2020 was a year of facing myself. In fact, my experience of 2020 in many ways parallels and intersects with my discovery of BTS earlier in the year. I first became a fan in late February, after watching their live performance at Grand Central Terminal on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and then on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” segment on The Late, Late Show. Beyond their precise choreography, charismatic stage presence, and palpable team chemistry, what ultimately drew me to BTS was the lyricism and emotional tenor of their songs, exploring themes of self-acceptance, loneliness, and pain with a poignant vulnerability that startled me. Once I began delving into their discography, I quickly realized that their songs often articulated feelings and reflections I didn’t even know existed within me. Thus, the best way for me to explain how I experienced 2020 is through three BTS songs that trace the emotional landscape of this year (in the order that I encountered the songs).
“Zero O’Clock” (March 2020): I started with Map of the Soul: 7 since this was the album that was being promoted when I first discovered the group. For me, this song in particular captured a frequent tension I felt at the beginning of quarantine life: the anxiety, often born from inadvertent comparisons with digitally-curated social images, of “not doing enough.” Jungkook sings, “It looks as if everyone other than you is busy and working hard to get ahead,” voicing the nagging fear, even unease, I experienced with the loss of familiar rhythms and routines, when the touchstones for productivity and “normal” had become completely upended. Was it enough, I worried, to simply do the bare minimum and then zone out on YouTube the rest of the night?
Even in the midst of a world pandemic, I fretted over whether I was achieving enough, which was another way of asking if I was enough. This song compelled me to confront the ingrained, relentless drivenness undergirding my professional and personal life, and in doing so forced me to question the very basis of my identity. In a similar yet slightly different vein, “Zero O’Clock” also evoked what being a mom feels like in the Instagram age at times — never good enough, wondering if I’m doing this right when everyone else seems to be running so fiercely, mad at myself for losing it with my kids, and then the relief and hope of tomorrow as another chance to get it better. The song registers the anguish of wanting a new start mixed with the regret of today, and yet its ultimate affect is compassion and empathy. I had read about fans claiming that BTS’s music is healing and comforting — for the first time I experienced it myself.
“Young Forever” (May 2020): After listening to MOTS:7, I dove straight into BTS’s earlier albums, starting with the school trilogies and then into the HYYH era. Reading the lyrics of the HYYH albums was probably the first instance where I felt like their music was able to articulate inchoate longings about the past that I didn’t have the words to express. Even before quarantine, I was going through some serious mid-life self-reflection. The lyrics to “Young Forever” — J-Hope sings, “Even if there is no everlasting audience, I will sing / I wish to remain forever as today’s myself” — made me think a lot about my 20s and ask: Am I living the life I thought I would lead? Have I retained the passionate intensity of my original intentions? Are there dreams that I have lost along the way toward adulthood? It surprised me how “Young Forever,” which is about a very specific experience — the desire to shine brightly on stage forever, of yearning to cling desperately to the moment and mark it somehow (thus acknowledging its fragility) — resonated so deeply with how I felt about my own youth, challenging me to wonder if I made choices that were true to myself. The answers to these questions, frankly, were often disappointing.
“Abyss” (December 2020): Coming to terms with these disappointing answers has been hard and painful. It was difficult some days not to allow the sadness and regret to overwhelm me. Growing up in an Asian household that wasn’t emotionally expressive, especially when it came to negative feelings, made it even more difficult to share these feelings with those around me. And then on his birthday, Jin gave us the gift of his vulnerability through the song “Abyss,” an act of trust and courage that moved me to tears. How breathtakingly brave, how much strength it must have taken to be honest that he was struggling so much with impostor syndrome and insecurity to the point of wanting to “just put everything down.” BTS have always been open about mental health struggles (notably Suga and RM), but in “Abyss,” Jin not only highlights his emotional turmoil, he also models, in the song itself, how to respond to such pain with compassion and understanding: “Myself in that darkness — / I’d like to go find him and tell him / that I’d like to know more about you today, yeah.” Reading these lines reminded me that empathy toward oneself is the greatest consolation, not trying to suppress or judge the feelings, but to move toward greater self-understanding. Listening to “Abyss” challenged me to show empathy and compassion toward my own regrets and mistakes as well. And so as 2020 draws to a close, the challenge for me is to continue choosing vulnerability and self-understanding, as a gift to myself and others.
All lyric translations are from https://doolsetbangtan.wordpress.com.
— Maria Su Wang
Maria Su Wang, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English at Biola University and can be reached at [email protected] (United States)
Illustration By: @MJdaPoo
Wang, M. S. (2021). Experiencing 2020 through BTS’s music. The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , (2). https://ther3journal/issue-2/experiencing-2020-through-btss-music
Wang, Maria Su. “Experiencing 2020 Through BTS’s Music.” The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , no. 2, 2021, https://ther3journal/issue-2/experiencing-2020-through-btss-music.
Experiencing 2020 Through BTS’s Music by Maria Su Wang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
© Maria Su Wang 2021