When talking about art — a song, a drawing, a choreography, a film — we are often so consumed by meaning. What does this mean? What is the artist trying to say? Why is this important? But art, as we know, is subjective. You can’t decipher a singular meaning from a piece of work any better than you can read the cavernous thoughts inside your own head. But you do know how something makes you feel. And when that feeling leaves, only emptiness remains. Art that doesn’t make you feel at all is an artist’s greatest sin.
Korean superstars BTS confront this head-on with “Black Swan,” the pensive first single from their upcoming studio album Map Of The Soul: 7. In the seven years since their debut, the group’s relationship with their music has changed. And just as they’ve matured — from seven youths hellbent on disrupting the system into seven young men who know the value of self-love but still struggle to practice it — so has their music. Co-written by leader RM, “Black Swan” is BTS at their most raw and unflinching; narratively, it’s their darkest single since 2018’s “Fake Love,” but whereas that was an explosion of anger, “Black Swan” is something deeper and more painful: the loss of feeling. They’re now terrified that the thing that once made them feel everything — their music — will make them feel nothing.
“I been always afraid of if this can no longer resonate,” RM raps over a rolling trap beat, translated to English. “No longer make my heart vibrate / Then like this may be how I die my first death.” (It’s important to note that the accompanying video, an “art film” featuring a haunting performance from Slovenian troupe MN Dance Company and stripped-down vocals, begins with the quote from dancer Martha Graham: “A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.”)
But dancer and vocalist Jimin’s verse is the most emotionally potent: “No song affects me anymore / Crying a silent cry.” It’s a moment of catharsis — the realization that you’re burnt out by the thing you love the most.
Still, where there is despair there is also hope. And while BTS come face-to-face with their deepest fear, they don’t let it completely paralyze them. “Slowly, I open my eyes I’m in my workroom, it’s my studio,” Suga raps. “The waves go darkly by in a throe / But I’ll never get dragged away again.” Jin then cries out, “Nothing can devour me / I shout out with ferocity.”
It’s a twisted dance, the one an artist inflicts on themself. But through these moments of doubt and exhaustion, BTS — and every artist — come to a realization: that art doesn’t make you feel, it is the feeling. Creation is the purest form of self-expression and self-preservation. And you can’t lose something you’ve had all along.
Map Of The Soul: 7 drops February 21. In the lead-up to the new release, BTS has launched “Connect, BTS,” a global public art project that celebrates the work of 22 artists across five cities: London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, and New York. A statement on the website reads, “‘Connect, BTS’ reaches for a collective experience that might be only the beginning of new communication between art, music and people.” No doubt that “Black Swan” is also part of that intimate conversation.