Catching Up with Jeff Benjamin
Interviewed and Written by J.Ventinilla
When it comes to writing about K-Pop, one of the pioneers in K-Pop journalism within North America is none other than Jeff Benjamin. He has written for several outlets such as Teen Vogue and Rolling Stone and is most notable for his work with Billboard. At this year’s KCON LA 2018, The Kraze had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff Benjamin once again and catch up on his latest endeavors and work with K-Pop.
Q: K-Pop has significantly grown within the past couple of years, with BTS getting a massive blow up in the Western music industry; how does it feel to see the progression of K-Pop within these last few years?
Jeff Benjamin: As someone who was always a champion and cheerleader for not just K-Pop, but international music in general, I’m really, really proud of all these artists and what’s been happening so far. I’ve had people, even years ago, just say to me: “Oh, it’s just a fad. Stop focusing on this. It’s just not worth it.” I had an editor literally tell me, “Stop trying to make K-Pop happen.” But I was a fan first and foremost and I was excited about it. I saw something special in it. So, just believing in the high quality product that I saw and knowing that there will be a moment for this, I always thought that Latin music and K-Pop are very similar. [And] Latin music had a huge moment last year and that’s all it takes. It’s just one moment for everyone to realize that this is happening. I’m proud! I’m happy! Especially in the media, so many people are now getting it. It’s still not there yet. Not everyone gets K-Pop as K-Pop should be enjoyed, but at least open they are open to it now, which I think is a step in the right direction.
Q: Which K-Pop group do you think is going to be the next group to make it huge in the Western/American music industry like BTS?
A: Such a difficult question! I mean, I really do see a lot of potential for BLACKPINK. They represent the female side and energy in that way. They’ve been so great about their sound and style, but they also have three members who speak English very well. That’s huge for a group with that international mindset in place. The thing is, too, is that you never know who it’s going be. If you looked at all the [K-Pop] groups that debuted in 2013, would you place your bets on BTS? How many people would have done that? At the same time, it’s so tricky to say who can be the “next” but I do really feel strongly about what BLACKPINK is doing. I see so much potential. I think Stray Kids are doing great stuff. (G)I-DLE is [also] doing great things. Whoever BigHit [Entertainment]’s next boy band is, I’m sure there is also going to be that similar kind of energy and attention. It’s so tricky to say! Red Velvet, EXO, SEVENTEEN; these are groups that are very huge right now and I think they can take it to that next step.
Q: Are there any K-Pop groups or artists that you would like to interview (that you haven’t already) in the future? If so, can you please name a few?
A: I’ve been very lucky to meet a lot of these groups. Lately, I’ve been kind of wanting to meet the CEOs of the agencies. I think there is so much that goes into the mindset and that thinking process—how the person’s vision can trickle down into the K-Pop that we know today. I think it would be amazing to just have the CEOs of all the biggest companies together in one room and ask what they think about this or that.
But I will say, there are some groups that I’m holding out on that it happens. I really love Brown Eyed Girls, AFTER SCHOOL, and Seo Taiji. They’re legendary in their own ways. They aren’t as active as they have been for awhile but they still have interesting stories to share. In terms of new groups, I would love to meet BLACKPINK. Maybe they might be in America sometime soon and we’ll hopefully be able to meet in person. That’s my hope at least. I’ve only met NCT 127, but that would be amazing to meet all 18 guys and just have boys’ time. I think the largest group, at this point, I’ve interviewed is SEVENTEEN and that sounds like a lot [considering] it’s 14 people, including me. But it wasn’t! We all huddled in a circle and talked and even if we don’t all speak the same language, there was some of that mutual admiration and respect. It’s really fun to do those kinds of large interviews.
Q: Which rookie group has caught your attention lately?
A: Definitely (G)I-DLE just because even their stats across the board, in Korea and also America, have been really promising and exciting. I am really gung-ho about NCT. There is so much potential with that whole concept and idea. Like we were saying, BLACKPINK. Very excited for Stray Kids. I also really like PRISTIN as well, from Pledis [Entertainment]. I think they have a lot of potential and very exciting things going on. The fact that they are very involved with their music is really exciting.
So excited about LOONA! It’s been exciting and fascinating to me that they have this huge fanbase online, especially on Twitter and [with] gay fans. I know a lot of gay people who are like: “LOONA! We love LOONA,” and I was like “How do you even know LOONA?” I think that is so amazing and such a fascinating case study too. This group has connected, in the ways that connected with this, which to me sounded crazy and so mind-blowing. This 18-month debut, one member a month—I thought this was never going to happen, but it happened and now they’re here and a full 12-member group. I remember when I saw the “Favorite” song come out. I was genuinely excited like, “Here it is! We’re all here! We made it!”
Q: Of all the K-Pop groups that you have gotten the chance to see live, which artist or concert has been the most memorable for you?
A: I always go back to this moment, just because it was a really eye-opening moment for me. It was in 2012, it was BIGBANG’s ALIVE Newark/New York show at the Prudential Center and it was very early in K-Pop’s international crossovers. I was actually standing next to one of my co-workers at Billboard who didn’t know much about K-Pop, but we were watching the show and the whole stadium was singing “Haru Haru.” I just thought that it was so beautiful. This is a mostly Korean language song that the whole stadium was singing and I was like, “Oh my gosh…This is something special.” I don’t think there are a lot of music genres or languages where this is happening or could happen. People are singing and interacting with this music and in this way, so I always go back to that moment when I was like, “This is it.”
In terms of actual shows that really, really wowed me, I was pleasantly surprised by Stray Kids at KCON NY just because I never really saw them live in that way. But they went for it. They were really killing it. It reminded me of BTS and INFINITE in that way. Just really energetic and doing new things that I haven’t seen before. I really loved that. I always thought that B.A.P always put on a really good show. You know, B1A4, for their first U.S. tour they brought a live band and that was so cool. It really upgraded the experience.
Q: What are some of the strengths and challenges of being a journalist? How do you overcome those challenges?
A: Strengths: I do think that it is a creative outlet for me. I actually went to school for music business originally and I didn’t do well. I think it was because of the business aspect. There were a lot of numbers...Things that I knew in my heart that I was not passionate about, and even my advisor was like: “Do you like writing? You’re doing well in your writing classes.” But then interning and trying journalism class, I was so much more inspired and so much happier that I was. I think part of it too is being able to dissect art and something that is creative and share it, and my experiences are very rewarding and exciting in that way. Whether it’s the marketing plan of the music itself or whatever it might be, there’s something very exciting to me and that’s something I always try: to dig deeper and find something more.
But challenges; something that I had to learn very quickly is that the Korean media—it’s very different than American media. It’s learning—how they do things, and this is how we do this; where are we going to find a common ground? And I always described this kind of K-Pop journalism journey as a lesson in empathy because it’s thinking: “How do I connect with you? How do you connect with me? How do we both become happy?” No one is right and no one is wrong, it’s just the way things are done in different ways. So that’s been an interesting challenge in that way—to be able to figure out where is our common ground.
The challenges, too, are just getting people to see this as a legitimate music scene. I think so many people, for the longest time, it was hard to get them on board and say this is worth your coverage or your time. I think so many people just write it off; they think that it’s only people in Korea listening it or only Korean people going to these concerts. That’s just not true. You look at KCON and where we’re at right now, look at the diversity [and] the age range. There are so many types of fans and so many types of people that are into this. I think it’s getting people to open their eyes and even when they open their eyes, being able to accept it and understand it in a way that is an appropriate way. There are a lot more K-Pop interviews happening now in mainstream media but I would argue a lot of them are not so, for lack of a better word, respectful. These groups, these people, they are not exotic pets to teach you how to dance or to tell you about their girlfriends. They’re people just like our artists are here in America. So I think, finding that common ground as people, I think, is really important to remember too. So keeping it going in a respectful and healthy way, and ultimately it is a fun and exciting creative expression.
Q: We have asked you this before, but what is some advice that you would like to give K-Pop fans who are aspiring to be K-Pop writers or being a professional in K-Pop in general?
A: It is a really good tip that you gotta have skills across the board and need to be ready. You need to be ready to write first and foremost. You need to be able to write about everything but also have a specialty in that way. That was something that was told to me very early on, was being able to be that person that can get whatever type of administrative work or whatever type of writing or transcribing. Do the work and be able to show that you’re competent in that way. Have that thing, that topic comes up, that people want to go to you for that work because they know you know it. They know you know it well. It’s about owning it. For the longest time too, I just don’t write about K-Pop, I write about all kinds of things but I always knew if something with K-Pop came about that I would hopefully be that person on the top of people’s minds. I’ve gone on TV to talk about the GRAMMYs or gone on to talk about whatever kind of artist on different things, but with K-Pop, it’s been where I’ve been most visible because that was something that I really tried to polish and know this scene so that I’m on top of people’s minds when they are thinking of this thing in particular. But still it’s universal. It can work with anything. Ideally someone might say: “He’s led this K-Pop column on Billboard. It’s expanded. It started in 2013 [and] it’s still here in 2018. What aspects of that have grown? What did he do? How did he make it a viable thing so that those aspects can kind of be used across the board in that way? For any type of job?”
Q: We have seen the expansion of KCON coming to Mexico, Japan, and London and more recently Thailand, aside from taking place here in the U.S. What other places do you see KCON taking place?
A: That’s a great question! I feel like an Eastern Europe date would be really cool because I think those fans are very hungry for K-Pop. I think lots of times, when an artist announces a tour they’re always like, “Where’s Europe? Stop forgetting about Europe!” Again, UK/France has gotten a taste of it but I do think Eastern Europe might be due for something. But I also think South America too. That is such a huge fanbase. If they did KCON Brazil, mark my words, it would be insane. Or even Chile or Santiago, I think that would be amazing. I hear Venezuela has a K-Pop fanbase as well. These fans are really passionate about music in general, particularly with K-Pop and I think there’s so much potential for a South American audience too.
Q: Are there any updates or information that you would like to tell readers to look forward to in the future?
A: I’m trying a lot of new things. I want to write for new places, I want to talk to new people, and I want to spread this excitement I have for K-Pop and show it in different ways and forms. I’m trying to do more things on social media and trying to involve more people and just my story and what’s happening. I think I want people to stay tuned and I want people to look forward to new things. Again, nobody got anywhere by doing it the same way. I hope people can get excited about new things that I’m trying and writing for. I think it’s so exciting to have something people want to share when it comes to K-Pop, and people have ideas, things they like and don’t like. I’m always all ears and want to hear more from them. Even here, I’m writing some things for Teen Vogue and iD Magazine under VICE. I’m going to try and push it and keep trying to do new things.
I’m also going to be in Korea next month (September) so I hope I’ll have some exciting things to show from that. I just really, really want to say thanks to anyone who took the time to read, follow, share, or support in any way. I know that there is a lot of stuff that is vying for everyone’s attention and it’s easy to get distracted in this day and age but I hope that my words and my whatever that may be, I hope they’re worth your time. I’m always working hard to make sure that it is worth your time. I’m really excited for this Korea trip; I don’t want to jinx anything but I really think you might be able to see me in somewhat a new light or something you might have not ever seen before.
On behalf of The Kraze, thank you so much once again, Jeff Benjamin, for having this interview with us!
Keep up with Jeff Benjamin on all his social media!