Trajectories of Meaning in “Singularity” – the BTS Comeback Trailer: Love Yourself 轉 Tear

by Colette Balmain on 14 May, 2018

in Hallyu | Music features | Pop rock and indie

Dr Colette Balmain analyses the comeback trailer for BTS’s third studio album:

From Serendipity to Singularity: A Universe of Meaning

‘True’ Love in “Serendipity”

‘True’ Love in “Serendipity”

“Singularity” is the comeback trailer for BTS’ third studio or full length album, Love Yourself: Tear which will be released on 18th May 2018. This follows up the mini album or EP, Love Yourself: Her (released on 18th September 2017), while continuing with the dark/light, good/evil theme of Wings (10th October 2016) which was reissued in February 2017 as You’ll Never Walk Alone (13th February 2017 with lead singles “Spring Day” and “Not Today” amongst the new songs on the repackage).  The lead single, “Fake Love” will receive its World Premiere on 20th May 2018 when BTS will perform it at the Billboard Music Awards.

For previous comebacks (in KPOP a comeback refers to any new material by a group and not to a group coming back after a hiatus), the trailers were dominated by the rap line – not surprisingly as BTS were marketed originally as a hip hop group – until the comeback trailer for Love Yourself: Her dropped in which Park Jimin (Jimin) shows off his beautiful tone and range with “Serendipity”.

“Singularity” sees another member of the vocal line, Kim Taehyung (V), take centre stage in a deftly choreographed piece which visually draws together many of the strands of the BTS universe as do the lyrics themselves. The composition of the BTS universe itself is beyond the scope of this review but it covers concept art, comeback trailers, Highlight reels, album storytelling and “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: The Notes” (fictional diary entries by the members of BTS) which not only cover the Love Yourself album series but also look back over their entire oeuvre to date.

Each entry in the Love Yourself series contains one of the following Chinese characters: 起承轉結 (in Japanese, kishōenketsu) which make up a common phrase used to explain the structure of narratives first used in relation to Chinese four-line poems. Each character represents a different stage in the story:  Introduction/Beginning – 起, Development – 承, Twist/Turn – 轉, Reconciliation/Conclusion – 結, but not necessarily in that order.

In the West, Todorov’s (1969) narrative theory is often used to explain the construction and development of a story (although narratology is traced back to Aristotle). This is made up of five distinct phases: equilibrium, disruption, journey to restore the disrupted equilibrium, climax/conclusion and finally restoration of equilibrium/new order (sometimes an abbreviated version of the five act structure is used: order/disorder/restored order especially to refer to the typical three act structure of film).

While Western narratology stresses conflict as a mechanism for transformation, East Asian narratology is marked by an absence of conflict: the conclusion functions not so much to end discord but rather to bring together the strands of the narrative dynamically. It is causality (the links between) rather than conflict (the tension between) that structures 起承轉結 / kishōenketsu.

Hunter explains “this four-part structure generates plot in the absence of conflict, simply by utilizing contrasting forms of exposition. This is strikingly contrary to the West’s belief that plot and conflict are inseparable” (2016). So far in the Love Herself series, we have Love Yourself: Her 承 (development); Love Yourself: Euphoria 起 (introduction) and Love Yourself: Tear 轉 (twist). Euphoria, is a concept music video and not an album, which acts as a bridge between Her and Tear, and the two respective comeback trailers, “Serendipity” and “Singularity”.

In the Mood for Love

“Singularity” was preceded by the latest entry in “The Notes”: a diary entry by Jungkook, dated 22nd May 2022. Tamar Herman, for Billboard Magazine, points out that the Chinese characters which form the title of this note, 花樣年華, (which loosely means “the golden years” or “youth”) are:

A reference in title to both their 2015-16 Most Beautiful Moment In Life album series and Wong Kar Wai’s 2000 film In The Mood For Love — which uses the same Chinese characters as BTS’ albums — the Notes have also tied into their music videos and other related content, including promotional videos and teaser images. Those bits of content have relayed a creative narrative filled with loss, death, love, and friendship surrounding the group’s music. (2018)

Jungkook’s “Note” is written from a “possible” future (adulthood) marked by loss and sorrow, linking back to the traumatic past (childhood) and a present yet to come (youth). There are ways in which the Love Yourself concept reworks and reconfigures what has come before, marking BTS’s universe not as a linear one but rather as one constituted by lines of flights, zones of indeterminacy and potentiality. This is foregrounded through the direct reference to In The Mood for Love as Wong Kar-wai’s films can be perhaps best classified as mediations on the passing of time through a loosely connected series of non-chronological events and alienated characters making it difficult to map out the relations and interconnections between them. This requires labour and active interpretation by viewers in order to construct a coherent narrative from fragments of the past, snippets of the future, and characters whose identity and motivations are never clear.

For example for Ashes of Time Redux (restoration/revisioning of Ashes of Time [1994] after the original negatives were lost in a lab fire), Wong Kar-wai added intertitles to introduce the film’s five chapters (which are visually distinguished from each other through the change in seasons in a cyclical motion starting and finishing with Spring). Arguably this addition helped the [Western] spectator to draw links between each section rather than struggle to make sense of the narrative structure. In The Mood for Love, which is directly referenced in “Singularity”, as in Wong Kar-wai’s other films, love is deceptive, memory is untrustworthy, identity is mutable, and time is an internal rather than external force. Similarly in “Singularity”, identity is not fixed but rather dispersed into a series of performances and the viewer is interpellated as an active constructer of meaning through visual and linguistic clues that reference the larger Universe of the BTS storyworld while also anticipatory of the next stage in the story.

The Mirror Cracks: Repetition and Difference

Breaking through the illusion in “Singularity”

Breaking through the illusion in “Singularity”

“Singularity” as a precursor to Love Yourself: Tear suggests a darker and more ambivalent universe that the one found in Love Yourself: Her. While on the surface the later seems to be optimistic, like the vibrant saturated colours found in the comeback trailer and lead single “DNA”, darkness haunts the light, and can be found in the two physical album-only tracks: “Sea” and “Hesitation and Fear”. The physical album offers depth to the digital surface informing the listener of the deceptive nature of surfaces and reflections. This is carried forward into “Singularity” where the mirror cracks, revealing the darkness beneath the surface and the artificiality of the narrative of romantic love found in Love Yourself: Her.

Stormy Weather in “Serendipity”

Stormy Weather in “Serendipity”

As a comeback trailer for Love Yourself: Tear, “Singularity” picks up on and twists, 轉, the seemingly positive message of Love Yourself: Her, 承, which itself develops and draws on the storyworld of Euphoria; Theme of Love Yourself: Wonder 起 (introduction) despite the fact that Euphoria was released after Her and before Tear. “Singularity” subverts the idea of romantic love that underpins “Serendipity” as well as foregrounding the difficulties of learning to love yourself in today’s pressured and competitive capitalist society. Foreboding signs of what is to come can be seen in “Serendipity” communicated through colour, movement and frames within a frame: the still sea transforms into crashing waves; gusts of wind blow away tranquillity; dark blue provides a visual contrast to the bright blue, which dominates the cinematic palate of yellows, blues and reds in “Serendipity”, replacing harmony with disharmony as Jimin becomes trapped, framed against the window as darkness overtakes light.

The illusion of romantic love in “Singularity”

The illusion of romantic love in “Singularity”

From its opening scene, “Singularity” twists the dominant ideological narrative of romantic love transforming it into a narrative of despair and unbearable pain. The first shot is a medium shot of Taehyung and what appears to be an unidentified woman. As the camera pans in, it is revealed that in fact the woman is nothing more than clothes hung on a coat stand and the hand caressing Taehyung’s face is in fact his own. As many have noted in their analyses and reactions to the MV, the Greek myth of Narcissus is an important reference point in “Singularity” and is signified through multiple visual and linguistic references as well as being implicit in Taehyung’s erotic obsession with his own body and its reflective surface. This can be interpreted as a commentary on the importance of visuals and image for Idol groups. As the “face” of BTS, Taehyung’s extraordinary beauty is often discussed in the media and in 2017, Taehyung was voted the “Most Handsome Face” by the Independent Critics Association. Of course, women have long been associated with image and their value assessed in terms of patriarchal standards of beauty which is associated in particular with youth and whiteness in the West. In KPOP, such beauty standards are not merely the domain of the female as the emphasis on visuals in the industry is used equally in terms of assessing the value of both male and female Idols.

Timothy Laurie argues that there are three key parameters necessary to succeed in the saturated KPOP market: 1) eternal youth, 2) transnational standards of beauty and 3) homosociality (Laurie, 2016: 218-219). Aging is anathematic to KPOP idols as the older you become, the more the likelihood of being replaced by a younger group. The members of BTS are all too aware of the passing of time as was revealed in the recent 8 part Burn the Stage documentary series (a behind the scenes look at BTS’s recent Wings world tour), which finished airing on YouTube Red (premium paid service not available in Europe) on 9th May 2018. As the tour concludes, the members reflect on the future and Min Yoongi (Suga) says “I want to do this for a long time. I don’t expect this young energy and popularity to go on forever. Even if we are up for the challenge whether that many fans will be there to support us and our music can’t really be certain” (2018). The fleeting nature of youth is signified in “Singularity” through direct references to the passing of seasons, from the thick ice that Taehyung needs to break through in order to find the self behind the multiple masks that he is forced to wear; the faded newspaper articles and the symbolic use of flowers as a metaphor for birth, death and renewal.

Loving Oneself in “Singularity”

Loving Oneself in “Singularity”

By revealing the absence of the other as a precursor to the operation of the narcissistic self, “Singularity” can also be interpreted as a commentary on the manner in which Idols are forced to sacrifice their personal lives for their professional ones. Living together in small cramped spaces before and after their debut, unless they become successful, Idols are marketed as the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend and therefore are actively prevented from any type of relationship that goes beyond friendship in order to maintain this illusion. As a result physical intimacy only takes place through homosociality (homosociality simply means close, non-sexual, bonds between members of the same sex) as skinship with members of the opposite sex is forbidden. Here the inert coat-stand and its female garb first conceals and then reveals absence. This can be interpreted in many different ways. It could be just a comment on the fact that being an Idol means sacrificing a personal life in order to maintain the illusion of availability; or it could refer to the nebulous relationship between idols, their fans and anti-fans in a wider sense, something that RM discusses in Episode 7 of Burn The Stage (2018). Another interpretation might focus in on the manner in which gender identity in KPOP often does not conform to the male/female binary especially in the case of male Idols for whom being feminine is actively encouraged as long as it doesn’t slip over from the performative to the iterative and stays just far enough inside dominant stereotypes to be rendered non-threatening to the perpetuation of heteronormativity. This gender ambiguity is also signalled by the intertextual visual reference to Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-1852) which depicts the final moments of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1602) before the river, into which she has fallen while picking flowers, becomes her watery grave.

However we interpret the opening scene in “Singularity”, there can be little doubt that the interplay between surface and depth and self and other provides the thematic motivation especially through the multiple intertextual references to Narcissus who was so beautiful that he became the object of desire for both men and women, but whose self-love was such that he refused all suitors including Echo, ultimately dying on a river bank so transfixed by his image that he forgot to eat or drink. Throughout the MV, repeated images of Taehyung gazing at his reflection in the water, including a shot from below the surface, clearly reference the myth of Narcissus. Even though the perspective is different, the visual similarities between Caravaggio’s Narcissus on the left and Taehyung’s reflection in the still from “Singularity” on the right makes this clear.

In The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, Kristin Dombek comments on the ubiquity of discourses of narcissism in contemporary culture. She writes: “we live in a time so rampant with narcissists, so flush with false selves so selfish that they feed on other selves, a time so full of contagious emptiness, that ours is a moment in history that is, more than any other, absolutely exceptional” (2016). In “Singularity”,  a mime performance piece is used to foreground this contagious emptiness as well as communicating the difficulty in maintaining one’s individuality / singularity when your identity is constituted and constructed through and by the desire of others.

Have I lost myself?

Masks and Mime in “Singularity”

Masks and Mime in “Singularity”

In “Singularity” the lyrics connect the absence of self-worth and the inability to love oneself to the loss of voice. “The pain in my throat gets worse / Try to cover it / I don’t have a voice”). This loss of voice is directly linked to loss of self: “Have I lost myself / Or Have I gained you?” As an actor on a public stage it could be argued that the loss of self is a precondition of meeting the desire of the other and the lack that underpins all desire. In a psychoanalytical sense, desire is always motivated by lack and is expressed through a desire for recognition.  Lacan argues that “Desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn’t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists” (Lacan, 1988: 223). The object of desire is unable to fulfil the subject’s desire because subjectivity in a Lacanian sense is predicated upon dissonance and misrecognition. In repeated mime sequences, the white masks move in time with the music and Taehyung’s gestures while elsewhere in the MV the choreography is out of time with the music, creating a sonic/visual dissonance. In these scenes, the duration of the dance is more compressed than the duration of the music. This dissonance between sound and image mimics the narrative twist of “Singularity” and the move from harmony (or order) to disharmony (or disorder): the conclusion to which remains unwritten.

In The End The Spring Will Come

Connective spaces and Lines of Flight in “Singularity”

Connective spaces and Lines of Flight in “Singularity”

The MV takes place across two separate spaces: one open and one closed; with the setting and the colour palate linking “Singularity” to the other entries in the Love Yourself series. In “Serendipity”, yellow is one of the dominant colours while red is dominant in “Singularity”. The use of yellow in the above scene directly connects the two together constituting a two-way passage between them. Here yellow can be read as signifying hope and optimism whereby in “Serendipity”, yellow can also be understood as signifying deceit and betrayal thereby emphasizing the “twist” that will be revealed in Love Yourself: Tear.

From The Most Beautiful Moments in the World to Euphoria: Repetition and Difference

From The Most Beautiful Moments in the World to Euphoria: Repetition and Difference

The concept of “Singularity” has multiple meanings as many reactions to and reviews of the comeback trailer have pointed out. The most common of those cited are the following: (1) singular (one); (2) unique (peculiar) and (3) in astronomy a black hole (or mathematical representation thereof).  In the work of Deleuze, a French philosopher, a singularity is a “decisive point and a place where perception is felt in movement … [which] allows the subject to perceive the world … infinitesimally and infinitely” (Parr, 2010: 235). In these terms, a singularity is the opposite of the mirror which relates to an ordered world whose directions and meanings are finite and therefore can be easily mapped out: while a singularity is “one” event or thing, the world is composed of an infinite number of singularities. Singularity is linked to duration (the passage of time) and perception (the way in which we experience time). This might seem complicated at first but if we look at the BTS Universe or storyworld, and the seemingly random way in which events are presented to us and the repetition within difference of those events. For example, in the video “Prologue” to The Most Beautiful Moments in Life series, Taehyung is seen jumping into the sea from a high platform while Jimin is filmed “filming” from the ground, while in Euphoria, it is Jin who is seen on the platform and Taehyung who is holding the camera. BTS’s storyworld can offer another way of understanding the world which is open rather than closed, which is full of potential and possible singularities which can transform both our place in the world, and the world itself. Certainly the message that has been communicated by BTS from their debut stage onwards and associated materials has been one of belief in change and the ability to make change happen.

“Singularity” adds to and deepens the BTS’ storyworld; it is mediation on the nature of gender and identity and the relationship between the desire of the Other and the Self in which the Self is always, of necessity found lacking. The visual and linguistic references to Narcissus provide a commentary on the nature of late-capitalist society in which everyone and everything has become commodified through the operation of the spectacle (image). In 1967, in Guy Debord’s manifesto against the spectacle, The Society of the Spectacle, he wrote: “The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself. It is the true reflection of the production of things, and the false objectification of the producers.”  However, dissonance at the level of duration which is found in the relationship between music and dance in “Singularity” allows us to understand the different ways in which meaning is made “reflect[ing] something important about life … [and] reveal[ing] a potential that in everyday life is obscured, or we are distracted from, or feel we cannot achieve” (Duerden, 2007:81). The storyworld of BTS asks that its fans be active makers of meaning, and not mere passive receptors of the dominant ideology and in doing so, communicating potentiality and possibility. Arguably it is this that is behind BTS’s growing global popularity and which marks them out as unique not in terms of KPOP (this isn’t to say that they are not KPOP but merely to point to the way in which they position themselves differently in the market) but also in terms of popular music more generally.

Music Video Credits:

Director: Choi Yong-seok (Lumpens)
Assistant director:  Wonju Lee, MinJe Jeong, HyeJeong Park (Lumpens)
Director of photography: HyunWoo Nam (GDW)
Art Director: JinSil Park Bona Kim (MU:E)
Editor: HyeJeong Park
Producer: Big Hit Entertainment

Notes

The rap line consists of:  Kim Nam-joon (stage name: RM), Min Yoon-gi (stage name: Suga), and Jung Ho-seok (stage name: JHope).

The vocal line consists of:  Park Jimin (stage name: Jimin), Jeon Jungkook (stage name: Jungkook), Kim Seokjin (stage name: Jin) and Kim Tae-hyung (stage name: V).

Burn The Stage is a YouTube Red exclusive but individual episodes can be purchased outside in the UK, and other countries where YouTube Red hasn’t been launched yet.

For insightful analysis and reviews of Burn The Stage, I recommend Jae-Ha Kim’s reviews.  The analysis of the first two episodes can be found here: http://www.jaehakim.com/entertainment-reviews/tv-reviews/bts-burn-the-stage/

References:

Debord, G. ([1967]1994). The Society of the Spectacle. Nicholson-Smith, D. (trans). New york: Zone books.

Duerden, R. (2007). Dancing in the Imagined Space of Music. Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, 25(1), 73-83. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004126

Dombek, K. (2016). The selfishness of others: An essay on the fear of narcissism. FSG Originals.

Herman, T. (2018). ‘BTS Continues ‘Most Beautiful Moment In Life’ Narrative Ahead of ‘Love Yourself: Tear’ Release’, Billboard Magazine, [Online], 5th March, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/7933862/bts-love-yourself-series-details (accessed 12th May 2018)

Hunter, M. (2016). From Conflict to Concord: Lessons from the Mouse. Etudes: an online theatre and performance studies journal for emerging scholars, 2 (2), [Online]
https://pilotscholars.up.edu/pfa_facpubs/2 (accessed 12th May 2018)

Lacan, J. (1988). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954–55.Tomaselli, S. (trans). Miller, J.A. (ed). New York: Norton.

Laurie, T. (2016). Toward a Gendered Aesthetics of K-Pop In: Chapman, I., & Johnson, H. (eds.). Global Glam and Popular Music: Style and Spectacle from the 1970s to the 2000s (Vol. 11). London: Routledge, pp. 214-231.

Parr, A. (2010). The Deleuze Dictionary Revised Edition (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Todorov, T., & Weinstein, A. (1969). Structural Analysis of Narrative. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 3(1), 70-76.

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