Music and politics often go hand in hand, and K-pop is no different. South Korea’s pop music industry was bolstered by the government, and stars are regularly put front and center at government-associated events. But while it is closely tied to politics, K-pop rarely addresses them directly. Songs typically revolve around romance, partying and, on occasion, friendship and daily life. But tracks with underlying socio-economic and political meaning exist, and BTS is one act that regularly incorporates criticism of South Korean society into their music.
Extremely popular in the U.S. regardless of linguistic and geographic barriers, many of BTS’ fans, known collectively as ARMY or Adorable Representative MC of Youth, have said that the boy band’s lyrics have inspired them. Littering a millennial-oriented message about societal woes throughout their discography, the group manages to frequently reference the struggles that young people go through and draw on their own experiences within South Korean youth culture.
Many of BTS’ songs are rife with meaning. Here’s a look at five of their most impactful tracks.
“No More Dream” (2 Cool 4 Skool, 2013) & “N.O” ( O!RUL8,2?, 2013)
BTS’ very first single, “No More Dream,” is all about the group telling fans to follow their own dreams rather than fall prey to society’s expectations. Released when the majority of the group’s members were teenagers, the song strongly relates to how South Korean youth culture revolves largely around the country’s emphasis on education, which sees most students — as young as kindergartners — attending special after school classes with the aim of attending the prestigious SKY universities: Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei.
The entire song follows a generally motivational theme, but there are several moments that stand out. J-Hope’s rap in particular, which declares that listeners should “rebel against a hellish society,” is a loaded statement as it evokes the nickname “Hell Joseon” (“???”) used by many to describe the current state of Korea, a reference to a historic name for the country. The term came about for a variety of reasons, including the rigidity of education and lacking career prospects facing the current generation. J-Hope uses the term “??,” or “jiok” rather than the Anglicized pronunciation of “hell” that “Hell Joseon” uses, but the meaning is still clear as the song calls for change regarding the state of modern South Korean youth culture.
Another 2013 single from the group, “N.O,” featured similar messaging, using double entendres (“Hands up to the SKY”) as the group addressed the hardships they and their peers have faced: “Who made us study machines?” raps Suga. “Who will take responsibility [for us] living the lives of puppets?” RM asks as a response to his earlier question of “Will this really make our parents happy?” The entire song similarly questions the lifestyle of South Korean students and, like “No More Dream,” expresses a desire to see change.
“Dope” (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Part 1, 2015)
At first glance “Dope” may seem like it’s all swagger, with the group hyping themselves up: it begins with an intro that has Jungkook leading off with the declaration that they’re different from other guys and Jimin talking about how hard the group worked to get to the top (“I worked all night, every day, while you were playing in the club”).
But RM’s post-chorus rap is one of the most distinctly Korean things BTS has ever put into a single, with the artist referring to the “Sampo, “Ohpo” and “Yookpo” generations. In Korean, “sam,” “oh,” and “yook” are the numbers three, five, and six, and he is referring to a popular expression that references what people have to give up in the face of economic difficulties and societal ills: Those who are considered part of the “sampo generation” gave up on having romantic relationships, marriage, and children, the young “ohpo” gen isn’t able to achieve the first three along with not being able to find proper employment or own their own homes, and the younger “yookpo” generation encompasses forgoing those previous desires as well as giving up on general relationships and social life. The latter is also a homonym for “beef jerky,” with RM declaring that “I like beef jerky so it’s yookpo generation [for me].”
“Why are you killing us before we can try?” asks RM, referring to those who call out millennials for allegedly not working hard enough. He also condemns the media and adults that demean the younger generation in the track (“The media and adults say we have no willpower and
look at us as if we’re investments”), with Suga jumping in to declare them the “enemy.”
“Silver Spoon (Crow-Tit/Parrotbill)” (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Part 2, 2015)
Two of the most common recurring motifs throughout BTS’ lyrics serve as the title of this track. First, the “spoon” metaphor that is popular in South Korea, in which people are born with golden spoons, silver spoons, rusty spoons, dirty spoons, etc., regarding both their socio-economic status as well as their generational plight; many young South Koreans, like many stateside millennials, feel that previous generations have left unstable environments for the current generation to inherit. Second, the animalistic hierarchy in which crow-tits, birds also known as parrotbills, are try-hards angling to get to the top of the avian world but are unable to do so. The Korean idiom, “if a crow-tits walks like a stork it will break its legs” (“??? ?? ??? ??? ??? ? ????”), is frequently quoted as a reminder for people to remain in their lane, and is often used in relation to someone seemingly low-class trying to reach the upper echelons of society. By embracing the identity of a crow-tit, BTS take ownership of the underdog nature of their career path, and that of their generational peers trying to achieve success in a world that appears biased against them.
The song also expresses anger over many young workers being coerced to accept what is known as “passion pay” in Korea (????), working for free to gain “experience.”
“Am I Wrong” (Wings, 2016)
Though it’s a song that samples Keb’ Mo”s “Am I Wrong,” this is one of the songs most shaped by BTS’ South Korean identity: “We’re all dogs and pigs/ we become dogs because we’re angry,” raps Suga. “It’s the stork versus crow-tit, battling it out errday.” Like in “Silver Spoon,” Suga references the avian metaphor to refer to people looking to achieve more in life, but it’s his inclusion of “dogs and pigs” that is the real clincher: the song’s 2016 release came shortly after a Ministry of Education official, Na Hyang-wook, reportedly said that South Korea needs a caste system, and described the average person as “dogs and pigs” who should be treated as such. Suga’s rap doesn’t overtly address the situation, but its inclusion wouldn’t be lost on South Korean listeners and is one of the group’s most political moments.
The same song features Jimin and Jungkook singing about the entire world going crazy, and RM questioning how people don’t react strongly to the state of news and media in this day and age. The message of “Am I Wrong” proved to be prophetic, as Wings was released the same month that a multi-layered corruption scandal erupted that would eventually bring down then-South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
A third element that makes “Am I Wrong” BTS’ most politically fraught song is the phrase “mayday, mayday,” which appear to reference both the nautical distress call and a reference to May Day or International Workers’ Day on May 1st. Both relate to the 2014 South Korean Sewol Ferry tragedy during which the distress signal was not performed properly and resulted in over 300 passengers, including 250 middle school students. The captain and surviving crew members were later charged with homicide due to gross negligence, and for abandoning the Sewol and its passengers. The April incident was blamed largely on lack of enforcement of trade laws and deregulation, which saw the ferry overloading and improperly storing cargo, resulting in South Korean trade unions protesting on the following May 1st. The group’s “Spring Day” music video has also been interpreted by fans as a reference to the Sewol Ferry incident, though RM has said that that wasn’t necessarily intentional, and BTS hasn’t addressed the inclusion of the phrase in “Am I Wrong.”
Bonus: “518-062” is a track created by Suga and featuring the vocals of rapper Nakshun that was released before BTS’ formation. The song recalls the Gwangju Democracy Movement of 1980, during which the residents of the city rose up in protest against the coup d’etat and martial rule of Chun Doo-Hwan. The song features lyrics by Suga, then using the pseudonym Gloss, that urge listeners to not forget the largely student-spurred democracy protest.