In the house that BTS built for BE, their newest album, there are eight rooms. In the first room, there is member V (Kim Taehyung): a mix of classical and modern, a scarlet velvet couch and violins mounted high. A framed photograph of a man alone, paddleboarding in the ocean. In the second room, Jimin (Park Jimin) is in all black on a cream sofa, surrounded by flowers of all kinds, gentle yellows and purples and greens.
The third room is leader RM’s (Kim Namjoon), modular and minimalist with muted sunrise colors; he’s surrounded by beloved things, a bonsai tree and his oft-collected KAWS bearbricks. Inside the fourth is Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook), sleek in his loungewear, surrounded by speakers and soundproof studio walls, everything dark purple-hued and leather. The fifth is a bejeweled vision of Jin (Kim Seokjin), and he examines sparkling gemstones while relaxed against a plush mauve couch. The sixth houses Suga (Min Yoongi) in soft blue velour as he sits on matching blue velvet, surrounded by wainscot walls and a lamp that recalls both infinity and the shapes in the Love Yourself album cover, familiar and unique. The seventh is J-Hope’s (Jung Hoseok) dreamscape: bright contrasting colors, graphic screen prints, a sneaker collection, a pink blow-up couch.
The eighth room gathers them all together. Clad in half-pajama, half-black tie ensembles, they fiddle with various instruments with a partial eye to the camera; in one angle, we watch them from a bird’s-eye view, slouched in chairs around a table as they brainstorm. At one point, the illusion of watching them from above — unnoticed — shatters. They all gaze upward simultaneously. The house that BTS built has no ceiling: only us, looking down.
BTS has had an intensely prolific 2020. Map of the Soul: 7, released just this past February, was an ambitious undertaking at 20 songs including the previously released Persona tracks. On it, each member gets their own solo song, plus sub-units, plus group numbers. There are a lot of high-concept ideas at play on MOTS:7, but the most successfully executed one is the throughline of a filter, a persona. The eyes that watch them everywhere they go, and that push and pull between the vital support from fans and the desire for some prior form of anonymity. The knowledge that performing at the level they do has an expiration date. “If this can’t resonate any longer, if this can’t make my heart tremble any longer, then I’d probably die my first death,” they muse on “Black Swan,” via DoYouBangtan’s translation, the lyrics echoing the song’s mission statement quote from dancer Martha Graham. “But what if that moment’s right now?”
Luckily for BTS and for fans, the moment isn’t right now. New album BE is a concise 8 tracks, 7 if you leave off “Dynamite,” the smash hit English single that earned them their first Billboard Hot 100 no. 1 in September. “Dynamite” was released with ARMY in mind. “We realized that without ARMY, who are always there for us, everything we do is meaningless,” BTS told Teen Vogue at the time. That statement is as accurate as it is sentimental. Artists, of course, make music for themselves, and that is its own worthy pursuit. But with BTS, the art is often made to be experienced by many; BTS makes music, and the fans give it their own meaning. They translate it into different languages, they make fan art, they write stories, they gush in group chats and analyze in scholarly journals. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that for every one BTS song, thousands of small pieces of art are created in response, each orbiting the original, forming a galaxy.
MOTS:7’s release came just before COVID-19 began to impact people globally; the trajectory for that album was thwarted by circumstance, a massive stadium tour reduced to a two-night virtual concert that nearly 1 million fans experienced. BTS have spent these last months doing scaled-back versions of their normal promotions and fan interactions. They filmed In the Soop, a reality show without any real plot beyond how to relax in the afternoon and what to cook for dinner. They’ve done a slew of pre-taped performances of “Dynamite,” making the rounds at the VMAs, America’s Got Talent, and more. Meanwhile, they’ve worked on new music with ideas of comfort, solace, and solidarity with fans in the back of their minds. “I felt hopeless. Everything fell apart. I could only look outside my window, I could only go to my room. Yesterday, I was singing and dancing with fans around the world, and now my world had shrunk to a room,” Jimin told the United Nations during BTS’s speech in September. Suga continued the thread, “The room itself was small, but my world and our world reached far and wide. In this world we had our instruments, our phones, and our fans.”
That’s the context for BE, an album shaped by the idea that BTS has taken more creative control than ever. While they’ve always played an active role in the songs they release, for BE they provided more input into the styling, concept imagery, cover art, and all the things that help make an album iconic beyond the actual music. Each member took on a management role, curating their area of expertise as they saw fit.
The way music is made has changed this year in ways we may not fully grasp for a while. As Taylor Swift said about recording her hit quarantine album folklore, all the rules are off the table. Why stick to the way you’ve always done something, when everything is so bleak? Why not take risks, since nothing matters? Why not try, since everything does?
BE is the result of that trying. MOTS:7 saw the group flex a lot of different muscles and lean into a lot of different aesthetics — Latin pop, melty trap, synth, emo rap. BE is what comes after the release of that pressure valve, and it’s a surprisingly weird little album. While the peppy, grin-inducing single “Dynamite” is the obvious tonal outlier in this collection, the rest of BE doesn’t fall into the trap of broodiness that one might expect from artists trying to catalogue 2020. “Stay,” originally intended to be part of Jungkook’s solo album, is pure dance music, a club banger for bleeding hearts. “Telepathy,” with its shimmering synth and jam band percussion, is a gasp of delight. An out of context lyric that rings true on a musical level: “If it’s too quick, it’s a little dangerous. If it’s too slow, it’s a little boring.”
Devastating ballads have their time and place, of course, but BTS know we’ve seen some shit this year. Let’s imagine we’re spending a day out on the blue ocean instead. Let’s splay out on a soft bed, relishing the safety of our own room. (“It seems joy, sadness, and all other emotions are simply accepted here,” Suga raps on “Fly to My Room.”) And when we do settle in for a long story, like on “Blue & Grey,” it’ll feel all the sweeter for the restraint. The song meanders carefully as the members put forth dreams for the future that apply even when we’re not going through a traumatic global event. “I just wanna be happier,” V sings on “Blue & Grey,” originally put forth as a KTH1 solo track. “Would this also be a great greed?”
Lead single “Life Goes On” introduces the environment for BE, and it’s the obvious COVID-19 track. “One day, the world stopped without any prior warning,” Jungkook begins, per DoYouBangtan’s translation. “Spring didn’t know to wait.” Musically, the song fits as a part two to MOTS:7 track “Zero O’Clock,” with its chill-pop ambience and comforting lyrics. But “Life Goes On” is less a promise than it is a fact. We can hibernate, we can play Sims all day, we can do whatever we want to pass this horrible time, but the time will still pass. There will still be things that hurt. We joke about repeating birthdays, of turning back the clock. The thought itself is a coping mechanism, even if it’s a fantasy. In one part of “Life Goes On,” Suga slips in an allusion to his solo song “People,” the musing, satisfied “mm mm mm” slowed down. If you’re an Agust D fan, the echo of “why so serious?” will ring in your head, a crucial moment of lighthearted introspection from the rapper. In other words: shit happens, and you’ll find the strength to deal with it when it does.
If MOTS:7 was a record about being perceived, BE is a record about just being. There’s an inherent tension when famous musicians attempt to chronicle this pandemic, because their lived reality of it will always be different from our own. It’s not only access to testing, quality healthcare, and the wealth to rest comfortably in a spacious home — it’s the glimmer of relief behind so many musicians’ quotes about how they’ve been doing lately. For many artists, even though they miss touring, this has been a break from a nonstop schedule. For celebrities, it’s been a slight break from constant public surveillance. That’s not to say that famous people haven’t suffered, haven’t lost people like we have, haven’t felt stifled or stuck. But the framework around our collective societal painting is different. BTS have consistently been aware of the gap. On “Dis-ease,” a funky hip-hop track, they ruminate on 24-hour work and their own unsettled feelings. “Everyday, I comfort myself,” one lyric goes. “We’re all just people, ain’t so special.”
One of BTS’s greatest strengths is the empathy with the people who listen to their music, and self-awareness about the growing power and influence they wield. It’s why they keep building out their world, their house growing ever roomier. Sitting in the middle of the tension of varied experiences, BE can be listened to as a toolkit to get through the day with enough energy for small dreams at night. It’s “dance alone in your room” music, or “laze on the couch and shed occasional tears” music.
In the house that BTS has built over seven years, they keep adding rooms, adding art to the walls. Changing up the look and feel, the color palette, the collection of symbols. But the feeling in all that space is the same as it’s always been: Something friendly to take shelter in, the way a good story invites you to live inside it. Something that reminds us that surprise, delight, and feeling actual emotions are still possible, even in the midst of unimaginable grief. And what’s that around the next corridor, waiting to be unlocked and opened?
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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: BTS Release "Life Goes On" MV Teaser From New Album "BE"