Bound to sink: BTS is losing what made them unique


Carol Xu

As BTS churns out more English songs, they risk losing the cultural and artistic elements that had previously made their music so beloved by fans.

Carol Xu, AVT Editor

K-pop is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with: the sheer popularity of Korean idols has propelled South Korea’s soft power to astonishing global heights, and, riding at the helm of that enormous Hallyu wave, is no other than the internationally recognized boy group BTS. The septet has been credited with piquing new worldwide interest in South Korean music and culture, however what happens when they themselves lose sight of their own cultural and artistic identity?  

A change in tune

Back in August 2020 when BTS announced their first English single by the name of ‘Dynamite,’ Melody Yuan (‘23) could not have been more excited. For Yuan and scores of other fans, though, the song was a solid letdown. 

“When I watched the music video, I thought ‘wow that’s a little underwhelming, but it’s okay since I know that they always try a bunch of different sounds, so maybe it’s just for now,’” said Yuan

By the time the similar sister singles ‘Butter’ and ‘Permission to Dance’ – both entirely in English – were released later this year, Yuan began to lose interest in her former favorite idols. And she wasn’t the only one questioning the group’s new creative direction.

“Their new English songs were so electro-pop and generic that I couldn’t even tell it was BTS, I was like ‘oh it’s just some other random pop artists,’” said Amirtha Srinivasan (‘24).  

Their original music, which the members themselves took part in composing, writing, and producing, were heralded for being transcendent across borders, race, and language. It didn’t matter to all their non-Korean fans if they couldn’t understand the lyrics – the unconventionally cool music and deep emotional connections served as their lingua franca. 

Conversely, none of the band members contributed creatively to the three English tracks. The lyrics and instrumentals, although cheery and fun, contain none of the emotional undertones of the group’s past Korean releases. It’s a sharp contrast from BTS’s critically acclaimed 2019 album Love Yourself: Tear, which addressed pervading societal issues like mental health. 

Both musically and lyrically, the BTS English musical trilogy is unremarkable. Yes, the songs were meant to be simple, feel-good distractions from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but in the long run, they’re shallow and unforgettable. 

Each of the three singles embodies a repetitive formula that quickly becomes tiresome. The lyrics are elementary, crammed with overwrought similes, incongruously scattered celebrity references, and lack-luster rhymes. And with the choruses just monotonous repetitions of the same few syllables, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other, to be honest. There’s little difference between chanting “Dy-na-na-na-na”  from “Dynamite” versus “Da-na-na-na-na-na-na” from “Permission To Dance.”

“I don’t connect with the new songs emotionally in the same way I connect to other BTS songs. It’s nice and it makes me feel good, but whether they or another group performed it doesn’t really make a difference,” said one anonymous former fan.

Bagging the big bucks

It’s not hard to figure out why Bighit Entertainment, the company that debuted the group, is taking BTS down this route, despite their CEO’s insistence that was not the case. Long story short, it’s a lucrative business. 

By releasing English songs and collaborating with prolific Western artists like Ed Sheeran, Bighit hopes to carve a space for themselves in the Western, particularly American, music industry. An analysis by Morning Brew suggests that Bighit has been covertly planning towards this transition into the American music industry for years. While BTS’s 2015 album The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1 recorded 19 percent English words, their 2019 record-breaking album Map of the Soul: Persona racked up that percentage to 40 percent. 

And considering that ‘Dynamite’ was BTS’ first and only single to reach the level it has–smashing YouTube music streaming records, topping the Billboard Hot 100, being the only 2020 single to sell over a million copies in the U.S.–it’s unlikely Bighit will stop grinding out more English songs any time soon. 

But to what extent can one sacrifice their true identity to take on a new persona before their art is deemed no longer authentic? Even some of BTS’s own members had personally been against switching to singing entirely in English.

“We don’t need to change our identity to get number one. If we sing suddenly in full English and change all these other things, then that’s not BTS,” leader RM had told Entertainment Weekly in 2019, prior to Dynamite’s release. “I don’t think we could ever be part of the mainstream in the U.S., and I don’t want that either.”

March to the beat of one’s own drum

English conventional pop songs appear the golden ticket to fame – not that the group isn’t globally revered already – but the tepid to dissatisfied reactions from the targeted audience signal that the company’s pandering to Western audiences makes the tracks feel more like hurriedly churned-out chart-grabbers than genuine art. 

“Just because a song’s in English, doesn’t mean it’s gonna be super popular with English-speaking people,” said Yuan

She advises Bighit to not put all their eggs in the American music industry basket and encourage BTS to stay true to their Korean roots.  

Of course, there’ll always be those faithful ARMYs who will never stop supporting BTS, no matter what kind of music they put out or how many other promising K-pop groups debut. But if the company’s intention with their new English-language songs is to gain new fans from a larger reception, Bighit is certainly going about this the wrong way. 

“It makes sense for them to do it because BTS has a lot of fans here, but I feel like they’re losing touch with their old selves, which is kind of sad and a shame,” said Srinivasan.  

There’s no problem with appealing to a wider audience, but trying to accomplish this by deliberate assimilation or imitation of the generic and mainstream will only mire BTS in the seas of obscurity as a floundering ship bound to sink.