I don’t think I’ll ever stop being astonished at the creative output of BTS, not just during this pandemic lockdown but for the last seven years since the band debuted in 2013. The albums, the tours, the promotional appearances, the music videos, the multiple reality series, the documentary series, the endorsement commitments, the social media, the award show performances (in South Korea, their award season makes the North American award season look like a holiday), it’s been a relentless, exhausting ride – and it’s not like they don’t acknowledge the fatigue, the strain, the struggles; in fact, they actually show it, in their concert films and the crazy amount of behind the scenes footage they reveal for their fans. BTS repeatedly tells their unquenchable fanbase that they are tired, that they have, at times, been broken; that none of this is easy, that even though they are impossibly pretty, their presentation impossibly polished, it takes an enormous amount of ugly effort, suffering even, to achieve.
And yet they keep going. Through a western lens, I know, the pace at which BTS keeps pushing seems impossible to sustain, resulting in a certain… western suspicion. And I totally get that since I consume much of pop culture through a hybrid east-west lens. But if you have even casually followed the group over the years, what you also cannot deny is that they have agency, that all of this is what they set out to do, that this was what they wanted, and not necessarily just what others have wanted for them – or out of them. And because their approach to fame is not the same as their western counterparts, it’s unfair and, more importantly, inaccurate to analyse their fame in the same way. Even within the South Korean entertainment ecosystem, BTS has been an outlier. They first strayed from their own country’s idol-making template before going on to disrupt entertainment ecosystems worldwide. The point here is that there is no comparison, no place of entry where you can say, like, oh well this is what happened with XYZ band/artist so that’s how it works with BTS.
To go back to the output then, and the reason why BTS – and one member of BTS in particular – is opening the site today, during the last few unprecedented months, when so much of pop culture has either shut down, slowed down, or had to recalibrate, they’ve been the ones continuing to innovate. Had COVID-19 not happened, BTS would have been on tour right now, taking Map of the Soul across North America and then onto Europe. After all of those plans were cancelled, their team has focused instead on repurposing the existing content from their extensive catalogue, editing footage from past performances into new content drops every few days across their social media channels, continued filming their reality shows, continued their unscripted diary-style broadcasts on their various social apps, released a new tour docuseries, announced a new live online concert on June 14 (which means they must currently be in rehearsals for it), and…
Suga just dropped a mixtape, D-2, with a video for the first track!
Suga, aka Min Yoon-gi, goes by Agust D on his solo work. Where RM is BTS’s public-facing leader, I think of Suga’s as leadership from the back. To be clear, RM is not a figurehead, it’s just that as on any team with different personalities, members contribute in a variety of ways – and Suga is the one who doesn’t say much but whose authority is never questioned. This is the second Agust D mixtape after the first in 2016. This is also why, if you’ve checked Twitter today, it is being dominated by Agust D or Suga-related posts. And it’s not like there’s nothing else going on in entertainment. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande have a new song out – and to give you a sense of the staggering commitment of BTS’s ARMY, not even the Gaga-Grande combined fanbases have been able to match ARMY’s intensity.
I’ve not been able to listen intently the whole way through yet because I’m here working but from what I’ve heard so far, D-2 is excellent, an extension of themes that Suga was exploring on the song “Shadow” from BTS’s most recent album Map of the Soul: 7. On “Shadow”, Suga raps about his complicated relationship with success: he wants more of it, he’s afraid of it, but he earned it, can’t he enjoy what he’s earned, and what is the cost of that?
On “What Do You Think”, the third track off D-2, Suga says:
“The ten zeros in my bank account, that money is the collateral for my youth”
Oooof. I mean if that doesn’t challenge the fallacy that BTS is prepackaged and manufactured…
Here’s one for Duana – from “Moonlight”, the first track on the mixtape:
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a genius
Sometimes I feel like I have no talent
Sometimes songs write themselves like crazy, but then
When I’m stuck, I’m stuck like there’s no way out, yeah, right now”
“Moonlight” so far is my favourite song from D-2. Agust D is ruminating on Suga’s celebrity. Starting from the bottom is not just Drake’s preoccupation. Nor is the God complex, LOL, as Suga raps:
“Being called immortal is fucking overwhelming”
Unlike Drake though, Suga’s not yet at peace with his success:
“I started just because I liked music
But the adjectives they attach to my name feel too much sometimes”
“Too much” is apt here. Because in addition to all the sh-t I’ve already listed that Suga’s been doing with BTS and his mixtape, two weeks ago he was featured on, wrote, and produced a song with artist IU called “Eight" which is topping the charts in South Korea and on the Billboard worldwide digital sales chart.
Where BTS is concerned, every time you say “too much”, there’s more. Like we haven’t even gotten to Agust D’s new video yet. ARMY, as expected, is freaking out over “Daechwita” because of, among many other things, all the looks that Suga is serving and the cameo from Jin and Jungkook. What I appreciate most about it is that Suga and BTS have come this far, and we’re talking FAR (after all, they share an achievement with The Beatles), without going out of their way to make their music accessible to the west. While there may be a few English words sprinkled here and there in their songs, their lyrics are in Korean. They include Korean sounds on many of their songs. They remain very much rooted in Korean perspective, leaving it up to their non-Korean fans (myself included) to figure out how to understand them, to follow along with them. Which means that international fans have to do the work and in that sense, they become ambassadors not only for their culture but for the broadening of artistic taste – and who gets to be called a tastemaker.
In a fandom, especially with bands, it’s common for individual fans to have an individual bias. Back in the day, you might have been a JC, or a Brian, or an AJ. More recently you may have been a Harry or a Zayn or a Louis. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever been a Chris. And that too is a common band thing. Sorry, but there’s always one, right?
But this is also where BTS is different. All seven of them are critical to their success. And all seven of them can be bias-breakers. A bias-breaker challenges your bias. You try to remain loyal to whoever your bias is but the bias-breaker is here to f-ck with your commitment. Suga is class bias-breaker, a bias-assassin, if you will. The quiet one who stealthily creeps into your consciousness and all of a sudden you’re like… how did this happen?