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The end of the journey: desire, recognition and redemption in BTS’s “IDOL”

Dr Colette Balmain examines the culmination of the BTS Love Yourself series:

BTS IDOL: Lead image

“IDOL” is the lead single from BTS’s final album in the “Love Yourself” series. The series comprises one extended storyworld music video, Love YourselfWonder; one mini album, Love Yourself Her; one full length album, Love YourselfTear; and one special repackage, Love YourselfAnswer. There are also supplementary materials which situate these within the wider BTS Universe including the Highlight Reels, the Notes, teaser videos and photos. Love YourselfAnswer boasts 25 songs which includes 7 new ones: “Trivia 起 Just Dance” (JUNG Hoseok); “Trivia 承 Love” (KIM Namjoon); “Trivia 轉 Seesaw” (MIN Yoongi); “Euphoria” (JEON Jungkook); “Epiphany” (KIM Seokjin); “I’m Fine”; “Answer Love Yourself”; and of course the “IDOL”. On the digital version, there is a second version of IDOL which features a rap by Nicki Minaj (this was the single that got the airplay in the US). Love YourselfAnswer has broken both national and worldwide records. The 1,511,910 in pre-orders in Korea broke that set by Love YourselfTear just three months earlier; and by 6th September it had recorded 1,933,450 copies sold – the highest monthly sales in the history of the Gaon Chart since its inception in 2010 – making BTS triple million seller in pure sales for the albums in the “Love Yourself” series. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 100 chart with 185,000 units, 141,000 in physical sales. “IDOL” itself debuted just outside the top 10 Billboard 200 chart at number 11 in a highly competitive week for new music and broke through the UK Top 40 chart for the first time with a high of 21. The music video for “IDOL” broke records for the most watched in 24 hours and has nearly 200,000 million views and 6.7 million likes to date.

I know what I am

BTS: I know what I am
As “IDOL” is almost solely performance based, it does not significantly extend or expand on the transmedia storyworld of the “Love Yourself” series. Instead it represents a punctuation mark bringing to a halt a two-and-a-half-year transformative journey. This journey is one in which the fictionalized self at the centre of the BTS Universe has navigated the labyrinthic and painful path from self-loathing to self-acceptance and from boyhood to adulthood, mirroring one suspects the trajectory of the individual members themselves. This journey necessitates a break with the ideal-ego of the Lacanian mirror phase – which is encapsulated by the idea of the “idol” in the South Korean music business – and a confrontation with the fallible self that lies beneath its shiny veneer. Despite the fact that idols have to be multi-talented in a way that is not necessary for the success of Western singers, their artistry is denigrated and they are constructed as the epitome of late capitalist consumerism as pure spectacle. Idols are expected to be perfect as they need to perform the role of ideal boyfriend or girlfriend for their fans. This virtual relationship is one that eschews the messiness of real relationships and Idols are allowed to date only in so far as the idealized image is maintained. If relationships and even marriages are revealed, they can signal the end of an Idol’s career. In Lacan’s mirror phase the ideal-ego is constituted through the process of misrecognition. The child sees coordination and regulation where there is none as at the time the child is still dependent on the mother for their needs and cannot control their bodily functions (there is an equivalency with Freud’s oral and anal stages here). The projection of the other is a projection of one’s desire for wholeness and rejection of the abject nature of the self. Lacan’s subject is constituted by and through desire.

According to Roudinesco Lacan’s mirror phase marks a philosophical movement away from the thinking subject to the desiring subject through which ‘[t]he other is the object of desire that the consciousness desires in a negative mirror-relationship that allows it to recognise itself in it’ (Roudinesco, 2003, p. 25). Primary and secondary narcissism mark the libidinal investment in the self which results in the constitution of the double through the formation of the ideal-ego. The mirror phase only ends when the subject recognizes the difference and distance between self and other. This marks the socialization of the self and the entry of the individual into the world of the symbolic (language, social structures and institutions). Failure to do so results in paranoia and schizoid affective disorders. Roudinesco points out that: ‘When the subject recognizes the other in the form of a conflictual link, he arrives at socialization. When on the contrary he regresses to primary narcissism, he is lost in a maternal and deathly imago’ (Roudinesco, 2003, p. 30). In the mirror phase, the child has to separate from the image in order to transition into the symbolic (a process which in itself is traumatic as the child has to separate both from the mother and the ideal-I of the mirror). The “Love Yourself” series takes us through the various stages of the oedipal trajectory from the othering of the self through to subjectivisation through the process of narrativisation. This can be understood by briefly looking at the MV’s that introduce the four narrative stages of this journey of transformation through acceptance of one’s fallibility and potentiality.

The oedipal journey of “Love Yourself” series
The oedipal journey of “Love Yourself” series

“Euphoria” 起 (beginning) links the “Love Yourself” series with that of HYYH, which immediately precedes it, by integrating scenes from the Highlight reels and MVs at the beginning. The bright colours and the joyfulness of the present is in direct contrast to the murky colours and trauma of the past. Here after losing contact with their fictional selves, the boys who have since transitioned to adulthood find each other again signaling a new beginning. However this seems to mark another struggle for self-definition as can be seen by the intra-diegetic camerawork and Jungkook’s frequent glances to camera which perhaps articulates the need to have an identity outside of the group: identity in the BTS Universe is never single but always partial, multiple and transformative. “Serendipity” 承 (development) articulates the abnegation of the self in order to be that which the other desires. We are warned that we should not be distracted by the facile words of love if love tells us to conform to an idealized self who is always defined by the other. Taehyung in “Singularity” 轉 (twist/turn) gives us the ultimate in narcissism through which the subject is fixated in erotic contemplation of their own body. “Epiphany” 結 offers us an ending of sorts as Jin realizes that the past does not have define the self.

BTS at The United Nations
BTS at The United Nations

“IDOL” as the end point of the series marks the resolution of the Oedipus complex in Lacanian terms. Namjoon’s opening lines: ‘You can call me artist / You can call me Idol / I don’t care / I am proud of it / No more irony’ can be interpreted as signifying self-acceptance. In South Korean music, idols are often denigrated and not considered as genuine artists. Both Namjoon and Yoongi were underground rappers before joining Big Hit and in the early days their struggle to overcome severe criticism of the rap community (especially in terms of their perceived “feminization” as the opposite of the active aggressive masculinity of rap). BTS also struggled for acceptance and recognition in Korea, something that was particularly difficult as they were not from one of the large three companies (SM, JYP, YG). They were subjected to claims of plagiarism, other fandoms tried to undermine BTS through trending negative tags during comebacks and mass voting to try and ensure that BTS did not win any end of year awards. In his recent speech at the United Nations, RM talks about the struggle for acceptance:

Looking back, that is when I began to worry about what other people thought of me and started seeing myself through their eyes …. Even after making the decision to join BTS, some people might not believe it, but some people thought we were hopeless, and sometimes I wanted to quit’ (26 September 2018).

You Can’t Stop Me Lovin’ Myself

Cultural Odor in “IDOL”
Cultural Odor in “IDOL”

Against claims that BTS has only become popular globally because of their perceived lack of cultural odor, “IDOL” stresses the group’s cultural and national identity visually and aurally through the use of traditional music, setting, song lyrics, costume, performance and choreography. Traditional music (jeontong eumak also called gugak) and instruments including the janggu (hourglass shaped drum) create a Korean beat. Punctuating the lyrics with Korean exclamations associated with traditional folk music 얼쑤 (Ursu) and 지화자 (Jihwaja) – sounds that ‘Koreans make when they are excited and to boost up the rhythm and good feeling of the song’ (DKDKTV, 2018) – emphasizes BTS’s Korean-ness. In addition, when they are performing the pungmul (Korean folk dance) they are wearing Hanboks and the fusion of dance and storytelling in the MV is also informed by pansori (musical storytelling) and in the final part of the MV, Jimin is seen doing the fan dance, Buchaechum, which is associated with shamanism. Other key cultural signifiers are the rabbit that we see in the yellow moon against a red background and the tiger that crosses from left to right in a scene that could almost be drawn from traditional painting. Both the rabbit and the tiger are animals from folklore and origin stories. The tiger appears ‘Dangun’ which is the Korean creation myth and has come to be associated with good luck and talismans against evil spirits. Indeed at one time Korea was known as the ‘”nation of tigers” because its mountainous landscape has  provided a good habitat for tigers’ (Korean Culture Blog, 2018). The rabbit on the moon is a symbol of Chuseok (mid-autumn festival which takes place on 15th of August of the lunar calendar). In the folktale, the daltokki (달토끼) or moon rabbit ‘is making the medicine for immortality'(DKDKTV, 2018). The setting for the Korean dance is a Hanok (한옥) or traditional house which is built according to the principle of harmony with nature.

“IDOL” is a multi-layered music video as can be seen in the diverse types of music that are layered over each other. While KPOP localized both Western and Japanese forms of music and in particular hip-hip and thus can be considered a hybrid genre, “IDOL” positions BTS’ music as global without homogenization through the heavy use of South African gqom beats. In a recent article for Vulture, ‘How BTS’s Embrace of Korean Tradition Helped Them Blow-Up’, T. K. Park and Youngae Kim argue that BTS’s can be seen in opposition to the dominant trend in KPOP which is to ‘blend into the local market’ by downplaying its Korean-ness. They write:

Korea’s idol groups and hip-hop artists have been reluctant to incorporate their Korean heritage into their music, the former because of the concerns over international marketability, the latter because of the concerns of presenting “authentic” hip-hop that hewed closer to what American audiences recognize. (Park and Kim, 2018)

Park and Kim point out that the context for BTS is different. They are already an internationally successful band, appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Good Morning America and Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. Their appearance as ambassadors for youth at the United Nations stresses the global popularity of the band and the importance of their message to “Love Yourself”. They argue that the fusion of tradition and contemporary in “IDOL” ‘is … a statement of confidence about their Korean identity’ (Park and Kim, 2018).

I welcome another me today

BTS - I welcome another me today

Just as the MV itself is multi-layered so is the nature of the self represented within the diegetic frame within which being an idol and an artist are not seen as mutually exclusive terms. In fact, perhaps neither term is sufficient to define BTS’s status as both a Korean band and an global phenomenon. Without doubt, BTS do not play safe. Each album in the “Love Yourself” series has been distinctive and different although coherent within the whole as can be demonstrated by the MVs that accompany the series. This is in line with BTS’s message that transformation can only happen if we understand the self as partial, transitory and mutable. The past doesn’t define our future and potentiality through liminality allows us to reclaim our subjectivity and agency. Kate Pearce offers a useful definition of the liminal: ‘Liminality from the Latin ‘limen’ means threshold or margin. A state of liminality is one where the usual order of things is suspended, the past is momentarily negated and the future has yet to begun. The liminal stage is one where the social order is turned upside down’ (Pearce, 2013). “IDOL” in situating the self as liminal through set design, costume, choreography, lyrics and wordplay, and performance,  can also be understood as an example of the carnivalesque. The idea of the carnivalesque is associated with the work of Russian linguist and theorist Michel Bakhtin. In Rabelais and his World, Bakhtin writes: ‘Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order … This experience, opposed to all that was ready-made and completed, to all pretense at immutability, sought a dynamic expression; it demanded ever changing, playful, undefined forms’ (Bakhtin 1968, p. 10).

The self as multiple in “IDOL”
The self as multiple in “IDOL”

BTS has stated on several occasions that “IDOL” is meant to be seen as a celebration and that one of the structuring ideas behind it is the festival. At festivals as at carnivals, social order can be disrupted for the duration of the event. And these festivities take place within a number of difference spaces, with the individual transforming from one space to the next. Here, difference is celebrated, whether it is the political self – the cultural, national self – or the intimate self, the sexual and the gender conforming or nonconforming self. Costumes as always are used to highlight these differences, from the African print suits, to the more informal female high fashion tops and the traditional Hanbok, identity is always performative within a visual and aural hybridity that represents the global world in which we inhabit without a denial of the importance of context and narratives of cultural belonging.

Conclusion: From “Love Myself” to “Speak Yourself”

BTS IDOL conclusion

As the final lead single of the “Love Yourself” series, “IDOL” is a celebration of self-acceptance which marks a punctuation point in the discography of BTS. The tortured and traumatized boys of the HYYH series have been redeemed through their re-connection with the other and as a result the world itself.  This also reflects how BTS as a group have become recognised and talked about as one of the biggest boy bands in the world in the West. The international recognition of BTS and its success outside of Asia has, perhaps paradoxically, led to recognition in Korea with BTS’s achievements being celebrated by both the Prime Minister, Lee Wan-koo and the President, Moon Jae-in.  Rather than deny their cultural heritage, “IDOL” stresses their Korean-ness which is the opposite of marketing KPOP in terms of similarities rather than differences that we are seeing with some KPOP groups at the moment. What fans embrace is the inclusivity of their vision that structures BTS’s work and their beliefs. This can be seen in RM’s United Nations address. His closing words were:

We have learned to love ourselves, so I urge you to speak yourself. I like to ask all of you ‘What is your name? What excites you and make your heart beat? Tell me your story.’ I want to hear your voice. I want to hear your conviction. No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color, your gender identity, just speak yourself. Find your name and find your voice by speaking yourself (RM, 2018).

While there is a certain sadness saying goodbye to the “Love Yourself” era as it has been such a momentous one, there is also the anticipation of what the next era will hold. Many of us suspect it might be based around “Speak Yourself” but that is still to be confirmed.  I look forward to the next stage and watching BTS’s artistry evolve in new and unexpected directions.


Director : YongSeok Choi (Lumpens)
Assistant Director : Guzza, MinJe Jeong, HyeJeong Park (Lumpens)
Director of Photography : HyunWoo Nam (GDW)
Gaffer : HyunSuk Song (Real lighting)
Art Director : JinSil Park, Bona Kim (MU:E)
Art Team : HyunSeung Lee, YeMin Ahn
Construction Manager : SukKi Song
Key Scenic artist : Yeongjun Hong, KwangHyun Lim, SangHyeok Seo
Show Light : SungKeun Ma (A&T light)
Lift Operating : Jong Kang

BigHit Entertainment. Rights are reserved selectively in the video.
Unauthorized reproduction is a violation of applicable laws.
Manufactured by BigHit Entertainment, Seoul, Korea


BTS address to the United Nations (2018), [Online] Available at:

BTS – IDOL Explained by a Korean (2018), DKDKTV, 27 August, [Online] Available at:

Bakhtin, M.  (1984). Rabelais and his world (Vol. 341). Indiana University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)1.

Kalbi (2018), Tiger in Korean Culture. Korean Culture Blog. January 28. [Online] Available at:

Lacan, J. (2001). Ecrits: A selection. Routledge.

Park, T. K and Kim, Y. (2018). How BTS’s Embrace of Korean Tradition Helped Them Blow Up. Vulture. September, 25. [Online] Available at:

Pearce, C. (2013). On Liminality. Politics of the Hap. [Online] Available at: (accessed 29th September 2018).

Roudinesco, E. (2003). The mirror stage: an obliterated archive In: Rabaté, J. M (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge University Press, pp.25-34.

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