Music, Pop Culture

BTS are (finally) subverting their own old sexism with their new concept

"Boy with Luv" is BTS' attempt to grapple with their past. ARMY should be proud of their boys.

Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) is the Korean musical act that did it all: spoke at the United Nations, topped the Billboard charts, landed a TIME magazine cover… and so much more. All this despite everything being stacked against them.

BTS has seven members – RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook – and they just dropped their latest album, Map of the Soul: Persona, the first in BTS’ latest era. Boy With Luv, a song on the album featuring pop superstar Halsey, attempts to take on perhaps the band’s biggest challenge to date: dealing with their own problematic past.

Ever since their debut, the band has dodged constant complaints of misogyny. To be clear: a lot of these are well-founded. A lot of their older songs are deeply sexist, and they have tweeted out some questionable stuff. As they attempt to learn from their past and grow into their new role – UN ambassadors, global stars – their music must also evolve.

Boy with Luv (2019) is actually a throwback to one of BTS’ earliest songs, Boy in Luv (2014), which was the lead single of their album Skool Luv Affair. The older song is problematic in innumerable ways.

First, the music video: it shows a young, pretty girl attracting the attention of three of the group’s members. The backdrop is a school. As this nameless young woman passes by them, Jungkook, Jin, and Jimin are infatuated and begin to stalk her. In some particularly disturbing scenes: Jin roughly pulls the girl’s hair, slams her against a locker, grabs her by the hand and drags her into a room full of boys. She is then serenaded by the three members, appears flattered, and embraces Jungkook. Harass a girl long enough and she’ll fall for you? That’s a common problematic trope in media.

The aesthetics of the video are pretty hypermasculine too. The lighting is dark and BTS are dressed in black jackets. The space they are in is dirty, dingy and confined. There is a lot of aggression: they fling chairs at a wall, dance in jerky movements, and literally have a dick measuring contest at a urinal.

Then there’s the lyrics. The song repeatedly has BTS telling the girl: “I want to be your lover”. The tone (and the accompanying actions) leave no room for refusal. Consent seems to be irrelevant, and the lyrics constantly blame the young woman for making these boys infatuated with her by… simply walking to class?

Boy with Luv (2019) tries to come to terms with that past and subvert it. It is clear what the band are saying – we’ve grown up, we’re sorry, we know better now.  

The members are all dressed in pretty shades of pink and other soft colors. The accompanying accessories are very feminine. The boys dance in open spaces: a deserted cafeteria, under the blue sky, on a stage. The video is sprinkled with tributes to the iconic 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain so there’s a part where Jin swings from a streetlamp under a multicolored sky.

And instead of an unnamed woman onto whom they project a violent desire, BTS shares the music video with Halsey – one of the most powerful acts in music right now and in every way their equal. None of the boys chase after her. In fact, the video starts with her exiting a ticket booth. She looks at the septet and they lazily gaze back at her. She walks on. She’s a woman in public space under the scrutiny of men, but she isn’t someone they pursue romantically. She can simply exist and sing and dance with them.

[image description: a grid of six scenes from the Boy in Luv video. Top: BTS dancing in an empty cafe. Second row, left to right: Suga with blue hair smiles at the camera in a close up; the boys with Halsey look at the camera with stunned expressions. Bottom row, left to right: JHope twirls around a lamppost against a pink background; a close up of V against a black background]via YouTube/ibighit.
[Image description: a grid of six scenes from the Boy with Luv video. Top: BTS dancing in an empty cafe. Second row, left to right: Suga with blue hair smiles at the camera in a close-up; the boys with Halsey look at the camera with stunned expressions. Bottom row, left to right: Jin twirls around a lamp post against a pink background; a close up of V against a black background while colored feathers float around him] via YouTube.
The lyrics point more towards collaboration than domination. In the very first lines of the song, Jimin says:

“I’m curious about everything. How’s your day? / Oh, tell me. / What makes you happy? / Oh, text me.”

This sets the tone for the rest of the song, which is about appreciating someone you love. This shows that holding artists accountable for their actions does work, sometimes. BTS was called out by many for their sexism – and their agency responded and promised to do better. The members themselves have said that the criticism helped them read more and broaden their horizons. They’ve also said that they run some of their work by feminist professors in order to make sure they aren’t being oppressive.

I don’t want to overpraise BTS, nor overburden them. Like all humans, they mess up and shouldn’t be ‘canceled’ for it.

However, BTS gained a large following by being the band addressing important issues like millennial anxieties and the failure of capitalism. That’s their brand and the cause of their worldwide recognition – so it’s not cool that they won’t openly address contemporary questions of politics (South Korea’s feminist protests and the K-pop industry’s misogyny, for example) when their support could help these causes immensely.

BTS stays away from politics no doubt to protect their career – which is understandable, but also disappointing, especially when they are sometimes treated like courageous activists.

Like all of us, BTS is messy. But hopefully, their latest era will give them the artistic space they need to reflect upon and learn from their past. They’ve done a good job with Boy with Luv.