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The Musical Eras of BTS

A brief guide to the concepts BTS have explored throughout the years.

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Global superstars BTS have a reputation for many things: catchy songs that lodge themselves in your head and refuse to escape; complicated choreography that seems impossible to replicate; visuals that leave you a little dazed; and fans who will amplify their presence far and wide.

You’ve probably heard BTS’ Grammy-nominated hit ‘Dynamite’ on the radio or playing in your local shopping centre recently, but if you haven’t taken the deep dive into BTS’ very full seven-year discography, know you’re missing something special.

BTS have built intricate worlds—actual and fictional—where they’ve ruminated on being young and lost, experiencing love and heartache, doubting your place in the world and grappling with the ugly parts of yourself. Unexpected inspiration has been taken from the likes of Jungian theory, classic literature, Greek mythology and Renaissance art to delve into these existential themes.

It can be daunting to find an entry point to their world, so we’ve put together a brief guide to the concepts BTS have explored throughout the years. Check out the list below.

Sevana Ohandjanian is a writer who wants to talk to you about K-pop. Find her tweeting into the abyss @IchbinSev

01. Defiant Teenagehood: School Trilogy

BTS’ start felt rough around the edges but they burned with passion in the School Trilogy, with albums O!RUL8,2?, Skool Luv Affair and Dark & Wild. Distinctly hip-hop influenced, their debut single ‘No More Dream‘ is a rallying cry to young people under pressure to rise up against complacency. In ‘N.O’ they fight back against the suffocating education system in South Korea, and ‘Spine Breaker’ derides conformity peddled through capitalist trends.

In this era, BTS quickly became known as a group tackling social issues left undiscussed by their contemporaries. Envisioning a hopeful future while putting the older generation on blast for refusing to empathise, BTS came out the gates ready to lead with bristling honesty.

02. Young and Lost: Youth Trilogy

BTS’ Youth era is iconic for its ambition. Shedding the anger of the past, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life (also known as HYYH) was where BTS blossomed as they dove into a range of genres with a consistent and effervescent energy. BTS were still enraged by social injustices, but they were also young men contemplating what it meant to be a little lost in life. They sing of desperate love in ‘I Need U’ (which also became their breakthrough hit in South Korea), lament loneliness on ‘Whalien 52’, drop bangers like the braggadocious ‘Dope’ and the defiant ‘Fire’, and sing for eternal youth in the anthemic ‘Epilogue: Young Forever’.

For those seeking comfort in the confusion of young adulthood, this era became a beacon. At times sentimental, other times celebratory and sometimes angry, it speaks to all of us who’ve felt lost in life. 

03. Bangtan Universe is Born

BTS took the musical experience to a new dimension during HYYH by creating a fictional narrative using the members’ images, played out in music videos, short films and more. The Bangtan Universe (BU) is a complex web to unravel, but the basic story hones in on a time-travelling Jin who must save the others from distressing fates. The narrative has been gradually revealed in a series of small chapbooks titled The Notes, enclosed in the albums. Fans got their first taste of this storyline in the ‘I Need U’ music video, and it has continued to develop since.

The BU has now extended into a webtoon, a collated Notes book (both available in multiple languages), a mobile game and a drama series that’s currently in production. 

It’s a universe that draws on everything from Carl Jung’s theories of synchronicity – that events can be connected by meaning, not just causality – through to classic dramatic storytelling. A space for fans to dive in, decode and theorise within, it’s a dense, image-rich world where BTS’ music and themes can take on a second life. 

04. Boy vs Evil: Wings

What happens to a young man when he loses his way? In BTS’ world, he is met by temptation. In the Wings era, they asked even bigger questions: what is it to be alive? How do we choose the right path, and who do we hurt with our choices? 

Inspired by Herman Hesse’s classic Demian, Wings is a lusciously theatrical exploration of good, evil and everything in between. Just look at sensual title track ‘Blood Sweat & Tears’, which takes visual cues from Greek mythology’s Icarus and Renaissance art to depict greed and sacrifice.

Wings also takes a deeper look into each members’ style and voice, as they step out with individual solos, including Jungkook’s self-reflective ‘Begin’; Suga’s ode to the piano, ‘First Love’; and the first hints of the Love Yourself era emerging in RM’s ‘Reflection’ that ends on the repeated phrase: “I wish I could love myself”. 

The Wings album also gives us ‘Spring Day’, a haunting ode to longing that has become a South Korean chart mainstay since release.

05. The Multi-faceted Nature of Love: Love Yourself

The Love Yourself era came alongside BTS being catapulted to international stardom with sold-out stadium tours worldwide. Showered with love and attention, the group returned it two-fold with music exploring what it is to love yourself and others.

The three Love Yourself albums, Her, Tear and Answer, approach love from different perspectives. Her is celebratory: ‘DNA’ exults the coincidences of fateful love; ‘Pied Piper’ gently teases fans for their commitment; while ‘Mic Drop’ exudes pride and firmly crushes critics. 

Tear turns the gaze inward, with members alluding to the mask one wears in front of others; it disguises ugly emotions in ‘Fake Love’ and allows them to hide their true selves in ‘The Truth Untold’.

Answer, an album repackage, gathers together all these facets for a stunningly executed journey through love: beginning in a place of euphoria, moving into doubt, before heartbreak and then joy once more. A thematic masterpiece, it contains multitudes, as the group meld their Korean heritage with genres ranging from South African dance to pulsing EDM, pop and rock.

06. The Battle Between Ego and Shadow: Map Of The Soul

The Love Yourself masks follow into the MOTS era, where Jung’s theories on persona – how others perceive the outer self – take form in shadows, ego and rebirth. Persona paints everything in love’s brightness with ‘Boy with Luv’, and the group returns to Greek mythology in the genre-melting rap-rock-pop ‘Dionysus’, as they extol the joys of getting drunk on artistic creativity.

Map Of The Soul: 7 has the feel of a group coming full circle: seven years together as seven members, riding through pain and happiness side-by-side. Their fears are worn on their sleeves in the operatic darkness of ‘Black Swan’, and their head-strongness bursts forth with marching-band bite in ‘ON’. 

As they fight through the shadows, they come to acceptance, poised to take another step forward. We see BTS become comfortable in themselves, pushing forward despite obstacles and uncertainties.

07. Searching for Comfort: BE

In this cursed year, BTS set out to make something personal that could bring hope to fans. Whether it was in the disco-pop delight ‘Dynamite’, or the warmth of ‘Life Goes On’, the members made music that feels like a comforting blanket. They still burnt the fire of early years as they rapped of life’s daily grind in ‘Dis-ease’, and sentimentality wasn’t in short supply with buoyant songs like ‘Stay’ and ‘Telepathy’. With the members involved in all aspects of BE’s creation, it’s the musical equivalent of a reassuring embrace for fans.

There’s so much more to say about BTS, we could spend hours going through their releases (we haven’t even touched on their Japanese albums!). What you would’ve figured out by now, is that BTS have challenged themselves with every release to give fans something new. Their unique worldview has manifested in music that defies categorisation by genre or concept. The best way to find out more about it, is to simply start listening.