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The Truth About BTS’s Music: A Psychoanalytic and Marxist Criticism


A N A L Y S I S M U S I C  


Sara Kabir


Korean Pop Music (or K-Pop) has turned into a global phenomenon in recent years. With the rise of popular Korean groups like BTS, Blackpink, and Stray Kids, K-Pop has turned into a genre of music people all over the world enjoy and love. With the vibrant settings, immaculately choreographed dances, and flashy clothes, the music videos garner hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and various other streaming sites. While the world of K-pop is equal parts glamourised and criticised by the media, many people tend to gloss over what goes on behind the scenes and the careful planning required to pull off global hits like these.

K-Pop music videos can contain a range of different conceptsthemes like self-love to Greek mythologies, to religion, murder, first love, and even the seven deadly sins are pretty prominent in the genre. But South Korea’s current most influential and popular boy band, Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS for short), takes it a step further and breaks all pre-constructed stereotypes by including theories from different fields of study philosophy and psychology with the overarching message of love and acceptance in their music. 

The Korean music industry is known for its stylised, very much ‘manufactured’ and ‘engineered’ sound. The artists themselves have no say in what they are singing about, but BTS breaks all those preconceived rules and has a voice in their music. They have not only started a new trend for Korean singers to explore more complex and impactful themes in their music, but have also spread the reach of K-Pop to an international audience. 

When BTS announced that one of their latest albums was going to be titled Map of the Soul: 7, it is safe to say no one expected it to be based on the long-standing psychoanalytical theory created by Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung who theorised, We all have four different archetypes that make up our personality: The persona, the shadow, the anima and animus, and the self or ego.” The album is inspired from the book Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction by Dr Murray Stein, which summarises all the theories posed by Carl Jung.

Essentially, ‘persona’ refers to the different faces we wear in our everyday lives. We put on another ‘face’, a different façade, a distinct personality when we are home when we are at work, and so on. Dr Stein explains how ‘persona’ originated from the theatreit is the Latin word for the mask actors wear on stage. So, the persona is a mask we wear and show to the world. Human beings are social. To fit in, we put on these masks and act a certain way in certain situations. Our need to get along with other people, be part of a giant circle, or even be polite towards others — are part of being a social animal. How one presents themselves to the world is crucial to their function and social standing as a social human being. In some cultures, this is more prominent than others. In Asian cultures like our own and BTS’s, how one presents themselves can be vital and impact their psyche tremendously. 

BTS jumps straight into this concept in their intro track, Intro: Persona, sung by the group’s leader, Kim Namjoon (stage name “RM”), as he raps the words:

“Who am I?
The question I had my whole life.
The question which I probably won’t find an answer to my whole life.”

The track portrays the artist’s transition from society’s understanding and the projection of its thought on him to the artist’s understanding and acceptance of himself. It shows the divide between the art and the artist, and his struggle with accepting both sides of himself. In the song, RM struggles with the image the fans have of him and wonders if he as an individual is “enough”. This is shown in the song’s lyrics: 

“Someone like me ain’t good enough for the truth.
Someone like me ain’t good enough for a calling.
Someone like me ain’t good enough to be a muse.”

This portrays a deeper issue of self-worth and how being a public figure can positively and negatively impact a person’s mental well-being. In the music video, RM is shown to confront a giant version of himself, depicting how his persona has overshadowed his ego. He questions his identity and his purpose in life. 

In the video, he also performs in a room filled with mirrors, each reflecting a different aspect of his personality which he hides from the worldKim Namjoon: An idol, a rapper, and a leader. They are all aspects of himself—his different ‘personas’. 

As the video progresses, we see RM come to terms with these personas as he identifies with his ‘shadow’ and embraces all the facades of himself. The video gives us the main lesson of acceptance and uses the Jungian theory of persona to help us see how this can be done. 

According to Jung,

“If our persona is the conscious way in which we present ourselves to the world, our shadow represents qualities present in our unconscious that we choose to suppress. The ego would be full interaction and realisation of all archetypes.”

To come to terms with one’s self, Jung highlights a process he calls the ‘realisation of the shadow’: “The growing awareness of the inferior part of the personality, which should not be twisted into an intellectual activity, for it has far more the meaning of a suffering and a passion that implicate the whole man.”

The shadow is the darker part of someone’s personality, typically masked by the individual. Jung also mentions,

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is an essential condition for any self-knowledge.” 

In Interlude: Shadow, BTS member Min Yoongi (stage name, Suga) deals with the juxtaposition of expectation versus reality of being a celebrity and following one’s dreams. He uses the words, shadow at my feet. Look down, it’s gotten even bigger. I run, but the shadow follows, as dark as the light’s intense…” to explore the concept of “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow” — posed by Carl Jung in Psychology and Religion to express the dark side of fame. He talks about the overwhelming effect fame has had on him and how it can make him lose sight of his goals and dreams and doubt himself. 

In the music video, Suga can be seen rapping from a high platform and looking down to a version of himself in the audience, representing the divide between him as ‘Suga’, a public figure and him as ‘Min Yoongi’, the individualreminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The video is full of imagery as figures in all black, representing the ‘shadows’ of Suga chasing him around different hallways and rooms. As the shadow figures try to break down the door while Suga stands all alone on the other side, we can see the representation of his repressed shadow trying to break through into his conscious mind. He mentions the loneliness of success and being at the top multiple times and reflects on what it means to become famous and spotlight the public eye. His feelings overwhelm him so much that he sings, Don’t let me shine, don’t let me fly.”

He knows that stardom comes with a price, and in this case, that price is his individuality. With the fast-paced rap and bright flashes of light, the music video gives off a deceptive sense of freedom, but is a testimony to the darkness of fame as well as the darkness that lives within us.

BTS continues to venture into these ideas of identity throughout the album Map of the Soul: 7. Track 4, “Jamais Vu”, looks at our tendency to repeat the same mistakes repeatedly; track 5, Dionysus, talks about BTS’s struggles with getting intoxicated by fame and money. Track 2, “Boy With Luv”, shows the representation of the animus/anima with singer Halsey who is featured in the song, representing the soul or anima figure. According to Jungian theory, the “anima” is the unconscious feminine side of a man, while the “animus” is the woman’s cold, masculine side. It all concludes “Outro: Ego” as group member Jung Hoseok (stage name ‘J-Hope’) comes to terms with his ego, the fourth Jungian archetype.

However, this is not the first time BTS has used a literary text to portray their message in a poignant yet very effective way through their music. Another example of this is in their song “Spring Day”, which came out in 2017 and has taken the world by storm since. While the song itself is very melodic and the music video indeed compliments it with its pastel-coloured, nostalgic sceneries, the true message of the song can only be understood when one reads the book, which is rumoured to have inspired the song’s lyrics and music video,The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Guin. The song lyrics use snow-like imagery to explore themes of loss, yearning, grief, and moving on:

“I wanna hold your hand
And go to the other side of the earth
Want to put an end to this winter
How much do I have to long for you, like snow piles up on the ground
Until the spring days come?”

Ursula Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas” is the story of a beautiful utopian society. From an outside point of view, it is the perfect city, full of happiness and life. Omelas can be anything the reader wants them to be.

“In the silence of the broad green meadows, one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a faint cheerful sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out in the great, joyous clanging of the bells…” the city is practically bursting with happiness.

But this happiness is never defined in the sense that the narrator says, Happiness is based on just a discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

However, we soon learn that the narrator of the story itself does not honestly believe in the existence of this perfect placehow can it? It’s too perfect. The narrator then reveals the shocking truth of how the people of Omelas remain so happy all the timea child who is constantly suffering. 

The child is malnourished and filthy, with festering sores. No one is allowed even to speak a kind word to it, so though it remembers “sunlight and its mother’s voice”, it has been all but removed from human society. For the people of Omelas to be happy, the child must suffer all the time. The citizens of Omelas are unaware of this fact until they come of ageand then they are taken to visit the miserable place underground where the child is kept. While most react furiously to this reveal and want to help the child, they are unable to. They only have two choiceseither accept that there is nothing they can do to help the child and continue with their lives as if nothing were out of place, or leave Omelas and start anew. 

Omelas plays with the themes of suffering and happiness, the Marxist criticism of individual versus society, justice and freedom of choice, coming-of-age, and the loss of innocence. The youth of Omelas either choose to blindly accept the injustice for the sake of society’s happiness and forget their morals, they decide to ignore their guilt to fit into society, or they resist as individuals and walk away from it, retaining their individuality and choosing their happiness over others’. Is it okay “to throw away the happiness of thousands for a chance of the happiness of one?Marxist critics would interpret this as the rejection of communism and capitalism in the name of individualism and freedom. 

Ursula Guin concludes Omelas by introducing individualism and refusing to succumb to societal norms in a new way: through the difficult decision made by “the ones who walk away”. While the citizens of Omelas cannot do anything to fight against the recurring pain and suffering caused to the child, they can choose to walk away and disengage from society. Leaving Omelas is an ultimate act of individualism, as it requires one to reject society’s comfort to stand up for one’s morals and beliefs. The narrator does not say whether walking away is right or wrong, but once more asks the audience to reflect on the limits of their ability to imagine a city like Omelas. The reader and narrator can’t imagine what lies beyond Omelas imply that humans can’t imagine a society without unjust suffering. Still, specific individuals will strike out on their own to live by their morals, on their terms. They choose themselves over society. 

Both of these theories that BTS incorporated into their music are equally important to convey their message and shift the previous music trends. The fields of thoughts are very different from each other but work surprisingly well with the overall mood of the songs they inspired. While BTS’s endeavour to spread a positive message through their songs is a step towards destigmatising mental health, gender, and sexual/gender orientation in Asian countries, it is still far from reaching everyone who feels otherwise and changing the age-old thought process. BTS has used psychoanalysis and Marxism to inspire their songs and explore themselves further and delve into their psychologies and come to terms with their reality. They have taken their fans on the journey with them, encouraging them to make their interpretations of the songs and learn from them.

 


Sara Kabir is the quintessential Literature student, always finding joy in her favourite books, shows, songs, and artwork and being able to discuss them with her friends. Find her @scarletfangirl on Instagram to join in the discussion and see which new language she’s attempting to learn this week by watching TV shows and dramas.

 

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