Despite their quality and viability, not every great song receives the chance to connect with pop radio listeners.
In recent weeks, Headline Planet has been highlighting some of these missed opportunities. The latest chapter in the Songs That Should Have Been Pop Hits feature follows:
Selection Ten: BTS’ “Black Swan”
In truth, we could have dedicated an entire series to BTS songs that should have been pop hits. The group’s discography is rich with songs that are both relentlessly catchy and refreshingly authentic. Showcases for fantastic rapping and singing, unprecedented charisma, poignant lyrics, unique energy, and palpable emotion, the records are incredibly engaging and thus infinitely viable.
The resonance should be utterly obvious to anyone who gives the group a listen. But even one who refuses to afford BTS that opportunity should have no trouble acknowledging the appeal. Years of record-breaking numbers and unmatched fan support provide all the necessary proof. BTS’ music connects.
Despite that reality, few BTS songs have received meaningful opportunities to succeed at pop radio. Only one — the eventual Top 5 hit “Dynamite” — received attention truly befitting the group’s impact.
Given the quality of the group’s music and size and scope of its fanbase, BTS’ relative absence from pop radio is one of the music industry’s greatest travesties. It is also one of its most unfortunate missed opportunities; if BTS can prove this resonant without traditional pop industry support, imagine the impact it could make with it! BTS’ music has brought considerable delight to millions of fans around the world; it is such a shame that a segment of mainstream radio listeners will not get to experience the magic on a daily basis.
Because of the proven impact, just about every BTS song would qualify for a “should have been pop hits” feature. In thinking critically about the group’s 2020 focus tracks, one nonetheless stands above the rest when it comes to potential pop viability: “Black Swan.”
Released exactly one year ago as the first taste of “Map Of The Soul: 7,” the track is a perfect showcase for the magic of BTS. It is, relevant for the focus of this article, also a perfect fit for the modern music landscape.
“Black Swan” is one of those special tracks that can connect with diehard fans as well as it can impress casual listeners.
The antithesis of the stereotypical, shallow pop song (let alone “boy band” song), “Black Swan” features some of the most poignant, deeply vulnerable lyrics one will find on a mainstream-leaning release. The BTS members may be flashy, high-energy entertainers, but their fan connection has always been built on honest, human expression and emotion. By offering a crystal clear window into their internal thoughts and doubts, “Black Swan” strengthens the meaningful bond the group has with its longtime fans. And insofar as the emotion is so undeniably palpable, it also introduces new fans to the unfiltered reality at the core of the group’s art.
Non-Korean speakers will surely require a translation to fully appreciate the powerful imagery and emotional expression, but the beauty of “Black Swan” — and most BTS songs — is that the vocal (and stage) performances already do wonders to bring the lyrics to life. Every moment of the song serves to eradicate barriers between BTS and the audience. Indeed, “Black Swan” proves that honest music is the great unifier. By amplifying the pain and pleasure of humanity, it has the power to unite audiences and listeners of all demographics, cultural backgrounds, and life situations.
In affixing its unique messages to recognizable themes (in this case, the familiar “Black Swan” concept), BTS increases the accessibility.
Granted, “Black Swan” is not the only emotionally meaningful song in BTS’ discography. Emotional lyrics are not, moreover, a surefire pathway to pop viability. Plenty of successful pop songs have shallow, if not terrible lyrics. Plenty of exceptionally written songs do not have the right sound for mainstream audiences.
An equally important aspect of “Black Swan,” therefore, is its sound. Operating in the commercially viable lane between hip-hop and pop, “Black Swan” simultaneously fits the modern music landscape and showcases some of BTS’ most captivating musical strengths. The hauntingly beautiful instrumentation is both thematically relevant and broadly striking, further enhancing the song’s accessibility and resonance.
The notion of balance also applies to the vocals; although they can be intense emotionally, they still possess a delicate beauty. This further underscores the song’s suitability for the pop landscape; the “Black Swan” performances are “chill” enough for streaming and radio playlists yet powerful enough to command serious listener attention.
Despite its obvious quality and clear viability, “Black Swan” did not receive meaningful support from pop radio. It never received a chance to become a bona fide pop hit.
Like many songs on Headline Planet’s list, there are some “explanations” for its omission. Beyond notorious radio resistance to BTS, “Black Swan” faced a timing challenge. It entered the market as the group’s previous single “Make It Right” was still technically charting at the pop format. And though its launch was still very much positioned as an “event,” it was technically not the focus single from “MOTS: 7.” That honor instead went to “ON.”
Granted, the arguments do not hold much water:
— Radio resistance should not be a legitimate challenge for a group that connects like BTS.
— By the time “Black Swan” arrived, it was pretty clear “Make It Right” was not going to be a major hit. Its presence on the chart should not, therefore, have discouraged radio (and the BTS team) from fully getting behind the new song.
— “ON” never received meaningful pop radio support either, so it is not as if the industry was “saving up” its support for the official title track.
One argument does, however, hold water. “Black Swan” is a fantastic, powerful song that should have been a pop hit in 2020.