Music for Healing: BTS MTV Unplugged Review

MTV Unplugged is a flagship MTV programme which was launched on 26th November 1989 with performances by Elliot Easton (The Cars), Syd Straw and Squeeze. With acoustic sets and stripped back, pared down. performances, Unplugged featured iconic sets by some of the most famous musicians of the time including Aerosmith, Elton John, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Nirvana and Oasis, appealing across a wide demographic. In 1992, Mariah Carey’s cover of the Jackson Five’s I’ll Be There released soon after her set went to number one on the Billboard 100, adding the cover as a staple to an Unplugged set. The original series ran from 1989 to 1999. Between 2000 and 2009, Unplugged was less regular, and mainly confined to one-off specials. The show was then revived in 2010 with the first episode featuring Adam Lambert (who the previous year had been the runner-up on American Idol). In 2020, as a direct result of the pandemic, MTV launched Unplugged at Home livestream series.

BTS is the first South Korean group to appear on MTV Unplugged (Monsta X participated in the Unplugged at Home series of acoustic mini concerts in 2020). Despite the pandemic, BTS had a record breaking 2020 which has continued in 2021. Having released their 4th studio full album Map of the Soul: 7 in February 2020, the group followed this up with the more personal introspective BE in November: both albums appeared on the IFPI end of the year album charts with MOT7 topping both IFPI Global Album Sales Chart and IFPI Global Album All Formats Chart. Their Japanese album Map of the Soul: The Journey was placed #8 on the Sales Chart, making BTS not only the first Asian (and first Korean) artist to top these charts but also the only artist with three entries on the top ten. The single Dynamite, shining with its funk and soul, shimmied in at #10 on IFPI Global Singles Chart. It is not surprising therefore that BTS were crowned the IFPI Global Recording Artist of 2020.

Video © Courtesy of MTV Unplugged 

It is somewhat ironic – given that MOT7 was overlooked for the Grammys, with BTS garnering a sole nomination for Dynamite as Best Duo or Group Performance – that MTV Unplugged famously premiered acoustic sets from artists who would subsequently go on to win Grammy awards: Eric Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged garnering a grand total of 8 Grammys and Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York winning the Best Alternative Musical Performance in 1995. BTS’s Unplugged performance features acoustic versions of four songs from BE and a cover of Coldplay’s Fix You. This though, is more than a performance of hits and B-sides, it is an act of storytelling with a narrative arc and thematic flow, dealing with daily life under the pandemic, diverging in significant ways from the original source, BE.

In November 2020 when BE was released, there did not seem to be a clear way out of the pandemic and indeed the album was composed during the worst of the crisis and at a time when there did not seem to be a possible solution. In March 2021, a year after the world went into lockdown, the mass vaccination programme provided a possible way back to some sort of normality (or a new normal) and a way out of the terrible uncertainty of life under lockdown. Significantly, the placement of the songs in the set does not follow that of the album. Life Goes On is fourth rather than first, Telepathy the fifth track is first instead, Blue and Grey is second (third on the album), with only Dynamite staying in its position as the final track. In addition, the cover Fix You is the middle, or transitional, song, in a musicological journey which starts in despair, arcs at comfort, and finishes with hope. BTS have spoken on many occasions about the importance of structure and narrative unity to their work: the Love Yourself series (August 2017 – September 2018) is a testament to this: a musical journey about love lost (for the other) and found (for the self), with a narrative trajectory which is informed by the structure of traditional Chinese storytelling as signified through the titles of the works in the series (including Euphoria: Theme of Love Yourself 起 Wonder which was originally released as a short film) and the order of their release.

Even the rappers’ individual mixtapes share this insistence on narrative flow and cogency, perhaps nowhere clearer than in RM’s starkly beautiful Mono (2019). The white cover and handwritten song titles on it point to how colour composition and typography are utilised to echo and deepen thematic concerns across BTS’s oeuvre. Similarly, set design, styling. costume and cinematography are essential components of their performances, filmed or otherwise. While the songs in MTV Unplugged may be stripped back, and the performance muted, the constant changing of the set, the use of colour symbolism, costumes and even placement of members on the set, tells a story, with a narrative arc, whose purpose is to comfort and console the viewer through emotional connection and empathetic engagement.  

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Photo © Courtesy of BigHit & MTV Unplugged 

The performance begins with Telepathy.  The set is a brightly coloured recreation room of oranges and teal with an accent of black. The members are dressed casually, their clothing reflecting the theme of the room, playing retro games while they sing of the pain of enforced separation and desire to be together again with their fans. Overall, the colour palate is one of warmth connoting energy and growth with the prominence of browns signifying pastness. The retro games also evoke the past while the incongruity of so many games in a relatively small space can be seen as a metaphor for our locked down existence, where the concept of outdoor space has disappeared as the inside and outside collapsed with the moratorium on not going out. This is also the only performance in the set where BTS are fully mobile, moving freely around the space. It is a reminder of the beginning of the lockdown when staying at home was a novelty and free time to participate in fun pastimes which previously had been impossible caught up in the rush of 21st century everyday life. The novelty, though, quickly ran out.

The set for Blue and Grey is very different. The tonal warmth of the colour design is replaced by dull greys and cold blues with an accent of green. The members are now wearing suits, the joyful informality of Telepathy being replaced with icy formality, albeit undercut by addition of jumpers to some of the member’s outfits. It is not just colour that has been desaturated, but the image has been emptied of emotion. The fun of the opening song and stage is nowhere to be found and even though the members move through the vertically framed spaced, movement is replaced by stasis enabling us to see and feel the flow of time as the colour fades, leaving just shades of greyness by the end. 

Photo © Courtesy of BigHit & MTV Unplugged 

The song’s title is a direct reference to depression and despair, both individual and societal, which will be one of the long-lasting legacies of the pandemic. Some studies estimate the current incidence of anxiety and depression at around 40% (in the US), doubling in just over six months. This increase in psychological morbidity has been called ‘a mental health pandemic’ with many sufferers having never experienced mental illness before the lockdown. It is, perhaps, no surprise that Blue and Grey is one of the fan favourites from BE with V opening up on a number of occasions about the inspiration for the song and its title. Cold colours and desaturation are used in film to evoke feelings of depression, isolation, and alienation. Often the psychical distance between people is visualised as physical distance, enacting real life disconnection in metaphoric form. Here, even when captured together within the vertical frame, members appear distant and distanced from each other. However, grass and shrubbery break up the harshness of the landscape, hinting at hope and a spring yet to come as do the final shots where light bounces off V and envelopes the frame.

The third song, Fix You, is a well-known Coldplay song, written by Chris Martin, dedicated to his then wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, to console her after the death of her father. Fix You is song of hope, as highlighted by the chorus: “Lights will guide you home / And ignite your bones /And I will try to fix you” (Coldplay, 2005). The song begins with the members in shadow. As the first bars play, the camera focuses in on Jungkook, the light framing his face, the darkness gradually dispelling as the members join in, harmonising, with the mobility of the camera capturing the emotion of the song.  BTS are still wearing the suit and jumper combination from Blue and Grey creating a visual continuity between the songs despite their different origins. What is interesting here is the movement of the camera, especially when it offers a side-on perspective, which is very rare in music videos or performances, dividing the screen across the diagonal rather than horizontal axis. The composition of the shot here is similar to that of a Dutch angle shot, however the camera is not restrained by the diagonal but fully mobile, panning in and out, to emphasise the song’s composition and BTS’s vocal layering. The set is backlit with spotlights behind the members, flickering in and out until their brightness fully envelopes the screen at the end of the song. Interestingly in the discussion segment which follows this, we can see that the outfits are not mono-dimensional but rather are multi-dimensional, an effect which is achieved through the use of colour as accent, as well as the layering of textures, seen in the coloured trim on the edges of collars and lapels.

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Photo © Courtesy of BigHit & MTV Unplugged 

There is a costume change for Life Goes On: the ‘formal’ grey suits have been replaced with more ‘informal’ brown, textured and tweed, jacket and trousers combination. The set itself gives off 1970s retro lounge bar vibes. The on-screen lighting is a mixture of spotlights and table lamps, strategically placed at the back of the set, behind BTS, in the middle, and at the sides to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. The use of brown here signifies endurance and comfort as well as nature and the natural world and contrasts with the artificial lighting of the set. The song reminds the viewers that despite everything, life continues and that one day in the future, they will be able to resume their lives, unrestricted by the four walls that have entrapped so many for over a year now. The informal feel of the set creates a homely atmosphere, and the camera is more focussed on the group than individual members. While the performance is still restrained, it is much more relaxed than the previous two. As the world begins cautiously opening up again, the message that Life Goes On seems prescient, its message of hope resonating across geographical and metaphysical spaces.

The final song in the set is, fittingly, Dynamite, the song which Grammy nomination is just one of its music industry world-breaking achievements. This is also the final costume change. Gone are the drab greys and browns, replaced by white suits, symbolizing perseverance and pureness, while the oscillation between blue and green lighting behind the members signifies healing and newness. Mirroring the energy of the song, BTS are more animated and again, depth of field is used to create a three-dimensional space, through color separation, lighting and shadows: BTS in the foreground, the band in the middle, and the wall of gold and silver CDs as concrete evidence of BTS’s success backdrop and fitting frame for the performance.

Photo © Courtesy of BigHit & MTV Unplugged 

All music sets or tracklists position songs strategically to set the tone for the performance, to create an ebb and flow of tempo and timbre so that the viewer and/or listener remains engaged. This sequencing is especially vital in an age of streaming when audiences can create their own set-lists and tune out songs that they do not connect with. It is important to develop a relationship with the listener or, in this case, viewer. As such progression and movement are key. The placement of the songs from BE in a different order to the original album is deliberate here. It makes the audience hear the tracks differently – this is why the remix is such a powerful means of promoting and selling music – and makes them more likely to stay around for the whole performance than switch off after their favourite song.

Opening with Telepathy, which is positioned towards the end of BE and has never been performed live, sets the mood for the whole set. Despite the raw emotion of the rap and the lyrics, Telepathy is a relatively fast song, and its energy helps to draw the audience in especially as it is set against a fun retro background which is visually appealing. It also sets up the audience for a change of pace with the slower and more emotional Blue and Grey. The breaks between performances allow the group to discuss the meaning behind the songs (which is important, given that most of the songs in the set are in Korean) and therefore orient the audience viz-a-viz the song and its meaningfulness. Their cover of Fix You is particularly appropriate as the lyrics of the song can be easily transcribed to the current pandemic and the words used to comfort their fans. Life Goes On brings us towards the end of this musical journey with the future as a promise wrapped up in the assurance that despite differences, there is commonality how the pandemic has been experienced: “Close your eyes for a moment / Hold my hand / Let’s run away to that future” (Life Goes On, 2020). The set ends with Dynamite, which despite having been performed at a variety of [virtual] award and other televised shows, in Korea, Japan and the US, still manages to communicate its message of hope and healing without being predictable: “So watch me bring the fire and set the night alight /Shinin’ through the city with a little funk and soul / So I’ma light it up like dynamite” (Dynamite, 2020). 

By changing the sequence of tracks from BE, BTS rewrite their narrative of life under lockdown, shifting gears, taking us on a journey from quiet despair at the order of things, to comfort and in the final act, celebration. These shifts are accompanied by changes, sometimes subtle, in set design, costume, styling and cinematography. Lighting is key in communicating the mood of the song, for creating depth of space, and creating shadows which can only be dispelled by the light. And the ability of their team to construct space in such a way as to communicate the meaning of a song to everyone irrespective of language competence also needs to be noted. BTS are master storytellers whose stories capture the essence of contemporary life.

BTS Unplugged is a demonstrative example of their ability to speak across divides – geographical, metaphysical, cultural – in a meaningful manner and creating a community of care. In the final analysis, BTS literalises what it means to talk of, “music for healing”.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

Written by Dr Colette Balmain

Video © Courtesy of MTV Unplugged 

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.

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