By Xu Aiying and Lee Hana
Photos and Video = Xu Aiying
Seoul | July 2, 2019
When a discussion about K-pop is had in American media, one name never fails to get a mention: Billboard K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin.
Writing numerous pieces for publications like The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Forbes, Benjamin has been spreading the K-pop gospel to fans around the world. Most recently, he grabbed media attention for having predicted Bangtan Boys' (BTS) meteoric rise to global stardom since the group's debut in 2013.
The writer said K-pop is more than just music but a blend of a group's members, album concept and the message it conveys. "These factors are what elevated K-pop above pop music, into a new dimension. The Korean language also produces a sound that's pleasant to the ears, and fans are crazy about this Korean identity," he added.
Korea.net held an interview with Benjamin on July 2 in Seoul on K-pop's global influence. Despite his busy schedule and question after question from hordes of Korean journalists, his eyes sparkled at the mention of all things related to K-pop.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
- As a non-Korean, how did you get your start as a K-pop columnist?
I first heard K-pop in 2008 when YouTube had just started. The song that got me hooked was "Because of You" by the girl group After School. You can hear a mix of ballad, dance beats, explosive high notes and whisper-like low notes in that one song. This was a good introduction to K-pop as I learned that you can experience so much in the space of one song.
Then in 2011, while I was working as an intern writer at Billboard, I asked the editor-in-chief if we could write about K-pop. That was my start.
- You're known as the person who first got Billboard interested in BTS. What do you think makes the group special?
Back in 2014 I went to KCON, an annual Korean Wave convention held in cities around the U.S. Many famous artists performed at the festival that year, including BTS who were new to the scene, having debuted just a year before. Their music was great and they already had a fan base, so I kept them on my radar.
I think BTS was able to become so big because they kept true to themselves. They slowly defined who they were during their early years, then starting from 2015, they skyrocketed, having established their musical identity. They are good at explaining who they are to others, and are great communicators.
- What's on your music playlist these days?
This morning while getting ready for work, I listened to songs by Gfriend, BTS and Mamamoo.
I'm also really into Chung Ha's new album "Flourishing" and Got7's latest "Spinning Top: Between Security & Insecurity." I love Taeyeon's new single album as well.
- How has K-pop changed over the years?
It's become more refined. The way artists connect with people and sell their music has changed, too. K-pop artists these days have a good understanding of who they are, and make their own voices heard.
I've noticed some changes around me as well. When I first began covering K-pop at Billboard, I was the only writer there. These days though, K-pop has the most writers after teams for the U.S. and Latin American markets. Billboard's K-pop section has the highest (number of) page views.
- Who do you think will be the next BTS?
BTS can't be replaced. To become the next K-pop sensation, you have to be different from BTS and walk your own path.
I do think (groups) like Ateez, Stray Kids, Itzy and Blackpink have a lot of potentials.