The Real Magic Behind BTS Music: Jungian Theories in the ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’

In the groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung’s “Desert,” from The Red Book, he explores his soul to the core of his unconsciousness. He writes, “to find their soul, the ancients went into the desert….the place of soul is a lonely desert.” There is a contemporary K-Pop group that illustrates Jung’s theory of soul-searching in its music. Map of the Soul: Persona is the sixth extended album by the K-POP boy group called Bangtan Sonyeondan (or BTS, for short), released on April 9, 2019, a continuation album of the “Love Yourself” trilogy. BTS is a group of seven male members — RM, Suga, Jin, V, Jimin, JK, J-Hope — ranging in age from 23–28 and working under the music label, BigHit Entertainment. Four years after the release of the Map of the Soul: Persona album, BTS broke a record to become the first Korean pop group to appear on the Billboard Top 200 with the 2016 Love Yourself: Her album. Few years later in 2020, they made it to №1 on the list with their first English song, Dynamite.[1] The Korean music industry has invested heavily in its K-Pop artists in an effort to see crossover success in American music. So when BTS made such an achievement the question was: what was it that made BTS universally appealing. I find the answer is in the depth of their lyrics and the same exploration of their own abysses for their music that Jung did for his book, The Red Book.

RM and his multiple selves reflected behind him

Map of the Soul: Persona takes its title from a 1956 book written on Carl Jung by Dr. Murray Stein, a training and supervising analyst at the International School of Analytical Psychology. In fact, in the updated version of his book, published in 2019, Stein dedicates the book to BTS and includes a section analysing the group and their application of Jung’s theories in their music. In his book Map of the Soul — Persona: Our Many Faces, Stein summarizes Jung’s theory of persona:

Persona is a type of mask. It hides parts of the self that you do not want to be seen by others, and it also expresses who you feel you are at the present time.…But it does not say who you are when you are alone…[2]

Through the seven songs in the album, the members of BTS confess struggles and weaknesses that they have had in their music career. Jung identifies a human being as one “who is weak and sometimes does not do his best,”[3] and in their music BTS embraces that aspect of themselves as they encourage recognition that even when you fail and become tired of moving forward, you are still who you are deep within. Their songs wake us up to the realization that because of our masks, or personas, we can not easily come to an assumption or judgment about a person.

The first of the seven tracks, “Intro.: Persona,” is a manifesto by RM, asserting his uncertainty about his identity. It is a solo rap that vigorously states his elusive oscillation between himself as RM, his (in Jung’s term) public persona and Nam Joon Kim (his legal name). “Intro.: Persona” constructively summarizes what the rest of the album is about, making its lyrics worth a closer examination. He starts the song by rapping, “Who am I? The question I had my whole life. The question which I probably won’t find an answer to my whole life.”[4] His confusion about himself appears to have become deeper as he achieves great success. He feels “real good but a little uncomfortable”[5] about his achievements and then goes further by saying that he is “still not so sure if he is a dog or a pig or what else. But other people come and put the pearl necklace on me.”[6] Putting a pearl necklace on a pig is an expression meaning that people who do not know the value of someone fail to appreciate them. RM realizes he is loved as the stage persona “RM” of BTS. But he doesn’t believe he truly deserves what he is achieving since his persona, RM, takes over his mental consciousness when he is performing. As RM says in his rap:

It has [I have] never hesitated after becoming that. It keeps appearing under the stage or the light. Keep glaring at me scorchingly like a heat wave.(oh shit) Have you forgotten why you even started this. [7]

Using another term derived from Jung, he confesses that , his “‘shadow’ [says], I write hesitation and call it hesitation.”[8] In Jung’s theory, shadow is an “inferior component of the personality and is consequently repressed through intensive resistance.”[9] In the song, RM also raps “If I were answerable with a few mere words, then God wouldn’t have created all these various beauties,”[10] referring to the Jungian idea that, Stein writes, “we are different personalities in different situations”[11] and “we have different faces, different aspects.”[12] The song continues to reveal his skepticism about talents and skills that he feels are overrated, showing his doubts about himself by writing, “the flaw of mine that only I know, maybe that’s all I’ve got really.”[13] He tosses and turns every night with regrets until he is disgusted with himself. But he explains how he lives on by rapping, “There is something that raised me up again every time. The first question. The three syllables of my name and the word ‘but’ that should come before any of those.”[14] Here is what RM thinks is his true “self” (to use Jung’s term): Kim Nam Joon. Towards the end, he finally throws out the big question that is the core of all his anxieties: “Where is your soul? Where is your dream?”[15] It reflects RM’s real grappling to search for his soul. It is a song about an experience that any human being can have but has affected RM more intensely as a celebrity who has grown so successful.

A later track on the album called “Jamais Vu,” lyrics written by RM and J-Hope, unfolds what Jung calls “complexes” which the group develops along with fame over the years. Jin, J-Hope and JK sing the song as a trio. The title, “Jamais Vu” comes from a French psychiatric term used to define an experience when “you are in a familiar place, but you don’t recognize it.” [16] Because you don’t recognize the place even though it feels familiar there is a process of having to learn the place over and over again. The song starts by BTS members singing that they think they have disappointed someone who is predicted to be their fans, also referred to as ARMY (the official fandom name that is short for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth)[17]. The song compares the reality in which the band members live to a game. They compare their reality to the theme of the game: “If this was a game, I could just load again. I guess I gotta deal with this, deal with this. Real world.”[18] The song is about BTS’s role as artists. They know that their job requires them to perform on stage and produce music that will create resonance with, and provide solace to their fans. For them, it is everyday and yet it feels new and different every time. They sing:

A lacking gamer, you’re right, you can’t control me. I keep hurting because of my repeated mistakes and 50 thousand other things. My song lyrics, my one body gesture. All of my words [I] become afraid of my jamais vu.[19]

The lyrics reflect how conscious they are of every statement they make in public. For them, everything they do — even if it is a routine aspect of their lives — singing on stage and performing, interacting with the press and the public — creates possible unexpected impacts on society. Knowing that causes them to live in a constant state of jamais vu. The song goes on to mention: “I stumble again. I continue running and I stumble again,”[20] the failures and falls that the public will create gossip out of. The media, the fans, the public, and what they talk about in reference to BTS all become to the individual members “complexes.” Complexes are “episodes of repeatedly struggling with the same problematic feelings and behaviors.”[21] In an interview of the three members of the group, Jin, J-Hope, and JK briefly mention that they actually had a moment when “they went on stage to perform like any other day but something felt unfamiliar.”[22] They continued to tap into these episodes of jamais vu. J-Hope states that he always has his lines fully memorized, so they become automatic to the point where he can start singing as he wakes up from a deep sleep, but on stage he is brought to a different realm as the words suddenly become strange to him.

Knowing how idols practice and train, it is unsurprising to hear these members stating their phantasmagoric moments of blurred boundaries between reality and surreality. Regardless of how many times they make appearances on stage and in public, and how deeply it becomes their routine, they are hyper-sensitive to how others will react to their words and behaviors. But sometimes they will still fail. It is as Jung says:

…since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules.[23]

Whether it is their delusion or not, the sudden moment of jamais vu leaves them in a place that is hard to explain with logic. They end the song by addressing their resolution to “not give up”[24] even if they “stumble again”[25] and “repeat [it] countless times”[26] which reflect their decision to develop a map of their own souls by exploring their own psyches — in Jung’s term, “individuation.” Although they are conscious and careful to not disappoint their fans, they believe, as the song says, that their role is to “heal their medic.” The fans are medics for their pain because in the end the fans are who “make my [their] heart beat again.”[27] And BTS are ARMY’s remedy, as is shown by the lyric, “my life and you equal(=)sign. So my remedy is your remedy.” The track really reflects the relationship BTS has with their fans and how fans pressure them but at the same time propel them to move forward. Music is what connects BTS to their fans. ARMY is what surrounds their lives. It is evident, to cite Stein, that “there is a subpersonality with its own set of charged emotions that clustered around certain areas or triggers in our lives, often a trauma.”[28] BTS live with constant exposure to situations that are highly potent of becoming trauma — of disappointing their fans.

In their 2018 UN speech for the launch of Generation Unlimited, a campaign “to ensure every young person is in education, training or employment by 2030,” which is an extended partnership between BTS and UNICEF for the 2017 Love Yourself campaign, the main speaker, RM said:

…yesterday’s me is still me. Today I am who I am with all of my faults and my mistakes. Tomorrow I might be a tiny bit wiser and that would be me too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I am, for who I was, and for who I hope to become.[29]

Many say that the success of BTS is because of their fans. The kind of fandom that BTS has — fans who form tight bonds, passionately supporting the group until they cry or even pass out during the concerts, stand in line for hours to see concerts, wait at the airport in anticipation of the band’s arrival, sing all the lyrics during the concert — is common in the K-Pop world. But the real power is in the messages BTS delivers to their fans with cross-categorical references and examples that they use in their music and music videos — varying from Greek mythology to psychology and philosophy. As seen in the speech made at the UN and through this album, BTS encourages their fans to also develop a map of their own souls. BTS’s music shows that they truly care, respect and appreciate ARMY.

The depth of their music and the contemplation that was put into making it is unlike other groups. In the process of their music making, BTS finds their desert to dig deep into their own souls which is reflected in their lyrics. It is as Jung suggests:

I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can— in some beautifully bound book…Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them— then you will lose your soul— for in that book is your soul.[30]

For BTS their soul is now in their music. Their front loading their artist identities as persona and the analogical use of game to portray their jamais vu-esque world harmoniously reverberates the intersubjective theme of the soul searching journey. Clearly the message has traveled across the world, reaching the fans for whom the album is not simply about BTS but their interrelated roles as remedies live on. For them, the real magic is in the authenticity.

[1] “How BTS Took Over the World: A Timeline of The … — Billboard.” Access: 12. 13, 2020. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8455612/bts-takeover-timeline-bbmas

[2] Murray Stein, Leonard Cruz, and Steven Buser, Map of the Soul: Persona: Our Many Faces (Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2019), https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B07S4CX27R. p.7

[3] C. G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (Philemon) (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), https://www.amazon.com/Red-Book-Readers-Philemon/dp/0393089088. p.144

[4] “BTS RM — Intro : Persona — YouTube.” Access: 12. 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjCyVEQLMcg

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] C. G. Jung, Gerhard Adler, and R. F. C. Hull, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 7 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B00GYGQ09Y. p.53

[10] “BTS RM — Intro : Persona — YouTube.” Access: 12. 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjCyVEQLMcg

[11] Murray Stein, Leonard Cruz, and Steven Buser, Map of the Soul: Persona: Our Many Faces (Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2019), https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B07S4CX27R. p.10

[12] Ibid.

[13] “BTS RM — Intro : Persona — YouTube.” Access: 12. 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjCyVEQLMcg

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Murray Stein, Leonard Cruz, and Steven Buser, Map of the Soul: Persona: Our Many Faces (Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2019), https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B07S4CX27R. p.18

[17] ARMY is also contextually in relation to the full name of BTS, Bangtan Sonyeondan which means Bulletproof Boys.

[18] “BTS (Bangtan Boys) — Jamais Vu lyrics + English translation.” Access: 12. 16, 2020. https://lyricstranslate.com/en/jamais-vu-jamais-vu.html

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Murray Stein, Leonard Cruz, and Steven Buser, Map of the Soul: Persona: Our Many Faces (Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2019), https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B07S4CX27R. p.19

[22] “[2020 FESTA] BTS (방탄소년단) Answer : BTS 3 … — YouTube.” Access: 12. 16, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XnDtD6uTgo&list=PLMqyztgWdLVbQtyb8nQQIP9kN7CVanl_p&index=6&t=0s

[23] C. G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (Philemon) (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), https://www.amazon.com/Red-Book-Readers-Philemon/dp/0393089088. p.457

[24] “BTS (Bangtan Boys) — Jamais Vu lyrics + English translation.” Access: 12. 16, 2020. https://lyricstranslate.com/en/jamais-vu-jamais-vu.html

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Murray Stein, Leonard Cruz, and Steven Buser, Map of the Soul: Persona: Our Many Faces (Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2019), https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B07S4CX27R. p.31

[29] “We have learned to love ourselves, so now I urge you … — Unicef.” Access: 12. 16, 2020. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/we-have-learned-love-ourselves-so-now-i-urge-you-speak-yourself

[30] C. G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (Philemon) (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), https://www.amazon.com/Red-Book-Readers-Philemon/dp/0393089088. p.77

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Anne Bae

[Restart] Writing about things that inspire me in life. For anyone who enjoys exploring different topics and open to discovering new perspectives and ideas.