Ethics of Care through BTS’s Lyricism
Over the last several years, BTS, the seven-member pop ensemble from South Korea, has achieved unprecedented success on the global pop scene. ARMY, the group’s fandom, has a lot to be proud of: several Grammy nominations, multiple chart-topping albums, and a history of sold-out stadiums, among other accomplishments. While these accolades certainly don’t go unnoticed by ARMY, perhaps one of the most consistent lines of praise from fans acknowledges BTS’s dedication to music and lyricism. Hundreds of posts across social media sites are dedicated to translating, analyzing, and theorizing about BTS’s lyrics and concepts, with many fans expressing how these lyrics have profoundly impacted them.
To touch others with music is the dream of many artists; BTS is no exception. The group’s creator, Bang Shi-hyuk, thought the industry needed artists who “talked about what society needs.” In a 2018 interview, member RM commented on a promise they made prior to their debut in 2013. “We have to talk about what’s really inside us, and we want to be helpful to the world…to say and speak and show something that this world needs,” he recalled. Likewise, before BTS’s management company rebranded into an entertainment conglomerate in 2021, the slogan shown before every music video was “music and artist for healing,” succinctly communicating BTS’s purpose.
Here, I contend that one factor helping BTS maintain a sizable fanbase, touching millions of lives, is the ethic of care embedded in their music.
Ethics of care (or care ethics) is a feminist moral theory that hinges on human relationships and meeting needs. The goal is not to apply universalized moral ideals, but rather to take into account one’s relationship to another and what can be done to build up or maintain that relationship. Usually seen as emerging from the work of scholars Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, care ethics emphasizes the importance of interdependence. Defining care is complicated, but a good summary of the concept comes from scholars Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher who write that care is an activity including “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” Tronto also asserts that, although care is predicated on traditionally “feminine” characteristics, care ethics itself is not a gendered approach. Care applies to everyone—it’s simply human. Additionally, Tronto identifies care as “both a practice and a disposition.” Care is not just the emotions we may feel towards particular relationships, but also the actions and processes we initiate to care for others.
BTS exemplifies care ethics in a myriad of ways, even beyond music. But through music specifically, the group presents care towards fans as well as society by creating songs intended to comfort listeners as well as writing socially conscious lyrics (i.e., “talking about what society needs”).
First, BTS has meticulously worked to build and maintain a solid relationship with the fandom. Directly communicating with fans, posting never-ending behind-the-scenes clips, and thoroughly expressing their gratitude towards ARMY does a lot to keep this relationship alive. However, its foundation lies in BTS’s consistent efforts to provide healing music and concepts in their work.
Songs that heal or comfort individual fans will vary, so there are many examples in BTS’s catalog. I’d argue the songs which demonstrate care most effectively are a handful of BTS’s “fan songs” (songs dedicated to or directly about the fans), as they impact the relationship between artist and fan more widely. “Magic Shop,” appearing on album Love Yourself: Tear (2018), invokes the psychodramatic technique known by the same name, where one exchanges negative qualities or attitudes for positive ones. As such, BTS invites ARMY to enter the magic shop, to exchange pain for comfort:
“I wanted to comfort and move your heart.
I want to take away your sorrow and pain.
On a day you hate being yourself,
on a day you want to disappear forever,
let’s build a door in your mind.
Once you open the door and enter, this place will wait for you.
It’s okay to believe, [this] Magic Shop that will comfort you.”
Similarly, “Home” (Map of the Soul: Persona, 2019) contributes to the artist-fan relationship as the lyrics equate ARMY to BTS’s home with the refrain, “If you’re there, anyplace will become home.” The track “For Youth” (Proof, 2022) looks back on BTS’s history while asserting the importance of ARMY to the group’s existence: “Thanks to you, I became myself. / Your countless words that comforted me, / that’s what made me.” Another fan song, “2! 3!” from 2017’s WINGS: You Never Walk Alone, was dedicated to the struggles both BTS and ARMY faced during the group’s debut and early years. As BTS was housed under a relatively small and unknown (at the time) entertainment company in the highly competitive K-Pop scene, both BTS and ARMY were often subjected to ridicule and condescension. “2! 3!” acknowledges those trials head on and asserts the group’s dedication to and thankfulness for fans. “We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal” (Map of the Soul: 7, 2020) revisits this theme while also confirming BTS’s desire to hold on to their bond with ARMY.
What all of these songs have in common is BTS’s centering of ARMY, focusing on the message of their music with a mission to heal, comfort, or otherwise positively affect fans. This track record of caring music has reinforced and reaffirmed for fans the ties between artist and fandom. It’s certainly intentional—BTS are aware of the impact of their music. Member Suga commented, “Hearing our fans saying that we changed their lives changes our lives in turn. We got to know about the weight that our words and music carry, and we’re truly thankful for that.” RM echoed this sentiment: “You can say we are saving each other’s lives.” BTS can’t directly provide care for millions of individual fans, but by relying on music as a vehicle for doing so, they reach countless, fostering fans’ devotion and loyalty.
Care towards fans is not BTS’s only brand of lyrical care ethics; the group also relies on music to carry socially conscious messages that call attention to issues of concern in our world. BTS’s 2013 debut single, “No More Dream,” criticizes the harsh education system in South Korea, which requires students to devote their lives solely to academics. The song is a rebellion against this societal expectation, encouraging students to have dreams of their own choosing. Their third single, “N.O,” continued this theme, urging young people to not “live trapped in someone else’s dream any longer.” The song speaks out against the adults of the world who made students into “study machines” where success is getting first place in one’s school and anything else is “lagging behind.”
Not limited to critiques of the school system itself, BTS also directly referenced an audacious comment made by Na Hyang-wook, the head of South Korea’s Education Ministry’s policy bureau in 2016. Na was on the hook for claiming Koreans were like “dogs and pigs”; that “99% of South Koreans have no ability to move up in the world and can be treated like animals—simply fed and kept alive.” BTS’s answer to this statement was “Am I Wrong” (WINGS, 2016). The song, which talks about having to be crazy to live in our messed up world, contains a line interpreted by one fan translator as, “We all are called dogs and pigs. Infuriated, we lose our minds.” In the same vein, BTS used “Baepsae” (HYYH pt. 2, 2015) to condemn South Korea’s socioeconomic inequality and class system, chastising those born with “gold/silver spoons” (inherited wealth) for their treatment of the underdogs, born with far less.
Society’s social media obsession has also been the subject of a BTS track, in “Could You Turn Off Your Cellphone?” (Dark & Wild, 2014). With lyrics like “’Mention’ me while looking at my face. / I don’t need a ‘like’” and “Communication has increased / but it’s only a loud silence between us,” BTS argue for preserving relationships via human connection in an increasingly social media-mediated world.
These songs, laced with societal criticism, are examples of BTS arguing for a better world for all of us through lyricism. Rather than accepting the world and our relationship to it as is, calling attention to these social issues, especially those that plague young people, is part and parcel of BTS’s core. As Suga once put it: “If there isn’t a song critical of society, it’s not a BTS album.”
Socially conscious lyrics demonstrate care for society and those in it, realizing we can and should do better. Although BTS can’t right all the world’s wrongs through music, expressing care for important issues still has impact. Songs can inspire change in listeners, and may even serve as a form of comfort, power, and validation for those whose experiences are reflected.
“Music and artist for healing” might not appear at the start of BTS music videos anymore, but with their expression of care ethics woven conscientiously throughout their lyrics, BTS actualizes the slogan time and again, nourishing the bonds between artist, fan, and world.
Courtney Lazore is an independent researcher, writer, and editor currently working in communications. She’s actively involved in the BTS fandom, regularly writing on the group’s impact and co-managing a network for fan researchers.
*Photo credit goes to BigHit Music.
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