If you aren’t a die hard fan of BTS, you probably only know the septet for their staple boy band image. It isn’t a surprise to think of their upbeat music and heartthrob styles when you think of BTS, but that’s not how they always have been.
The K-Pop mainstays started as a small hip hop group and evolved into one of the most sensational and successful bands of this generation. Their music has changed and the genres that they have covered in their discography over the past eight years has been broad, evolving over several eras that feature distinct themes and motifs in both music and in overall band concept.
The first era that BTS embarked on is known as the School era. The group debuted in 2013 on a South Korean music program performing their song “No More Dream.” from the album 2 Kool 4 Skool. The song was produced and written in part by some of the members themselves. Dressed in baggy black and white street clothes with goofy hairstyles, the seven boys rapped and sang on stage about the younger generation of South Korea not having the freedom to dream. The hip hop focused beginnings of BTS produced two more albums in the School trilogy: O!RUL8,2?, and Skool Luv Affair, both of which follow the themes of student’s experiences in the education system, often with a critical take. For example, the title track for O!RUL8,2? is “N.O” and the lyrics dig into how the system is suppressing students and that the young people are constantly under pressure.
After the School trilogy, in 2014 BTS released their first studio album Dark and Wild, which focused on topics surrounding young love. It has angsty themes which is supported by a more rock style but still connected to hip hop. The tracks “Danger” and “War of Hormone” have gritty and hard hitting instrumentals and the lyrics are definitely those that represent emotional turmoil in teens and early relationships. The next album The Most Beautiful Moment In Life will mark the start of BTS’s next era, shedding their heavy hip hop themes. The group will slowly change their image and their style with the next several releases.
Similar to their first era the next albums — The Most Beautiful Moment in Life; Pt1, Pt2 and Young Forever — are part of a trilogy and they make up the Most Beautiful Moment in Life era or the HYYH (Hwa Yong Yeon Hwa) era. In this era, their music shifted to more ballad and pop style, slowly shifting away from the hip hop and rock. The cover art from this era reflects the lighter themes with butterflies and sky-coloured backgrounds.
This trilogy also marks the start of the BTS Universe (BU) and lore. Through their music videos and other separate short film releases, BTS and their team weave a complicated story that is filled with dramatic themes.The concept and the acting has evolved from high school love to more mature feelings.
The next album, Wings, marks the transition between between two eras without fitting comfortably into either. Wings is also the first album where each of the seven members worked on and released a solo track in the album. This is not seen often in K-Pop since groups perform songs together and aren’t exploring their own personal themes through group releases. Ever since 2016 when Wings came out, the members of BTS have each lead their own tracks in the albums as a solo performer.
Their next era is the Love Yourself series which includes an EP, an album and a compilation album. The first release was Love Yourself: Her. This was the era that BTS really started soaring to fame. The music video for “DNA” currently has over a billion views on YouTube. Their music in Love Yourself: Tear and Love Yourself: Answer is closer to the pop boy band image that people know them for. Although their title tracks are heavily pop based, they still have other songs that play with a variety of styles, with hip hop tracks like “Outro: Tear” and more soulful and RnB ones like “Intro: Singularity” and “134340.” While still continuing the BU story, the message and theme of this era focuses more on embracing self images as well as making the world a better place. Through their campaign Love Myself, in which they partnered with UNICEF, they spread the message of sharing hope and lending a hand to children in violent situations. They attended and gave a speech at the UN regarding their campaign. By then, BTS had reached millions internationally with their music and their message.
After the Love Yourself era came the Map of the Soul era, which reflects back on their early days, with many tracks making reference to their Skool albums in lyrics and in style. There is Map of The Soul: 7, Persona and the Journey. The albums in this era also emphasises BTS’s evolution with its fandom ARMY, paying homage to the fans directly within their lyrics. This era has more of a concluding feel to it, even though it is not the end of BTS’s career. This era was one that is reflective and sophisticated.
The album that came after the Map of the Soul albums was BE which was essentially BTS’s Covid-19 lockdown album, exploring themes of hope and resilience with a light-hearted feel.
The current stage that BTS is at now is the era where they truly broke into the American music industry. With three full English tracks, “Dynamite,” “Butter,” and “Permission to Dance,” as well as a collaboration with Coldplay, “My Universe,” BTS has topped the Billboard charts, been nominated for Grammys and have received many music awards. The releases in this era are in line with radio pop styles and songs have simplified and lightened compared to their previous tracks in both lyrics and music. It is a very upbeat and bright era, and the music videos have more American settings and motifs to them, for example, “Permission to Dance” has a prominent wild west theme and costumes.
With their new album, Proof, BTS could be starting a new era in their journey. Will they change from their period of English releases and touch back on older eras? Regardless of what they do next, we can expect that it won’t be the last stage of BTS’s remarkable evolution.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons