BTS is one of those rare phenomena capable of uniting people of all places and ages. The fandom, called ARMY, have much to look forward to lately, as the band will be featured tonight in a groundbreaking MTV Unplugged episode full of firsts for both MTV and the band. However, for ARMY members whose teenage or young-adult years were impacted by artists like Nirvana, Alanis Morissette, and Pearl Jam, who not only performed on the venerated MTV franchise in the 1990s but also recorded some of their best music there, BTS’s performance will definitely have a special feel.
And that’s not the only link connecting the Korean band to this generation. BTS is, after all, mostly made of Millennials, too, born between 1992 and 1997. While many of their self-written songs contain universal truths and dilemmas that anyone can relate to, some sound more like a Millennial chronicle book, filled with social commentary, self-reflection, and intersections of both. That the lyrics are in Korean is no problem — the fandom has plenty of translators and constantly engages in online discussions to interpret the lyrics and share their thoughts and feelings about them. Academic research has shown that while 89% of BTS fans credit the music as their reason to like the band, 63% also credit the band’s overall message. It’s only natural, then, that such music and message will connect with fans from the same age as the group. What is surprising, however, is just how many BTS songs could actually serve as Millennial anthems.
Looking at the 10 songs on this list, you’ll understand a bit why Millennials feel so connected to these K-Pop superstars.
“Silver Spoon” (뱁새)
Essential Lyrics: “Stop whining about more effort/ This cliché makes me cringe/ Ah effort effort, ah effort effort/ There’s no hope from the beginning” (translation credits: Muish)
“Silver Spoon” (or “Crow-Tit” or “Try Hard”) is one of BTS’ most intricate lyrics and hardest to translate. The title is a reference to a famous Korean phrase: “If a parrotbill walks like a stork, it will tear its legs” (the parrotbill is also called “crow-tit”). According to translator Muish, it means: “If you’re not born with ability or privilege, you should know your place.”
But, despite its many titles and complex Korean wordplay, the track feels familiar to Millennials all around the world as well. In “Silver Spoon”, BTS raps about older and wealthier people criticizing the youngest for not working hard enough while their system was built for them to never win anyway. Perhaps the most fun thing about the song is the choreography: it combines a mix of comic moves and hip thrusting — almost like a metaphor itself for how the economic system fucks people over.
Essential Lyrics: “Now stop watching and study for your exams/ Your parents and boss hate me/ (…) Even if you try to resist, it’s probably useless now/ (…) I’ve come to save you, I’ve come to ruin you” (translation: Wisha)
How many artists would have the guts to tell their fans not to get too attached to their idols? BTS does. But the lyrics of the funky “Pied Piper” are hardly just about the fan-idol relationship — they can also apply to young people’s relationship with other forms of escapism in a capitalist world. And few generations had it like the Millennials: TV and propaganda were already a thing when they were born, but they also experienced the boom of the Internet, social media, and more recently, smartphones. We’re all slaves to these things, yet it all can be so sweet, can’t it?
“Go Go” (고민보다 GO)
Essential Lyrics: “Leave me be, even if I overspend, even if I cancel my installment savings tomorrow morning like a crazy guy/ There’s no tomorrow/ My future has already been put in pledge/ Woo, spending more of my money!” (translation: Doolset)
Disguised as a harmless party song, “Go Go” is an ironic, painfully accurate depiction of young adults’ relationship with money. It recalls economic analysis, such as Eduardo Gianetti’s “The value of tomorrow” about the paradox of youth discounting the future in the present versus saving for a tomorrow that might never come.
But if you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, you don’t need to read economic books to relate to “Go Go”. Even before the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Millennials were foreseen to be the first generation to earn less than their parents, and some will never be able to afford a house or pay their student loans. So what do they do? They laugh about it. They spend money on things that bring instant joy — what difference does it make for someone already in debt? A sad, relatable truth in an irresistibly fun song.
Essential Lyrics: “I wanted to have the sea, so I wholly drank you in/ But the thirst is worse than before/ Is this place I’ve reached truly the sea or is it a blue desert?” (translation: Muish)
Millennial ARMY might remember the famous U2 refrain: “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” “Sea” has a similar feeling, but it hits harder for the fans that accompanied BTS’s rise to stardom. The song is a hidden track from the album Love Yourself: Her, released a few months after BTS’s first Billboard Music Awards win and a few months before their first performance at the American Music Awards. In “Sea”, BTS uses Haruki Murakami references and sea/desert metaphors (recurrent imagery in their discography) to deliver some of their most brutally honest lyrics, addressing their ambiguous relationship with fame and success. But the sentiment is relatable to anyone, especially for people growing up in a world full of possibilities and equal potential for emptiness and despair.
Essential Lyrics: “We learn that we have to become great/ Your dream, actually a burden/ (…) A dream doesn’t need to be anything grand/ You can just become anyone/ We deserve a life/ (…) Stop running for nothing, my friend” (translation: Doolset)
A fan-favorite from BTS’s Grammy-nominated 2018 album, Love Yourself: Tear, “Paradise” is a breath of fresh air amongst the overwhelming, supposedly-motivational pressure that Millennials face to “dream big” and “be the best.” In times when anxiety and burn-out affect millions of young adults, and social media makes it easy to feel like everyone’s doing better than you, BTS says it’s okay to have no big dreams or to just do things at your own pace — a much-needed message.
Essential Lyrics: “There are tens and hundreds of myself within me/ Today, I greet my another self/ They are all me after all” (translation: Doolset)
For better or for worse, multipotentiality is a trait associated with the Millennial generation. While Gen X grew up being told to be great at one thing, Millennials have countless possibilities. It’s a bliss, but it can be confusing as well. Along with the empowering message of self-love in its chorus (“You can’t stop me loving myself!”), BTS examine their own, complex identity to speak of what it means to allow yourself to just be whatever you are, letting go of the urge to define yourself or present yourself as cohesive.
Essential Lyrics: “The place where you are/ Perhaps that place is mi casa/ (…) As long as I have you, anywhere will become my home” (translation: Doolset)
Be it for all the economic reasons that have made house-ownership a distant dream, or for how the concept of family evolved to embrace friends and pets, too, the Millennial mindset of what “home” means is way less conservative than that of previous generations. For pop stars like BTS, finding a sense of stability can be even more challenging as they tour all over the world. They speak about it in songs like “Airplane pt. 2” and “ON” — but it’s in the groovy “Home” that we learn what keeps them grounded: the comfort found in their welcoming and loyal fandom.
The fans have many reasons to like “Home” — it’s catchy as hell, RM’s “I’m exhausted, man” is super relatable, J-Hope and SUGA are being the power rap duo they always are, and the vocalists smash the melodies as always. But the atmosphere of the song is also as cozy as its lyrical concept and hits close to home, pun intended, for a generation that have learned to find “home” and stability not only in places but also in people, things, memories.
Essential Lyrics: “If this can no longer make me cry/ If this can no longer make my heart flutter/ Perhaps, this will be how I die once/ But what if the moment is right now?” (translation: Doolset)
Finding passion is hard, and losing it can be fatal. If in songs like “Paradise” and “Dis-ease”, BTS speak of accepting life as valuable in itself regardless of defining it by your dreams, work, or passion, “Black Swan” shows the other side. The song inaugurated the band’s most ambitious era and had two music videos, one even including a performance by the Slovenian dance group MN Dance Company, filled with Jungian psychoanalysis symbolism. But it’s the lyrics that hit the hardest, especially the metaphors of “first death” representing a life without passion, which can be terrifying to encounter when you’re barely in the middle of your life.
Essential Lyrics: “In this place, everyone becomes someone with perfect moral thinking and judgement/ How funny/ Anger? Sure, it’s necessary/ (…) Sometimes that changes the world/ But this is human waste, not anger” (translation: Doolset)
This flammable B-side from Map of the Soul: 7 finds the three rappers of BTS firing shots not exactly at specific people, but mostly, at the way we deal with anger. Being themselves a target of lots of hate on the Internet, especially in their early days as underdogs, BTS have sure learned about channeling anger into more productive stuff (their series of Cyphers was born out of this) — and besides, it resonates with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theory of integrating the “shadow,” one of the key themes of the album. With the Internet and social media providing easy platforms for people who want to spread hate, songs like “UGH!” remind us that rage and anger can and should be used productively, and that’s not exactly what a lot of us are doing.
Essential Lyrics: “I should be doing something to the point my body shatters/ (…) I’m ill, yeah, I’m work itself/ (…) I’m confused whether it’s me or the world that’s diseased” (translation: Wisha)
“What happens when tech gives us more leisure time? We work,” writes Zander Nethercutt in a Medium blog post titled “We’re optimizing ourselves to death.” The essay seems in tune with “Dis-ease”. It’s symbolic that the song was written for BE, an album born in response to the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stuck at home after almost a decade of working non-stop, what else could BTS do?
But they’re not the only ones suffering from that.
J-hope’s rap addresses the guilt we feel for not being productive (“I should be doing something to the point my body shatters”) while RM’s genius wordplay in “I’m ill, I’m work itself” (“work,” in Korean, is pronounced like “ill” in English) sounds like a less-optimistic sister to Jay-Z’s iconic verse: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” It suggests how today’s adults are conditioned to build their entire persona around work and career.