year from when Kahashi Katsumi (“Toppo”) quit the band and Kishibe Ittoku’s (“Sally”) brother Shiro was drafted to replace him. The Tigers were poised for a big global push but Toppo leaving popped the band’s momentum. They would travel to London and meet the Barry Gibb and Mick Jagger but the only one still invested in superstardom was Sawada Kenji (“Julie”). By the time filming started Hitomi Minoru (“Pi”) was already starting to plan his exit. The Tigers would release one more studio album--arguably their best one--『自由と憧れと友情』(Jiyuu to Akogare to Yujuu, Freedom and Desire and Friendship) on December 15, 1970 and on January 24, 1971 they played their final concert.While Hi! London isn’t a break up film like the Beatles Let It Be you can definitely see the writing on the wall.

(自由な時間が欲しいな~, thinks Julie. Although in reality he wanted anything but that.)

(The late, great Fuji Makoto as "Demon Onitaro" a name which in Japanese contains like 5 puns about demons.)

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, Hi! London is a souffle of a film, the run time fluffled with at least 75 minutes worth of montage footage including the song sequences. Written by Tanami Yasao, who wrote the two previous Tigers films, and directed by teen film specialist Iwauchi Katsuki (若大将シリーズ or “Young Ace” series), the story is incredibly simple: The Tigers play themselves, an overworked rock band hounded by young women and whose only desire in life is a day off to relax. When Julie thinks this to himself one day in the green room (自由な時間が欲しいな~) his wish summons a demon or, rather, Mr. Demon Onitaro (played by the great Fuji Makoto) who offers them a deal--he can give them a few hours of freedom but if they don’t return within the allotted time, he gets their souls.

(The lovely Kuma Kaori...)

The Tigers take him up on it but Mr. Demon is tricky. He and his witch friend (the absolutely delightful Sugimoto Emma) attempt to delay them by luring them out to the beach where their car gets stuck in the sand. As luck would have it they’re saved by their old friend… Kuma Kaori, star of the previous two Tigers films!

Kuma Kaori, who makes her first appearance about 45 minutes into the movie, plays Megumi, a young woman who is desperate to find the music her late father wrote and left behind somewhere in London. The Tigers decide to help her out and--with some magic from Mr. Demon--are soon on their way to London where they meet up with Megumi and find the songs at the Prospect of Whitby. But Mr. Demon still has some tricks up his sleeve and delays the Tigers just long enough for them to miss his deadline.

Before he can take a soul, Megumi asks that he wait just long enough for them to play her one of her father’s songs (the mournful 「嘆き」(Nageki or Lament)… but the song’s power turns Mr. Demon into a toad! The souls are safe!

But the Tigers weren’t.

(Pi getting herded into a van post-performance.)

(Listening to the game on the radio.)

Hi! London is incredibly claustrophobic. Pushing in at the margins of every scene are the fans. Rapid, shrieking fans. They are a gaping maw of need that these five men--one of whom joined the band 3 months ago and can’t be trusted with more than a tambourine--can never and will never fulfill. They chase after the Tigers’ van like a pack of hungry dogs while inside poor Pi is listening to a baseball game on a transistor radio, imagining what it would be like to actually attend the game himself.

(At Young Mates)

Unlike the two previous films with their catchy music video style performances, most of the music scenes take place at Young Mates, a music club in Tokyo. There are a handful of very nice transitions where the song begins and we can only see and hear the Tigers but as the camera pulls back and the shrieking girls come into view the song fades into the background. We have trouble seeing and hearing over the frantic girls. Do the girls even know what song they are screaming over? 50 years later you can still feel the anxiety and fear wafting off the screen.

(Julie, wandering free)

(L-R: Sally and Taro)

In contrast, when the Tigers are set free by Mr. Demon, they wander through crowds without being hassled. They play, run on the beach, laugh and talk and smile. They have nobody to please but themselves. The sense of freedom is intoxicating, released from the boxes of their tiny dressing rooms and vans.

(Kaori having fun in London)

(Looking out over the girls that drove her from show business.)

Kuma Kaori also shares both the Tigers anxiety and freedom. She roams freely with them in London but in the scenes taking place in Japan, she only appears with the Tigers when they are alone. Kaori would also soon leave show business. Despite being a talented singer and actress--she contributes the lovely 「髪がゆれている」 (The sway of my hair) to the film--Kaori had been harrassed non-stop by Tigers fans since the first Tigers film and was tired of it. You can almost see it in her face in the final scenes of the film as she hides behind a pillar at Young Mates, out of sight of the hordes of fangirls. These girls had been ruthless towards her simply because she was friendly with their idols. How she must hate and fear them…

(Pi, lying down, explaining to Sally, with the bass, that his "cool" expression on television was because he really had to use the bathroom while Taro, in the foreground, looks on and laughs.)

(Sally and Julie feeding Taro some juice.)

(The gang enjoying the flight.)

Hi! London isn’t a bad film, despite all the hurdles it faced. Director Iwauchi captures some charming performances from the Tigers as a group. Taro and Shiro, the non-actors of the group, are delicately managed while the other three do the heavy lifting. Pi and Sally are both very natural in their line delivery and serve up some funny quips. Julie, while never the greatest actor, has that it factor and doing everything he can to audition for his future career as a matinee idol. The film is alternates between claustrophobia and floaty day dream. Watching it is like taking a nap on a hot, summer afternoon and waking up sticky, lethargic, and covered in sweat… uncomfortable but also satisfying somehow.



2011 瞳みのる

Monday, April 16, 2018

[D.C. Untied INTERLUDE] Here's what not to do when women report sexual assault and harassment by one of your members...

Ladies, how many of you have had a male friend come and get you out of an uncomfortable situation like this? 

"Is he bothering you?"


Thursday, March 29, 2018

REVIEW: BTS: Burn The Stage [Episodes 1 and 2]

The tomorrow we’ve been waiting for becomes the name of yesterday at some point

Tomorrow becomes today, today becomes yesterday, tomorrow becomes yesterday and is behind me

BTS, “Tomorrow”

Yoongi and Namjoon holding court with a make-up free BTS.

Before I talk about the YouTube Red series BTS: Burn the Stage let me tell you a story. Many, many years ago I was in a community theater production of the extremely un-politically correct musical Kismet. (“Baubles, bangles, and beeeeeadsssss!”) I didn’t have a huge role. I played a handful of tiny background characters, as well as one of the “exotic” princesses who does the Diwan Dances. I also happened to be working close to full time as a waitress at Chili’s and taking a couple of community college classes. I was 20 years old and it didn’t even occur to me that I might not be able to handle everything.

One Saturday night I drove straight to the theater after a busy Saturday shift at Chili’s. I got into costume and make-up. I went on stage. And then I started to feel as if I was underwater. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast over 12 hours ago. I wasn’t in control of my body any longer. My limbs and voice moved in muscle memory as my mind became sludge. I’d hit a brick wall of exhaustion. I don’t remember how I made it through the performance or even how I made it home that night. I just remember knowing that I had to go out on stage. I don’t think it even occured to me that I could just… not.

I bring this up not because it says anything about me specifically but because I think anybody who has performed has had a moment like this. Going out on stage with broken toes, a fever, the heaviness of a personal sorrow fogging the mind… the show must go on. Your castmates, your crew, and the audience are depending on you… whether it’s a hundred people in a tiny theater in Southern Maryland or ten thousand in an arena in Chile. Pushing past exhaustion, pushing past your limits, even as your mind shuts down and hours of rehearsal are all that’s animating your frame.

That’s show business.

But it’s not a side of show business we idol fans see all that often. We tend to hear about these types of incidents years later, offhanded asides in interviews. That time Kawai Fumito broke his leg on a bad jump coming off stage in PLAYZone and had to be quietly carried out on piggyback by his bandmate Tsukda as the play continued, the audience left to wonder as he just didn’t appear in any further scenes. “Oh, that’s what happened!!” we fans cry later. “Poor Fumito.”

And that response is why we so rarely see those moments. Our idols don’t want us to worry about them. Their job is to make us happy.

RM says as much in one of the first two episodes of BTS: Burn The Stage, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 2017 WINGS tour that’s now available (!) on YouTube Red. (Possibly the only thing that could have gotten me to sign up for a subscription to YouTube Red.)

I’ve only been a real BTS fan--an ARMY--for about 3 months now so I didn’t see BTS when they came through the United States on tour. What I have seen is both the Korean and Japanese concert DVDs of the WINGS tour as well as all accompanying behind-the-scenes materials for both sets of DVDs. When I fall, I fall hard and I’ve watched both of these sets multiple times. And I consider the behind the scenes materials an essential part of the concert DVD. We idol fans love seeing the craft that goes into producing a music video or concert as much--if not more than--the final product itself. (There’s a reason my Japanese vocabulary is heavy on theater, music, and television production vocabulary.)

There were two big differences between the Korean tour DVD--filmed in February 2017--and the Japanese tour DVD--filmed in June 2017 (besides the obvious production factors because nobody knows how to film a concert DVD like the Japanese. Nobody.)

1) How much more comfortable and polished the guys were with the staging and choreography after months of performances. 2) How much more intimate the boys were in their native Korea interacting with Korean fans but how much better the atmosphere in the stadium was in Japan.

The language barrier gives and the language barrier takes away.

What is it that we want out of an idol concert? What is it that we want out of an idol concert when we don’t share a language or culture?

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of BTS: Burn the Stage or even what I wanted to see. Would it be similar to the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the concert DVDs? Would it be similar to the travel series BTS had filmed? Who was the audience? Korean fans, Japanese fans, Chinese fans, Southeast Asian fans, Latin and Brazilian fans, and Westernized fans all want something different.

Judging from the first two episodes, I think the main audience for this series has to be English-speaking Western fans who primarily interact with BTS through youtube clips. The first episode is really a teaser, interspersing random rehearsal footage for the tour with reality show style interviews where the members give their thoughts and feelings about the scenes. The most memorable moment in the first episode is Jungkook realizing the camera in their green room is on and immediately starting to clean up the messy coffee table because he doesn’t want to make a bad impression. It’s in the second episode--the one behind the paywall--where things start to get a little more intense.

The second episode also mixes concert footage from the Seoul dates (February 18-19, 2017) and Chile (March 11-12, 2017) with interview clips but also includes some candid moments: J-Hope delivering leftovers to Suga’s hotel room because Suga missed dinner; Jungkook entertaining his bandmates with impressions of their dancing; the excited chatter on the van from the airport; Jimin dumping an entire cake on Suga's bag; Jungkook barely able to stand from exhaustion but forcing himself on stage anyways; Jimin working himself into a state of extreme anxiety about a couple of small mistakes.

The good stuff: Suga's baffled expression at his birthday cake covered bag.

I’ll be honest. Watching Jungkook collapse and Jimin cry felt voyeuristic in a way that behind the scenes materials usually don’t. And seeing the screenshots and gifs of their moments of distress floating around on Twitter really made me uncomfortable. What is it that we’re demanding of them as American fans? Do we understand what we’re asking for when we cry for “authenticity”? For the mask to be ripped off? An idol’s mask isn’t just there to conceal flaws, it’s also for the idol’s own protection.

Ironically the best part of the series so far has been the interviews. One of the things I dream about doing for my idol book project is to actually speak with some idols candidly about their relationships with the fans, with performing, and so on. I was absolutely fascinated by the different responses the seven members of BTS gave to questions asking about those things.

Jin, the eldest, is the most focused on the internal dynamics of the group. He frets and worries about the members, even letting the youngest ones take out some of their nervous energy on him.

J-Hope is completely focused on the performance. His main connection to the fans seems to be through the YouTube videos they upload--reaction videos, dance covers--rather than the people live in front of him.

RM is stuck in his own head and that is something I identify a lot with, no surprise. He’s intellectualized the idol-fan experience to something that makes sense to him. He doesn’t want fans to like BTS because they’re cute but because they have formed an emotional connection. He thinks and feels a lot and wants to share his true thoughts and emotions with fans across the world. (Please participate in my book, RM, if you’re reading this.)

Jimin is insecure and needs a lot of reassurance from the members, from staff, and from the fans. He needs our love more than any of the other members and that makes me more worried for him than any of the other members. BTS, please take care of Jimin. Please.

V and Jungkook are the least articulate, verbally, and had the least amount of interview footage. V has trouble taking the thoughts in his head and saying them in a way that makes sense to others. Jungkook just doesn’t use a lot of words but the way he covered his embarrassment at having to talk about his collapse with a smile and said something like, I didn’t know when we’d be back so I had to go back on stage. It broke my heart.

Suga, though. Suga gets it. Ironically the member who appears to be the grumpiest, most antisocial, and least concerned with idoling is the member who truly gets what an idol concert is all about. In the behind-the-scenes DVD for the Korean concert, right before the rap line--Suga, RM, and J-Hope, go on stage for “Cypher pt. 4” they say if the audience doesn’t stand up, they’ll have failed. (Luckily the audience did stand up and it’s actually at that point in the DVD that the flow of the concert really starts to get going.) The moment had stood out to me when I watched it and hearing Suga explain how the excitement of the crowds created a feedback loop with the members on stage until every single person in the arena is part of something magical… it’s how I feel when I attend these concerts. It was incredibly moving and validating to hear Suga say he feels it too. (Suga, also please participate in my book okay? I’m learning Korean.)

It’s hard to say where this series will end up. And I haven’t read any reviews or reactions, American or otherwise, to have any opinion on whether it’s hitting the target market or not. I’m on record as saying I don’t think it’s good or healthy for BTS to cater to the English speaking or American market and I stand by that. Americans don’t understand idols and we don’t understand or respect the very real cultural differences in how we interact with idols. We ask a lot--learn English, stop being fake, show us everything--and don’t give back nearly enough. I don’t want to have to worry about BTS worrying that we’re fetishizing Jungkook’s and Jimin’s moments of distress. As much as they want us to be happy, especially as a noona fan, I really want them to be happy too. And to continue to walk with us through life. Together. A relationship stronger than romance, different than friendship. A relationship of mutual support and emotional connection, sharing pleasure and comfort and sorrow.

The director loved Jin. As do we all.

It really has only been about three months since I fell into this fandom but I regret nothing. And my month and a half or so of studying Korean has me saying this: 나의가족는 방탄소년단이에요.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

BTS ALBUM REVIEW: Love Yourself 承 Her

Because we need each other

We believe in one another

I know we're going to uncover

What's sleepin' in our soul

“Acquiesce” by Oasis

Because idol music is the synthesis of personality, emotion, narrative, visuals, and music, ignoring any of the pieces means you’re not seeing the work of art as a whole. An album is never just an album; a song is never just a song.

Case in point, I’ve been listening to BTS as pleasant background music since I first heard “DOPE” (쩔어) way back in 2015 but it wasn’t until I saw them perform the choreography for “DNA” on Music Station Super Live 2017 that I was really hooked. The way the music fed into the vivid, eye-poppingly bright costumes and the heartbeat choreography had me hitting replay over and over again on the MV on youtube… and then had me purchasing the mini-album that it was contained on: Love Yourself 承 Her.

And when I say purchase the album, I mean I specifically ordered the physical CD that came with the poster and photo book I wanted. (The “V” version for those curious.)

But it’s hasn’t been until now--a couple of months of binging on BTS related media later--that I feel capable of writing something about it beyond, “I think it’s really good.” What I hear now on Love Yourself 承 Her is a more confident, adult BTS who are figuring out what their unexpected success means and working on how to reach for the stars while keeping their feet firmly grounded in their “bapsae” roots. Here is the magic of idols at work--I’ve only been A.R.M.Y. (Adorable Representative MC for Youth) for a couple of months and yet I still feel so proud of these boys and how far they’ve come.

From my Japanese studies, I first read the “承” in the title as shou the first character in words such as “acceptance” and “acquiesce” (which is a banging Oasis track among other things) but apparently it’s going to be part of a broader theme using the four-character compound 起承轉結 (kishoutenketsu) which traditionally describes the progression of a four-line Chinese poem although in Japanese it is also used to describe the progression of an argument or criticism. The characters represent four phases: the starting point, laying the groundwork, a turning point, final conclusion.

If anything I think Love Yourself 承 Her is the result of all the growth and development, especially from the singing line--Jin, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. (The rap line being RM, Suga, and J-Hope.) The way idol music releases overlap between Korea and Japan for Korean artists means it’s hard to pinpoint exact start and stop points of different release cycles but if you look at the “Intro: xxx” songs for each release cycle, this is the first time one of BTS’s singing line has been given the responsibility of opening the entire cycle.

“Intro: Serendipity” is a huge change from previous “Intro: xxx” songs like J-Hope’s “Boy Meets Evil” (a dark rap about falling off the path of ambition) or RM’s frenetic “What Am I To You” (which is incredible to see on the 花樣年華 concert DVDs; he holds an entire stadium in the palm of his hand). “Serendipity” has nothing to prove. He’s a calico cat lazy and content, rolling around in bed on a Sunday morning.

I’m your calico cat, here to see you

Love me now

Touch me now

Just let me love you

Translation credit

The sparse production--by British songwriting team PKA Culture X Tones (Ray Djan and Ashton Foster)--combines electronic elements with acoustic ones. There’s a EDM-style drum machine but it’s balanced with a pretty acoustic guitar. But right in the center is Jimin’s voice, the reverb cushioning his delicate tenor rather than drowning it. A subtle kick drum, a heartbeat, on the one gives the only hint of a beat until the pre-chorus begins about 30 seconds into the song. It ends as quietly as it began, on a whispered “Let me love, let me love you.”

Jimin is a crooner, not a belter, and the production uses his emotive voice to its best effect, listening on headphones it sounds like he’s whispering directly into your ears. You can almost feel his breath, the warm air… He’s come a long way from the days when he it looked like he was more comfortable flashing his abs than singing.

Next is the song that hooked me: “DNA,” one of two singles off this album.

“DNA” picks up where “Intro: Serendipity” leaves off with the acoustic guitar sound. And a whistle. The beat is much, much lighter than previous BTS singles, as is the instrumentation. The rhythm track has a very, very light touch. The kick drum is much more natural sounding than I’ve heard on a BTS song before, without that added bass punch. The snare and hi-hat are present but in the background, drifting in on the off beats as color. And, most importantly, I think, there are tempo changes throughout the song that are used to keep the ear’s attention in a way I didn’t hear on previous BTS releases but that I very much enjoyed.

The vocals are divided nicely. V’s soulful baritone starts the song but all the singers get a juicy section, while the rap line has a lighter touch on this song. The percussive noise of the acoustic guitar track is what keeps us moving through the first verse and into the chorus, where the beat drops and we enter a synthesizer echo chamber. As the song heads into the second verse--which begins with Suga’s rap--the acoustic is gone and it’s the bass guitar which takes center stage. But as the other members join in, the instrumentation also begins to thicken. Synthesizer pads, noodly electric guitar riffs, and the return of the whistle all heightening the tension to the pre-chorus where the acoustic guitar returns and drives us through the chorus then everything cuts out as we throw back to V for the intro to the outro… a massive reprise of the chorus highlighting J-Hope that has the catchiest dance move in the entire song.

It’s a very, very good song.

My personal theory when I first heard “DNA” was that this track was meant for the Japanese market and I’m still pretty sure that’s the case, if for no other reason than it hooked me and my tastes in pop music have become extremely Japanese over the last 15 years or so. Japan likes EDM and rap okay but it has an overall preference for sweeter, not so bass heavy music. It’s no coincidence that the cocky “Mic Drop”--the other “single” from this release--was the song the West chose, while Japan has glomped onto “DNA”. (As I type this, “DNA” is still riding high in the Japanese Billboard Hot 100 while “Mic Drop” may as well not exist.)

Track 3 is “Best of Me,” the second contribution on the album from PKA Culture X Tones (Ray Djan and Ashton Foster) and is strongly reminiscent of their previous BTS song, 2016’s “Save Me” in structure. But unlike “Save Me” the song wasn’t produced by longtime BTS producer PDogg but by the Chainsmokers Andrew Taggart and… I think to the song’s detriment. I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m no fan of most American pop music for the very reasons that I find “Best of Me” rather bland in it’s recorded form and the song I’m most likely to skip when listening to Love Yourself.

What Taggart does here is create a Spotify-friendly, overly compressed audio meant to be played in the background while you do something else, song. He treats BTS as if they were pieces in an audio puzzle rather than the main feature that people are actually going to be plugging in their headphones and listening to. The entire track is swamped by this pedestrian synthesizer riff that hammers on and on and on and on even through the parts that should be quieter. There’s no room to breathe anywhere. It’s suffocating. Taggart may be a “brand name” producer but I never want to see his name anywhere near BTS again.

There’s a reason I listen to Asian pop instead of American pop and a large part of that has to do with wanting to avoid hacks like Andrew Taggart.

After the incessant droning of “Best of Me”, it’s such a relief to sink into Track 4, “보조개 (Dimple)”. Written by Matthew Tishler and Allison Kaplan from Laundromat Music (an Asian/Europop songwriting house), the song seems to have begun life as a demo song called “Illegal” which was then tweaked and arranged to showcase BTS’s vocal line. Between the lyrics about the dimple and production, this song feels like a fresh update of some 1950s doowop like the Penguins “Earth Angel” or the Flamingos “I Only Have For You” or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”.

It starts off with this fantastic little synthesizer noodle that sounds like a vintage Les Paul steel guitar riff over a pillowy cloud of sound. When the first verse begins, the rhythm kicks in with a laid back emphasis on the two and four--again a huge relief after the relentless four on the floor of “Best of Me”--the four singers trade off lines, voices intertwining around the edges where the reverb and multiple tracks overlap. The effect is really hypnotic.

There are two really amazing vocal hooks in the first section of the song. Jungkook’s leap to falsetto punctuating the ends of each line in the pre-chorus (and his falsetto backing track all through the song to be honest) and the way each singer hits that repeated, descending run on the word “illegal.” It gives me goosebumps of pleasure every time I hear the song.

And then comes the bridge. Oh my god, the bridge. Just V’s soulful baritone and this building tremolo organ patch that swells until it fills the entire landscape. The other singers swap in and we get this very classic rock and roll tom buildup and the tension is so big until it cannot be sustained one more measure and explodes with a Jungkook vocal run over a reprise of the chorus. As the song winds down, all four add vocal riffs to the backing track. V’s breathy run should have been illegal.

And this is the kind of vocal performance you can only pull from a mature idol group. Not only have they built up their confidence and their vocal skills, but they’ve been singing together for long enough that they’ve developed a really nice vocal blend. The personality and timbre of each of the vocal line’s voices really shines through here. The vocal line’s “Lost” was one of my favorite tracks from the last release cycle and this is such a huge step forward beyond it. I absolutely cannot wait to see this performed live.

Track 5 is “Pied Piper”, the song that has become an inside joke among fans because of the cheeky lyrics.

“Follow the sound of the pipe, follow this song

It’s a bit dangerous but I’m so sweet

I’m here to save you, I’m here to ruin you

You called me, see? I’m so sweet

Follow the sound of the pipe

I’m takin’ over you

I’m takin’ over you

Translation source

Going back to the theme of “laying the groundwork” or rather that the groundwork has been laid, more than anything this song seems to signal a BTS that has come to terms with the fact that they have been entrusted with the hearts and emotions of millions of women and girls around the globe. While they still clearly take the responsibility very seriously, the song is BTS saying they are also able to have a bit of fun. Not everything has to be a deep metaphor or have a positive message, sometimes all we need is pure pleasure.

(And besides is there anything more subversive than pure, unashamed female pleasure? Real feminism hours right here! *air horn*)

Like the rest of the songs in the first half of the album, “Pied Piper” is also very vocal line heavy with an incredible falsetto chorus from Jimin, Jungkook, and V. The instrumentation is fairly simple. A straightforward rhythm with an anticipated downbeat on the one, hand claps on two and four. Some chill strummy electric guitar, piano and synth pads, and a really sharp little phase-shifted synthesizer noodle standing in for the pied piper’s call… and echoed later by the vocal line in the chorus.

After the rapped verses, the rhythm drops out and all you hear is church organ as their sweet voices sing us to heaven. A heavenly choir of idols. It’s enough to send me to a state of pure bliss. (And after seeing the fan cam footage of Jimin’s bodyrolls and hearing the screams that accompanied them from the single live performance of “Pied Piper” so far, I only imagine what this song will be like live.)

Track six is RM’s speech from last year’s Billboard Music Awards and it leads into track seven, “MIC Drop”. I have very mixed feelings about these. I’m not a huge fan of “MIC Drop” and, quite frankly, I think it’s a pretty mediocre hype song--especially from a group who debuted specializing in hype songs. “MIC Drop” should have been the book end to the aggressive I’m-doing-my-own-shit-so-step-off “No More Dream” from 2013’s 2 Cool 4 Skool but the beat just sounds flabby in comparison to some of their early bangers.

Suga, at least, seems to understand the right amount of swag necessary for a boasting hype song in his verse but, yeah, there’s just something off about the whole mess. BTS isn’t the type of group to brag about trophies or awards and coming directly after RM’s humble acceptance speech gives the song an even odder dissonance. To be honest, the song reads to me as an uncomfortable attempt to hang a lampshade on a type of success that they find almost embarrassing. Is success in collecting trophies and building up their bank accounts? Do they find it embarrassing that this is how success has been defined for them? Not the hearts and minds they reached in “Pied Piper” but the bag full of trophies from “MIC Drop”?

But, again, this is where we need to take the complete idol music package into account and J-Hope’s energetic dancing in the performances of “MIC Drop” is just about enough to rescue the song… at least performed live. Musically speaking, it’s a dud. (Look, there’s a reason Steve Aoki isn’t a household name, okay?)

Track 8 though, my friends. Track 8. Now this is a song.

“고민보다 Go” (Gominbona Go) is an utterly delicious piece of pop nihilism. Written in the tropical house style that took over K-Pop in the summer of 2017 it really is a proper companion to some of those early don’t-give-a-fuck bangers. There’s no way that the guys in BTS still have to worry about what’s in their bank accounts but this office lady noona identifies pretty hard with the lyrics.

Worked hard to get my pay

Gonna spend it all on my stomach

Pinching pennies to spend it all on wasting it

Leave me be, even if I overspend

Even if I break apart my savings tomorrow

Like a crazy guy

Translation credit

BTS: Anti-capital hoarding; pro-the poor deserve pleasure as much as the rich.

Welcome, comrades.

The song itself is anchored with this ridiculous off-kilter calypso beat with a weird little pied piper-like wooden flute sound and the choreography is just gloriously bouncy and stupid, even incorporating the stupid backpack kid dance move. Vocally it’s a good mix of rap line and vocal line with some really expressive line deliveries from everybody. Some syllables are hit percussively, some are slurred, some are squealed out. Really great stuff all around. There’s always something different to listen for ending that outro! It’s 45 seconds of a building, building frenzy with the repeated Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go… when it ends abruptly, it immediately makes me want to hit “repeat.”

Track 9, “Outro: Her”, is our rap line song. I read it as a love song for A.R.M.Y. and our complicated relationship with our idols. They love us, they hate us, they love us again. We support them, we tear them down, and we pick them back up again.

As Suga says in his verse, “To become the person who loves you, to become the guy who loves you, I quit what I used to love.” (Translation credit)

The emotional ties between us are complicated but conveyed so well by all three of them. It says a lot about the type of idols they are that they’ve put so much thought into the relationship.

Suga, who produced the song, went for a breezy Fugees-style R&B vibe. The drums sound nice and fresh and there’s a nice little organ patch and a guitar with a wah pedal. It’s really quite beautiful. The honest nature of the lyrics are well served by his choice. There’s something about that Fugee-style sound that hits right at the heart. Suga has good taste.

Finally, since I bought the physical album, I got bonus tracks 10 and 11.

Track 10 is a secret talk--which I have to rely on a translation of until I finish teaching myself Korean--but they seem to discuss the same sorts of things I find so fascinating about idol life. What is it that ties us together? How do you stay true to yourself while wearing clothes you hate and too much makeup? What do they owe us? What do we owe them in return?

(Have I mentioned how much I love BTS? The idol philosopher's idol group...)

And track 11 is a real classic BTS-style moody ballad: “바다” (Bada, the sea). It follows songs like “I Need U” or “Tomorrow”. Produced by J-Hope (!) and Suga, the song begins with the sound of waves lapping on the shore, replaced by the soft background vocals from the vocal line, a shimmering shaker, and a jangly Britpop electric guitar loop that anchors the song.

Just like the sea we heard at the beginning, the song builds in waves. A slow build through the verses into the pre-chorus that sends everything crashing before building up even bigger, crashing even bigger, and finally, disappearing…

“Is this the sea or the desert? Is this hope or despair,” asks J-Hope. His verses are particularly frantic but all three rappers are distraught. Like “Outro: Her”, the lyrics appear to speak to the conflict of success. What happens when you reach the top only to find that there’s nothing there. The sweet tones of the verses appear almost like a balm. “Where’s there’s hope there’s trials. Where there is hope you know you know you know yeah yeah”

In a way, it’s something we all have to deal with. What happens when you get married and find out there’s no happily ever after? When you have a kid and it doesn’t fill the hole in your life? When you get the job you wanted? When your team wins the championship? When you get into the college you wanted but your life is still fucked up?

That’s “바다”. V ends the song, ends the album, with his soulful baritone. “We have to despair, for all of those trials.” (Translation credit for all the Bada quotes. I really need to learn Korean.)

Overall, I really love this mini-album. It’s a bit of a departure from previous work but not so much that can’t see where they were coming from. The vocal line’s increased presence, the rap line getting moody, the willingness to toe the line at what is acceptable in mainstream pop. If this is the foundation--the 承--I cannot wait to hear that turning point. Keep fighting, BTS! Keep finding new challenges and new mountains to scale. Teach yourselves Japanese; teach yourselves English; keep fighting! (And V, for the love of God, please record an album of smoky-voiced jazz standards. Please.)

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