Critic's Notebook: BTS' 'Map of the Soul: Persona' Is a Tasty Snack That Leaves a Bitter Aftertaste

BTS Grammy Awards - Getty - H 2019
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The K-pop group's new album has its share of catchy, competently crafted songs but feels impersonal and manufactured even by boy-band standards.

Classically packaged boy bands already represent Jungian archetypes, so in some ways it was only natural for intellectual-introspective-themed group BTS to start tackling this head-on, as they do with Map of the Soul: Persona, their 6th EP (or “mini-album,” whatever that is).

The Korean boy band, mostly in their mid-20s and in the second act of their career, are prolific dabblers if nothing else. Fans and handlers of theirs will impress upon you the daunting numbers achieved by the K-Pop boy band septet; how many streams and downloads they get and records they’ve broken seem to lead the discourse in their onslaught of kitchen-sink world pop music.

BTS are the proud product of Big Hit Entertainment’s sausage mill, and they’re the most visible ambassadors of Korean culture around the world this past decade, holding a unique space, at least in the annals of American pop culture. Their mythos and extended universe are particularly developed and invested in, and their Easter egg/allusion-rich output can be read like much of TV and film culture — as reddit-bait.

Like much of the mega-pop artists’ work, this album in particular feels like it’s packaged on an assembly line and by committee, even though members of BTS do more of the writing than some of their contemporaries; similarly to The Monkees, they’re fulfilling a role in their artistic existence (which I guess is the most Jungian thing you can do, really?).

Their music isn’t supposed to be revelatory or novel — it’s supposed to teach listeners how to be a fan of things and to help continue the band’s crossover into America after scoring a hit with cake-throwing DJ Steve Aoki last year. BTS has assumed a ton of market share in the boy-band drought, despite a recent Jonas Brothers revival.

The new record is bracketed by its weakest tracks, “Intro: Persona” and “Dionysus,” particularly off-putting songs that leave a lingering sour aftertaste. This bombastic, musical theater intro and outro couplet — replete with circa-1999 wikki-wikki baby scratches — feels like a juiced-up version of the band’s older stuff sandwiched around a different EP. The songs play like unintentionally comedic genre mistakes, like the Jay-Z/Linkin Park album, and belie a key flaw in BTS: You have no idea what music they actually enjoy. It’s a pop-music problem in general these days — genre is wallpaper, but in liking everything, the artists never make clear what they love.  

Fortunately, there’s more enjoyable fare in the middle of the album, despite the band never staying in one moment long enough to fully milk it. The lead single here is “Boy With Luv” (a quasi-sequel to “Boy in Luv”), which features pop EDM chanteuse Halsey. This one ends up sounding more like Halsey than BTS. It also includes the stodgy middle-school-level lines, “When I realized that, I vowed to myself (Yeah) / With the wings of Icarus you gave me (Uh) / Not towards the sun but towards you / Let me fly,” which gives you a sense of how clumsily the band plays with mythology and other references.

The more deserving radio fodder is “Make It Right,” co-written by Ed Sheehan, as well as “HOME.” The former is a fairly catchy and inoffensive R&B number with a silly but effective synth trumpet that possibly hints at the broader, more adult contemporary direction BTS is sliding toward. The latter is pop pap that contains the most telling line on the whole EP: “The more I fill up, the emptier I get.”

“Jamais Vu” is a messy jumble of elements but delivers that sort of smorgasbord style that many fans will likely eat up. BTS’ musical genre scramble isn’t unique to them, but their ability to splice different forms of positivity and bring awareness to mental health issues and other broader causes is their signature. Their work obviously has touched many people, but their politics remain rather gauzy.

It’s no coincidence BTS fans are called The ARMY; there’s a militaristic, compliant culture of fandom and also in the production and marketing of the work itself. There are many obsessive pop music fans out there, but this group holds a special place in its technocratic takeover of social media platforms. Being an ARMY member means doing the work, and the work is making this group more famous in the second act of their careers.

The commercial thrust behind the group makes their nods at lofty themes of enlightenment — like referencing Carl Jung among many other semi-intellectual breadcrumbs left along the way — seem a little silly. After all, their label Big Hit Entertainment is also selling copies of Murray Stein’s book Jung’s Map of the Soul alongside the new record. This is about commodification, not psychotherapy. The band's dime-store aphorisms tap into a broader empire of pop psychology, which is ultimately designed for people to outgrow. It tastes intentionally ephemeral, like a fast food offering.

On the new album, BTS keeps doing BTS, going increasingly global and broad so that the record can be palatable in places like CVS around the world. Playing into the Lost-like preciousness about their mythos or buying into them as anything other than the music equivalent of a Marvel crossover movie is a mistake. They’re ultimately most satisfying for the casual listener, a light snack for the festival set, something to stream to or from the many Coachellas of the summer circuit — and best to have misremembered by next year.