Music has a special power to preserve memory. Memory has no physical form, and try as we might to capture it in words or a visual representation, some things nonetheless disappear into the ether. It’s not an easy task when language is inadequate to express the emotions. But there are times when we put on some music and listen to an old favorite and it’s as though we’re transported back to old times. Sometimes I’m taken aback when old emotions that are so hard to put into words, or the specific scenery and feelings I felt at the time, all come rushing back to me, and at the very fact that those memories remain there inside me. This is the power of music, and it feels all the more precious because it comes to us unconsciously.
The song “Born Singer” is a keepsake of the early days of BTS and their debut. The group’s official debut date is June 13, 2013, but they had their debut showcase on the 12th, and they released an unofficial song, “Born Singer,” on SoundCloud and YouTube exactly one month later, on July 12. When the tracklist for Proof was released, “Born Singer” was revealed to be the first song on the anthology album slated to be released this June, bringing back memories for fans who were already well aware of the song and building excitement for those who were hearing about it for the first time.
The song on which it’s based is “Born Sinner” by J. Cole, which appeared as the titular final track of his sophomore album. Released with the album on June 18, 2013, the song is about the young rapper’s promise to do better: “I’m a born sinner … But I live better than that.” J. Cole was one of the most promising rising stars in the American hip hop scene at the time. That BTS released a song that added Korean lyrics to one of the hottest tracks that month shows that the group was paying attention to contemporary hip hop with a passion. They were also proving their ability to tell a story by adding new lyrics to an existing song, as any new hip hop artist would. But they didn’t choose the song merely because it was a hit; BTS has actually shown respect for J. Cole several times. j-hope has a particularly strong affection for the rapper. He dedicated two full lines to him in “Hip Hop Phile” from the album Dark & Wild, the group’s first studio album, and named his first mixtape, Hope World, in a manner similar to J. Cole’s debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. The other members of BTS have shown nearly endless affection for J. Cole as well, recommending his music to their own fans several times. J. Cole was a rarity among hip hop lyricists in the early 2010s, writing reflective lyrics at a time when party music was the mainstream. As a producer, he made uniquely lyrical beats using the musical skills he had been nurturing since he was young. The members of BTS were in their late teens and early twenties at the time—a time when a new wave of lyrical hip hop, ushered in by both J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, was in full swing—and spent their trainee days listening to such music. The characteristic literary, lyrical music of J. Cole that the members adored so much remains a part of BTS’ DNA even today and can still be heard here and there in their newer music.
“Born Singer” is chock-full of memories from the first 20 days following BTS’ debut. You would expect the period immediately after a debut to be awash in congratulations alone, but that wasn’t the case for BTS. Their image as so-called hip hop idols stirred controversy among hip hop and idol fans alike right from the start, even before they debuted. There had been K-pop groups before BTS that had likewise declared themselves hip hop idols, but most of those groups’ hit songs reflected the party atmosphere of some hip hop or stuck closely to standard K-pop, which listeners were relatively open to. While BTS would go on to release similar tracks themselves, their differentiating point early on was their realness, much as it is the pride of hip hop music. They may have been young and not perfectly slick, but they wrote about what they knew and what they wanted to talk about, like school. And like other hip hop artists, they made mixtapes and uploaded them to SoundCloud. If one of the defining traits of K-pop is a desire to overcome prejudice, BTS’ move was another in a long line of such moves. Just as idols who can sing and dance live appeared in response to the presumption that idols can’t sing well, BTS has been exploring the idea that idols can’t write “real” lyrics, and fighting against this prejudice, since even before their debut. Their early efforts, however, were not met with wide acceptance, but resistance. The lyrics of “Born Singer” remain a vivid account of people’s reaction after their debut and how the group felt in response.
Having debuted to criticism over the authenticity of their hip hop, the young BTS members’ lyrics are bittersweet and suit the beat of “Born Sinner,” which is itself about the duality of original sin and sanctification in the Christian tradition. Unlike the J. Cole version, BTS’ song opens with the chorus. The gospel feeling woven throughout Born Sinner is here transformed by the voices of Jung Kook, Jin, V and Jimin into something more akin to a boys’ choir taking to the stage. In his verse, SUGA expresses anger at the accusations he faced for supposedly changing with something more than simple disappointment; he feels cast out for BTS’ attempt to try something different. RM’s 20-bar verse can be taken at face value: the fear of letting down those who had high expectations for the group. In any case, the emotions are glaringly apparent and rawer than any of the songs included on the actual album, even after all this time. And j-hope’s verse stitches everyone’s parts together, turning the song from a series of each member’s individual experiences to a shared experience of group solidarity. Moreover, the last time they sing the chorus, they do so a cappella and with handclaps, actively inviting the group’s fans, ARMY, to join in when performed live. These final 16 bars of “Born Singer” demonstrate BTS’ intention to make the song into a memory shared not only between its members but with its attentive listeners as well. In that sense, “Born Singer” is really BTS and ARMY’s first anthem.
The previously mentioned special ability music possesses to preserve memories is said to be related to a specific part of long-term memory called nondeclarative memory. The linguistic information conveyed through lyrics remains in our conscious narrative memory, otherwise known as declarative memory, but the images and intense emotional response suggested by the lyrics, when combined with a beat, are stored in nondeclarative memory—in the unconsciousness. And it’s not necessary to have been there with BTS in 2013 to feel the intensity; whether you heard the track on SoundCloud the day it was released, during 2015 BTS LIVE TRILOGY: EPISODE I. BTS BEGINS, at 2017 BTS LIVE TRILOGY EPISODE III THE WINGS TOUR THE FINAL or as the first track of the 2022 anthology album Proof, you had your own personal, intense experience, or soon will. “Born Singer” replicates all the emotions BTS felt in the 20 days starting from June 12, 2013 infinitely, and for millions, if not tens of millions, of ARMY, it’s stored in their memories in their own personal ways. Music’s ability to pierce the unconscious gives it the power to bring personal experiences to the surface and also makes it possible for a collective experience to form around songs like “Born Singer.”
Listening to music is now almost always an individual experience. With the rise of the Sony Walkman in the 20th century, it became common to listen to music through earphones, and the popularity of the Apple iPod only accelerated the trend. Today, the most popular music streaming services around the world all recommend songs personally to listeners through an algorithm. While it’s fun to have something only you can enjoy, there’s a growing tendency for there to be an ever-shrinking number of hit songs listened to generation-wide. In a world fragmented by taste, BTS is at the center of a community that forms one of the world’s largest fanbases, making the group something that many people—ARMY scattered across the globe and connected online in particular—share as a common interest. Even in 2022, when people hear “Born Singer,” they’re sympathizing with a group whose future was once uncertain. The memory was once restricted to the seven of them, but replicated so many times through the power of music and has spread widely enough that it has now come to represent the memories of individual listeners as well. And that’s why, in 2022, “Born Singer” is now as big an anthem as ARMY is a global fandom.