Originally composed and written (in English) by Taehyung for his mixtape, the acoustic pop ballad is one of the outstanding tracks to have come out of the South Korean boy group’s repertoire, as cited by fans and critics alike. But there’s much more to be said about Taehyung’s Blue & Grey as it triggers and evokes countless reactions and understandings of and beyond varying degrees.
Can something from the pop music market achieve qualities of sublimity? Very much so, and Blue & Grey isn’t the first, but it’s one of the notable few today, many thanks to songwriter Kim Taehyung’s depth and details.
Whatever the case, it is universally agreed to be something at the heart of human nature. When we ask what it is that moves us, we are encountering that which is sublime with the answer to that question. Our innate sense of our own perceptions, one that transcends all else and belongs solely to that individual can be defined by the simple act of looking. — Christina Mullan, The Contemporary Sublime
In our case, it is through the act of listening.
Images and motifs in music
When we say that Blue & Grey is very much like the ‘heart’ of the album, it is not only due to the emotive bareness and candor, but also how composition characterises itself as the heart: the imagery of the heart can be found and heard with a heartbeat sound pulsing throughout the chorus (and coda); the preceding guitar and notable artful fingerpicking seem intentional to create an experience of the song deliberately tugging the listeners’ heartstrings.
While Blue & Grey can sound like the heart, it can also sound like the human mind spilling in its rawness. This can be heard through the disappearance and reappearance of certain instruments and the main vocal melody as it often changes tempo and cadence through switching between vocals and rap. It aims to mimic that train of thought — the stream of consciousness — of someone at unease and gloomy.
By the time the song reaches the first rap, the dominant guitar is now accompanied by more instruments, complimenting the sudden change of tempo and cadence with the main vocal phrasing. Of what was once mostly empty, it is as if more thoughts have flooded and rushed in. The beat and drums step back for the chorus, letting the vocals bide their time as they express the simple, innate desire of the heart and mind — it is also at the beginning of the chorus where the heartbeat pulses faintly. Afterward, the instruments and the beat return for the rap — it is much longer, as two rappers with their different cadences and stylings spit out the thoughts. Then with vocal line’s chorus again.
Speaking of vocals, there is also careful consideration with the usage of BTS vocal line’s ranges and the order of the vocals. In BTS’ repertoire, it is more seldom than not to hear the vocal line in their lower registers and the lower range. The lower range tones suggest melancholy, sadness, and calmness while higher range tones for climaxes, passion, and intensity, as with how “Oh this ground feels so heavier” in falsetto is being sung. Taehyung has shaped the melody of the chorus in such a way it presents how these two coexist in juxtaposition, and it again relates to the mercurial rawness of the internal workings in the human mind.
For something to be sublime, it must be recognised and realised through experience, not told. This quote from Mullan’s The Contemporary Sublime is fitting to our discourse:
The storm is sublime because we witness it. We may ascribe its power to a vengeful all-knowing creator but the situ of sublimity will lie, ultimately with the bearer of that experience.
The composition of Blue & Grey is heartachingly clever and detailed and it is sublime for its unspoken nuances; the fact that the emotions being conveyed to us is something painful and uncontrollable. As the lyrics seek to cut and open wounds and be vulnerable, it is the beauty of the music and for having experienced it that we are pleasured. That is how Blue & Grey heals and patches back up.
Transcending the lyrical internal monologue
The sublimity of Blue & Grey’s message bears itself the most in the lyrics. The verses are easily digestible, understandable, and empathic enough on the surface, but they are also intensely riddled with meanings through the use of figures of speech and imagery — Blue & Grey is peppered with it, masked in lexical simplicity. And though much is lost in translation from Korean to English, the essence of the lyrics pierces through the language barrier.
Taehyung’s “this ground feels so heavier” is loaded already just by itself as it pertains to burden — as to what exact burden this is, the possibilities are endless.
For everyone’s information, Taehyung meant to capture the feelings and experience of having sadness, depression (and to an extent, of anxious feelings) — through the language of colors; the colors blue and grey and its endless associations to symbols, words and expressions. Some are even unique and original: a blue question mark, the ferocious blue, echo that is colorless, lump of metal, grey rhino, cold winter streets, give it some fog, dust, city, rain. The word shadow is also seen throughout the lyrics and it is personified at one point that it ‘engulfs’. The shadow can be a possible allusion as to how shadows can grey out the color — and in a metaphorical sense, can grey out our lives. Taehyung cited that he was inspired by hearing RM talk about how his world seems grey, after all.
The sublimity of Blue & Grey does not stop with the poeticism. It is worth mentioning as well that Taehyung said he wrote the song with his burnout in mind, and this plausibly is how Blue & Grey is a relevant piece of the ‘now’, the current fabric of our collective reality.
“I experienced a lot of burnout & know it really well. Previously, I felt burnout as it is and it was mentally difficult. Lately I have felt like I’ve experienced growth & write songs about how I feel. In the past I had a hard time… but when I write a song about the feeling of burnout, I feel a sense of accomplishment. When a song is completed, it’s a thrilling feeling. It feels like I’m overcoming it using this.” – BTS’ V, a.k.a. Kim Taehyung
Again, as part of BE, the song is also contextualised to the current situation with the pandemic, which has inevitably triggered and opened more conversations and issues on mental health of the global community in countless aspects. In an era that now observes social distancing, there is also the communal longing for the human touch and immersion.
The contemporary sublime is not only associated with ideas of beauty and terror but also gives importance to the nowness and humanity’s relationship with the environment. One of Stephen Graham’s first benchmarks in his opinion piece from Journal of Music remarks this state of nowness with Brian Wilson’s songwriting for The Beach Boys’ repertoire:
“In the natural world, something that demonstrates to us an immensity outside ourselves, that exposes both our possible destruction and our oneness with nature, such as an earthquake, creates a sublime impression.”
With these in consideration, some verses and expressions in Blue & Grey’s lyrics can provide double entendres — like the grey rhino that implies a huge looming threat, or the line, “The road that I always walk along, the light that always shines on me, but the scene that feels unfamiliar today for some reason” which implies of the familiar becoming unfamiliar. The lyrics in the chorus as well is able allude and be in touch with this ‘nowness’:
I just wanna be happier,
please warm me who is cold,
my hands that I reached out countless times,
the echo that is colorless.
Oh this ground feels so heavier,
I am singing by myself,
I just wanna be happier,
would this also be greed?
Blue & Grey is not just sublime in the classical sense but also in the contemporary position in such a way Taehyung created a song that inevitably involves both artist and audience to the present condition, and transcends the experience of consuming his song.
The auteur’s touch
What is the point of sublimity if it is not personal and original by the author himself? Despite becoming a part of the group track and having met reconstructions with the lyrics with his collaborators, Kim Taehyung ascertained that his personal touches will be recognised especially by his loyal listeners.
Storytelling is a key in Taehyung’s creative process and he makes sure everything he includes has purpose to drive the intended narrative — like his usage of natural sounds. As abovementioned, Taehyung subtly uses the sound of the human heartbeat for Blue & Grey like how he imbued natural sounds of footsteps, camera shutter for Scenery, the flapping wings in Winter Bear, the astral sounds in Inner Child, and more. These would then create a synesthetic experience.
Another thing is Taehyung’s love for musical space. This can be heard in the delicate chord progressions with the guitar, letting the ring of the last note fade on its own before restarting the chord. Though a skilled singer himself who uses his vocals much more like a musical instrument, Taehyung is fond of also giving space to instruments and for them to take over the melody like in the instrumental-filled codas of Winter Bear and Sweet Night — In Blue & Grey’s bridge, Taehyung mirrors Scenery’s musical shape.
Some words and images seem to have special meanings to Taehyung. As with Winter Bear and 4 O’Clock, Taehyung again expresses the ‘passage of time’ for Blue & Grey in the first line, “At the end of the day, casting its shadow, Someone come and save me, please is only the sigh of the exhausting day”, and the coda, “After secretly collecting words that wander around in the void, now I fall asleep, at dawn, good night”. Taehyung expands his idea of time even more in Winter Bear, both in the MV and the lyrics. The sense of atmosphere and precise locus — the streets — found in Inner Child’s “I vaguely recall that summer day’s air, so cold, the sound of the gray streets, breathing in and knocking on your door” and in “The sound of my heart breathing faster that I felt while walking on the cold winter streets” from Blue & Grey. How Taehyung seems to connote a more personal, metaphorical meaning with the verb to sing, as we can hear in the falsetto of “I am singing by myself” and “the nameless bird that sings” from 4 O’Clock.
It is worth mentioning also that the lyrics and flow feel very close with the composition of Winter Bear, Stigma, Inner Child and 4 O’Clock. The ‘stream of consciousness’ style through wordplay (Sweet Night’s second verse makes a good comparison too), figures of speech masked under the seemingly simple lexicon — his influence can still be seen even in the rap — as the entire lyrics cohesively reads as the introspection of the song’s principal character. Much like his songs, Taehyung’s writing succeeds in balancing riddle and exposition.
Blue & Gray seems to have broken boundaries and build a new standard for contemporary songwriting, one that requires sublimity and transcendence. But for BTS’ V, Kim Taehyung? This is only the beginning as he celebrates a milestone of maturity as a songwriter — one that even rivals Taylor Swift‘s artist progression in folklore. The horizon for KTH1 is near and clear.
English translation of Blue & Grey from Korean is from doolsetbangtan.