BTS recently dropped the trailer for their new album, Map of the Soul: Persona. The intro track, “Persona“, is riddled with references to Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical theories, causing as stir in the psychology community. But this isn’t the first time BTS has been inspired by Jung.
BTS’ label company, BigHit Entertainment, follows the motto “music and artist for healing.” This phrase, included at the bottom of BigHit’s logo, is used in the beginning of every music video created under BigHit Entertainment. However, the company digressed from the motto with their earlier artists where they saw little success—it wasn’t until they signed BTS leader Kim Namjoon that they committed to their their original mission. Namjoon, who goes by his stage name RM, spoke frequently about social issues and frustrations through his music. He used music as a way of communicating the struggles of his generation to a larger audience—and many listeners who identified with those struggles and social limitations naturally gravitated towards BTS in times of difficulty. BigHit seemed to realize the power of this kind of art, found a way by which they could return to their original vision and foster an environment where artists were supported for their rebellious, outspoken nature.
It is likely that BigHit’s motto was inspired by psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. Jung had his own model of art therapy that helped individuals connect with their unconscious self to initiate the process of healing. He formulated this process in an approach called “Active Imagination” which is based on recalling an unconscious image, usually in the form of a dream. Jung spoke extensively about dreams—they are liminal concepts, part of the unconscious self but also accessible by the conscious mind. Dreams are the first step in establishing a connection with one’s inner being.
Jung believed that by communicating with the dream, one can reach underlying emotions and come to revelations about their unconscious self. Often times, these emotions can be based in sorrow and pain. According to Jung, “there is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
This is one of the reasons why it is likely that BTS’ title track for Map of the Soul: Persona will be titled “Dream” and the song will contain elements alluding to this idea. “Dream” might be more mellow in sound to convey a sense of being in-between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the mind and allow their pain to emerge. It is also possible that the sound will be strikingly different from the intro track, “Persona,” as a persona is a type of mask put on in the public sphere to conform to the expected social norms. Therefore, I expect “Dream” to have a softer or a more minor sound to it than what “Persona” has.
Finally, he result of active imagination is usually some form of art. The emotions that have emerged from communication with the unconscious mind are translated into forms of expression (paintings, written works, music, dance, etc). Individuals act impulsively during this phase, where they let their emotions drive the art they are creating. This acts as therapy where people come into contact with and express emotions they may have previously repressed or feared.
In a discussion by Anna Guerra, a practitioner of Jungian Art Therapy, Guerra mentions that the most difficult part of active imagination for her patients is to come to terms with their “Shadow.” The Shadow, also part of Jung’s theory, is the collection of “unacceptable” elements within an individual—things that society does not approve of. Therefore, these are repressed within oneself, yet can unconsciously take form and “reek havoc” if not controlled. Guerra states that everyone has a Shadow, and coping with it requires that we integrate it into our self.
According to Jung, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” I believe this is essentially what BTS was referring to in their “Fake Love” video, where their lyrics mention them being turned into marionette dolls. The unconscious emotion, when ignored and uncontrolled, ends up taking ownership of the self—it drives the individual to do things they may regret or consciously disapprove of. In “Fake Love,” BTS are masked figures with repressed emotions that control them like dolls, and these buried emotions void them of full consciousness of their own being —alluding to RM’s “who are you/who am I?” from “Fake Love” which also reappears in the “Persona” video.
Another interesting take on art therapy by painter and Professor of Art Therapy, Howard McConeghey, is explained in his book titled Art and Soul which expands on Jung’s original concepts. In his analysis, one of the most crucial aspects of art therapy is “circular reiteration.” This is the process of going back to your art consistently every day to make it better—and the improvements reflect your inner psyche by showing your conscious growth and where you aim to be.
According to McConeghey, during this process, we “put psyche at the center…the responsibility of the ego becomes that of stepping aside, off center, to allow psyche to speak” (Art and Soul, p. 19). This image can be seen in the “Persona” music video where the giant form of RM is his ego, stepping to the side and listening to himself (his psyche) speak.
With “Persona,” this is essentially what BTS is doing. By reintroducing their intro track from 2014 titled “Skool Luv Affair,” BTS is revisiting and era and improving upon it. The Skool Luv Affair era was heavy with hip-hop sounds, yet the physical interpretation of that music was one of stereotypical masculinity—everything from their style of clothing to their music videos reflected this sense of male anger and dominance. The Map of The Soul era, however, seems to lack this hyper-masculinity and utilizes hip-hop without its stereotypical characteristics. BTS are returning to their past and presenting it in a new, mature, and developed way after having reflected on how they wish to improve both as humans and as musicians. They are addressing their ego and integrating their unconscious and conscious minds to create a more holistic self.
Digressing slightly from BTS, you might be wondering why I, an ethnomusicology enthusiast, am writing about Jungian theory. Upon doing some research, I found that Carl Jung was fascinated by the Hindu/Buddhist concept of the Mandala. “Mandala” is a Sanskrit word that translates to “circle,” and is an abstract idea of the universe. Phrases such as “the circle of life” also allude to this same philosophy—everything is the universe is connected in a spiritual way and is brought back in full-circle.
Music therapy is a form of art therapy that often relates to instances of hyper-focus, trance, or altered psychological states. There are many accounts of individuals going into a state of trance when listening or playing music. In fact, this is fairly common in cultures that follow Hindu or Buddhist beliefs, as religion plays a significant role in how these cultures structure their music systems. For example, Indian Classical Music has a specific rhythmic framework that does not follow the linear rhythmic pattern of Western music, and instead bases its rhythms on the Mandala. While the Western system runs on time signatures that move from left to right, Indian music follows a cyclical system– there are 8 beat cycles, 16 beat cycles, 32 beat cycles, etc.
It is this cyclical nature that creates a sense of trance or hyper-focus. By revisiting the same beginning over and over again, with complex variations thrown in in between the cycles, musicians feel a strong sense of completion whenever a cycle returns to its starting point. Indian classical music is usually improvised when performed, and improvisations can last for hours, where musicians continue to cycle through a beat pattern and use their intuitive nature to create music. Their state of hyper-focus allows for such long recitals with few (if any) rehearsed pieces.
One of the most cited cases of trance in music is in Balinese music, where the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are both combined to create a unique religion that influences Balinese Gamelan music (percussive ensemble). This musical system not only follows the cyclical, Mandala nature of counting, but it also has incredibly difficult interlocking rhythms and heterophony that might sound like nothing but noise to most Western listeners. I’ve included a video of Balinese Gamelan music here to provide a sense of just how much is going on, and how much focus it requires to know when and what to play:
Similarly, Jung believed that the cyclical nature of the Mandala allows one to achieve wholeness— he saw the circle as a representation of creativity, one that has no end nor beginning and is therefore part of both the past and the future.
Back to BTS—now, BTS is most likely not thinking about the Mandala when writing music and creating concepts, but the ideas from the Mandala have impacted music throughout the world. The entire verse-chorus structure of pop music is an example of how something repetitive can result in a psychological “boost.” Waiting for the chorus is similar to waiting for the cycle to end, where one is able to feel complete again. You might have experienced this personally when you re-visit old songs your parents played, or music that you listened to as a child. That sense of nostalgia and comfort is a result of you experiencing those emotions again after a long time—but this time, with a new, mature self. Although the music is the same, you are no longer the same person, and therefore your response to that music is one of nostalgia.
If you were a BTS fan since the 2014 Skool Luv Affair era, the “Persona” intro might have felt this way for you. BTS intentionally used sounds from their “Skool Luv Affair: Intro” track and placed them into “Persona,” creating that sense of nostalgia for people who used to listen to their music five years ago. Although they literally sampled their old track in “Persona,” the nostalgia is also part of the overall sound that has resurfaced as, according to many fans, “Persona” sounds like “old BTS.” For new fans, BigHit strategically altered the BTS Spotify playlist so that it included all of their older works that were similar in sound to “Persona.” This was to get new fans ready for the new intro track, and to ensure that they were prepared for what BTS was trying to do with revisiting their old intro, starting from the beginning, and coming “full circle.”
But there is another element of Jung and the Mandala complex that BTS have used. Many fan theories have determined that in the fictional BTS universe, the oldest member, Jin, is stuck in a time loop. The story revolves around Jin’s friends, the other BTS members, making mistakes that result in unfortunate circumstances that eventually send them all separate ways. Jin, however, is able to travel back in time and attempts to correct these mistakes to help his friends. Because much of Jungian theory does reference the connection between the past and the future, I believe that Jin’s character is a symbol of BTS’ overall message of self-acceptance. Just like how RM took a track from his past and re-created it with his mature, increasingly aware self, Jin is a figure who realizes that he has to love himself and accept his past if he wants to move on.
Art therapy is a way to speak to those underlying emotions, and music has given us many ways by which we can alter our psychological state for the better. Many proponents of art therapy state that in a world of over-medicalization and extensive use of prescription drugs, art is a much needed form of healing. While medication can be used to cure or maintain psychological conditions, art therapy attempts to find the root of the cause or the wounded psychological state that needs to be addressed and integrated into the self. “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” — Carl Jung
Many BTS fans have stated that listening to the group’s music has indeed helped them cope with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. While there is no way to confirm this assumption, I strongly believe that BTS’ understanding of art therapy and their own experience with it has shaped how they write music. If music is a reflection of the unconscious mind, then BTS’ songs help us heal because they are created by artists who understand how failure and pain, when ignored, can destroy our capabilities—and although it might be an ongoing process, accepting those past mistakes allows for personal growth and self love that we are all working together to achieve.
Junge, M. B. (2010). The Modern History of Art Therapy in the US. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd.
McConeghey, H. (2003). Art and Soul (Classics in Archetypal Psychology). Washington DC: Spring Publications.
Stein, M. (1998). Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Chicago, IL: Carus Publishing Company.