The Poetry of BTS’ “Zero O’Clock”

2020 has barely started, but what a triumphant year it has been for BTS and K-pop. While second-generation K-pop idols such as Rain and Super Junior already achieved commercial success in the States years ago, the extent to which mainstream America has embraced BTS seems unprecedented. They are the first band since the Beatles to have three No. 1 albums in one year.  They’re consistently breaking records and topping Billboard charts, and they have grown their adoring ARMY fanbase by appearing at countless major awards shows and talk shows. I was shocked to see John Cena dancing to “Mic Drop,” listen to Emma Stone fangirling over the group, and learn of their collaboration with The Chainsmokers and Ed Sheeran. Heck, NYC cleared out Grand Central for their performance on the Jimmy Fallon show!

My disbelief at BTS’ success stems from my own immigrant upbringing. Growing up as one of the few Asian Americans in a mostly homogeneous Caucasian and Jewish neighborhood on Long Island, I felt otherized. Asians were considered foreign rather than American; nerdy rather than attractive. And working at my family’s grocery store, which serves a community that is mostly comprised of white senior citizens, exposed me to racism at an early age.

After my first encounter with K-pop (i.e., TVXQ) years ago, I initially resisted calling K-pop idols serious artists. Never mind the nonsensical rap sections delivered in ungrammatical English (e.g., Shinhwa’s “Perfect Man“), the toxic plastic surgery obsession in pursuit of a more “Western” look, or the appropriation of African-American culture. To me, K-pop sounded imitative, uninteresting — many K-pop stars before BTS made music that sounded like a kitschy iteration of 90’s American pop, and their lyrics pandered to sexist stereotypes of the ideal boyfriend or girlfriend. (Big Bang and 2NE1 are exceptions.) And it didn’t help that the idol trainee system manufactures K-pop idols much in the same way Samsung produces phones every year so they can be used, abused, and phased out until the next big thing. Everyone looked the same and everyone sounded the same.

BTS, however, breaks that mold in several ways:

  1. Their agency is Big Hit Entertainment. A friend who left the K-pop music industry told me that the entertainment industry is at the mercy of broadcasting stations because more on-air time means more exposure and publicity for the performers, who are competing in a super-saturated market. Because they are so established, talent agencies JYP, YG, and SM Entertainment (known as the Big 3) are more likely to reap the benefits of such a system. Since Big Hit Entertainment was an unknown company at time of BTS’ debut (in 2013) and thus lacked such stature, the group was at a disadvantage from the start. Its underdog origins, I think, differentiated BTS from the rest and increased the group’s appeal. Now, with the success of BTS, Big Hit has joined the Big 3, making it the Big 4.
  2. BTS members write and produce their own music. For example: RM, a gifted songwriter, and Suga, a prolific producer, have contributed to most of the group’s songs.
  3. Their songs are dedicated to youth empowerment. “Hell Joseon” is a term that refers to the socioeconomic situation in South Korea — in particular, that of the younger generation, which is characterized by a lack of social mobility, inequality, suicide, and unemployment. Many BTS songs, including the song mentioned below, offer solace and encourage listeners to live authentically, to defy the confines prescribed by conventional and Confucian notions of success. BTS even delivered a speech on youth empowerment before the United Nations.

But above all, some BTS songs are just plain beautiful. For me, “Zero O’Clock,” an honest meditation on coping and hope, showcases the group’s artistry. It’s a track on their album, Map of the Soul: 7, and is performed by the “Vocal Line” (consisting of V, Jin, Jungkook, and Jimin). The song begins in self-reflective melancholia, a world-weariness tinged with existential dread:

그런 날 있잖아                                                   You know those days
이유 없이 슬픈 날                                              Those days where you’re sad for no reason
몸은 무겁고                                                        Those days where your body is heavy
나 빼곤 모두 다 바쁘고 치열해 보이는 날      And it looks like everyone else except you                                                                                                                           is busy and fierce

발걸음이 떨어지질 않아                                   My feet won’t set off, though it seems like                                       벌써 늦은 것 같은데 말야                                 I’m already too late
온 세상이 얄밉네                                              I’m hateful of the whole world*

Later in the song we learn a detail that suggests that these feelings are written from personal experience of the performers themselves. “익숙한 가사 자꾸 잊어” translates to “I keep forgetting familiar lyrics.” But they could just as easily belong to anyone — in Hell Joseon or elsewhere — who feels lost. Perceived failure, self-doubt, comparing oneself to others, and just feeling stuck are real, relatable emotions that the speaker uses to immediately connect with us at the beginning: “You know those days,” he says.

The concept of time introduced in the title “Zero O’Clock” serves as a structuring device to further highlight the tension between the feeling of internal stasis and the passage of time, which is a fixed and irrevocable indicator of progress. In other words, the song’s form deepens the lyrics’ meaning. The repetition of the pre-chorus and chorus sections neatly aligns with the cyclical inertia accompanying everyday life:


집에 와 침대에 누워                                                    Come home and lie in bed
생각해봐 내 잘못이었을까                                          Thinking if it was my fault?
어지러운 밤 문득 시곌 봐                                            Dizzy night, looking at the clock
곧 12시                                                                         Soon it will be midnight
뭔가 달라질까                                                               Will something be different?
그런 건 아닐 거야                                                         It won’t be something like that
그래도 이 하루가 끝나잖아                                          But this day will be over
초침과 분침이 겹칠 때                                                  When the minute and second
                                                                                                hands overlap
세상은 아주 잠깐 숨을 참아                                          The world holds its breath for a
                                                                                                 little while
Zero o’clock                                                                   Zero o’clock*


(Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy                (Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy
(Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy                (Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy
막 내려앉은 저 눈처럼                                                Like that snow that just settled down
숨을 쉬자 처음처럼                                                     Let’s breathe, like the first time
(Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy                (Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy
(Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy                (Ooh-ooh) And you’re gonna be happy
Turn this all around                                                Turn this all around
모든 게 새로운                                                            When everything is new, zero o’clock*

File:방탄소년단(BTS) 180110 제 32회 골든디스크.png

BTS at the 2018 Golden Disc Awards | Wikimedia Commons

With the bridge, the song shifts in note and tone — both rise together to reflect the speaker’s hope for a better tomorrow:

두 손 모아 기도하네                                      Put my hands together to pray
내일은 좀 더 웃기를 for me                        Hoping that tomorrow, I’ll laugh more, for me
좀 낫기를 for me                                          It’ll be better for me
이 노래가 끝이 나면                                      When this song ends
새 노래가 시작되리                                       May a new song begin
좀 더 행복하기를 yeah                                 Hoping that I’ll be a little happier, yeah*

This is my favorite part for several reasons. While the line “And you’re gonna be happy”  from the chorus seems like a knee-jerk attempt at positive self-talk, the speaker’s prayer here seems more intentional.  To specifically say “for me” is striking. I’m reminded of a line in “The Farewell,” where someone explains to Awkwafina’s American protagonist, “You think one’s life belongs to one’s self but that’s the difference between the East and the West.” This sense of duty towards others, which sometimes entails sacrificing one’s own happiness, is something that my own experience confirms as more Asian than American. There is a freedom to living for oneself. By valuing his own well-being, and approaching every new day as an opportunity, the speaker in “Zero O’Clock” practices radical self-love.

Ultimately, the song is about self-empowerment: the speaker realizes that the solution lies within, as cheesy as that may sound. He can “Turn this all around.” But he’s not so naive as to think that his journey towards happiness is linear or that a magic cure-all exists. I love the idea behind “when this song ends / May a new song begin”: that life is a series of different songs, that there is an art to living. And much like creation, self-love is a work in progress — it requires patience and time.

Other BTS songs worth listening to:

  1. “Best of Me”
  2. “Magic Shop”
  3. “Love Maze”
  4. “ON”
  5. “Make It Right”

*English translation from Genius:

Featured Image: BTS at the Billboard Music Awards | Wikimedia Commons 

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