“Have I lost myself, or have I gained you?” a singer croons, his breathy timbre floating over a smooth melody like smoke from an ember. The lyric is a beautiful conundrum, not unlike the artists behind it.
A lot has been said about Korean group BTS, their passionate fans (known as ARMY), and their unprecedented success on the U.S. charts this year, but not enough attention has been paid to their music — an impressive catalog of songs across a mix of musical genres, some self-produced and all sung almost entirely in Korean. Since making their debut in 2013, the seven members of BTS — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — have been open about their own personal struggles, often channeling those fears and anxieties into their music in the hopes of healing those who need to hear it most.
With this intent to speak to their generation directly, the septet make music that would best be described as self-care, from hook-heavy pop and playful R&B to slick hip-hop and moody stadium anthems. Nowhere is that more apparent than on their seminal 2018 album, Love Yourself: Tear, a prismatic piece of work rooted in deep loss and self-reflection.
The second release of the group’s Love Yourself trilogy — which began with Love Yourself: Her last year and concluded with a compilation album, Love Yourself: Answer, in August — is their most vulnerable, as most middle chapters are. On Her, BTS wove a narrative of love and innocence; with Tear, it begins to unravel as doubt and grief settle in.
The album opens with “Singularity,” a solo track that finds vocalist V questioning the mask he wears to conceal his true feelings. “Even in my momentary dreams, the illusions that torture me are still the same,” he sings. “Did I lose myself, or did I gain you?” Meanwhile, Tear‘s anthemic lead single, “Fake Love,” co-written and co-produced by leader and rapper RM, reflects the emptiness of giving so much of yourself to someone or something only to lose yourself in the process. On “Paradise,” a standout R&B track co-written by British artist MNEK, BTS ask their listeners to “stop runnin’ for nothin’ my friend” and live in the moment. “It’s alright to not have a dream,” Jungkook sings. “If you have moments where you feel happiness for a while.”
These messages transcend language. These are pains and problems that everyone can relate to, regardless of where they’re from, and BTS help put them into perspective. That’s why 40,000 euphoric fans — of different genders, ethnicities, and ages — filed out of New York City’s Citi Field the night of BTS’s historic stadium show in October with the same hopeful feeling.
Of course, analyzing Tear through its 11 songs feels incomplete. Visual imagery is an integral part of K-Pop, and BTS in particular construct meticulously plotted narratives that fuse their visual aesthetics — like those of Tear, which just received a Grammy nomination for best recording package — with the messages in their music. Rapper Suga said it best when he described K-Pop not as a genre but rather as integrated content. “K-pop includes not just music, but clothes, makeup, choreography,” he said back in September. “All of these elements amalgamate together in a visual and auditory content package that sets it apart from other music or other genres.”
For example, take “Airplane Pt. 2,” a Latin-infused track co-written by Ali Tamposi, who also penned Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” The song itself is catchy and current, a dreamy analog for the pop-star life. But to watch BTS perform the song live is to watch seven idols in full command of their artistry, where every subtle movement is part of a larger story. In many ways, it’s more than an album; it’s a fully realized, 360-degree package.
With Love Yourself: Tear, BTS cemented themselves as one of most vital acts in pop music today. And they accomplished this by not compromising on who they are as Korean artists and performers, while promoting the kind of empathy that’s not often front and center in today’s algorithmic pop.
So it’s time to stop referring to BTS as “phenomenons.” That’s an ephemeral term we often give to things we find hard to explain. Their success isn’t actually all that hard to understand: They bring people together. The process of loving yourself is a journey that never really ends, but through music and through moments of connection — forged online or in-person — you’re reminded that you don’t have to do it alone, that your flaws don’t have to define you. In doing so, BTS embrace their fans just as the fans embrace them.
As RM once said, “Please use me, please use BTS, to love yourself.”