Conversations with RM often centre on the topic of eternity. He takes a look at the set for our photo shoot, decorated as a modern sarangbang (visiting quarters for noble scholars) with various props, and says that he likes the moon jar. This sort of traditional Korean jar, which was popular in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and has a subtle beauty, is timeless even in 2021.
BTS and Vogue got together right after BTS’s online concert in late October 2021. RM, who has begun performing concerts again after a two-year hiatus, is trying to recapture his edge. The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for many creative types, but for BTS, it led to the birth of their English songs—’Dynamite’, ‘Butter’ and ‘Permission to Dance’—which were written in an attempt to get closer to ARMY members around the world. This resulted in tremendous success for them. In the meantime, RM celebrated the 2021 BTS FESTA event by releasing a new solo song, ‘Bicycle’, heralding a new direction for him. But he also revisited songs BTS had released after 2013 to prepare for a recent online concert. “These are songs expressing our heartfelt messages at the time,” he comments. “But the trends are changing rapidly, and my responses to songs have changed a great deal. Will ‘Butter’ or ‘Permission to Dance’ begin to sound outdated after a while?”
RM says that he too has changed. “I got used to being on-trend as I’ve been living in a milieu where being fashionable is important, but I don’t think I should keep on living like this. I don’t quite know how to do it, but I’ve started wanting to produce something long-lasting and timeless. I’m beginning to think about it a lot at this point—it’s been nearly nine years since I became a member of BTS.”
“Trends are changing rapidly, and my responses to songs have changed a great deal. Will ‘Butter’ or ‘Permission to Dance’ sound outdated after a while?”
BTS, a boy band whose songs are drawn from real life, have profoundly impacted our lives. The connections we make with artists can be deep and powerful when their lyrics validate our inner emotions, such as pain and pleasure. RM’s lyrics, which are sharply perceptive, cerebral and beautifully expressed, help brighten our view of the world. When I ask about the current direction of his lyrics, he answers in broad terms. “In the past,” he says, “I was bound by rules a great deal—like, ‘I should be doing this and that’—and I was preoccupied with showing off certain techniques, etc. These days, however, I focus instead on creating a certain texture that I want to convey in a more abstract way. I’ve developed the ability to think in multisensory dimensions, incorporating visual as well as tactile elements. I take a holistic approach with the lyrics, melodies, beats and voices—all the elements of music.
Anyone who has been following RM for a while knows that his answers are never one-dimensional. The steps he takes and the words he uses are all carefully considered. His answer to the question, “Was the change of direction natural?” doesn’t disappoint, either. “The word ‘natural’ could refer to several turning points,” he says, “but it’s difficult to describe. I’ve spent time pondering what kind of adult I’m becoming. I’ve been learning to become more aware of my own rough outlines when it comes to choosing things I like and that are close to my heart. At first glance, it might seem like I’ve changed naturally, but on closer inspection, it’s something I’ve intentionally shaped. I went through painful periods, but looking back, it feels natural.”
BTS, who have spoken at the United Nations and performed at the UN General Assembly, are our pride and joy, but artists often have duties and responsibilities beyond their music. When asked if he ever feels that these changes are musically limiting or if they provide inspiration and new opportunities, RM replies: “Both. One rarely equals just one. It can be two or even four. Representing one’s country can feel wonderful and can also be a burden. What’s certain is that it’s not something we seek out, and it’s unlikely to go away because we want it to. I think it’s my destiny to accept it as a calling and do what I’m good at. In other words, my life may come with responsibilities. But this kind of life can be fun, and I intend to keep on living with this attitude.”
“My life may come with responsibilities. But this kind of life can be fun, and I intend to keep on living with this attitude”
Throughout the interview, BTS’s ‘unique DNA’ is on full display—or, more accurately, RM’s ‘Korean DNA’. Being familiar with his poem ‘I Remember’, the countless lyrics he has written and his affection for Korean painters, I wonder if all this came from a sense of responsibility. “If you ask me if this is intentional or natural for me, I’m not sure,” he responds. “I became conscious of my Korean identity after we began working in the United States. I got into music through hip-hop and pop, and at that time I also loved Korean hip-hop. Different DNAs are intricately intertwined, but anyway, the cultural climate I was born into and grew up with while listening to Korean music seems to be ingrained in me. Those early influences are still with me, and that’s natural.” His preference for Korean painters springs from a natural attraction more than anything else. “I believe hanging a piece of art in your home can be a spiritual experience. It’s living with and examining a piece of the artist’s life. It allows the work to breathe. It lets you have a conversation with it. I like keeping things that are close to my heart near me, and that’s why I’ve started buying works by Korean painters.”
BTS are well aware of the power of celebrity and have learnt to use it in a positive way. Their influence on the world is a complex phenomenon, but RM’s influence on the art world only comes from a love for paintings. “When we went abroad, we stayed in our hotel rooms except when we were working,” RM relates. “The only places I could go then were museums. The art galleries full of Monets or Van Goghs were always crowded, but when I visited one weekday morning and had them mostly to myself, I had a eureka moment—an artist who’d passed away 100 years ago was communicating directly with a boy from Korea. I was so envious. From then on, I began seeking out and learning about Korean painters. I’m the type of person who dives right in once I get intrigued by something. These days, I’m fascinated by art, and it’s exhilarating. The intellectual stimulation I get from studying art history is immense.”
Talking about art, he waxes enthusiastic. “I think the fact that painting is a totally different field makes it more enjoyable,” he reflects. “When it comes to painting, I can be honest about my emotions. When it comes to music, it’s hard if you let yourself get jealous because there are so many great musicians and new talents. Also, painters have really long careers. Some hold their first solo exhibitions at age 40, and some don’t sell a single painting until they’re 60. But I debuted at age 19, and I’m told I represent my country now at age 27, and people ask me what I’m going to do next. It’s like I’ve transcended where I’m supposed to be at this point in my life. That’s why I want to have the longevity of painters. When I visit an art gallery, time seems to stop, and I can reflect on myself.”
There are several keywords that describe BTS, and they all apply to RM’s development as well. RM has been searching for his identity, a process which naturally led to the creation of music. He considers BTS to be a sort of miracle and believes their sincerity and dreams will prevail, touching the utopia deep within many of us and helping to make the world a better place, despite everything. “They say we need to concentrate on the present rather than pursuing our dreams,” he says. I believe having a dream can be important. I hope there are others who still retain a little boy or a little girl in their hearts and continue to believe in old-fashioned values, such as hard work and hope. I often struggle as well. The expectations people have of me, and the pressure I put on myself, are too great. I imagine even if I work in a completely different field in the future, people will still expect me to accomplish something, and I might not be able to meet those expectations. I think I’m still going through the stage of creating a rough draft.” Dreams keep on making our hearts sing even when they are accused of being banal. RM’s dream is human after all. “I want to be recognised as someone other than a member of BTS, and I want to create other types of art,” he says. “I have many dreams, including the dream of living in the quiet countryside, where I can read and study. I’m very happy now, but I find the pace of life quite overwhelming. I want to find the right pace for myself someday.”
BTS started as “the boys who fight against prejudice and the oppression of teens”. And they have gained the nickname Beyond the Scene, meaning “youths who refuse to settle for the status quo and continue striving to achieve their dreams”. RM also thinks about who he might become and about the future. “We humans harm our planet through our very existence because we waste resources and emit carbon dioxide,” he points out. “I believe that everyone is born for a reason. I hope that every activity I engage in leaves behind something meaningful. ‘Beyond RM’ is about doing more than just making up for the harm that’s been done to the planet. It’s about doing at least 110 percent.” Contrary to the concerns RM has expressed throughout the interview, he may have already reached the ranks of immortality. Not since the Beatles has there been an artist who “hoped that every word, every line of my lyrics, would help people live”.
All clothing and accessories are by Louis Vuitton.
Fashion editor Kihoh Sohn
Styling Hajung Lee
Hair Som Han/Bit&Boot
Make-up Jihyun Kim
For the full cover story, pre-order your copy of the January/February ‘Grace’ issue of Vogue Singapore online now or pick it up on newsstands from 3 January 2022.