"Although many K-pop groups now create concept albums, album series, and story worlds, none have done so as effectively and organically."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
When looking back on the decade, much of the discourse about the end of it will undeniably be focused on the rise of non-English musical acts in the American market, and BTS will be at the center of this narrative.
When considering the South Korean septet’s legacy, 2015’s “I Need U,” the first single off of their-game changing The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt.1 album, was less of a song and more of a revolution -- laying the groundwork for the future of the group, and in turn their rise to international superstars.
As a stand-alone song, “I Need U” is an expressive dance track that soars with BTS’ emotive vocals as whistling synths, reverberating hi-hats, and R&B-inspired riffs build upon one another to create a sense of melodic despondency. It signaled a shift towards more of an ambient electronic-pop sound than anything they had previously explored on singles, after spending their first few years since their debut in 2013 focusing on more classically hip-hop-oriented singles.
“What impressed me personally was when Bang [Si-hyuk, Big Hit Entertainment CEO and producer] told me about what emotion he expected for overall songs. He presented me various artworks including movies and said, ‘We want the emotions that penetrate all these arts,”’ songwriter Brother Su tells Billboard. “It really served a big part in creating unique and distinctive atmosphere of ‘I Need U.’”
Brother Su added that he felt that the creative process that was split between BTS and their collaborators helped create such an impactful song. “Also, the whole process of the melodies that Mr. Bang, [the] BTS members, and I created were evenly and creatively combined or placed in different parts, which eventually created another melody that was a very unique and fresh experience.”
But “I Need U,” when viewed in the larger context of BTS’ career, is even more important than just as a milestone of sonic development: the song was a tonal shift for the act’s musicality, and also brought their long-standing creative narrative, typically known as the “BU” or “BTS Universe,” to the forefront through its music video.
“As an audio-visual experience, ‘I Need U’ inaugurated the Bangtan Universe -- the coming-of-age storyline that brilliantly integrates the Most Beautiful Moment in Life [album] trilogy and continues in music videos, “concept videos” (mini-films), and the multiform, open-ended narrative that’s been serialized in album liner notes and Twitter and Instagram posts,” says Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Popular Cultures at the University of Toronto. “Although many K-pop groups now create concept albums, album series, and story worlds, none have done so as effectively and organically as BTS. And, while other North American and European artists have built similarly massive followings on social media platforms, none can match BTS's level of fan engagement.”
According to Cho, BTS’ way of weaving a story into their musical releases helps to strengthen the bond between audience and artists in a way nobody else is doing, either in the K-pop world or beyond. “This level of engagement with a musical act, both as celebrities and a trans-media franchise, is totally unprecedented.”
The video for “I Need U” has gone on to become just one moment from among a wide array of content, ranging from books to comic series to videos and social media posts, put out over the years by the group as they tell the story of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life. While the band was unavailable to comment for this piece, Big Hit Entertainment tells Billboard that they define The Most Beautiful Moment in Life as, “the start of one’s young adulthood, in which beauty coexists with uncertainty, and focuses on the uncertain future more than the glamour of youth.”
A constant theme throughout BTS’ discography, this exploration of youth’s reality as something both wonderful and fraught with anxiety and difficulties was already on center-stage as the act’s musical raison d’etre since their very first songs. But “I Need U” served as both a representation of their stylistic maturing, as well as a noted visual shift that emphasized their messaging in a way that anyone, regardless of language, could understand the intent of what BTS was trying to relay regarding the experience of youth through the theatrical video of “I Need U,” which is a cornerstone element in the BU storyline.
The combination was a major success, and though BTS already had a sizable, dedicated international ARMY following at this point -- and would bring their The Red Bullet Tour Stateside following the release of “I Need U” -- it propelled the act’s momentum further than ever before, with both local and international audiences taking note.
“I think BTS’ competence, passion, and skills grew towards The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series, and it exploded,” says Brother Su. “I remember the energy of both BTS and the producers was so intense when the group became even more popular after winning the 1st place in national TV music show for the first time.”
The act’s first runaway success, “I Need U” laid the groundwork for what was to come, thematically, creatively, and musically, and served as a launching pad for the late-decade rise of BTS as harbingers of a more globalized music scene. “The track set their music apart as vanguard and oriented towards global musical trends more than local ones," says Cho, "reinforcing the idea that BTS and Big Hit were breaking new ground in the idol-pop arena."