The hollow, algorithmic charm of BTS

On ‘Proof,’ it’s clear that as the group's popularity rose its nods to contemporary pop grew staler and more conservative.

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Until this week, BTS, the seven-member group that emerged from Seoul nearly a decade ago and has gone on to become one of the best-selling acts on the planet, seemed to answer a question that had never before been properly considered: What would happen if a boy band stayed together indefinitely? NSYNC’s run, the apex of the model’s turn-of-the-century American boom, lasted four years; One Direction, the product of a British talent show, debuted more than ten years later but dissolved along a similar timeline. New Kids on the Block had No. 1 albums in 1988 and 1990, but by 1994 couldn’t crack the top 35. The Backstreet Boys made a big deal of returning from a half-decade hiatus with goatees and acoustic guitars, but they, too, spent about four years as teen idols before slipping into a purgatory of Oprah segments and reunion tours.

These things have a short half-life — which has suited them fine, because the disposability is built in. Members of massive groups grow restless and expensive for their labels to retain; they want to co-write, they want to branch out, they want to wear leather jackets and date other celebrities in public. They want to go solo. A publicity machine (which increasingly includes American critics) is quick to project depth and sophistication onto these ex-members when they do. But there are only so many Timberlakes and Styles. For most, their catalog is destined to be read as forever in conversation with the cocoon they left behind.

Perhaps due to their carefully managed public appearances — or genuine camaraderie, or simple exhaustion — there was no evident discord or impatience emanating from BTS prior to the announcement on Tuesday that they would be going on hiatus so that its members might pursue solo careers. Even when allowing for the myriad technicalities (Japanese re-recordings of songs that were originally released in Korean, LPs that fold in material from shorter projects) the group seemed to produce and release music at a staggering pace and, until the pandemic, toured just as often. Proof, a 48-song package that is being marketed as an “anthology album,” collects the lead singles from 16 BTS projects, a selection of album cuts, and a smattering of demos and outtakes, plus a trio of new songs. It’s an impressive document for its scope alone. It also flattens the supposed musical transformations the group underwent during its time together, reframing their relentlessly mawkish, postmodern approach to genre as the crass outgrowth of an evolving record industry rather than the deeply personal oeuvre it purports to be.

But BTS’s singles, especially when presented in this context ... more closely resemble an actual algorithm, a tangle of code with no clear beginning or end.

In the quarter-century since NSYNC debuted, the internet has enabled, or at least exposed, a granularity of obsession among pop music fans. BTS obsessives — they refer to themselves as an “army” — not only commit to monitoring the most obscure digital charts around the world, but like to divide their favorites’ output into “eras,” tracking the smallest tweaks in style and subject and restating them as seismic shifts. And there has been a drift: from the more exclusively rap-focused earlier work to their later singles, which are gentler, with softer edges. But Proof’s first disc, a chronological run through those lead singles, makes much of BTS’s music seem like reground gristle, the bouncing between overused genre cues tiresome and circular. When people talk about music that seems to spring from “the algorithm,” they generally use the term as shorthand for the sort of cynical release strategy that chases whatever trends are working at the moment. But BTS’s singles, especially when presented in this context, without the press junket over explanation their albums often receive, more closely resemble an actual algorithm, a tangle of code with no clear beginning or end.

The counterargument to this complaint is that K-pop is a genre specifically about deconstruction and recontextualization, and that the barrage of sounds found and repurposed create a fugue that is distinctly the artists’ own. (You imagine the sales pitch: Fear of a Black Planet if the Bomb Squad were pulling only from Top 40.) This is theoretically persuasive, and applies to some of the group’s strongest work, which makes overfamiliar elements seem alien simply through their proximity to one another. But as the group has becoming increasingly popular around the world, its nods to various contemporary pop modes have grown staler and more conservative, recasting BTS as late-coming translators rather than unpredictable omnivores.

This means that questions of appropriation are less racially fraught than they might seem at a passing glance, but just as stylistically pertinent. Even with the move toward cleaner pop, BTS still centers its three rapping members, especially group leader RM, whose name literally means “Rap Monster.” The problem, such that it is, is not that he, J-Hope, and Suga are imitating Black rappers from America — it’s that they’re doing so inelegantly, with all the authority of a youth pastor or hip substitute teacher. Rap verses on BTS songs are breathtakingly demonstrative, almost always building to—or worse, beginning from—such an emotional pique that there is little left to do but bludgeon. At its frequent worst, this approach makes Fort Minor sound like the Juice Crew.

Many of the group’s most exhausting impulses are condensed in “Born Singer,” a one-off single from 2013 that is remastered and included here as Proof’s opening song. Its treacly chorus is interrupted by overdetermined rap verses about unseen doubters; these are shot through with preening electric guitars. Each choice compounds the prior one’s obviousness. There is even something to the way the processed stadium handclaps, which appear in the song’s final 30 seconds, are clumsily grafted on, both afterthought and inevitable escalation. It’s fitting, then, that “Born Singer” is built around the title track from J. Cole’s Born Sinner, an album that takes its name from a famous line by a radically more sophisticated rapper, includes a mopey song about how Nas didn’t like Cole’s first single (which itself hinged on the sample of a Kanye West song), and another that repurposes one of the most harrowing songs in the hip-hop canon as a new one about how Cole finds Los Angeles… a little fake? The subsumption of better music’s component parts seldom produces anything but an uncanny replica.