5 ways BTS defies songwriting rules— and one lesson aspiring songwriters can learn from them
BTS is impressive in so many ways: their sales, their streaming numbers, the records they break, the global and diverse range of their fandom.
But when it comes to their music, not so much is said about their craft as songwriters, though.
Known for writing most of their music, along with in-house producers of their label, Big Hit Entertainment, BTS makes music that is ear catchy just as much as it’s mind-challenging.
Many things about their songwriting style could be considered a big no no, when it comes to writing for commercial success.
Let me make one thing clear: songwriting has no rules. There is no right or wrong way to write a song.
However, when it comes to perfecting your craft as a songwriter, especially if you're aiming for commercial success, there are a few things you can do — or avoid — to make your songs more accessible.
While “unaccessible” definitely cannot be used to describe BTS (in spite of them singing mostly in Korean, and in spite of their largest fanbases living literally in the other side of the globe), we can’t exactly say that BTS is a simple group either.
But, interestingly, it’s the amount of layers in their songwriting that makes their music appealing to their dedicated fans.
BTS’ songwriting style has a special and unique flavour that works as a powerful tool to build their identity as artists, and to connect with their fans.
That’s still a very risky choice for songwriters who want to create hits, but it’s definitely interesting to see how BTS does it.
Also, there’s a reason why it works for them.
Check out 5 fascinating things about BTS’ songwriting that go against the rules of making music for the mainstream scene, and the ultimate note aspiring artists and songwriters should take.
1. Embracing "weirdness"
If you want to target the masses with your music, one of your first rules should be to make it appealing and understandable for the biggest number of people possible.
For that, your lyrics can't be too weird.
A bit of craziness is good — but not too much. There is a subtle line separating original from unrelatable.
But well… BTS is not afraid to cross that line. They play around it quite often, using very peculiar metaphors and references.
And, interestingly, it works.
Instead of pushing their audience away, BTS’ unusual lyrics build an even deeper connection with the fans who seek for the context and translations of their songs.
Make no mistake — I'm not talking about merely adopting one metaphorical concept for a song, like, for example, "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers.
I’m talking about coming up with a rare metaphor (how often do you hear someone referencing a Calico cat in a lyric?), and adding layers that make it even quirkier.
The most prominent example is “Whalien 52”, a hip hop track in which BTS sings about loneliness and being misunderstood, while also hoping that one day they would be heard.
(By the way, “Whalien 52” was written in 2016. If they knew how much they would be heard in the upcoming years, oh boy…)
The word “whalien” is an agglutination of the words “whale” and “alien” — the first, referring to the feeling of being alone in the middle of the ocean, and the second, naturally, an analogy for feeling like you don’t belong to this world.
“52”, by its turn, is a reference to the 52-hertz whale, an individual specimen of a whale whose pitch hits the frequency of 52 Hz, way higher than the voice of most whales. She is a very lonely animal, since her peers are unable to hear her.
That’s… devastating. And genius wordplay by BTS.
Even though the title “Whalien 52” might be laughable to some, the metaphor hits very close to home, for those who have experienced loneliness or struggle to fit in in society.
2. Approaching two (or more) sides of one narrative in the same song
A song is a story; and every story is told from the perspective of the narrator.
Storytelling requires, therefore, an angle. One angle.
A book may contain different points of view, explored in different chapters (like Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”) — but a pop song, which never surpasses 5 minutes, may be too short for that.
Except for BTS.
It is a common thing for the group to approach many sides of the same topic in the same song.
Because telling their own stories is a big part of BTS’ music, some songs, such as “Paldogangsan” or “Born Singer,” are quite like a quilt in which you get a glimpse of the members’ personal background and thoughts.
This is mostly seen amongst the three rappers of the group: RM, SUGA, and j-hope.
Usually, they all have their solo moments in each song of the group; and each verse addresses a different perspective of a topic.
In “Outro: Tear,” for example, each rapper expresses his own feelings towards a breakup, exploring layers of the word “tear ” — RM uses the word as a noun, SUGA uses it as a verb; and j-hope, by his turn, turns “tear” into “fear.”
And if you think having 3 different perspectives in one same song is too much, you’d be mind blown to know that, sometimes, we even see more than one perspective in one single verse — that’s the case of RM’s verse in “Sea”:
Ocean, desert, the world
Everything, the same thing
I see ocean, I see desert
I see the world
Everything is the same thing
But with a different name
Although the diversity of narratives might seem justifiable by the presence of 7 different people coming together to make one song, interesting cases are also found in the members’ solo songs.
In “Forever Rain,” RM suggests that the rain is both his friend and an inconvenient presence.
In “Promise”, Jimin wishes his beloved could be their own “light,” but also their own “night.”
3. Defying the conventional usage of chord progressions, tempo and production styles
Chord progressions are key to set the mood of a song.
While major chords are usually associated to cheerful feelings, minor chords are most common in sad or dark songs.
Uptempo songs are also a habitual indicator of the desire to bring people together to have a good time, while slower songs usually evoke sad feelings.
But BTS does not play by those rules.
Actually, and especially in their album trilogy “Love Yourself,” they made it a thing to always have a song that would explore a darker theme through lyrics written over an instrumental that suggests the opposite.
“Go Go,” for example, is a fun hip hop track whose amount of “yolos” almost tricks you into thinking it’s a party anthem.
Instead, the lyrics are… a portrait of money habits of millennials.
“Go Go” is filled with a social critic to the system that makes conventional symbols of success unaffordable for the young generation, and how young adults cope with the despair of the whole thing by spending even more money.
It’s also a song that makes you want to shake your body.
Who would think behavioral finance could be so danceable?
There’s also “Anpanman,” a very ludic track produced in a way that evokes the cheerful vibes of old school hip hop. The lyrics, however, talk about a hero that loses a piece of his own body every time he saves someone.
Just like “IDOL” is a self-esteem anthem written over minor chords, “Go Go” and “Anpanman” marked a series of albums in which BTS challenged their listeners to think of different nuances of the feelings of happiness, sadness, and self-discovery — both conceptually, and sonically.
However, other examples of BTS’ unconventional songwriting approach are also found in previous songs, like “Spring Day,” one of the most emotional songs in their discography, yet composed mainly in major chords.
4. Defying the conventional usage of metaphors
This is one of my favourites!
Be it from lyrics, poetry or other types of creative writing, we all know the classic metaphors: “fire” for passion, “blue” for sadness, “day” and “sun” for happiness, “night” for sadness, and so it goes.
BTS uses those too, sometimes.
However, the group is not afraid to explore different possibilities, even if it means they’ll go against associations that have been in the collective unconscious for centuries.
In “4 o’clock”, a duo by RM and V exclusively released through the band’s Soundcloud channel, V sings:
The sun suffocates me
(…) I can't help it, there's no other way
(…) We are children of the moon
Seriously, how often do you see the word “sun” used metaphorically to express a feeling of discomfort? Not much, I bet.
In “Forever rain,” which I have already mentioned before, RM talks about the rain with a strange fondment, describing it as some kind of emotional support:
I wish it would rain all day
‘Cause I’d like someone to cry for me
In “Outro: Her”, j-hope raps about being comfortable in the darkness, but then “tick tock, the dark is over!” — he has to go to spotlight and put on an inconvenient mask.
It’s inspiring to see how BTS’ ressignify concepts and make it their own, even making room for metalanguage —like when RM included a song called “Moonchild” in his solo mixtape, referencing the expression used years ago in “4 o’clock”.
5. Creating wordplay in two languages
Okay, this one is not that unique. Many rappers play with words from different languages to create their own puns.
However, we are talking about a pop group here.
Even though BTS’ roots are in hip hop, the group has not only encompassed pop more and more in the recent years —but they have, indeed, became the biggest pop group in the world.
Singing and rapping for bigger and less segmented crowds hasn’t stopped them from making music that will require fans to think a bit deeper.
Even though all 7 BTS members sing in Korean and English, the bilingual wordplay is more often seen in verses written by RM — perhaps because he is the most comfortable with English amongst them (when in Western countries, he often introduces himself as the translator of the group.)
Notable mentions would be his clever use of “B”, in his solo song “uhgood” (both referring to what the letter B means in the context of the grading system, and the sound of “비”, that can mean “rain” in Korean); and the way he emphasizes the syllable “na” (나) in “Intro: Persona”, which can be him referring to the pronoun “me” in Korean while saying “persona” in English.
One lesson aspiring songwriters and artists can take from BTS’ creative decisions
The fact that BTS ignores conventional rules of making music for commercial success does not mean they don’t want people to pay attention to their lyrics. They do.
And their fans really pay attention. Because BTS taught them to.
BTS’ fans care. They care about the members, and they care about the music they make.
When you get people to care about what you have to say, you have more freedom to say it in the way you want.
The main reason why some quite unconventional methods work, in the music of BTS, is that people care about them enough to seek to understand what they are trying to say, and why they are saying it.
Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that the 7 members are all very good looking young men, who are also strong dancers, great entertainers, and they do have some pretty smart marketing strategies built around their brand.
But make no mistake: none of these traits make up for bad songwriting. Not if you want to build a solid and loyal fanbase.
If you want to build a career in songwriting and music, you may take notes from BTS’ creative decisions — not to imitate them, but to seek your own ways to get the listeners’ attention, and understand what gets the audience to care about you.
Spoiler: it has something to do with caring about them too, and caring about your own art first.