The story goes that Dionysus, ancient Greek god of wine and theater, was born twice: once in a storm of passion and lightning that ripped him from his mortal mother Semele, and again from a gap in his immortal father Zeus’s thigh. It’s been said that he forwent a life on Mount Olympus to live amongst humans, traveling the world and amassing a loyal cult of female followers known as maenads, or “raving ones,” with his intoxicating persona. Dionysus is a symbol of contrast; a deity culled from human flesh and bone, born as one archetype yet destined to live as another.
Perhaps that’s what makes him such a compelling figure for BTS, the Korean septet whose own extraordinary mythos seems as if it was forged in the cosmos. Addressing the United Nations in September 2018, leader RM said, “Today, I am who I am with all of my faults and my mistakes. Tomorrow, I might be a tiny bit wiser and that would be me too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life.” No matter how high they climb within the pop pantheon — becoming the first Korean artists to perform at the Grammys, scoring three consecutive album debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — they remain true to their Bangtan roots.
“Dionysus” is the closing track on their 2019 album Map of the Soul: Persona, and it’s featured on its follow-up, Map of the Soul: 7. Produced by member J-Hope, its rousing and unrefined prog rock served as the opening number of BTS’s Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tour last year, which spanned stadiums across Europe, Asia, and North and South America, earning a staggering $116.6 million. With overt lyrical references to the gluttonous god — “Thyrsus (grippin’) Grape (eatin’)” — the track meditates on the perils of intoxicating fame through the lens of a veritable party anthem. “Art at this level is over-drinking,” Suga raps, translated into English. “The new record is the fight against oneself.” It’s a recurring theme throughout BTS’s oeuvre: Being at the top means they’re only in competition with themselves, but every milestone may lead to new disappointments. It’s a limitless feeling that’s both invigorating and empty.
On “Home,” a smooth R&B cut from the same album, Suga also addresses this confusing feeling: “Even if we have what I wanted in my dreams / Big house, big cars, big rings,” he spits, nodding to “No More Dream,” their 2013 debut single. “The unfamiliar feeling of missing something / For someone who has accomplished everything.”
BTS closed their Love Yourself chapter with a series of concerts at Olympic Stadium in Seoul, but they continued to perform “Dionysus” at year-end awards shows. It served as the explosive finale to an impressive 40-minute set at the Mnet Asian Music Awards in December; days before, at the 2019 Melon Music Awards, the seven members transformed into Greek deities for their performance. They even brought Dionysia, a celebratory festival dedicated to Dionysus, to the stage at this year’s Golden Disk Awards, hinting at the feast’s imminent return with the cryptic message “City Dionysia Begins” (likely a reference to their forthcoming Map of the Soul world tour). For BTS, the godly comparison is less of a flex and more a symbol of their own story. They are, after all, the dramatis personae in a folktale of their own masterful making.
The threads of this narrative, which members RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook have been constructing visually since at least 2015, are sewn throughout their music videos and discography. But the “Bangtan Universe” extends beyond a singular story; these images — evoked through lyrics, apps, Bangtan Bombs, and concert films — define the group as they are seen through the eyes of their dedicated fans. Persona deals with this phenomenon head-on, expanding the BTS story as they’re confronted with many different versions o