The Unbearable Lightness of Being: BTS’ “BE” Album Review

BE is BTS’ fourth (Korean) studio album and follows the record-breaking Map of the Soul: 7 from earlier in the year (February 21). Released on the 20th November, six months after the later, BE is a project album that is best understood as a personal response to COVID-19. BE is grounded in reality; while the language on the tracks is often metaphorical, the concept is not. BE does not belong to the larger BTS’ transmedia universe and its storyworlds, instead it documents the mundane nature of everyday living in lockdown where life becomes reduced to mere functionality and the four walls of our homes become cell walls, imprisoning us in world where face to face interactions become the exception rather than the rule.

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

As a project album, it is impossible to separate the ephemerality of the music from the physicality of the packing itself. It is a demonstrative example of McLuhan’s famous proclamation that “the medium is the message”. This emphasises the fact that the form in which something is presented shapes its message rather than being independent to it. As such, it is necessary to take a holistic view of the album and its integrated content. Available only as a deluxe version, the package includes lyric poster, poster, photocards including a polaroid one, photo book, photo frame, postcards, a making ‘of’ book and of course, the CD itself. The song lyrics are handwritten by the members, the cover designed by RM, and photographs taken by Taehyung – and of course, the accompanying music video for Life Goes On is directed by Jungkook. There are eight songs on the album, including the title track, the record breaking single Dynamite, and Skit which has the members responding to their first Billboard hot 100 number one. The album clocks in at just over 28 minutes.

Genre wise, the album is difficult to classify as the songs draw on a range of influences from disco and funk (Dynamite and Telepathy), alternative and old school hip-hop (Life Goes On and Dis-ease), R&B (Fly to My Room), pop ballad (Blue and Grey) and EDM (Stay). The approach is minimalist, eschewing the more bombastic beats of K-pop for the delicacy of the acoustic guitar and piano in order to match the subtlety of the songs themselves and foreground the member’s vocal harmonies, raps, and the lyrical complexity of their wordplay. There is a timelessness to the collection of songs on BE which represents the member’s knowledge of music history and the multitudinous influences on their work, something evident in their individual playlists on Spotify.

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

Life Goes On, the lead single, is a mediation on life under lockdown, its lyrics of loneliness and loss expressing the emotional burden of everyday existence. This is a melancholy song which mainly relies on a short acoustic guitar loop to express emotion and vulnerability in combination with vocal harmonizing and soft muted raps. Co-written by RM, Suga and J-Hope, Life Goes On captures the personalities of the members lyrically and sonically. For example, RM’s verse: “It seems like it’ll rain again today “I’m drenched / It still doesn’t stop / I race faster than those dark clouds / I thought that would be enough but / I must merely be human / It hurts so …”. Rain is the constant backdrop to the melancholic songs on RM’s second mixtape Mono (2018), from the title of the title track Forever Rain to Nell’s outro on “everythinggoes”: “It rains / It rains / Everything / Passes”. To mitigate the bleakness of this drab world which gives a new meaning to the concept of bedroom culture, Life Goes On gives the final lines to J-Hope, his hopeful positivity captured in the lyrics: “Though the world has stopped / don’t hide in the dark / for the light will rise again.” Markedly different to Dynamite, the pre-release single, Life Goes On is close in sensibility and emotional cadence to Spring Day

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

Fly to My Room is the first of two sub-unit tracks on BE. This track brings together vocalists V and Jimin with rappers J-Hope and Suga. The instrumentation is once again minimalist, combining 1970s piano with bass and trap inspired drum beats. It centres on the literal and metaphorical entrapment constitutive of lockdown life. The title is ironic, in that there is no escape from the room; life is dictated by the mundane and being alone with one’s self can lead to an introspection which can be more harmful than helpful. In fact, the only escape for many is through the use of online connectivity tools as referred to in the wordplay of the first verse sung by V: “shall we depart? / let me fly to my / Lower our gazes and to wherever it is, zoom / with me now / let me fly to my / Get me outta my blues / And now I’m feelin’ brand new”. “Zoom” is an obvious reference to the video conferencing application, while at the same time being used to metaphorically allude to flying free of the room through our dreams and imagination. While Life Goes On envisages a potential future, Fly to My Room is insular, trying to find a way to cope with our new reality. Stressing continuity through conflict, J-Hope, BTS’ embodiment of hope, once again closes the track: “Try filling yourself with positivity, I’m full”.

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

Blue and Grey, which was originally going to be on V’s first solo mixtape release and was co-written with NIve, again attests to the emotional impact of the pandemic with the title referring to depression or “feeling blue” and the drab “grey” contours of a world in which darkness and despair predominate. Taking as its theme gloominess, this track continues with the introspective theme of Fly to My Room  using virtual instruments, including a nylon guitar and clarinet, as well as strings courtesy of the British toolkit plug-in (which contains sounds that you might hear in a British film). In addition, an acoustic guitar stepped up half a key helps to communicate a world off kilter while a piano is effectively used to communicate both coldness and warmth in order to add “color” to the song.  Finally, the presence of a heartbeat helps to add a liveness to the overall tone and texture of the track as well as functioning as a metaphor for the “life” that despite everything “goes on”. RM’s verse draws on the imagery from Mono once again to describe the feeling of uncertainty, which lies at the very heart of a pandemic world with no expiry date: “I don’t trust in a god called certainty / Words like ‘colours’ makes me squirm / An expanse of grey is what’s comforting /A hundred million expressions of grey / When it rains, it’s my world.” Here even J-Hope expresses doubt “An approaching grey rhinoceros / I stand, unfocused and alone.” Frequent changes in tempo and flow, the oscillation between high and low vocal registers and the use of the sound of the heartbeat are used to mirror the intrinsic meaning of the song.

Skit which is the member’s reactions to their first Billboard Hot 100 number one provides a focal point for a transition from statis to speed and a possible reprieve from lockdown syndrome. The next track Telepathy stresses the future and imagined togetherness as a cure for present isolation and loneliness. It clearly progresses on from Blue and Grey, which ends with V singing about falling asleep at dawn, by focussing on the deep connection between BTS and their fans in which communication operates at a dualistic level of the conscious and unconscious. The song dreams of the day when the fans and band are united once more.  The final stanza stresses this desired togetherness: “For even if we’ve had to grow apart / our hearts are still the same / Even if you’re not by my side, yeah / Even if I’m not by your side, yeah / We know that we’re together.” Musically, Telepathy evokes pastness through instrumentation and in particular the use of cowbells. The use of cowbells harkens back to the 1980s when it was commonly used in rap and hip-hop music although it actually came to pop cultural prominence on Buddy Holly’s 1958 hit Heartbeat. The 1980s vibe is accentuated by the heavy use of the synthesizer.

The driving beat provides an arc that segways into the next track, Dis-ease. Dis-ease utilises scratching as a mechanism of creating continuity between the two tracks as well as emphasising the influence of African American music on Korean popular music – like the cowbell, scratching is music of immigration (in the double sense of the word – music made by immigrants and music that emigrates across borders in a globalized world). Dis-ease is a dialogue with the self, precipitated by the “endless rest” forced on BTS by COVID-19. The song is an extended mediation on the suspension of time, in which days blend into each other, and nights awake with anxiety replace peaceful repose: “24 hours, there’s so much time” J-Hope laments, too much time to spend “thinking too much”. The realisation that as different their experiences might be to ordinary people, BTS are, at the end of the day, “… all just people / ain’t so special”. The groundedness of BTS, despite their celebrity, comes across clearly here within this moment of recognition of shared humanity. 

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

Stay is the second sub-unit song on the album. This new sub-unit is made up of Jin, Jungkook and RM. Like Blue and Grey, Stay was meant to be a solo song. Composed by Jungkook, Stay was intended to be one of the tracks on his upcoming solo debut mixtape. This pop, dance, EDM song, stresses BTS’ desire to remain connected to their fans. Stay uses piano arpeggios to construct and imply harmony through melody. If Dis-ease has the members dreaming of the pre – or post-COVID-19 world in which they perform in front of their fans, Stay shines the cold light of reality on these imaginings: “Was it a dream / I think I saw You / When I open my eyes again / The room is empty”. Yet at the same time, Stay is a song of hope. Light disperses the blue and grey world of BE through lyrical allusion, for example: “shines like a pearl”; “the stars are brighter than ever” and “these brilliant todays”. 

The final track Dynamite is the only track with no direct input from the members. Written by Dave Stewart and Jessica Agombar, Dynamite is BTS’ first English language single and has dominated global charts and received significant airplay in the West since its release in August 2021. It is a hopeful song, shining with the promise of a future post COVID-19 world. It is in many ways a perfect pop record in its simplicity and harmonies. The use of light as metaphor for hope in Stay also plays a significant role in the visual imagery repertoire of Dynamite: “So watch me bring the fire and set the night alight /Shining through the city with a little funk and soul /So I’ma light it up like dynamite (this is I)”. Here a mixture of live and virtual instruments is used to metaphorically shrug off the underlying gloominess of the preceding tracks, for example, live and moog bass. An evocative, pulsating track, Dynamite has arguably been the sound of the late summer, shining a light into the continuing darkness of the pandemic world.

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

BE is a project album and as such substantially different from BTS’ other album releases with their intricate psychological concepts and storyworlds. Sonically it is closer to the member’s solo work, especially those of the vocal line, for example, Taehyung’s Winter Bear, Jungkook’s Still With You, Jimin’s Promise and most recently Jin’s Abyss. BE covers the gamut of what is considered as ‘good’ music: expressiveness, craftsmanship, subtlety and abstractness; criteria defined by Leonard and House for evaluating music. Repeated listening is necessary to unpack the lyrical and sonic complexity of the album as is knowledge of Korean language and / or use of multiple translation sites in order to understand the intricate use of metaphor and allusion throughout which is used to express the current reality. The message of BE, however, is also contained within the album packaging and the personal details brought to the process by each member as the purpose of any art form should not be separated from its more formal qualities. 

Significantly, BE pays homage to the creativity of African American culture, which is an inseparable component of K-pop, through linguistic, instrumental, and sonic references to 1980s hip-hop and dance music. While much has been made of the group’s vocal layering which is evident on BE – perhaps the bridge in Dynamite being the clearest example – the complexity of the layering of musical instruments should not be overlooked. This careful craftsmanship produces tracks which are creative and intricate, and in which emotions take on a haptic quality through the combination of voice and instrument. While it is appropriate to celebrate the album for its message of hope at a time of despair, it is important also to consider the construction of the message in order to evaluate it. 

Photo © Big Hit Entertainment 

At just over 28 minutes, BE perhaps would be more appropriately defined as an EP rather than an album and does feel slightly short as a result (especially if you omit the Skit). It could be argued that BTS could have pushed against music boundaries more, given that they are one of the most musically talented pop groups of the moment. However, there can be little doubt that as musicians and artists, BTS have grown considerably since their debut days. BE is an important marker on that journey and promises much for the next seven years.

BE was envisaged by BTS as a document of life under COVID-19 and designed as a message of healing and comfort for their fans and of a mechanism of connection in a time of disconnection. Like a diary, the album reveals the member’s innermost thoughts and fears fuelled by uncertainty over the future. In that longed for future, free of the pandemic, it will act as a memorialisation of the traumatic past, reminding us to embrace the present and cherish the moment: “Shinin’ through the city with a little funk and soul / So I’ma light it up like dynamite, woah-oh-oh.” 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Written by Dr Colette Balmain

Music Video © Big Hit Entertainment 

Notes – Thanks to Doolset Lyrics and DoYouBangtan for the translations that were used in this review. 

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Chilli says:

    Thank you for this well-written piece. It is a pleasure to read a thoroughly researched work. BTS embodies (to me) all that music should be to a listener who has taken the time to explore something new or what we, ARMY have come to expect from them. I love their determined thoughts that go into each album. They care about what they give us. We are discerning now and that makes us very picky when “others” offer us music. Haha

  2. Jessica McGuire says:

    I’m glad that the review is a positive one and it includes information that I didn’t know and was also interesting, like the information on the cowbells, but this was written at a college level, so a lot of people aren’t going to understand half of it unless they look a lot of words up. Also, Segway is the name of the two-wheeled scooter. The word that the writer meant to use is “segue”. Unless the article is meant to be read only by people with very large vocabularies, the language used is too complex for the average reader to enjoy the article. Maybe next time, use words that are a little more common and easier to understand? Articles like this are supposed to educate and inform people on the topic of the article, rather than focusing on how big of a vocabulary the writer has.

  3. Jill Meyer says:

    Very well written.

  4. Formit says:

    Thank you all for your review!

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