Dr Colette Balmain examines the lead single from BTS’s Love Yourself 轉 Tear:
“Fake Love” is the lead single from BTS’ third studio album Love Yourself 轉 Tear (they have also released three Japanese studio albums, two repackages, five EPs and two single albums to date) and follows, both temporally and thematically, the comeback trailer “Singularity” which dropped on 6th May 2018. Immediately after its release, “Fake Love” dominated both daily and real-time domestic charts (Melon, Genie, Bugs, Mnet, Navar and Soribada) as well as Instiz’s iCharts real time and daily chart, achieving what is called a perfect all-kill (PAK). This is without the usual domestic comeback shows and music show appearances that would normally accompany a new album and single. Instead BTS choose to ‘comeback’ at the BBMA’s where they won the top Social Artist award for the second year running and performed “Fake Love” for the first time.
Love Yourself 轉 Tear debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number 1 and “Fake Love” at number 10 on the singles chart. The significance of this and the achievement of BTS cannot be underestimated. Love Yourself 轉 Tear is the first non-English language album to hit the top of the Billboard charts for 12 years and the first Korean album to top the charts while “Fake Love” is the second highest placed Korean single of all time (“Gangnam Style” by PSY reached number 2 in 2012). This unprecedented success led South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, to send a congratulatory email to BTS on 29th May 2018. The album itself has topped music charts in 73 countries since release. The music video for “Fake Love” has broken countess YouTube records including the fastest KPOP MV to reach 10, 50 and 100 million views (breaking BTS’ own record set by “DNA) and 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 million likes. It is second on the list of the most viewed MVs of all time, exceeding PSY’s record, and just behind Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do. “Fake Love” and Love Yourself 轉 Tear have also smashed Spotify records for a Korean act. For their world tour which includes concerts in Europe for the first time, tickets have been selling out in minutes. All this demonstrates the global appeal and impact of BTS and their ability to speak to and for young people that is unprecedented in the history of Korean popular music.
Their inclusivity is an important factor in their popularity with BTS openly supporting LGBT rights (which they have done since 2013 when they debuted), talking about depression and mental health issues and changing some of the lyrics to “Fake Love” for US performances because the phrase “내가” or “I am” (in Romanization, Nae Ga) sounds very similar to the N* word. In addition, they regularly communicate directly with fans using social media. For example after winning the award for Top Social Artist at the BBMAs and performing “Fake Love”, BTS did a V Live to thank their fans rather than go to one of the many after parties. Finally, BTS have created a hypertextual, transmedia Universe which is inclusive and diverse. Fans can transverse this in any way they wish to as the Universe itself is open-ended and there are multiple points of entry and exit. In media theory one of the dominant ways of interpreting media texts, especially from a Marxist or Neo-Marxist perspective, is to talk about the “hypodermic needle” model which postulates a one-way message between the media text and the consumer. However contemporary audiences are not media dupes mindlessly consuming the dominant ideology and fans are 1) not all female and 2) are capable of critical and independent thinking. As Brodie Lancaster wrote in an article for Pitchfork in 2015:
The broadstroke opinion of fangirls is that they’re vapid consumers, eager to gobble up whatever scraps a band of dreamy haircuts will toss their way. They’re actively challenging that perception on their own terms, but they’re doing so in their enclosed spheres, far from the white noise of the world assuming they don’t—or can’t—appreciate music for the “right” reasons. (Lancaster: 2015)
BTS fans, ARMY, refer to their relationship with BTS as a familial one in which the group and the fans form a mutual support network. In my research on KPOP fandom I have noticed the care and consideration that the fans also give to each other as well as the desire to represent the fandom in a positive manner (eschewing fan wars). Finally, I would argue that BTS’ “emotional masculinity” which is demonstrated through the close relationships between members and their willingness to bear their innermost fears and thoughts in their music has a great deal to do with their appeal especially in an era of toxic masculinity.
Mould a pretty lie for you
“Fake Love” follows directly on from “Singularity” while aesthetically and thematically continuing with the expansion of the hypertextual BTS Universe that I discussed in my review of the comeback trailer “Singularity”. The BTS Universe is an example of what we call transmedia storytelling which is defined as the construction of a complex “fictional world which can contain multiple interrelated characters and their stories (Jenkins, 2007). There are direct visual references in “Fake Love” to “DNA” (2017) and “Blood, Sweat and Tears” (2016) which can be seen in associative colour palates, repetition of gestures, and overall cinematography and editing style. “Fake Love” like BTS’ other MVs interpellates (positions) the reader as an active maker of meaning rather than a passive recipient. Jenkins writes “Th[e] process of world-building encourages encyclopaedic impulses in both readers and writers”. This is a “world that always expands beyond our grasp” and evades our attempts at mastery. Paradoxically, perhaps, the pleasure of the text lies in our inability to map and contain this world (Jenkins, 2007). This is clear in the intertextual and metatextual links between “DNA” and “Fake Love” (and of course, “Blood, Sweat and Tears). The use of frames within frames, and spaces within spaces, in “DNA” as seen below, can be understood as representing identity in conflict and contextualised by referring back to BTS’ oeuvre. “DNA” is not the ode to the ideal of romantic love that it appeared to be at the time of release. Instead, we could read the MV as a critique of the construction of romantic love in popular and political discourses in South Korea which is closely linked to the perpetuation of patriarchal privilege and the consolidation of heteronormativity.
The carefully constructed world of “DNA”, and its saturated, complementary colour scheme of reds, blues and yellows, is placed under erasure by the darker emotional landscape that constitutes “Fake Love” and its play with colour, both associative and discordant, which is signalled in the black and white opening sequence. Through repetition and difference, “Fake Love” makes us reassess “DNA” and Love Yourself 承Her. What becomes noticeable in this retroactive reading is the way in which at key moments the relationship between background and foreground becomes marked by difference rather than similarity. This difference is colour coded and is expressed through the manner in which light is replaced and displaced by darkness. This can be seen in the final shot sequence when each member turns away from the camera and looks out into the cavernous black night sky against which they are framed. Here the imagistic register hints to the darkness that lies within the deceptively positive surface of “DNA”.
In order to contextualise this further, it is useful to refer to the comeback trailer, “Singularity”, which mediates between “DNA” and “Fake Love”. The term “Singularity” has more than one meaning. The two main ones are: 1) the condition of being singular, and 2) the centre of a black hole which is surrounded by an event horizon. If we go with the second meaning for the moment, we can read the fade to black of “DNA” as a reference to the second definition of singularity. So what is a black hole then? And why is it relevant? Simply put “a black hole is that of a body whose gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape from it” (Curiel & Bokulich, 2009). A black hole is defined as a tear in the space-time continuum and a point at which it is impossible to determine the trajectory of a body moving through it. In a political sense and as an allegory, a black hole can be understood as a potential site of reconfiguration of meaning and identity outside of the dominant ideology. It is not coincidental therefore that the ending of “DNA” becomes the beginning of “Fake Love”.
In the work of French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari (both in their joint and individual writings), a singularity is important in that it marks a point of becoming (this is opposed to being which is static, frozen in time) and transformation therefore linking in with the definition of a black hole as discussed above. In Guattari’s The Three Ecologies (2005 ), he uses the term singularization to stress the material-semiotic processes through which the subject is constructed (territorialized) and through which the subject can be deconstructed (deterritorialized). In order to dismantle systems of oppression that constrain and contain the subject, it is necessary to open up “new vectors of subjectifcation” (2005: 25) which are a catalyst of change. In “Fake Love” one of the main themes is the relationship between the authentic and inauthentic self, who we are and who we think we should be in order to conform to the dominant ideology and the narrative of selfhood that is perpetuated through such ideology. The metaphor of the mask therefore foregrounds the performativity of the roles that we play in our everyday lives and the way in which the body is disciplined into legibility by binary systems of representation which restricts our freedom for self-determination. In a recent interview Judith Butler argues that: “social freedom cannot be understood apart from what arises between people, what happens when they make something in common or when, in fact, they seek to make or remake the world in common” (Butler & Berbec: 2017).
As the subject is defined as a being located in space and time, the opening up of new vectors of subjectification necessitates a deconstruction of traditional spatial-temporal coordinates and the construction of new narratives of belonging. Typically in KPOP MVs, space is envisaged as fantastical and as a space of transit. Such spaces are known as “nonspaces” as there are no geographical coordinates that relate to an outside materiality and reality. According to Michael Fuhr such spaces are “not specific enough to bear an identity” (2015:145). In “Fake Love” the action takes place across multiple spaces which are disconnected both spatially and temporally. While members are connected in the main performance spaces, they are disconnected in the storyline spaces where they appear alone, their solipsism monitored and watched over by an alternate version of the self thus foregrounding the lack of a unified and secure subjectivity. These spaces are also organised vertically and horizontally as well as colour coded to emphasize the stratification of subjectivity. These spaces clearly link to the BTS Universe, creating hypertextual links back and forward through time, folding the Universe in on itself, rather than marking a clear sense of progression in and through time. The function of such spaces therefore is to reveal the transitional and multiple nature of identity and reveal the lie of a fixed and singular self that persists through time and space.
While the performance stage is brightly lit utilising mainly saturated primary colours, the storyworld spaces are typically desaturated and are dull in tone as can be seen in the screen shots above. Jungkook runs across a collapsing floor; the camera slowly pans down until it reaches the lowest level where Taehyung stands, lit only by the artificiality of light from mobile phones, and doubly framed. In the arch of the doorway, “Save Me” is painted on the back wall, referring both to the storyspace of “Fake Love” as well as functioning as a direct reference to BTS’s “Save Me” (2016) single and music video continuing the expansion of the BTS Universe. Thus the organisation of space functions to undermine the sanctity of the unified self and shatters the reflective mirror of representation.
Try babbling in the mirror, who are you?
“Fake Love” continues with the narrative of loss – of love and of the self – that underpinned the comeback trailer “Singularity” and was expressed so beautifully and emotively by Taehyung (and choreographed by Keone Madrid). In Lacanian psychonalaysis, loss is a necessary prerequiste of love. In Seminar VIII, Lacan discusses how love operates by using an analogy of a ripe fruit and a beautiful flower. Owen Hewiston describes it thus:
Imagine you see in front of you a beautiful flower, or a ripe fruit. You reach out your hand to grab it. But at the moment you do, the flower, or the fruit, bursts into flames. In its place you see another hand appear, reaching back towards your own (2017).
This can be interpreted in the light of Lacan’s work on desire and jouissance as articulating the impossibility of totally satisifying desire. He explains this in his work by reference to the Mirror Phase in which the child in order to enter into the symbolic (the world of words, institutions, languages) must separate from the mother who is the original object of desire (for both boys and girls) thereby creating a synergy between desire and loss (the stage before the symbolic is known as the imaginary and is a realm of images and reflections). For Lacan, the object of desire is the phallus [not the penis but the representation of the penis] for both men and women: the man wants to have the phallus while the women desires to be the phallus (and the orignal lost object) and therefore the object of male desire. Of course, this isn’t very romantic especially as it suggests that women have to become the other – wear a mask – in order to fulfil desire (although this is illusory as desire is always linked to loss). To make sense of this, it is useful to refer to the concept of masquerade which was first used by Joan Riviérè in the article “Womanliness as Masquerade” in 1929. Art historian and academic, Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette, puts it well when she writes:
Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. (2013).
Writing in the late 1920s and during first wave feminism, Riviérè argued that in order for working women at the time not to be seen as challenging male dominance, they needed to become hyperfeminine. In this sense, “womanliness” is not an expression of an innate gendered idenity but rather a mask that one puts on to conform to the dominant ideology. In the same way, “manliness” also function to mask over any femininity which threatens the discourse of heteronormativity. This is seen in the anxiety in which any non-conforming gender performance amongst male idols in South Korea is compensated for by violence (in variety shows we often see male members being hit and kicked as punishment for failing a task) which functions to reassert appropriate masculinity and stresses the manliness of the performers. It is important to point out that the fact that male idols appreciate each other’s visuals does not in any indicate that they are not straight identifying despite YouTube videos which seem to suggest that KPOP is essentially gay and/or that all idols are gay. Such videos are a result of a lack of cultural understanding. The need to assert boundaries and binaries: male/female, masculine/feminine, straight/gay says much more about those posting the videos than it does about those it concerns.
In “Fake Love” however it is the members of BTS who are forced to wear masks in order to become the object of desire. This can be understood on both a personal and professional level. To have an ordinary romantic (or sexual) relationship as an idol is almost impossible because then you cannot be the ultimate ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ for your fans. It is difficult to understand this from a Western perspective as there are no such restrictions to the relationship between fans and the object of desire or bias, of course except for moral and ethical ones. In a recent interview with Access’s Scott Evans when asked if they date, RM’s response was “We want to focus on our careers … so it is hard to date” (2018). In other interviews, the group always refer to their fandom, ARMY, as their girlfriends. In order to have a girlfriend, boyfriend or lover as an idol the amount of subterfuge that is necessary probably makes it not worth the effort and of course, dating rumours can be extremely damaging to an idol’s career. So while the emphasis on masks and masquerade can be related to their personal lives, it is also a metaphor for their professional lives. This is best encapsulated by the following lyrics: “I wish all my weaknesses could be hidden / I grew a flower that can’t be bloomed in a dream that can’t come true” and “I even became quite unsure of who I was / Try babbling into the mirror, who the heck are you?” (2018). BTS, as typical for an idol group, has very little personal time while their professional time is incessantly documented and screened for the viewer’s pleasure. As such, it is easy to lose sense of yourself as you are almost always on camera with both fans and anti-fans scrutinising your every move. The pressure to be perfect in the KPOP industry means that anything less than perfect is viewed in a negative manner. Of course, we all know that perfection is an illusion and can only be produced through the manipulation of the image through technology. BTS discuss the tension between their roles of idols and their ordinary lives throughout “Burn the Stage”: a six part documentary series about the Wings Tour that screened recently on YouTube Red. In many ways “Fake Love” is a reflection of their anxieties and insecurities about the conflict between their professional and personal selves and the lie of perfection that mediates between the two.
Try to erase myself, and make me your doll
The loss of authentic self and its replacement by the inauthentic self who acts as a mirror for the Other’s desire is also expressed through choreography. Popping is utilised throughout the performance pieces in the MV as its quick, jerky movements are visually expressive of a doll that is manipulated by a puppetmaster as can be seen in the screenshot above where Jimin in the vertical position is holding invisible reigns and is therefore in a position of power over the rest of the group who are occupying the horizontal position. In art and dance, the horizontal is inextricably linked to femininity and the vertical to masculinity. In ‘Toppling Dance’, Andre Lepecki explains that: “Perspective is the effect created by a specific organization of lines on a representational surface (usually verticals) that secures a geometrically coherent figuration of spatial depth (2006: 74). The repeated use of the horizontal in “Fake Love” dismantles the gendered privilege of the vertical coded as male in opposition to the horizontal coded as female. This subversion of gendered binaries is also visually expressed through the opposition between rounded and geometric gestures; the circular as an expression of the feminine while the angular an expression of the masculine. Lis Engel points out that: “The polarity between curving and straight lines is in many cultures interpreted as masculine or feminine” (2001: 365). In “Fake Love” the choreography switches between hard and soft aesthetics and control and spontaneity in which the body language of BTS “far expands the traditional norms of femininity and masculinity” (2001: 365). In ‘The Choreography of Gender’, Yamanashi & Bulman argue that “Ballroom dancing allows men to explore traits long repressed by traditional masculinity – such as emotional sensitivity, artistic passion, and creativity (2009: 612). We can see this in “Fake Love” in the way in which the choreography eschews the typical hard masculinity found in hip-hop dance in places for an emotive, soft and emotional masculinity which is not afraid to show frailty and fragility. The performance choreography provides another example of this: during Yoongi’s rap, he walks down the line of the BTS members, their bodies curving and collapsing as he passes by them.
Epilogue: I grew a flower that can’t be bloomed in a dream that can’t come true
“Fake Love” is BTS at their most vulnerable, opening up about and displaying their fears around the empherality of fame as well as commenting on the fleeting nature of youth, connecting with their audience through their artistic creativity and emotional intensity. The use of gesture, particularly the repetition of the outstretched hand that we see in the screenshots from “Singularity” and “Fake Love” above can be intepreted as BTS holding out their hands directly to their fans as a mechanism of communication and comfort. This is part of the inclusivity of BTS as discussed earlier in relation to the LGBT community and other oppressed and marginalised groups. While primarly their message is directed towards young people who are struggling at home and at school, some of whom are suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts, their fandom includes people such as myself who have long said goodbye the spring of their youth because we feel that their message is important in today’s society. In my experience as a lecturer, mental health issues amongst young people are becoming far to common. A recent study into young adult’s mental health in the UK showed that they spend more than 6 hours a day feeling stressed and anxious: “A poll of 1,000 18-25-year-olds found money, appearance and career worries as well as fears about the future mean a large chunk of their time is spent feeling anxious or under pressure” with more than half not seeking professional support (Francis: 2018). In South Korea the competitive nature of the education system and the pressure on boys to repay their manager mothers by entering the corporate world while girls are meant to marry well and have children to ensure that the continuation of the familial line can be seen in the rise of mental health issues (this is a global issue and not a local one but has specific cultural resonances). In a lecture on “The (un)Making of the Korean Family, Hyun Mee Kim discusses the early roots of this social and economic pressure.
This process begins from their children’s kindergarten age. Once their children enters and graduates from elite universities, these young adults’ chance to white collar employment increase. In a way, the mother’s management is looking ahead for their children’s future for success. Here the children’s success become an opportunity and tool for the whole family. Their success will secure, if not promote, the whole family’s chance to maintain or become middle and upper class members of Korean society. In turn, the family’s upward mobility is in the hands of moms.
Such a division of social and economic labour supports and propagates traditional gender roles and by association heteronormativity. Hyun Mee Kim explains that: “Typical Korean marriage and family is understood as a heterosexual institution. This sustains population reproduction through gendered division of labor (2017). BTS’ songs and music videos (and accompanying transmedia materials) directly critique this dominant narrative of youth which is contained in nationalistic discourse of identity, gender and sexuality, by opening up alternative spaces within their storyworld that fans can interact and identify with if they want. In an interview earlier this year, Min Yoongi said: “it’s okay if you don’t have a dream, you might not have one. Just being happy is fine”. These sentiments are given form on “Paradise”, one of the tracks on Love Yourself 轉 Tear which was co-written by Kim Namjoon (RM), Min Yoongi (Suga), and Jung Hoseok (JHope) and this seems to be an appropriate point to end this review.
It’s alright to stop / There’s no need to run without even knowing the reason /
It’s alright to not have a dream /
If you have moments where you feel happiness for a while /
It’s alright to stop / Now we don’t run without even knowing the destination /
It’s alright to not have a dream / All the breaths you breathe is already in paradise
(translation: Genius Lyrics)
Music Video Credits:
Director: YongSeok Choi (Lumpens)
Assistant Director: WonJu Lee, Guzza, HyeJeong Park, MinJe Jeong (Lumpens)
Director of Photography: HyunWoo Nam(GDW)
Gaffer: HyunSuk Song (Real Lighting)
Art Director: JinSil Park Bona Kim (MU:E)
Construction Manager: SukKi Song
Special Effect: Demolition
Choreography: Son Sungdeuk
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