The message behind BE and “Abyss” — 210201

BTS member Jin openly confesses to the struggles he had with mental health last year in his solo song “Abyss,” which he released on December 4 to coincide with his birthday. “Everyone was congratulating me after we reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but I wasn’t sure I deserved it,” Jin said in a post on BANGTAN BLOG accompanying the song. “Is it right for me to be at the center of all this praise and accolades when there’s so many people who love music more and are better at it than me? The deeper I thought about it, the worse I felt and the more I wanted to walk away from it all,” he said, revealing how he had come to be “seriously burned out.” The opening lyrics of “Abyss” come across as a metaphor for Jin’s mind at the time: “I hold my breath as I dive into my sea / I face myself crying beautifully, sadly / Myself in the darkness.” In an earlier interview with Weverse Magazine, he said working as artists “used to be a part of our life for years, so it felt like a part of my life disappeared,” referring to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with his inner struggle. Despite his tremendous outward success, inside he was dealing with anxiety and despair, and chose to make music and share it with others as a step toward a solution. “Abyss” shares the impact the pandemic has had—even for superstars like BTS—on mental health, the artist’s drive to envision a brighter world through creative expression, and the comfort and healing not only the creator but also the listener might find in such creative output.

“Abyss” is also the key to a fresh look at BTS’s album BE. Like Jin’s confession in “Abyss,” the members similarly confide with countless people through their album, demonstrating the members’ process of healing in the form of creative expression. In “Blue & Grey,” a track from the album, members use images of color, like, “cuz I am blue & grey,” “my color hidden behind a smile blue & grey,” “a blue question mark,” and “a grey rhino approaching,” to speak honestly about melancholy and anxiety. “After the song was finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment, and that’s how I was able to let go of ‘Blue & Grey,’ ” V said in his Weverse Magazine interview, showing how, through music, he used color to give his emotions a name and thereby control them and use them as fertilizer for his art. Dr. Oh Jin-seung, a psychiatrist at DF Mental Health Clinic and owner of the YouTube channel Doctor Friends, discussed this creative approach, saying, “Everyone has a number of defense mechanisms to cope with conflict or stress. Among them, sublimation, a sophisticated mechanism, would be if I channel my conflicts or difficulties into art, which I feel BTS express and control through music by writing lyrics, composing songs, and so forth. And by sharing that feeling with so many people they likely also experience happiness.” Oh went on to explain how “you can take control of your emotions by labeling them. Most people aren’t aware of exactly what they’re experiencing or the cause, but they can make a little progress by exteriorizing it.” It stands to reason then that V arguably made his sullenness and anxiety concrete by labeling them “Blue & Grey.” The way BTS acknowledged and dealt with their personal issues sets an example for others for how they can handle their mental health.

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As the pandemic and the “corona blues” that have followed show, mental health is no longer merely a personal problem. According to the 2019 Survey of Mental Health, one in ten people experience depression, the kind of sadness tackled in “Blue & Grey,” but Dr. Kim Hyun-soo, head of the Seoul Suicide Prevention Center and principal at the Star alternative school, says, “We hypocritically turn a blind eye and believe nobody has depression, going through life forgetting that there are people who are having a hard time or like they don’t exist.” “Blue & Grey” does not point to any source for this feeling, but Oh says depression “comes on in quite a number of cases for no apparent reason,” adding that “people frequently report feeling sad and crying for no reason at all. Like the common cold or a broken bone, depression should be regarded as something in need of treatment regardless of the cause.” He urges that perceptions of mental health as being different from other illnesses, as though it were a simple matter of willpower or an emotional problem, be abandoned. On their YouTube channel VisitSeoul TV, the Seoul Tourism Organization examined one of BE ’s songs, “Dis-ease,” from a mental health perspective, observing, “Korean society is completely unaccommodating of mental health issues and does not talk about them openly.” Oh acknowledges a shift in social perspective: “Whereas in the past people didn’t think of depression as an illness but rather something you just had to get over, people are now starting to think that you should seek help if you need it.” Still, he says, “just going to the hospital takes a lot of courage, but it’s hard for those who have come here to keep coming back”; there remain prejudices where “many people still think it’ll get better if you’re disciplined or if you meet friends and stay motivated.”

Many people think they would not be able to return to the lives they lived before if they were to experience war, natural disasters or massive calamity, or if they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused. Yet at the same time, people who did undergo such trauma are sometimes pressured to overcome their pain through sheer willpower. In the song “Dis-ease,” written by j-hope, the members of BTS take this misconception—that the result of trauma must be to follow one of these two paths—and present another option. The band members recognize that the downtime they faced with the unexpected arrival of COVID-19 rather created a sense of unease which was really a “Dis-ease.” This is the very anxiety and fear felt by the members of BTS, having worked nonstop since their debut, as well as the helplessness felt by all people affected by the current disaster. Kim saw this song as having “lyrics about comfort and post-traumatic growth that express the desire to rise again through self-comfort despite a painful and difficult experience with illness.” Post-traumatic growth, unlike the more familiar term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suggests that trauma can actually result in personal improvement. BTS addresses post-traumatic growth, but does not go as far as to suggest that everyone can grow. “There are people who go through a lot and become stronger for it,” says Kim, “and there are people who just fall down, too. People who end up growing from their experiences with hardship reflect on the meaning behind their pain.” In “Dis-ease,” the members, finding themselves with canceled plans due to COVID-19 and cut off from friends and family, perceive themselves as a “disease” that is “unsafe” and “biting” themselves while “hungry for achievement.” Admitting to their “disease” may feel “scary,” but as they do, they sing, “Faster than [changing someone] is myself changing,” “My mind needs a vacation,” and, “There’s no eternal night / I’m stronger,” and in this way ruminate on the lessons they have learned through hardship, deciding at last to “trust in the me that I used to know” and “treat everything calmly.”

Countless people have lost loved ones and have been forced to put all of their activities on hold because of COVID-19. “Dis-ease” does not offer empty hope in this situation, but instead tells us we can grow by admitting to our pain and showing a willingness to accept comfort and to toss away fears to become stronger. While the song places the focus on the speaker, it also implies that this advice can be applied not only to yourself but to everyone, as we are all the same and “ain’t so special.” BTS do not choose a side in the view that, after a crisis like COVID-19, things either cannot return to the way they were or that there is no choice but to overcome the trouble. The lyrics “It’s morning again / I have to deal with today” sound like BTS are putting forward an option somewhere between the two: that while not every single person has the power to overcome this, it is still nonetheless something that can be overcome by some. Will I be overwhelmed by my “Dis-ease”? Now that it’s morning, I have to make it through the day even if I feel scared. If I face another day that way, it means I’m becoming stronger.

concept photo, be, and bts image

The song “Fly to My Room” documents everyone’s effort to find the will to hold on each day during the time of the pandemic. People become powerless in uncontrollable situations; the members spill out their emotions, lamenting how “it’s so frustrating, it’s driving me crazy” and that “the entire year got stolen.” According to Oh, “Depression can lead to cognitive distortion,” which in turn can lead a person to “view even a familiar situation in a negative light and, if allowed to continue, this perception fixes in place like a habit. In order to remedy this negative perception, cognitive behavioral therapy, alongside treatment with medication, is used to help people look at their situation in a different light.” He noted the important role positive thinking plays in changing perceptions as in the lyrics, “I will change this place into my world,” and, “You can change the way you think.” Later, looking at the lyrics, “Landing over the bed / This is the safest place,” Oh explains, “In psychiatry, the ‘safest place’ mentioned here is an important concept called a ‘secure base.’ If I set up my psychological secure base at home, I can start to feel comfortable and overcome my negative perceptions.” In the concept photos for BE, each member decorated a room to their individual tastes. A room with its own unique meaning, and filled with items that make the owner feel safe—whether they be flowers, speakers, jewels, or shoes—can act as one’s own personal secure base. The members, unable to leave their rooms, are dressed comfortably or in pajamas, but through a type of audio guide they explain their rooms like they were exhibit spaces in an art museum. As though we were touring the museum, the members sometimes take pictures of us through our screens as we watch BTS in their rooms. Through this, as the title “Fly to My Room” implies, the ideas of “my room” and traveling by air, which never could have coexisted previous to the pandemic, become one. In an era where the definition of “travel” could change, life in “my” room “is a journey that only I can enjoy.” By changing their way of thinking—“the TV sound” becomes the bustle of “the city,” “the toys in my room” become the “people,” and they give stars to “delivery food” as though it were from a Michelin restaurant—BTS develop a sense of control over their current predicament. The thought that sums up the whole song—“You can change the way you think”—is an effort to transition their way of thinking about the problem in order to perceive the situation optimistically, which is not something that comes naturally to them.

This process of trying to deal with and overcome inner turmoil is not guaranteed to have an exclusively positive effect, however. “The challenge for creators is to create and instill emotions in others,” Kim said. “The more they give, the more they drain themselves; if someone else doesn’t fill them back up or they can’t do so themselves, difficulties arise.” Those who accept emotions which are sublimated through a process of creation therefore play a very important role. In BTS’s case, that role is filled by fans. According to Kim, artists do not simply pass their sentiment to the fans, who then merely receive them; rather, the two exist in a shared state. Writing a sort of emotional diary of one’s feelings through lyrical and musical composition can help to keep emotions in check, but many artists, including BTS, “get more back from the happiness and joy that fans exhibit from listening to the songs, and the feelings the fans share with others through the music, than the artists themselves give.” This is the very reason BTS talk about the stress that arises from not being able to meet their fans during the pandemic and why they thank their fans for their success every time they have the opportunity. Emotions like unhappiness and anxiety are a source of great pain to individuals, but if we foster a social environment where we can speak up about such feelings openly, and share in the process of sublimating our pain just as artists express themselves through their work, there can arise yet another method of healing, one we have never seen before that heals not just one person’s pain but the whole of society. Clearly, it is important for a world like the one we are living in now to have music and artists.

BE and the subsequently released “Abyss” discuss life in the time of COVID-19, but they go beyond simply portraying the period to navigate the more fundamental internal discord that people are experiencing. Sadness does not always have a root cause, and giving voice to these feelings allows us to control them rather than drown in them. Trauma isn’t something that cannot or strictly must be overcome, but rather something that can be overcome. Positive thinking does not come naturally—it requires effort. By identifying previously unacknowledged prejudices and speaking honestly and openly about the depression or anxiety we feel inside, fans and society can be led in something of a better direction. On listening to BTS, Oh believes “it’s an opportunity for fans to explore and examine their own emotions, too. It should feel good to know you can be honest about your feelings through the words of artists. BTS’s songs don’t just go to dark places and end as depressing songs. Maybe people sympathize with them because they don’t just throw around simple feelings but talk about them with a message,” he says, adding that their songs’ messages can present fans with an opportunity to take a look into their own abyss. Likewise, Kim pointed to BTS’s social influence, saying that, “when it comes to great art, we really only enjoy the end result. However, if we can talk about the artist’s pain and suffering that gave birth to such works, not only would it give courage to people who experience the same kind of pain, but the way it would eliminate people’s preconceptions would be a huge contribution to society.” Since their debut, BTS have made it a part of the group identity to tell their stories candidly, and to expose their emotions rather than turn away from them. Starting with BE, they have taken this a step further: They have gone beyond individual mental health to explore that which was happening “Behind The Scenes” all along—prejudices that we had collectively accepted without knowing.

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