I am going to be rather brutally honest – the first time I listened to “Promise,” I didn’t think much of it. Jimin’s soft ballad made for a relaxing three minutes, but it failed to be as revelatory as some of the fans’ comments suggested. Of course, the fact that Jimin’s solo track had been such an anticipated item among Army’s had undoubtedly hyped-up support for the single even before its release. Yet I couldn’t, upon first listen, mark is as epiphany-inducing. The lyrics seemed less than profound, the production quality fell short of that in a standard BTS track, the sound aesthetics – the mixture of sound elements – were relatively simple, and the technical aspect – the vocal skill required to sing this track – was nothing awe-inspiring.
Yet, as my original bias, I gave Jimin the benefit of the doubt. I couldn’t help but scour the single for something more profound, for something that would strike as utter a chord in me as Taehyung’s “Stigma” once did.
And I found it.
I isolated the lyrics from the music, which is honestly quite simple to do considering I understand about three sentences of Korean and Jimin is notorious for his scarce use of English, and, my friends, the difference was immediate. It’s such a (for lack of a better word) pure experience – having the distinct ability to listen to a song and hear the vocals, the instruments, the vocalist’s syllables and breathing and added techniques, all without being constantly bombarded by lyrics. Such an unadulterated experience, more similar to listening to classical music than to pop, and that’s absolutely why I enjoy K-pop to such a degree. It’s lyrical music of any style you can think of, yet untainted by the meaning of the lyrics (unless you are, in fact, Korean). It’s the classical music of a new generation.
But I digress.
The first thing I noticed when re-listening to Jimin’s little masterpiece was the absolutely breathy quality of his voice. Jimin’s vocals themselves are generally breathier than those of the other members in the vocal line, but whether this is a question of personal style and preference or a lack of technical clarity is something I can’t ascertain for certain. We do know that Jimin’s vocals are more inconsistent during concert settings than those of Jungkook, Taehyung, and even Jin, which suggests that his breathy tone quality might be a factor of his inconstancy and lack of skilled clarity. However, as this is a pre-recorded track, I’m more inclined to say that Jimin’s breathiness in this single is, rather, a facet of his own personal vocal style.
Although it’s challenging to pinpoint Jimin’s true vocal style given the fact that most BTS songs feature heavy backing tracks, and we don’t have a litany of covers and solo singing clips from Jimin like we do from some of the other members (Jungkook, the jack-of-all-trades golden maknae with a baepsae streak comes to mind), if you’re fortunate enough to find some instances where Jimin’s vocals are nearly isolated or the backing track is relatively soft (such as the very end of “The Truth Untold,” Jungkook and Jimin’s cover of “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” and Jimin’s karaoke version of “Love Yourself”), you can plainly hear the breathy, airy quality of his voice.
This high-pitched yet husky, somewhat whisper-quality tone of voice is one that I wish Jimin was able to showcase more regularly. It’s much more raw and intense – and pairs perfectly with the intimate lyrics of this track. While the precise, skilled, calculated tone that Jungkook possesses is quite breathtaking in BTS’s more upbeat tracks like “Fake Love” and “DNA,” the cold technique he imparts with this vocal style just doesn’t clinch the emotionally raw, uncensored and emotive feeling Jimin’s vocals do in softer ballads. Jungkook might be BTS’s main vocalist, but I believe he can learn from Jimin’s unrestrained, in-the-moment style.
That being said, the flip side of the coin is that Jimin’s vocals simply aren’t as exact, nor as rich, and his pronunciation is faulted with blemishes, scattered throughout the song. Most of these are noticeable at the end of words or lines, though a few occur during the articulation of certain words. If you’re wondering just what I could possibly be referring to, some instances of these little consonantal blemishes include the ending of 모르잖아 (rom. moreujanha), 않은데 (rom. anheunde), and the beginning of 그게 (rom. geuge), all in the first verse.
There are, of course, a few possibilities as to why these hiccup faults occur so frequently throughout “Promise.” They could be intentional, a facet of Jimin’s own personal style and a way to enrich the rawness of this track as a whole. In terms of style, a “technique” such as this would certainly mesh with his grainy, breathy tone and the intimacy of the lyrics. Another possibility is that the blemishes are a case of the popular trend referred to as “vocal hiccups.” Gaining headway with artists such as Gabbie Hanna, these consonantal blips, usually at the end of words and/or lines result in a sort of upspeak – the vocalist hiccups several pitches upward. It’s currently a vocal fad, said to inject more “emotion” into the performance. The last possibility is that these were not intentional, and are simply additional instances of the lack of precision and restraint in Jimin’s vocal repertoire.
I’d like to believe Jimin was ingenious enough to purposely utilize this as an emotional technique – and with RM also working on the track, it certainly isn’t a shot in the dark to suggest such a thing is possible – but the reality is that this is most likely a case of the latter.
This theory can be rationalized in one of two ways. The first is by zeroing in on the nature of these blips. Of the three instances I provided, the first two occurred at the end of words, as well as directly before Jimin took a breath. Jimin’s breaths, themselves, seem almost hurried, inconstant, and overly frequent in the track, and the frequency of breaths correlates to the frequency of blips. Jimin’s hasty breaths, therefore, incur these little blemishes – Jimin’s voice, at the end of the word, travels upwards in pitch as he begins to take a breath. Essentially, he doesn’t cut off his vocals before beginning to take a breath, resulting in a little upwards glitch. The reason for the third instance, the defect before 그게, is a bit more challenging to discern. Jimin’s voice lilts downwards just slightly before the “g”, so it sounds almost like a “ng” at the commencement of the word. The idea behind this analysis, though, is to prove that there is a genuine technical reason for these glitches, and so they are most likely a case of Jimin’s lack of vocal meticulousness in articulation and release of notes.
The second rationalization for this case is the fact that these glitches aren’t simply a product of “Promise” – you can sometimes also hear them during Jimin’s parts in BTS performances. Most often, they are drowned out by the beat-thumping backing track, so I apologize beforehand for bringing this to the forefront of your minds once more, but the most blatant example of this type of blip was Jimin’s part during “Fake Love” from BTS’s MGA performance. While an extreme example for sure (shame, shame on the sound engineer who decided to use the wrong backing track), Jimin’s “voice cracks” all occur at the end of his words, and are essentially just more potent cases of the same blemishes we hear through the course of this single. This means that these blips are more than plausibly caused by Jimin’s lack of vocal control.
Personally, I don’t find that the hiccups deter from the intensity of the track. I’m sure a majority of casual listeners didn’t notice them, and for those listeners who did, I would bet my everlasting collection of geeky graphic t’s that a majority found it to actually enhance the single. Perhaps you found the unintentional blemishes endearing. Perhaps you found them aegyo. Perhaps you thought they blended into the rawness of the track, gave it a bit more emotional pizzazz and technical eccentricity.
I’m inclined to agree. Yes, I suppose they were a bit excessive, but I also believe we would lose a touch of the intensity Jimin is so desperately attempting to foster, if we didn’t have them at all.
To wrap up this quite verbose post, I’ll leave my thoughts on a few of the other musical elements, the first being the guitar in the background. Now, I don’t know much about the guitar, other than the fact that my mother is trying to learn it (emphasis on trying), but the sweet, complimentary chords in the background really do make the song. They set the gentle beat and act as somewhat of the solidity – the rock – of the song. Paired with Jimin’s moving, yet variable vocals, I almost think of Jimin’s voice as the waves, inconstant and everchanging, with the guitar as the shore, immovable and constant, the stable force that the waves can break against without giving way.
The contrast between the backing of Jimin’s track – the guitar melody – and the backing on other members’ solo tracks is quite stark. Take Taehyung, for instance, whose backgrounds both in “Singularity” and “Stigma” have a sort of jazzy feel to them – a juxtaposition of many different musical elements, including a bassline, keyboard, percussive, and orchestral instruments. The contrast between this extensive mixture in Taehyung’s singles, and the simple, pure guitar background in Jimin’s single is impressive, but I simply can’t think of a better alternative. The guitar melody seemed less indifferent and distanced than an entire barrage of instruments does – it was far more intimate and inclusive, and stressed the importance of Jimin’s lyrics over the commercial musical quality of the track.
And that, my friends, is a wrap!
Thank you for embarking upon this long-winded analysis of the musical elements in “Promise” with me. Can you believe that I didn’t even get to an analysis of the lyrics? That’s what eight years of being a classical musician will do to you, I suppose!
Comment if you agree with my analysis, and especially if you don’t! Let me know what your theories are – I’ll surely be curious about this song for the next few weeks, so let’s discuss!
P.S. Did you hear that absolutely stunning 8D audio in the middle of the song? I can’t think of a single other single (puns, hah! RM would be proud) that uses 8D audio effects. There BTS goes again, trailblazing!
Citations: * At top of page, photograph by NASA, ** This file comes from LG Electronics’s official Flickr. Photograph of BTS by LG Electronics from the LG Q7 x BTS campaign, submitted to Wikimedia Commons by DanielleTH from LG Electronics’s official Flickr: LG전자. No changes made. Link to Creative Commons licensing agreement for public use: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode