On January 17, BTS released their latest single, “Black Swan,” ahead of the release of their new album. Over their illustrious career, BTS has tackled a lot of topics: depression, social injustice, the darker side of love. Still, it’s stunning to see them take on this newest subject: burnout and the struggles of success.
For those unfamiliar with the term, burnout is described as emotional, physical and mental exhaustion due to prolonged stress. Trying to drive while the gas tank is empty, so to speak. In the era of the side gig and small business owners, burnout has been a silent terror for many people. The thing is, though, burnout doesn’t just affect those who are on the path to success. People who have thriving careers or goals are often struck with this feeling of emptiness.
Over the past few years, the discussion of burnout has been ever-present. Many entertainers have spoken up about their own experiences. In the modern age of the hustler, it feels inevitable.
When I first heard “Black Swan,” my initial thought was how close it sounds to “Fake Love.” By now, there are many fanmade remixes pairing the two together. That said, I don’t think it’s an accident the two sounds so similar. While it was the song that helped make BTS a household name, it also came with inner struggles. BTS has talked numerous times about their mixed feelings of their success, even discussing disbanding the group.
We’ve heard the story before. An unlikely artist or group releases a song that becomes a smash hit only for the artist to drop into obscurity. It’s a sad but very true possibility for a lot of artists. Trends and popularity are always changing. For some artists, the lurking fear of their greatest victory eventually overshadowing and destroying them is ever-present.
In Suga’s intro, “Shadow,” he begs to not fly due to his fear of falling. The metaphor immediately reminded me of the myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun and died. But people often forget the first part of his story. Icarus and his father, Daedalus, were imprisoned for Daedalus’s crime. Daedalus made the wings for their escape, and in Icarus’s hubris (or perhaps, his euphoria), he soared too high.
BTS as a group has been working toward this for nearly seven years, but as individuals, it’s even longer. Before becoming trainees, they’d been working to become performers. They’ve talked about their struggles and sacrifices and now how they’ve made it. What next, though? What happens when the thing that helped you persevere isn’t enough anymore? When you get what you want and it only exhausts you?
Fortunately, BTS took action. The group has notably taken more vacations and private time and only had one comeback. They’ve also taken up hobbies and projects separate from the group. Still, they move forward, openly discussing their struggles.
On January 17, BTS released the pre-single online but used a different version in the art film. While the vocals and lyrics are the same in both, the two instrumentals, a trap beat and a string orchestra, have two vastly different weights. The smooth bassline along with autotuned background vocals gives a cool, almost distracted feeling to the song. If the concept of burnout had a sound, it would be this. Beautiful, layered but muted.
The art film’s take, however, has so much feeling that I fight back tears on nearly every listening. In the beginning, each instrument works together until they become dysfunctional and fractured at the midpoint. When the music starts again, the strings give the song a driving force as if it’s sheer willpower to overcome the darkness. The YouTube channel, ReactToTheK, goes into deeper detail about the musicality of the two versions on their reaction video.
The video is a dance performance by MN Company. I honestly can’t say much about it because it could mean so many things. The swan-like dancer can symbolize BTS’s journey, but through what? I’ve seen this countless times, and my opinion constantly changes. Perhaps the other dancers represent the restraints they felt when others saw them as only a niche boy band. Or maybe it’s their inner demons, the shadow self, as Freud called it. It could even be the concept of obligations or expectations. Nonetheless, the moment where the dancer moves triumphantly at the four-minute mark and the ending shot of them flying just moves me to tears.
The album, “Map of the Soul: 7” releases on February 21. You can pre-order now online. I am not emotionally prepared for this.