Listening to BTS is never easy. What seems like an innocent song may instead be layered with complex lyricism, challenging instrumentation, and conceptual theories that can cause any listener to ponder for hours on end without determining what the song is actually about. But BTS don’t simply adopt meaningful concepts to superficially present them through their music – their dedication towards writing dense, substantive music comes from their own personal experiences, emotions, and passions. All members in BTS have embraced music as a medium of personal expression and have used their talent in creative ways to communicate their views on life. There’s always an air of vulnerability in solo-tracks or independent projects released by BTS members – they do not shy away at sharing their deepest emotions, although their method of doing so is usually subtle rather than direct.
Four days ago, it was Kim Namjoon’s birthday. In October 2018, Namjoon, who has adopted the stage name of RM, released a mixtape (or in his words, a “playlist”) titled Mono. When I first heard Mono, I thought it was interesting how the titles of the first two tracks were those of cities; track 1 was titled “Tokyo” while track 2 was titled “Seoul.” I initially thought this album might be a commentary on BTS’ global popularity and worldwide travels, yet it didn’t take long before I realized none of the other tracks seemed to refer to cities or locations at all. There was clear intention in the titles of these songs – RM seemed to be narrating a story by placing the two city names right at the top of his “playlist,” but I wasn’t quite sure what that story was. I thought it would be nice to re-visit this momentous project on his birthday, but what began as a casual listening session turned into a theory-induced spiral into East Asian music and culture.
Tokyo and Seoul are more than just two bustling cities – they are cultural and social ways of life where East Asia seems to intersect with the Western world. This intersection has historically placed a burden on both Japanese and Korean people; while both Japanese and Korean governments have previously desired to adopt Western ways to “modernize” and remain dominant players in global politics, the people of these nations maintained a deep desire to express their unique cultures. As a result, Tokyo and Seoul are two cities that contain a harmonious conflict of cultures, one that is both welcoming but also assertive of individual identity.
The first track of RM’s playlist, “Tokyo,” begins with the gentle sound of a car driving by, followed by a distinct clang. I believe this “clang” is the sound of a chappa, a type of Japanese cymbal often used in Japanese drumming, or Taiko, ensembles. The chappa not only adds a signature, percussive sound of Japanese music but it often indicates a significant place in the music, either striking on necessary beats or signifying a beginning or end to the piece. Right from the start, RM establishes a contrast between the modern (the car) and the traditional (the chappa).
The chappa, therefore, might be a transition – a transition from the cluttered, industrial world to a peaceful, sonic space that is often desired in traditional Japanese music. And that sonic space is maintained as the following piano melody happens to be an f-minor pentatonic scale.
Now, I would like to add that the reason this post has taken me four days to write is because I’ve spent an unhealthy number of hours examining music theory textbooks trying to identify which Japanese mode this scale fits into…and in the true spirit of any BTS song, there may be multiple answers. Pentatonic scales are common throughout East Asian music – some scholars believe that these scales originate from certain Ragas of Hindustani (North Indian) Classical music and were carried into China through Buddhism. Over time, it’s possible that these scales made their way from China into Japan and Korea. Therefore, although their origins may be in South Asia, pentatonic scales have become emblematic of East Asia. But not all East Asian pentatonic scales are the same – although there is overlap, Japanese pentatonic scales have their own names and can be fundamentally different than Korean ones. Hence, it’s possible that RM’s f-minor pentatonic scale is part of a Japanese mode that I may have missed. It’s also possible that the scale is part of a Korean mode. Or, it’s simply a pentatonic scale built off an f-minor scale in the context of Western music. In any case, the use of the pentatonic scale here undoubtedly places the listener right in East Asia.
But this, of course, is not nearly complex enough for an artist like RM – in the midst of the melancholy piano solo we hear the subtle interjections of honking cars. Again, RM sets up the dichotomy of the modern and traditional, a world of both cacophony and harmony.
At the end of the piano section, right before the humming begins, we’re fittingly met with a bit of dissonance at the second iteration of “I don’t know.” In less technical words, this is where the final chord in the piano section appears uncertain about where it’s ending. As listeners, we expect the sound to drop to an F, yet it ends on an B flat instead creating a lack of assurance, a bit of discomfort, and essentially a musical interpretation of “I don’t know.” As the song continues, the same scale is picked up towards the end on a stringed instrument that I believe is a Japanese zither known as the Koto. Here, the same melody is repeated, yet the Koto ends the melody on an F, eliminating the dissonance and properly resolving the phrase. This brings closure, satisfaction, and a sense of acceptance to the piece.
I found the switch from the piano to the Koto interesting, but I believe that this may also be a factor in the dichotomy that RM is building. The piano, a Western instrument, is left without proper conclusion of the phrase while the Koto, a traditional Japanese instrument, finishes what the piano originally started. This is followed by the sound of a human whistling, where the same phrase also ends on the F as it does with the Koto. Therefore, there’s a progression from the Western piano to the traditional Koto to the natural human voice – a progression that begins with uncertainty and ends with a sense of direction.
Through the modern and the traditional in “Tokyo,” RM creates a conflict, a push-and-pull of sides and thoughts that reflect his own emotions. While RM could be using this as a way to refer to the two sides of his own identity, it seems to be more of his commentary on where he feels he belongs. The traditional may represent that desire to return to a place of comfort and belonging while the modern represents the uncertainty and quickness of his life – the traditional being Namjoon, a boy living in Seoul, and the modern being RM, a leader of the most popular boy band in the world. Traditional and modern here can also be thought of as past and present, the past being reflective and familiar while the present being a bit more rushed and unexpected.
According to Genius, “Tokyo” written in Hangul translates to the “state of longing.” The repeat of “I don’t know,” the lack of resolution in the music, the continuation until the Japanese Koto resolves the phrase, and finally RM’s own recognition of the uncertainty through his whistling reflect the desire to be part of something, to not feel alone and misplaced.
Ultimately, I believe that in “Tokyo” RM is longing for his home, Seoul. A place where he knows, or at least thinks, he belongs. A place where he can find comfort in all the uncertainty he is surrounded by. The second verse of “Tokyo” in particular seems to suggest this:
Life is a word that sometimes you cannot say
And ash is a think that someday we all should be
When tomorrow comes how different it’s gonna be?
Why do love and hate sound the same to me?
I can’t sleep
Home sick but
I just wanna
Stay right next to you
I thought about the the line, “why do love and hate sound the same to me?” for quite some time. Frankly, it struck me as odd at first – they most definitely didn’t sound the same to me. So what was RM referring to here? As Genius states, this may be a reference to how “Seoul” sounds just like “soul”; while the first is a city, the second is an inanimate entity of the body, a philosophical concept that encompasses many subjective aspects of being.
Souls may not be alive, but they are released once the body is dead. This could be what RM is illustrating in “life is a word that sometimes you cannot say,” referring to the lifelessness of souls and “ash is a thing that someday we all should be,” referring to the release of the soul once a body is cremated. Hence, love and hate may represent soul and Seoul, two important elements of RM’s identity, but being away from one (Seoul) hurts the other (his soul).
As his soul accepts this, RM provides us with the sound of human whistling, now away from any distinct instrumentation, setting the image of someone strolling all by themselves. But if you listen carefully, you can continue to hear the slight sound of cars driving by – RM is on a journey alone, moving on towards Seoul, a place where he thinks he will no longer be lonely. And as the delicate whistles from RM’s walk end, Mono suddenly transitions into a completely different sonic space.
“Seoul,” in contrast to Tokyo is a significant shift; it drops the peaceful aura established in “Tokyo” and adopts a slightly busier, fast-paced sound. The production of “Seoul” is undeniably Western, supported by the fact that it was produced by British duo, HONNE. But this Western production is not meaningless – it sets up a contrast with the more experimental, traditional nature of “Tokyo” and instead creates a more constant but familiar sound. As a listener, we are less confused about where “Seoul” will go than we may have been while listening to “Tokyo.”
But the Western style does not hide that fact that “Seoul” does indeed contain elements of the traditional East Asian sound similar to those in “Tokyo.” The very first two notes in “Seoul” are G to C, or a perfect fourth, a commonly used interval in pentatonic music – in fact, this happens to be the exact same interval that “Tokyo” opens with (E flat to B flat, also a perfect fourth). However, in Seoul, this is a red herring of sorts – it prepares the listeners for a pentatonic scale such as the one in “Tokyo,” but this perfect fourth promptly dissolves into a scale that is not distinctly pentatonic in nature. In other words, the traditional is briefly maintained but then forgotten. The feeling of belonging is found and then quickly compromised.
So what does all this actually mean? I’ve read multiple interpretations of RM’s lyrics in both songs, and by taking the music into consideration, I believe “Seoul” is a continuation of RM’s story. While RM fights an internal conflict in “Tokyo” unaware of what to do and where to go, he ultimately reaches the conclusion that he belongs in Seoul, his home. But in Seoul itself he’s yet again met with conflicts of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the things he loves and hates. The place he longed to be in is far from perfect. And once again, he isn’t sure where to go and where he belongs. “I hate you Seoul,” “I love you Seoul,” are repeated throughout the chorus, referring to the love/hate concept from “Tokyo,” and this contradiction is mirrored later in the bridge with the phrases “I’m leaving you” and “I’m living you,” two conflicting attitudes towards the city. Altogether, on this journey from Tokyo to Seoul, RM still doesn’t feel as though he belongs anywhere. He remains alone.
While I’ve outlined much of this in literal terms, I also believe that RM is using these cities as symbols. Tokyo could refer to anything that has made us feel lost, abandoned, and lonely and Seoul could refer to anything that may bring comfort to eliminate that feeling of loneliness. But as RM illustrates, even when that comfort is obtained, we are still unsatisfied. Unsatisfied because we may be too picky, we may grow too complacent with what we have, or we may realize that what brings us comfort is, in fact, imperfect.
Mono isn’t instructive – it never preaches to the listener, never forces them to adopt a certain approach to life. Rather, it shares an experience. A very personal, emotional, and desperate experience of how it feels to be lost. Despite having no clear or joyful ending, I’ve found that Mono feels like a warm hug, a comforting, honest account from one human to another. Mono is my Seoul. But unlike Seoul, it doesn’t seem to hold any imperfections.