There’s a fine line between polished, sugary radio pop and cloying commercial jingle, and that difference was perfectly illustrated by BTS’s Dynamite and Butter. The two songs are quite similar in sound, style and execution, yet one feels fresh and fun while the other comes across as trite and overcooked. I’m not sure I could even tell you why they strike me so differently, but we’ve crashed right back into Dynamite territory with new single Permission To Dance. Co-written by the omnipresent Ed Sheeran (who also worked on the group’s 2019 Map Of The Soul: Persona album), the track is utter radio slop.
Now, I enjoy a bit of radio slop from time to time. That descriptor doesn’t have to be a bad thing! But, there’s a point where these kind of self-empowerment, ‘let the good times roll!’ anthems tip into a place where they simply feel patronizing. This is the sort of music you hear placed over montages of people dancing with their cats and babies on Good Morning America. It’s fake fun – an over-enthused pep rally you desperately want to escape.
Worse yet, the group’s producers go full bore on Big Hit’s notoriously bad vocal mixing. BTS’s voices are so processed that they begin to lose shape, melting into mumbly-mouthed phrasing that’s difficult to discern. This might actually be a blessing in disguise, given the song’s bad-self-help-book lyricism. I mean, I’ve never felt I needed permission to dance (has anyone, outside of Footloose?), but I wish the track actually made me want to move.
It’s clear what Permission To Dance is aiming for. Beyond replicating the success of Dynamite and Butter, the song seeks to uplift. It’s an admirable goal, but this feels like a particularly cynical way to go about it. I hear no BTS within this product. Back in 2013, if you would’ve told me the young upstarts who challenged the K-pop industry with biting tracks like No More Dream and N.O would be reduced to shuffling along to some lame Ed Sheeran ditty, complete with plonky keys and a music video that feels like an awful pharmaceutical ad, I would’ve thought the world had gone crazy. But, here we are – “da na naing” our way through a jump-the-shark crisis happening in real time.
Fans often say that BTS aren’t K-pop anymore — that they’ve somehow “transcended” the industry. Given their incredible global success, I guess that’s partially true. But if “transcending” means reducing yourself to the lowest common musical denominator, is that really something to be proud of?