As hit songs often go, BTS’ “Butter” started with a simple hook. Jenna Andrews, the seasoned songwriter-producer-publisher-A&R executive and all-around industry badass, played it for Columbia Records chairman Ron Perry, himself a skilled musician and creative, who immediately thought of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and a smash was born.
But the road to “Butter,” the No. 1 song in the U.S. currently on the heels of record-breaking showings on Spotify, YouTube and virtually every other platform frequented by music listeners since its May 21 release, was a long one as its writers and producers detail to Variety in an exclusive interview about the making of the song.
The players: Andrews, a Canadian hitmaker (Benee’s “Supalonely”) who co-heads Sony/ATV-affiliated TwentySeven Music Publishing and serves as an A&R consultant at RECORDS, home to Noah Cyrus and 24kGoldn. She also helmed vocal production on “Dynamite.” Perry, who sold his stake in SONGS Publishing (The Weeknd, Lorde) before joining the Sony Music label in 2018. Songwriter-producer Rob Grimaldi and co-writer Alex Bilowitz, both signed to TwentySeven Music, and Stephen Kirk round out the creative team. (BTS member RM is a credited writer and composer as well.)
Also highlighted: how Columbia’s promotion department, led by EVP Peter Gray, hit the road with 12 tour buses, bringing “Butter” to decision-makers across terrestrial and satellite radio coast-to-coast where programmers were able to hear the song for the first time. Is it any wonder every single Top 40 station added “Butter” to its rotation upon release? That’s only happened twice before in recent history: with Taylor Swift’s “Me!” featuring Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco in 2018, and with Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” in 2019 (though it’s worth noting that both these songs are duets and features and BTS is a singular act, and an international one at that).
Of course, some of this is familiar terrain for the group comprised of members J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga and V, whose 2020 single “Dynamite” is among the biggest of that year, logging 2.8 million song project units to date, according to Alpha Data. “No pressure” on the follow-up, snickered the “Butter” creators.
Let’s start at the beginning, when was “Butter” born?
Ron Perry: When Jenna played me the hook. I had a vision for this song that was Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal” meets Daft Punk.
Jenna Andrews: The chorus and the melody is basically what existed in the beginning. Alex had been coming over and writing with me every day during quarantine, and Rob had sent me the song with a hook that he and Stephen had written. And I heard the melody(written by Stephen Kirk) and thought, “This is incredible.” And I played it to Ron, who has the magic ears…
RP: It had different lyrics at the time.
JA: “Smooth like butter, like a criminal undercover,” literally came from Ron’s references. So that got us to be, like, this is the concept — and it all started from there.
How did the lyrics develop?
RP: I would say it took a month to try different versions of the verses and melodies, different lyrics on the chorus, different tracks. We have hundreds of versions of the song.
Alex Bilowitz: I was going to say a month-and-a-half of doing lyric edits on “Butter.” It was a staggering amount of rewrites and really pushed all of us to the max in a way that I don’t think any of us knew we could be pushed. But every time we’d land on something, there would be one person who would be, like, “That’s not it.”
JA: We really wanted to dig in and make sure that we were doing the best thing for the group — that was important to us — so we went over each lyric with a fine tooth comb over six weeks of rewriting and rewriting every day.
Rob Grimaldi: It probably sounds crazy to say that we took a month-and-a-half to get to a point and then another month-and-a-half fixing whatever we came up with. But BTS are all so unique in their own way and they do their thing so well, which is why their fanbase is so invested in them. And so you’re really writing for a whole cultural movement.
AB: It’s an honor to be able to work with them and for them. And we didn’t take it lightly not one step of the way. That’s why there was so many revisions and so many versions of the same thing, because we wanted to get it right.
RP: Because “Dynamite” was so good and so big, we knew our bar was really high, so every part of “Butter” had to be perfect. We knew what the boys mean to culture, how influential the ARMY is, and, if we got this right, how big it could be.
Were you thinking “Butter” had the makings of a summer bop?
RG: If you look at the trend of popular music the last few years, so many songs are really sad. Like it’s almost cool to be sad and, just speaking for myself, being in a pandemic in New York, being cold, wearing a mask in the studio all the time, I was pretty tired of writing sad songs where you’re just feeling bad for yourself and lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely. So for me, working on this song was like my therapy. I don’t know if I would say that it felt like summer, but it felt like the way that you remember the world being in its best sense.
RP: I think they wanted to have a really fun song, post-COVID — that was their goal. And we wanted to write something that had swag like the boys do — a song to match that. Also, we wanted to make sure that all seven members got shine and that everyone has his moment.
There are references to Usher, Michael Jackson… How do those fit in?
JA: We thought it would be cool to bring up late ’90s references: Usher, rock with me, I look in the mirror, like “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson — lyrics that paid homage to that time period.
RP: And I wanted to throw the Daft Punk talkbox in there because I was obsessed and have always loved them.
What about the rapping? As I understand, it was RM’s idea to include a rap. How did you approach that?
AB: I think the biggest piece is we really did a lot of research on the group and wanted to identify their strengths as a whole, but also their strengths as individuals so that we can give each member their shine. And I remember we were listening to a bunch of their music, and we found that a couple of them were really skilled rappers. And it was a moment in the song that we wanted to have this high energy explosion of everyone taking part and everyone taking turns — a real throwback hip-hop moment almost. And I think that was a great way to get some of those rap-heavy members involved. And when we first did the demo, BTS loved it so much that they wanted to also put it at the end, which was a brilliant idea, because they were able to actually give more of a moment to those members. So it was a cool, collaborative effort.
How did you work out the time difference between where you were in the States and Seoul? What was the process?
RP: We’d keep doing revisions all the time, so we probably have hundreds of texts over four months regarding lyrical changes and ideas.
Stephen Kirk: The problem with BTS is, when you hear their stuff, you love everything that they’re doing. So you’ll get a take that sounds good and say, “Send me another one just for good luck,” and then you like that one better and try to figure out what is the best take from both. So we were lucky enough to work with the band that is so pro, so good that I mean, nothing’s easy in the music industry, but it was easier than a lot of the stuff that we’ve done. And it was also challenging picking the best ones and where to put them. And especially when it’s overnight and you’ve been working all day on it, it was a process.
JA: We did a lot of it on WhatsApp. We’d basically stay up until five a.m. every day, work from five to eight a.m. with each [member] giving 20 minutes in the studio. They’re pros. … We would send voice notes of suggestions back and forth.
RG: Jenna would get with them at five. And then I’d call her the next morning at like ten or eleven, and she wouldn’t call me back until one or two, which meant she’d been up all night. I was on with them deep into the sunrise.
RP: And then my life was, my day job [at Columbia] and then nighttime at the studio.
Do you feel like they’ve progressed in terms of recording English vocals?
JA: I do. I think they’re amazing singers, and there’s been a progression in the last year between “Dynamite,” “Savage Love” and now “Butter.”
What is it about the song that connects with listeners so immediately?
RP: The track is insane. The lyrics are insane. Every melody is great. The rap parts are great. Every part of the song has been thought through over and over again. All the time we put into it shows, and I don’t think we ever disagreed with each other. I remember when we first got the mix back, we were all jumping up and down. I couldn’t be more proud of it. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and we didn’t know it would break records like 20.9 million global Spotify streams in its first day of release, but we knew it was great.
JA: In today’s world, I think it’s also important to have a lyric that’s visual — something that people can latch onto, like the butter emoji. I keep that in mind when I’m writing now — to have something that can resonate.
Grammy-winning mixer Serban Ghenea worked on “Butter,” what sort of directives was he given?
RG: We talked briefly about what we had in mind sonically before his first pass. It was a mixture of making it ready for radio and doing what a mixer does. But there’s also so much ear candy in the record, whether it’s, the vocal production or a Jungkook run — whatever the moment is, his job was to really make those pop and shine and also to give them consistent energy and bottom and depth. He nailed it.
RP: Rob and Stephen’s premix was really good, too, and then he came back with a fire mix.
AB: The Serban mix was like the icing on the cake.
SK: They’re all great singers, but they all have very unique tones and different vibes about them. And so, in the mix, you want to find a medium of the individual sounds and tones, but also bring them together almost like a glue over it so that the ARMY knows, this is Jungkook; this is Jimim; this is SUGA; this is RM.
“Butter” got added to every top 40 station in the U.S. How does that happen?
RP: It was a one-listen for basically every single person we played it for, so we kind of knew this was going to be special.
Peter Gray: We rented 12 tour busses and our national and field staff visited over 100 markets across the pop, Hot AC and Rhythm formats. It all starts with the security of the music, and it’s difficult to play a song over the phone or over Zoom hundreds of times and expect that it doesn’t leak. So the fundamental element of this was how do we protect the music? We found it to be very efficient, effective and, most importantly, very safe.
How did you ensure safety during COVID?
PG: So fundamentally, the busses are safe — it’s not doorknobs and elevator buttons and all of those things that you might like to avoid during a pandemic that you’d find on planes and hotels. The bus comes to your house, picks you up and off you go on your route. You’ve got a fridge full of food, bed and bathrooms, and you live on a bus for a series of days while you go see clients. … You wear a mask, they wear a mask, the driver gets off and you can have a private safe meeting soace where you can press play on music from the biggest band in the world and not worry about it leaking anywhere. So safety and security were the primary focus going back to August when we were setting up “Dynamite.”
Did you have to talk your superiors into it?
PG: Not at all. When we first talked about it in August, Ron loved it because he understood the importance of safety for our team and the security of the music. So it was a very fast “yes” from Ron. He loved the idea. It was bold and ambitious, but also made a lot of sense in what we were trying to accomplish at that time. … When you show up to someone’s house in a tour bus, you tend to get their attention. The cause and effect of it was was pretty was exceptional — not just exceptional, but perfect. We were really thrilled with the result.
When the song came out, was everyone watching the YouTube views and Spotify streams obsessively? What was that first day like for you?
AB: Best 24 hours of my life.
JA: It was a little like Christmas. Or the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve.
PG: The stakes were high and so were the expectations. Ron’s always aiming for perfection and excellence and a perfect launch of 180 radio stations was really exciting and gratifying. It’s something to be celebrated by our whole team.
RG: The part that we always forget about when a song takes this long and you’ve heard it 15,000 times, is how cool it is to be able to share that joy with everyone. So it was it was a moment of thankfulness and also a moment of relief.
SK: And can I say something? I’ve told you this, Ron, but I feel like it needs to be said publicly: it’s amazing to see somebody who understands the other side of a record — the promotion and what goes into making a record accessible to the world, and at the same time, someone who comes into the studio night after night.
RP: I mean, this is such a team effort. Everyone’s put in so many hours and so much time and so many revisions and it was really hard. And I’m just appreciative of everyone for their creative abilities and contributions — from Jenna’s lyrics, the initial hook, the track, everything is just unreal. It was quite an experience.