All the languages of BTS: the role of multilingual songwriting in the global brand of the Korean group
BTS is one of, if not the, biggest pop acts in the history of music. Few times have an artist been so successful in so many different parts of the world at once — and, interestingly enough, their predecessors have achieved similar or lesser success without facing the language barriers BTS does.
Most of the global phenomenons of pop music we can think of (The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, One Direction) sung or sing in English, which is one of the most spoken languages in the world, and one of the most familiar even to non-speakers (for reasons that history, commerce, and sociopolitics can explain).
Perhaps a name worth pointing, and not enough remembered, is Menudo. The Puerto Rican group sung mostly in Spanish (although they record a few songs in Portuguese and English too), and found success throughout North America, Latin America, and Asia, in the 1980s. But while Menudo’s popularity is impressive in itself, it must be considered that in many of the countries they toured on, such as Mexico, Peru, and Argentina, their audience had no problem in understanding their songs, as Spanish was their official language too. Spanish is also one of the most spoken languages in the world (currently the second most).
But BTS sings mostly in Korean.
Ranking the most spoken languages across the world, Korean is barely in the Top 10, and no other country besides South Korea and North Korea has it as their official language.
That BTS tours, charts, and successfully engages fans (called the BTS ARMY) in pretty much all continents of the world, while speaking and singing mostly in Korean, is as symbolic of a new era as it is quite a cultural miracle.
On June 13 and 14th 2021, BTS’s anniversary celebration concert MUSTER SOWOOZOO 소우주 was watched online by at least 1.33 million paid viewers in 195 countries. If this isn’t signaling BTS’s global appeal, I don’t know what is.
BTS occasionally encompasses foreign languages in their music and content too, which adds a special flavor to their lyricism and makes many foreign fans feel seen. Also, the group is mindful of their international audiences and often learns a few words in the local language whenever they perform outside Korea. Many of their contents feature foreign words too, such as their annual Festa, whose name is a word used in Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, and more languages, meaning party/festivity.
Multilingual lyrics and content are not exclusive to BTS, and it may not even be the main factor attracting audiences all over the world. However, it does play a role in the consolidation of BTS’s global brand and appeal — even if the biggest part of their music and social media content is still written in Korean; and even if, for many reasons, their success can be justified not despite, but because they keep their roots in Korean language and culture.
For example, in MUSTER (2021), BTS performed songs in Korean, English, Japanese, and even covered Mexican-American singer Becky G’s raps in Spanish when performing member j-hope’s song “Chicken Noodle Soup”. And, as I write this article, BTS has just released BTS, THE BEST, a compilation of their best Japanese songs, which has shipped more than 1 million copies in Japan on its first day.
To stay true to your culture while also being palatable for so many international audiences is quite an anthropological challenge. But so far, it is going very well for BTS — and one of the keys is in the songwriting, in which the group has a big hand in.
In this article, we will take a look at the languages BTS sings or has sung in (as of mid-2021).
As we’ve mentioned, Korean still takes the biggest chunk of their lyricism, but it's worth looking at the other languages and how it all connects to the BTS brand.
BTS members are Korean, and their initial target audience was Korea, so obviously, Korean is the main language they sing and write in.
Their lyrics are infused with a slot of slang and expressions that require a deeper understanding of Korean culture and history (and influence their visuals and performances too, as it happened for “Idol”, a song from 2018, and member SUGA’s solo song “대취타”, from 2020).
While such a heavy Korean context could make for a cultural barrier, making BTS’s music less accessible, reality proved this logic wrong. Besides sparking connections with Korean-speaking listeners, BTS arouses the curiosity of international audiences, who look for translations and explanations.
Words like “불타오르네” (it means burning up), and “보고 싶다” (it means I miss you), have entered the vocabulary of millions of fans, due to the huge popularity of BTS songs “Fire” (2016) and “Spring Day” (2017). Even more complex expressions, such as “뱁새” and “땡”, which, respectively, means crow tit and ding (onomatopoeia), but assume different meanings depending on the context, are now known all over the world because of the homonym BTS songs, thanks to the work of fan translators.
Terms like these would hardly become familiar to learners of the Korean language unless they had the chance to do a deep, local immersion in Korean culture. Many, indeed, do that, motivated by their love for BTS — and many who can’t are now getting the chance to study Korean in their own countries.
The interest in the Korean language grew so much in the last years that countries like Thailand, Vietnam, India, Japan, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and France have included Korean as part of their foreign language education programs.
It’s fair to note that BTS is not the only factor fostering interest in the Korean language around the world. The success of Korean dramas, and K-pop artists like NCT, EXO, Blackpink, and Twice, are to be credited too. Many K-pop bloggers and Korean teachers use K-pop songs to teach Korean.
Nevertheless, BTS and their managing company, HYBE, were some of the first in the industry to absorb the potential to combine music and education, creating videos and textbooks called Learn Korean With BTS. The Korean Ministry of Education has even decided to develop Korean textbooks using BTS’s song lyrics, aimed at foreign students.
The decision to keep singing in Korean goes beyond a songwriting choice; it also connects to the message of staying true to yourself and telling your own stories, which has always been at the core of the BTS brand.
BTS’s songs have always featured a bit of English here and there in their lyrics, way before the group topped charts and sold out concerts in English-speaking countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
Actually, mixing Korean and English in song lyrics is a common trait in Korea: many pop, rock, rap, and R&B artists do that. Or, sometimes the song will be primarily in Korean but will have an English title. Some researchers believe the “development of English mixing in lyrics of Korean popular music (…) is utilized as a discursive means of cultural hybridization”, and reinforces the paradigm of being local and global at the same time (Dal & Ryoo, 2012).
As of June 2021, BTS has 2 full songs of their own with English lyrics (“Dynamite” and “Butter”), one in collaboration with Steve Aoki (“Waste it on me”), one in collaboration with Lauv (“Who”), and some members have released solo songs with fully English lyrics too (RM’s “Tokyo”, V’s “Winter Bear”, “Sweet Night”).
BTS has faced criticism for releasing lead singles in English, after saying many times that they would remain to make music in Korean. But “Dynamite” and “Butter” provided some of the most notable moments of their career, reaching audiences outside the established fandom, playing on radio stations and TV shows in many countries (a feature they haven’t achieved until then), as well as earning a Grammy nomination for “Dynamite” in 2020. Some of the group’s key songwriting signatures, such as using hip hop references and giving a shout-out to their fandom, are still found in “Butter”.
So, while “Dynamite” and “Butter” deviate a bit from BTS’s songwriting pattern, they’re still connected to their music catalog in a way and have an important role in the establishment of the BTS brand as a global one.
Other than that, English appears occasionally in between their Korean lyrics, and in song titles. More often than not, it happens in the chorus, which makes it easier for listeners familiar with English to memorize both, lyrics and melody.
The group’s rappers, RM, SUGA, and j-hope, create elaborate and fun wordplay with Korean and English, which the BTS ARMY has fun deciphering and interpreting. It strengthens the fans’ connections with the group and their music.
BTS has a discography branch made of only Japanese songs.
Aimed at the Japanese market, some of these songs are versions of their Korean songs, and some are original. The original ones are often softer and more melodic than most of their Korean singles.
BTS is not as much involved in the songwriting and production of the Japanese songs as they are in the others, but the songs still have an important role in the group’s success.
Many of them have achieved symbolic meaning for the fans, such as “For You” (2016).
And of course, Japanese songs helped BTS conquer what is undeniably one of the most competitive and lucrative markets (Japan ranked #2 in the IFPI’s Top Music Markets of 2020 ranking report), and help the group connect with speakers of what is the 9th most spoken language worldwide.
Fans that do not speak Japanese are not at loss with BTS’s Japanese releases either, as they have been conditioned to expect new music that shows different sides of the group’s musicality.
Chinese is the most spoken language in the world (with Mandarin being the dialect with the biggest number of speakers).
BTS has not sung in Chinese many times, but it’s worth noting that in 2015, they recorded a Chinese version of their 2014 song “Boy In Luv”, for a special, limited edition of the album Dark & Wild, sold in Taiwan. The lyrics were written by the awarded Taiwanese lyricist Vincent Fang.
In the same year, the group opened an account on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, to communicate with their Chinese fans.
While China does not have official music charts, the fact that BTS has packed arenas in the administrative region of Hong Kong might count amongst indicatives of brand awareness there too.
From their earlier career years, BTS had many fans in Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, such as Mexico and Chile. Before their breakthrough in the United States, they were among the stars of the Mexican leg of the K-pop convention KCON, in 2017, and sold out tickets for their concert in Chile in 2 hours, in the same year.
So, in 2018, it was a pleasant but not unlikely surprise when BTS released “Airplane Pt. 2”. Not only the members sing “El Mariachi, el mariachi” and give a shout out to Mexico City in the chorus — the life of the mariachis (from the Mexican genre) informs the song’s lyrical concept too, in which BTS makes a parallel with Mariachi musicians to talk about their own life on the road.
Furthermore, in 2019, BTS member SUGA collaborated with Lee Sora in “Song Request”, rapping from the point of view of a radio, and using the word “familia” (it means family) to express his wish to comfort his listener. (As a bonus, Portuguese-speaking fans felt contemplated too, as the word has the same meaning, pronunciation, and spelling in Portuguese except for an accent mark.)
And later in the same year, BTS referenced the famous Spanish jargon “Mi casa es su casa” in “HOME”, mixing Spanish and Korean in the lyrics “아마 그곳이 mi casa” (it means This place must be my home).
Today, BTS’s latinx and Hispanic fanbases are even stronger. Their 2020 tour (postponed because of the Covid 19 pandemic) had a date in Spain, and countries like Mexico and Peru were amongst the Top 10 in the ARMY Census (a self-made census of the fandom, to which more than 400.000 fans responded in 2020), with 10.6% and 5.12%, respectively.
That BTS used Spanish words to express such intimate, heartwarming concepts (home and family) in their lyrics rings particularly special to the Spanish-speaking fans, adding more flavor to the love story between BTS and their countries.
Songwriting-wise, BTS has only used French words in “Jamais Vu” (2019). It works as a special charm for the song, which, like the meaning of the term, speak of the weird sensation felt by someone experiencing something for the first time.
But they have included sentences in French in their content and arts before — in the photoshoot of the album The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2, you can see the words “Je Ne Regrette Rien” (it means I don't regret anything). It might be a reference to the song "Non, je ne regrette rien" (which became famous in the voice of Edith Piaf), since many songs and albums are referenced in the pictures and music videos BTS made at the time.
It points to the miscellaneous, metalinguistic nature of BTS's music and world-building, which encompasses and references different pieces of culture and knowledge.
Dead languages, like Latin, are not common guests in pop songs.
So, when the full version of BTS’s “Euphoria” was released in 2018, fans might have gotten curious when they heard Jungkook saying “a priori” (attorneys and Law students, maybe not so much).
The use of Latin to express something so deep (“a priori” means “what comes first”), maximizes the meaning of the lyrics — Jungkook sings: “In the deepest place inside of me, a priori” — and connects with the dreamy theme of “Euphoria”. Such magic atmosphere has informed previous BTS songs: “Serendipity”, “DNA”; and would be echoed again in the future, in “Heartbeat”.
BTS are masters in involving their fans in a mystic universe, where concepts like destiny, soulmate, and serendipity sound less like romantic clichés and more like experiences that will later be found to reflect internal states and their connection with external events (many of them explained by Carl Jung, whose work, through the lens of Murray Stein, inspired two BTS albums). Or, even, these ideas are used by BTS in a nonerotic sense too, like finding love in music, or their fans.
Latin is among the oldest classical languages in the world. To hear a Latin expression in the context of “Euphoria”’s lyrics evokes the idea of genesis, and things that exist since the beginning of time as we know it — exactly the feeling Jungkook sings about in the song.
The language has barely been used in BTS lyrics other than that, except in songs like “Intro: Persona” (2019) and “Outro: EGO” (2020), but merely because such Latin words are used by Carl Jung in his description of the archetypes BTS addresses in these songs.
However, Latin was seen in the members’ body arts, in performances of songs like “ON” (2020); and would name one of their videos: Kinetic Manifesto Film: Come Prima (2020). It adds magnitude and a touch of intellectuality to BTS’s brand and body of work, which many times have dialogued with Philosophy, Sociology, Arts, Literature, Astronomy, and more.
One of the main elements of BTS’s communication with fans is how they coin new words and expressions, forming a vocabulary that makes BTS & ARMY a universe of their own. The most notable case is the expression 보라해, coined by member V. In 보라해, the Korean word for the color purple (보라), which became one of the band’s signature colors, is transformed in a verb, then meaning I purple you.
The use of 보라해 became a love language of BTS to their fans and vice versa. Even if V did not create the term strategically for branding purposes, it ended up becoming a part of their brand (also, it can be considered a form of sensorial branding).
But neologism through wordplay is also one of BTS’s songwriting traits and adds fun, emotion, and originality to their songs.
It is heard in “Boyz With Fun” (2015) — where BTS combines their own Korean name, 방탄소년단, with 흥 and 탄, forming 흥탄소년단 (it means something like fun boys or boys who ride the fun, according to Doolset) — , “Whalien 52” (2016) — the word “whalien” combines “whale” and “alien” — , and more songs.
The BTS jargon, once assimilated and reproduced by fans, inspires a sense of intimacy, and community, once again making their connection stronger.
Multilingual songwriting makes BTS's brand stronger
If you made it this far in my article, you probably noticed that the word brand here is not used solely in the context of business, commerce, and marketing.
A brand is an amalgamation of symbols and values that represent something or someone’s identity. The concept was born in business, and it relates to Marketing and Intellectual Property too, but it also applies to personal brands, non-profit entities and projects, and more.
Although the BTS brand is surely a strong one, and that is reflected in the commercial success of the group and their management company, it’s worth noting that the main reason behind the brand’s success is the genuineness in BTS’s songwriting, and the sense of connection and relatability they inspire in their fans through their communication.
Multilingual songwriting plays a role in the success of BTS, in how it makes fans from different parts of the world feel acknowledged, or curious about meaning and context in the song’s lyrics. It drives an engagement that is different from passive music listening and inspires relatability and admiration for the groups’ songwriting efforts.
But it’s hard to envision that all these efforts would work if used merely as strategy, without real-life actions and the personality to back it up.
If you’re a fan of BTS’s songwriting, you may also want to check other things I've written:
10 songs that show why Millennials love BTS (Consequence)
This article is original and has not been published on any of the websites, journals, or magazines I write for.
My work as a music writer and critic is independent, but this blog is also used for content marketing purposes (never sponsored by other businesses besides the ones I own or work at). It is not monetized.