Review: Beyond the Story; 10-year Record of BTS by Myeongseok Kang
A book that celebrates the Korean boy band’s journey and offers a glimpse of how BTS came to be the phenomenon they are
2023 marks the 10th year of BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan or Beyond the Scene), a music group with seven boys from small towns in South Korea. This book written by critic, Myeongseok Kang, and translated from the Korean by Anton Hur, Slin Jung and Clare Richards, celebrates their journey and expresses the group’s love for their devoted followers or ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative MC For Youth, among other things) that’s always eager for anything the band has to offer.
Divided into seven chapters to perhaps mirror the number of group members, the book begins with a wander through a whole new world, a city when j-hope, a trainee, finds the Big Hit Entertainment office. In that crammed space, he remembers encountering SUGA in his underwear during the Christmas of 2010. As other members join the “rap den”, training to be a part of the BTS band, that’s already been envisaged by Bang Si-Hyuk (founder of Big Hit Entertainment), begins in earnest. At that point, Big Hit, a newly formed music label launched in 2005, had little financial backing. It was in desperate need of resources and BTS was their last chance at success. The boys trained with great intensity, learning to rap, sing pop and dance, and in time, the label broke through and the boys made a name for themselves in the big city and the world beyond with the launch of their first album 2COOL4SKOOL in 2013.
Readers are offered a glimpse of how the boys came to be the phenomenon they are and how they live and thrive. They learn how RM brings the group together and leads it through the Korean music industry’s upheaval. Jin, the oldest at 30, cooks food and entertains his viewers on the group blog with updates of members’ everyday lives. SUGA deals with personal mental health issues. Jimin, V, j-hope and Jungkook learn about the industry’s expectations and work on creating the kind of music and dance moves that have rarely been seen or heard.
With pages of lyrics, band members’ thoughts on the creation of each album, and a detailed look at the reception that they have received, the book is a record of a band that still has many hopes, and dreams that they intend to translate into reality.
With QR codes that reference every song, interview and blog they mention, this is a deep dive into the world of BTS. For someone who is not part of the BTS ARMY, this volume provides a sense of the group’s history and experiences. From B-Free putting BTS down for wearing makeup to the band’s marvellous dance performance at the Grammy’s, the highs and the lows are all captured here. Towards the end of the second chapter, in a section that reminds the reader of B-Free’s jibe about band members looking like girls, Jimin accepts that he doesn’t conform to the conventional male stereotype. While BTS’s move toward playing with gender roles and binaries was startling for the Korean music industry, the matter isn’t mentioned again in the book. There is no discussion either of why they decided to do it or what they had in mind while experimenting with gender in almost all their songs. They make several comments regarding gender throughout the book but don’t discuss the misogyny in some of their songs, for which they released a formal apology in 2016. There is also no examination of their own problematic view of their niqab-clad fans from Saudi Arabia. The book perceives girls in niqab as “traditional” and hence backward and in need of freedom and dreams, which BTS is proud to provide through their music. There seems to be a bizarre hierarchy of freedom that BTS has internalised. j-hope talks of how American audiences “are kind of freer” than Korean ones. It all makes you wonder about BTS’s ideas of freedom, who they are singing for, and in what context.
As their collective popularity soars across the globe, RM wonders about fandom, album tours, tight schedules, and watches the frustration of the English band Queen as portrayed in the film, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). The comparison with Queen and The Beatles, made this reviewer aware that nowhere is there any mention of BTS member’s romantic or sexual lives. All these young men seem to do is live for work, their label and their fans, with a few memories of family thrown in. It seems like all other aspects of life were discarded in 2010 when they entered the dorms of Big Hit Entertainment.
This melange of memories — happy and sad — of seven young boys coming together to change the face of the music industry is one for the BTS fans, .
Rahul Singh is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata as a Junior Research Fellow.