If you were to distill BTS’s nine-year career into a single sentence, it might read something like the first lyric of their anthology album Proof. “I’m a born singer… I swear,” sings Jungkook on “Born Singer,” a track released a month after the group’s 2013 debut. “There’s a mirage right here, always far from me.”
For nearly a decade, BTS has been yearning to prove themselves, rushing with fingers outstretched toward a dream that feels just out of reach. The motif of running, especially across a desert barren of success, is a constant presence in their music and visuals. Even in recent years, as the group has ascended to a nearly peerless echelon, they’ve expressed feeling haunted by their own insatiable ambition: the mirage right here, always far away from me.
Today, the band released a 48-song anthology of singles, b-sides, demo tracks, and a handful of new songs aptly titled Proof. The album, released to mark their 9th anniversary, is meant to be a celebratory retrospective of their career, evidence of an indelible legacy. But as hard as the group tries to greet their past warmly, BTS ultimately remain preoccupied by a vision of what they might yet become, if only they keep running.
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An evolution from raw early material to a polished global presentation
Proof maps the outline of BTS’s career across three collections: the first includes past title tracks and a new single, “Yet to Come (The Most Beautiful Moment),” the second is made up of pre-released sub unit and solo tracks hand-picked by the members as well as solid new offering “Run BTS,” and the third contains demos of both released and unreleased songs as well as the new ode to fans “For Youth.”
The album opens on the group in 2013, when the newly debuted “Bangtan Boys” are teens and 20-year-olds crackling with inchoate talent and a thirst to prove themselves. The influence of American hip hop and rap on their music is apparent, as is their desire to challenge traditional ideals of success. “What were you dreaming to become?… Go your own way… Do something, put your weakness away” they urge listeners on debut single “No More Dream.” Other early releases like “N.O.,” “Boy in Luv” and “Danger,” in contrast, are more marked by a growling macho angst that’s directed, in turn, at the education system, at girls, at interior doubts and fears of inferiority.
By 2015, BTS focus that energy into a powerful narrative laid out in “Run”: “I bloom for you, but you make me thirsty. Even if I‘m drying out, I try harder to reach you.” By 2016, they hit their stride with “Burning Up (FIRE)” and breakthrough smash “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Proof documents their subsequent rise to dominance with 2017’s “Spring Day” and “DNA” and 2019’s “Boy with Luv,” featuring pop star Halsey.
The compelling imperfection of these releases, mixed with Proof’s vivid selection of personality-driven solos and sub unit tracks and unfinished demo gemstones, throw the pastel disco pastiche of 2020’s ”Dynamite” and harmless effervescence of 2021’s “Butter” into sharp relief. It’s a contrast that some fans may find unflattering to the group’s more recent releases: the latter feel glossier and calculated, lacking in the raw authenticity the group once exhibited in abundance.
A band running toward an uncertain future
By 2020, BTS had charmed South Korean and global markets with their winsome group dynamic and undeniable musicality. The final frontier for them, it seemed, was America, and they made a concerted effort to win over the market with radio-friendly English-language pop. Each subsequent release sanded down the unpolished musical elements that had originally made BTS so thrilling. The tracks were buoyant but bland, playful but prosaic. The beguiling barren expanses of their past were replaced by dewy fields in “Dynamite,” shiny studio lights in “Butter,” and transformed into a dance floor in “Permission to Dance,” a banal Ed-Sheeran penned single that is notably absent from Proof.
This strategy, mixed with the effortless charisma of the members, helped them achieve an unprecedented feat: in 2021, BTS was the top-selling act in the world.
But their newest single, “Yet to Come (The Most Beautiful Moment),” makes it clear that the mirage still eludes them. In the track’s music video, we see the desert of their past littered with imagery from iconic songs and music videos: a blue train car from “Run,” an upright piano in reference to “First Love” and “Fake Love,” a carousel and pair of white sneakers from “Spring Day,” and a bright yellow school bus from the music video that started it all: “No More Dream.” The imagery is nostalgic and the lyrics are a return to form. BTS is again running towards the future.
“…I just wanna see the next,” they say, “The past was honestly the best. But my best is what comes next… We’re just running forward, Promise that we’ll keep on coming back for more… In the hush of night, we won’t stop moving.”
An opportunity to reflect on all they’ve built
If BTS were to pause for a moment to survey their legacy, this is what they would see: a diverse, ardent army of fans, dominance of the Billboard Hot 100, and HYBE Entertainment, a publicly-traded conglomerate conservatively valued at more than $6 billion, with arms in music management, technology, gaming, and publishing, and artists and shareholders including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and J. Balvin. HYBE is, quite literally, the house that BTS built, and the group remains a global economic force, bringing in $5 billion a year, or .5% of the national GDP, to the South Korean economy.
It is high time for the group to release themselves from the burden of unattainable perfection, and bask in the glow of their own golden light. The impending reality of military service, a requirement for Korean men that has already been deferred for BTS to the age of 30 (eldest member Jin will turn 30 in December), may be the only force powerful enough to finally stop them in their tracks.
Back in 2013, on “Born Singer,” J-Hope foreshadowed the sentiments expressed in “Yet to Come (The Most Beautiful Moment).” “Remember the days we’ve been through,” he urges himself. “I swear not to forget the very first intention: Always myself, live up to myself. So we go up.” But the song ends on an assurance that is notably absent from the group’s newest title track: “Anyway, I’m so happy,” they sing together, “I’m good.”
Proof is a fitting summary of a career that has broken records, moved hearts, and changed history. Fans will adore it. One can only hope that, in listening to it, BTS themselves can find joy in how far they’ve come.