BTS, Dionysus, and the agonies and ecstasies of art.

Bangtan Sonyeondan, or BTS, is a South Korean pop sensation.* The seven-member band debuted in 2013 and has grown to be one of the world’s top groups, with a huge and dedicated fanbase who appreciate their soulful explorations of what it means to be alive–as humans and as artists.

That’s the key to their song, ‘Dionysus,’ which is part of their Map of the Soul album and tour. In Map of the Soul, the band takes its inspiration from the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (as explained by Murray Stein). Focusing on the idea of the persona, the mask that we all put on when we present ourselves to others, Map of the Soul explores different aspects of the band’s creative identity and personality.

‘Dionysus’ explores their artistic identity–the relationship between individuality and creavity, between seriousness and partying, between pop and art, the joys, the madness, the ecstasy of creation. To do so, it refers to the god Dionysus, the Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzh:

DIONYSOS (Dionysus) was the Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy. He was depicted as either an older, bearded god or an effeminate, long-haired youth. His attributes included the thyrsos (a pine-cone tipped staff), a drinking cup and a crown of ivy. He was usually accompanied by a troop of Satyrs and Mainades (wild female devotees). “Dionysus”

The lyrics of ‘Dionysus’ refer explicitly to these ideas: it’s BTS’s exploration of what their art means–indicating they are more than a cynically manufactured pop act, they’re serious artists with a purpose–and, like the god Dionysus, intoxicated by the act of creation:

Just get drunk, Dionysus.
A liquor in one hand, a Thyrsus in another
Transparent crystal glistening art
Art is also a drink.
You dunno you dunno
You dunno what to do with
I’ll show you.
Ivy and rough wooden mic
In absolute breath
There is no sound coming out.

BTS, Dionysus, trans.

In their performance, one can see they share the ultimate party god’s androgynous elegance, whimsy, and also power. Like Dionysus, they sometimes carry a thyrsus–a wand that symbolises frenzy, creativity, power, joy. And they’re highly aware of its symbolism: for BTS the microphone can be as powerful as the god’s thyrsus: here’s their leader, Kim Nam-Joon, aka RM (‘Rap Monster’) making that point on stage at the Melon Music Awards:

RM (Rap Monster, leader of BTS), with his thyrsus:

Carrying this thyrsus means being committed not just to the party, but also to the ecstasy and agony of art. And with ‘Dionysus,’ BTS seems to be making the statement that it is a serious creative force, with a serious purpose: the rebirth of the soul through art.

When we’re out there
Anywhere in the world stadium party ay
Born as a Kpop idol
Reincarnated artist
Artist Reborn Again Artist Reborn Artist
Whether I’m an idol or an artist
It’s important.
Art is this too much too much yeah yeah
The new record is a fight with herself.
Lift the toast and take one shot
But I am still thirsty.

BTS, Dionysus, trans.

Too much too much, but not enough at the same time! BTS leaves us thirsty for more. It’s a rich and powerful song, with links to the Map of the Soul concept album that make it meaningful art, for creator and for audience. And it shows that the pathways to and from the classical are constantly moving about–taking us from Korea to Ancient Greece and back again, around the world, finding in the figure of Dionysus a symbol of the agony, and ecstasy of art.

–Elizabeth Hale

*Before a couple of weeks ago, I had only vaguely heard of BTS. I’m grateful to my NZ friend Sarah James, who emailed me asking if I knew about ‘Dionysus,’ and then gave me a call to explain the finer points of K-pop. Susan Deacy informs me that one of her team is writing it up for the Our Mythical Childhood survey.