A Lyrical Exploration of SEVENTEEN’s Storytelling
This is the first in a series of essays released in honor of SEVENTEEN’s latest comeback! Subscribe to the 17 Carat K-Pop podcast for more coverage of their new album, Attacca!
As I touched on in a previous essay, language can feel incredibly limiting. Trying to articulate the true breadth and depth of any human emotion is a monumental task, and language on its own often feels insufficient. SEVENTEEN understand this, constantly acknowledging language’s shortcomings in their lyrics. Ironically, SEVENTEEN’s storytelling rings so true because they frequently address the limits to finding the best words to tell their stories in the first place. After all, in the new title track, “Rock with you,” they sing, “No words are enough for you.” The most human thing of all is to crave love and understanding, and how to say so with the right amount of gravity feels impossible. SEVENTEEN address this problem in two ways: relying on more than just words to tell their stories and holding onto hope that their listeners understand what they are trying to say on an intuitive level. The former will be covered in an upcoming issue of this newsletter. Today’s piece covers the latter, highlighting the words and symbols that are repeated throughout SEVENTEEN’s songs and used to reinforce the core theme of their work: a simultaneous desire for and fear of love and connection.
Simply saying words like “sad” does not do justice to what true sorrow feels like, so it makes sense for SEVENTEEN to reference crying a lot as well. The sorrows they describe pack a greater punch with references to crying. Whether it is out of loneliness (like in “Space”), nostalgia (“I Don’t Know”), feelings of inadequacy (“Smile Flower”), or a sense of helplessness when seeing someone else cry (“All My Love”), SEVENTEEN make their emotions clear.
SEVENTEEN reference clouds in songs from 2017 (“Rocket”), 2018 (“Moonwalker”), 2019 (“Network Love”), 2020 (“My My” and “24H”), and now 2021 (“Heaven’s Cloud”). The continued cloud imagery reflects the dominant themes of SEVENTEEN’s work: a craving for emotional highs, a basking in the sunnier days, and a feeling of “Cloud Nine” exhilaration when falling in love. Woozi explains his thought process while composing “Heaven’s Cloud” as an example of envisioning this “Cloud Nine”:
“I started by shaping the excitement that jumps out when you talk about love no matter what age or how mature you are, and worked on lyrics that make you picture something fluffy.”
This is just one of the many examples of how SEVENTEEN’s songs communicate on several levels; their songs’ textures and layers come from the visualizations their sounds provoke.
The concept of waves is used in several contexts throughout SEVENTEEN’s work. It sometimes is used to invoke a positive feeling, like in “Healing,” when they encourage listeners to dive into “the ocean of rest.” It also refers to nostalgia, like in “Drift Away”: “Memories drift away, becoming a big ocean.” It gets very somber at times, like in “If I”: “A day passes and the regret is too deep / I’m drowning in it.” It takes on a romantic context in “Crazy in Love”: “I fall in your eyes, blue like the sea.” Lastly, “wave” means multiple things at once in the song called “Wave.” As I explain in “The Artistry of SEVENTEEN”:
“Two metaphors are used at once: waving hello and ocean waves. The lyrics advise learning to ‘ride the waves’ in life, and after reconnecting with nature in that way, it is easier to feel ready to introduce yourself to the world. In other words, taking time to heal and recharge can allow people to put their best selves forward. This might seem to be separate from the theme of love the rest of the album’s songs cover, but it is very much in line with that theme. Taking time to slow down and reassess oneself allows more positive relationships to blossom.”
This appears to be the purpose of using wave symbolism in multiple ways: to give listeners a tool that can be used to become introspective, reassess their relationships, and apply the metaphor as they see fit for their personal circumstances.
On “Pretty U,” SEVENTEEN compare choosing which words to use when talking to a crush to picking the perfect flower, and the ending of the song alludes to picking off the petals one by one: “Does she love me / Does she love me not.” Later releases apply flower symbolism in other ways. “Smile Flower” likens a smile to a blooming flower and carries a promise to be “the spring to that smile.” “Flower” insists that getting pricked by someone’s “thorns” is a price worth paying for their love. And “Fallin’ Flower” addresses growth: “Between the time when the flowers bloom and scatter, scars heal and sprouts emerge.” Each stage of a flower’s life is not just referenced in SEVENTEEN's lyrics, but in the “Fallin’ Flower” choreography too, which imitates the blooming and withering of flowers.
The concept of blooming is mixed with another symbolic moment: staring at oneself in the mirror. In “Still Lonely,” SEVENTEEN sing, “I look in the mirror and see my pathetic self,” but years later, in “My My,” they exclaim, “I meet myself in the mirror / And blossom a new me.” Over the years, SEVENTEEN have come to see flowers as representative of hopefulness and the chance to find beauty even in one’s fallen “petals.”
“Love” is used as a noun countless times in SEVENTEEN’s songs, but it is used as a verb less often. “Love” as a verb feels more substantive, which amps up the cautiousness surrounding its use. The stakes feel higher when describing “love” in a way that is not abstract. This hesitation to use “the L-word” is a dominant theme in SEVENTEEN’s early releases. They sing about feeling tongue-tied and not even knowing what word actually suits their feelings of crushing on someone (notably, on a song from Attacca, “Crush,” the members now boldly declare, “You’re my crush / I’ve got a crush on you”). They reflect on their prior confusion in “Thanks”: “I couldn’t express myself / I didn’t have the courage / To say ‘love’ aloud.” The members progress from realizing the word they are looking for is “love” to vocalizing the desire to say it: in “Happy Ending,” they sing, “I want you to say…. ‘I love you.’” In more recent releases, the members have started saying “I love you” without any more hesitation, namely in “AH! LOVE” and “Anyone.”
While SEVENTEEN have gotten more comfortable expressing their love, some of their cautiousness remains. In “Rock with you,” they sing, “I just want to love you.” Just as they seem to have gained the courage to say “I love you” without hesitation, they return to invoking that hesitation, saying “I just want to love you.” Interpretations of this lyric vary, but the bottom line is that “Rock with you” is yet another example of how SEVENTEEN’s storytelling is not one of a clear, linear route to feeling fulfilled. Their journey towards a feeling of fulfillment is plagued with insecurities, fears, and self-imposed restrictions. On Attacca, SEVENTEEN send the message “We still want to embrace love, but we are still nervous at times about doing so.” It is this vulnerability that drives the group’s impactful, relatable storytelling.
SEVENTEEN constantly second-guess themselves, and their use of the word “lie” is often in the context of lying to themselves as opposed to other people. This could be a coping mechanism, putting up a wall between themselves and their true feelings that seem overwhelming. In “Space,” they sing, “I pray every day that it won’t be a lie when I say I’m ok.” In “Fear,” they try talking themselves out of a relationship and warning a lover to stay away from them: “I’m afraid of myself / The truth has me tied up… I'm afraid it’ll eventually change you too.” Years later, the members appear to have tackled their Imposter Syndrome and won. In “AH! LOVE,” they finally allow themselves to believe what has been true all along: “Saying you fell in love at first sight, check if it's a lie / No no no no…” And in a new track from Attacca, “2 MINUS 1,” the members repeat, “I don’t need you anymore” countless times, but they end with the lyric “I need you.”
SEVENTEEN has not gone from lying to themselves to not lying to themselves. Rather, they have gone from lying to themselves to at least being aware of when they are doing so. They still tend to lie to themselves as a protective mechanism, fearing opening themselves up to love, but they have now self-reflected enough to recognize these thoughts for what they are.
It is also noteworthy that “2 MINUS 1” is the final track on Attacca, meaning the album ends with “I need you.” The album starts with the lyric “You, I always need you,” adding an irreplaceable completeness to the album.
Songs like “Ready to love” focus on the concept of running to or running away with someone, rather than running from someone. Before the members opened themselves up to love, this running lacked a purpose and therefore was seen as a negative thing. For example, in “Space,” they sing, “Ran all the way from the start without rest, but why… What am I chasing after every day?” Running takes on different meanings throughout SEVENTEEN’s albums, but the root source of its pivot to having a positive connotation is love. Songs like “BOOMBOOM” and “Don’t Wanna Cry” mention an endless road that is now seen as exciting instead of daunting, when that road brings to mind seeing a loved one at the end of it.
Finding one’s way home after a metaphorical run is all the more important when it dawns on the members that their journeys do not have an end at all. In “HOME;RUN,” they acknowledge, “There may be no end to our journey of dreams / So let’s take a break for today.” Overall, running is discussed in the context of running away with or to a loved one, and certain SEVENTEEN songs stress this need for mental refuge. After all, as noted in “My My,” their entire lives are a journey. Recognizing life as an endless road and seeing that as a hopeful thing, instead of an anxiety-inducing one, enhances the significance of the lyrics in “Rock with you.” The members repeat, “I wanna rock with you” throughout the song, but the final lyric is changed to “I wanna stay with you.” No matter how long the journey is to get from one’s spot to the spot where love awaits them, SEVENTEEN are prepared to venture onwards. Rather than just view their feelings towards someone as only wanting a sense of togetherness, they realize what they truly want is a sense of a permanent home, a go-to source of comfort and connection. They want a love that will stay with them, rather than surface-level companionship.
Ultimately, SEVENTEEN’s albums serve as paintbrushes. They provide what listeners need to paint their own pictures and tell their stories in all their colors. The world is a canvass, a concept addressed in “Thinkin’ about You”: “Everything was part of a painting / Even though it smudged and smeared, it was beautiful / Time became drops and kept falling and falling.” At the end of the day, life’s ups and downs combine to form a picture that is beautiful in all its messiness. As “Heaven’s Cloud” puts it, “Even the shadow cast on the winter of my heart / Is covered in five different colored paints.” Given the fact Jeonghan is seen painting in the “Rock with you” music video, the concept of turning one’s story into art is still a key element of the group’s message.
While finding the right words to convey how they truly feel with the gravity those feelings hold remains an elusive goal to SEVENTEEN, their understanding of this struggle makes their stories hit close to home anyway. They admit to not always knowing how to express themselves, and they turn to metaphors and words with multiple connotations and definitions to assist them. Whether they are describing love as a flower that must someday wither or as an endless road being walked down towards or alongside a soulmate, SEVENTEEN seek to express their emotions in ways that touch listeners as profoundly as those emotions touch the members.