Ask me this yesterday, and I’d have said a variety of things like, “K-pop boy bands, good looking, talented, etc.” Ask me today and I’d have to say “they’re lonely.” Or, alternatively, both BTS and EXO are fans of the 52-hertz whale, known as the loneliest creature on this planet.
It is pretty well-known that K-pop idols are dedicated to their craft and their fans. Fan service, the shows of affection that Korean singers put on for their fans that range from throwing hearts into crowds to getting down on one knee and mock-proposing to fans with roses, is commonplace. As entertainers, it is the job of Korean idols to make fans believe that they are happy; showing anything less than a large smile is often seen as unprofessional.
But within the past two weeks though, two of K-pop’s most up-and-coming idol groups both addressed loneliness verging on depression, using the lonely 52-hertz whale, the world’s so-called loneliest whale to do just that.
The Loneliest Animal On Earth
“It’s as if he speaks his own language– a language of one. Even stranger, 52 Hertz does not follow the known migration route of any extant baleen whale species. He sings alone and travels alone.” — Bryan Nelson for Discovery.com
The 52-hertz whale was first heard in 1989 by a team of scientists, singing a whale song that was more than double the average frequency of whale song from other species of the animal, which sing between a range of 15-25 hertz. Since then, the 52-hertz whale has been identified as single, solitary whale. He is the epitome of loneliness on this planet, and has been this way for at least twenty years.
And BTS and EXO have each tied this lone creature into their recent songs, turning the 52-hertz whale as a symbol of both depression and hope.
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BTS – “Whalien 52”
BTS’s “Whalien 52,” from their latest album “The Most Beautiful Moment In Life, Part 2 “ is a song about being misunderstood and not being able to fit in. The title is an amalgamation of the 52-hertz whale’s name and the idea of “alienation,” or being apart and different from those around you.
“Alienation- A withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment : estrangement. (Alienation…from the values of one’s society and family.-S. L. Halleck)” — Merriam-Webster
BTS’s song was produced by Pdogg in collaboration with members Rap Monster, J-Hope, and Jungkook, giving “Whalien 52” a personalized touch that is usually missing from K-pop songs. BTS has set themselves aside from most new K-pop groups for this reason, with members taking a role in just about every song of their latest album. Which means that the final message of “Whalien 52,” to be the best “whale” you can be, and do your own thing even if it means being alone, is a message directly from the mouths of these K-pop idols themselves.
BTS’s lilting take on “Whalien 52” takes a harsh subject and gives it a lighter feel, with an ultimately inspiring ending. The initial dark, solitary lyrics and meaning of “Whalien 52” bely the harmonies and raps interspersed with tinkling keyboard and synth sounds, which innately give the song an uplifting vibe to match the song’s final message rather than the initial feeling of being alone.
EXO – “Sing For You”
The lyrics of EXO’s most recent winter ballad, “Sing For You,” describes someone who has regrets towards the person that they love and expresses the desire to sing a confession song for that person. But the music video, an entirely black and white production, initially shows EXO’s members enjoying their winter days and then hints to the darker feelings that people repress under their surface.
The music video depicts literal loneliness, anger, and misunderstanding through the actions of EXO’s members, some fighting, some disappearing etc. And Sehun explores space as a lonely astronaut who meets a solitary, 52-hertz whale.
EXO is currently one of K-pop’s most popular groups and has spent much of this year competing with Big Bang to take first place. To address the loneliness that people feel, both when they’re on their own (figuratively in outer space,) and when they’re with others, is a big step for the K-pop industry.
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Whereas BTS is a relatively independent K-pop group (if such a thing were possible,) with members having real roles in creating their music, EXO is the exact opposite. The group is perfectly produced by SM Entertainment with only a few instances throughout their career where EXO’s members have been able to try their hand at playing a part in their artistic career (such as Lay’s hand in the beautiful song, “Promise 2014.”)
But, regardless of their differences, both groups have recently addressed loneliness, comparing the individual’s struggle for understanding to that of a solitary creature who roams the world without literally being understood by its peers.
Both EXO and BTS have offered inspiration in the face of estrangement (BTS- keep persevering, EXO- Find others who understand you), and that’s all good and dandy but there is something deeper behind these two songs than just the normal K-pop/hip hop ballads.
South Korea, the country that makes bubblegum K-pop for all of us to enjoy, is one of the most depressed countries in the world. It has the highest suicide rate by country, with 24.7 people out of 100,000 committing suicide each year according to the Washington Post. According to the OECD Better Life Index, South Korea has the lowest ranking community support in the world, with only 72% of South Koreans feeling that they have people to turn to in times of need. Additionally, South Korea’s work-to-life ratio is lower than that of many other countries.
By offering up inspirational tracks in the dark of the winter, BTS and EXO offer their own sort of 52-hertz whale to their fans. “Whalien 52” and “Sing For You” feature aspects of loneliness, offering understanding to K-pop fans, both Korean and otherwise, who need support in the lonely world.
But, even more so, the message of each song/music video also shows that even the perfectly coiffed K-pop world is a lonely place.
BTS’s members personally partook in writing “Whalien 52” and EXO’s members vividly drew attention to their own battles with loneliness while still trying to keep their smiles on their faces at times. It’s almost expected that BTS has a harder time, because several of them were underground artists and because the group is still under a relatively small entertainment agency, and members of the group have addressed depression in interviews.
But because EXO is under SM Entertainment, the largest entertainment agency, they’re expected to put on a good face the majority of the time and the meaning behind the video of “Sing For You” is almost shocking. It’s been some time since an SM Entertainment artist discussed depression (several members of Super Junior and Girls’ Generation have addressed it in the past), and it’s the first time that this writer can recall where an SM Entertainment music video hit on something related to mental health.
Because it breaks the illusion of what it means to be an idol, and EXO is arguably the most popular young male K-pop idol group in the world today, depression has been taboo to the group (despite former members leaving and others visibly struggling through performances). But throughout the music video for “Sing For You,” EXO depicts the sort of inner turmoil that isn’t about the love-related lyrics of the song, and instead depict the struggles that go along with the world that they (and the rest of us) live in. “Sing For You” is the opposite of an upbeat anthem; the music video shows suffering and loneliness in a way that just doesn’t let the viewer ignore it.
The 52-hertz whale may be alone, but he’s also a symbol of hope, of resilience, when feeling alone. By bringing out their inner whales and depicting loneliness that is on par with that of the 52-hertz whale, BTS and EXO not only helps their audiences understand that each individual isn’t the only one struggling in this world with loneliness, but also helps people relate more to the very human K-pop idols.
What’s your interpretation of the BTS and EXO songs? How do you deal with loneliness? Let us know in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.