Butter is BTS’ second English language single, following their 2020 smash hit Dynamite. It is written by Jenna Andrews (who is also credited on Dynamite), Alex Bilowitz, Sebastian Garcia, Rob Grimaldi, Stephen Kirk, Ron Perry (the chairman of Columbia Records) and RM. Vocal production is by Jenna Andrews and Stephen Kirk, while vocal arrangement is by Pdogg. The song was recorded at Dogg Bounce (Pdogg’s studio in South Korea) and Larry and George Studios (New York, USA). The music video is directed by Yong Seok Choi of Lumpens who have worked with BTS since their debut in 2013 with No More Dream, the director of photography is Nam Hyunwoo of MOTHER (a Seoul based content creative Agency) and responsible for the main choreography for the music video and performances is Son Sung Deuk.
Like Dynamite, Butter is a celebration of contemporary pop culture infused with a bouncy, retro vibe. Butter is already proving to be one of the songs of the summer of 2021, hitting the number one spot on the Billboard 100 for three consecutive weeks despite stiff competition from Olivia Rodrigo’s Driver’s Licence and looks likely to keep that position for a fourth week. At the time of writing (20th June 2021), it has spent over 700 hours at #1 on the Korean chart Melon 24 Hits which ranks songs according to their number of ULs (unique listeners) and it has gathered over 200 PAKS (Perfect All Kills) on the Korean charts as a whole (as of 2nd June 2021). Attesting to its global popularity, NME recently (16 June) named Butter as one of the best songs of 2021 so far.
Image © BigHit Entertainment
The title of the song is ambiguous. In fact, a cursory search for ‘songs with butter in the title’ revealed 6,173 lyrics, 8 artists and 26 albums. In fact, in the nineteenth and twenty centuries, traveling vendors who traipsed city streets looking for customers, had their own jingles or songs related to the products for sale. An example of this is the Churning Song: “Come, Butter, Come”. This gives some idea of how mutable or fluid the word butter is which, of course, is reflective of the very nature of butter itself: a spread made from milk which can either solid or liquid depending on the temperature it is kept at. In the song, butter is referred to as “smooth” as in the opening phrase “Smooth like Butter”, while the final verse promises variations on its smoothness determined by temperature and flavour: “Hotter, Sweeter, Cooler? Butter!”. According to Herbie Hanock (2014) in jazz, butter notes (Miles Davis actually said bottom notes but Herbie Hancock misheard him) are the obvious notes, related to excess and fat and even overplaying, that if avoided can led to the creation of something new and original in that it forces the artist to be creative. This perhaps explains the simplicity of the production of Butter – which stays on one chord throughout allowing the instrumentation and vocals to shine – and the almost purity of the accompanying music video. As such butter is meaningful and meaningless mimicking its origins in milk, in which the original liquid can be transmuted into several different forms depending on the process: butter, yoghurt, cheese. When butter melts, it separates into milk solids and butter fat, with the solids sinking to the bottom and the fat rising to the top. These shifts in consistency make butter a particularly apt metaphor in music.
Image © BigHit Entertainment
Like Dynamite, Butter reinforces rather than denies the continuing influence of black music and in particular R&B and Hip Hop on KPOP through the process of naming and intertextual referencing. While the former mainly referenced the early days of disco and funk, here the period is later from the 1980s onwards. The opening lyrics “Smooth like butter / like a criminal undercover” are a direct link to Michael Jackson’s homage to gangster and crime films of the 1940s and 1950s, Smooth Criminal (1987). However, whilst Smooth Criminal is in the key of A flat minor, Butter is in A flat major, which replaces the dark and almost ominous tone of the former for a lighter and brighter sound. The homage to Michael Jackson can also be seen in the chorus with the lyrics: “High like the moon, rock with me, baby” referencing his classic disco-funk track Rock With You (1979) alongside Jackson’s famous ‘moonwalk’ dance (which although its origins can be traced back to the 1930s, became part of mainstream choreography and Jackson’s signature move when he performed it for Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, TV Special in 1983). Later in verse two, there is another naming of an iconic artist and song. “Don’t need no Usher / To remind me you got it bad” is a reference to the sex-funk R&B classic U Got it Bad by Usher (2001). Caught between death (Smooth Criminal) and desire (U Got it Bad), Butter oozes sensuality, with the lyrics: “I’ll melt your heart into two”, “I’m makin’ you sweat like that”, “Ain’t no Other / That can sweep you up like a robber”.
There are also indirect aural and visual references to other artists and songs. While BTS clarified at the press conference accompanying the single’s launch that Butter did not sample Queen’s Another Ones Bites the Dust (1980) it uses a similar introductory bassline of around 110 beats per minute. In fact, this now legendary bassline of Queen’s was actually inspired by Bernard Edwards’ Good Times’ (Chic, 1979) bassline which was released a year earlier. Interestingly enough both Smooth Criminal and Another Bites the Dust would end up being used for CPR training. This is alluded to, consciously unconsciously in the lyrics for Butter with the phrase: “Side Step Left to the Beat (Heartbeat)”.
Image © Former BigHit Entertainment
There are many other references to pop music culture including Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock (1957). Daft Punk is also cited as an influence on the form of Butter as its experimental, electronic sound was partially generated through the use of the talkbox (for example, Harder, Better, Strong, Faster ), which allows artists to vocalise their instrument’s sounds. Traced back to the 1930s, the use of the talkbox, and the similarly functioning vocoder, became popularised in the 1970s through the songs of rock musician Peter Frampton with Show Me the Way and Do You Feel Like We Do off his debut solo album, Frampton Comes Alive (1976). An even earlier style of music is referred to in the lyrics: “I got that superstar glow so / (Ooh) / Do the boogie like”. While boogie is often used today to refer to pop, rock, or disco music, it originated in blues music as repetitive, or shuffle notes played on the piano and eventually adapted for the guitar and other instruments. Boogie-woogie emerged as a distinct musical form in Chicago in the 1920s. In London in the 1970s, it was used in reference to a type of dance music that was popular with the black community, and which was imported from the US. Originally a racist slur, boogie was reclaimed by the community, turning its meaning from negative to positive, using the word for Rent Parties in the 1920s. It was imported into the UK and the London dance scene in the late 1970s onwards, although boogie songs were referred to as “Disco-funk” or “Electro-Funk” in the North. Considered a direct continuation of (black) disco, by 1985 boogie became a distinct sub-genre when utilised by DJs on the pirate radio station KISS Fm. Through deliberate naming, Butter situates itself within a musical tradition of blues, black music informed (black) disco, then soul and funk, without pretending – as other more recent songs have done – that there is some sort of analogy between being Korean and being African-American which means that you can just utilise black music without any type of attribution. Instead, Butter is an example of an interculturalism in music, in which local and global influences are both acknowledged.
Image © Former BigHit Entertainment
The technical complexity of Butter’s composition as seen through its intradiegetic referencing and naming is mirrored by the vocal layering. While the production is relatively simple, the song itself is intricate with harmonies under the main vocals adding depth and texture to the song. The rap section is more fully integrated into Butter than Dynamite as RM participated in the writing and production of the song. This is shown by Suga’s “Hate Us, Love Us” which is followed by RM’s shout out to ARMY, “Got ARMY Behind Us when we say so”. The relationship between BTS and ARMY is acknowledged by both to be fundamental to the group’s success as coming from a small company outside the big 3, SM, JYP and YG, BTS struggled with promotion as they were largely frozen out the network of entertainment shows that the big entertainment companies used to cement their idols success.
The use of crescendo and motif repetition in the build-up to the chorus together with the stacked vocals and harmonies also makes Butter more of a typical BTS song than Dynamite. In addition, the members are allowed to display their individual colours within the larger entity that it is BTS as can be seen through V’s legato which contrasts with Jungkook’s staccato delivery and shifts the tone of the song from pop to blues and the jazzier style than V has an overt an affinity with going by his playlists and solo material to date.
While BTS are noted for the complexity of their lyrics in their Korean songs, these continuing days of the pandemic call for something lighter, something with promise for an ending, a song in which desire overcomes death, in which the listener is left with the following words of engagement: “Get it, Let it Roll”.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain
Featured photo © South Korea, “BTS” Press Conference (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Music Video © BigHit Entertainment
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