It is less than 24 hours after South Korean boy band Bangtan Boys (Hangul: 방탄소년단; RR: Bangtan Sonyeondan; lit. Bulletproof Boy Scouts), also known as BTS, set a new domestic record at Billboard. Deeply committed fans celebrated the achievement on various online platforms, spreading the love with hashtags and words of appreciation. Truly, it is a triumph of fan-based power. And no one has had a better front row seat to all of this and more than Fuse TV‘s Jeff Benjamin.
Referred to as the channel’s “K-pop and music aficionado,” Jeff Benjamin is currently the Features Editor at Fuse TV where he is a host on its K-pop podcast, “K-Stop.” He is also the K-Pop Columnist at Billboard and has written about the subject for Rolling Stone, Nylon, BuzzFeed and more. As one of the leading experts on Korean pop in the United States, his knowledge has been called upon by The New York Times, NPR, Entertainment Weekly and beyond. His commitment and passion about the unique music genre also led to an invitation to Korea by its government as the lead journalist in an international reporters summit in 2015.
Often the one to conduct interviews, the music journalist switched roles with MACG Magazine and shared his thoughts about the increasing popularity of BTS, the growth of K-pop; and how his fingers are still crossed for 4th quarter releases.
MACG Magazine: Recently, you said in your Fuse.tv report that “Blood, Sweat & Tears” has BTS “embracing the more complex and darker elements of the world.” Do you believe this was a necessity from their past EPs’ era, or a reflection of the group’s desire to make more accessible music?
Jeff Benjamin: I think this was the next step in BTS’ artistic progression. In previous releases, the guys have been talking about ideas adolescents and young adults grapple with in the early stages of maturity, and Wings expands the commentary. Throughout different songs, I see more complex topics being tackled like mental health and BTS even throwing shade at the K-pop “idol” scene so I think this was the next, natural step which, as we all learn one way or another, includes learning about the darker sides of the world. The band has found an accessible, honest, and exciting way to tackle such topics and I think that’s what connecting most with audiences.
MM: With the undeniable increase of fan support and industry interest in BTS, some might say that the group is determined to surpass other Korean acts in America. Could BTS be the new definition/standard of successful crossover acts for South Korea?
JB: It’s really interesting because the general sense I get from overall K-pop coverage is that BTS is still quite underrated when it comes to their international success despite all they’ve accomplished—like selling out their first two U.S. tours, headlining both 2016 KCONs, and achieving higher U.S. chart positions with each album release. There hasn’t been any major stateside promotions or viral video to chalk up their success to, but instead they’ve been able to connect with their fans thanks to talking about real topics. I think a strong, personal social-media presence has helped too. I hope their results with Wings can set a new standard that there doesn’t need to be some big, hyped-up release, but instead an act can consistently grow their fanbase and the new standard will be growing and progressing as artists while becoming closer with fans all leading to higher success than success determined by the amount of media hype.
MM: Although Korean groups have charted on Billboard before, 2016 seems to be a dynamic year. Why do you think this is?
JB: I think you’re definitely right that this has been a big year and I’ve personally had a lot of fun focusing on and reporting about K-pop’s performance on the charts—I hope the readers have too!
I think this is simply a result of the K-pop fandom growing in healthy and important ways. Yes, there was all this talk of the Korean wave taking over in 2011 and 2012 before and during the “Gangnam Style” era, but it didn’t totally happen that way. Instead, you’re seeing more acts holding tours in America, KCON is growing bigger each year, and more acts are doing better on the charts which measures people literally putting their money towards supporting their favorite music. This wasn’t happening to that extent five years ago and this type of growth excites me much more than a couple viral videos.
Specifically, take a look at how K-pop acts are performing on the World Digital Songs chart—BTS, EXO and Blackpink all had No. 1s just this year and for years that was a place only PSY could hit No. 1. It’s so much fun to see K-pop growing into different areas of the charts and who is resonating with U.S. audiences, which is what Billboard covers.
MM: As not just a fan, but also one of the more senior American writers on the K-music scene, you’ve experienced many changes in the industry. What is one thing about the success of BTS or K-pop collectively that you are proud of?
JB: One thing I really love about BTS is how they really aren’t playing by the typical “rules,” for lack of a better word, of K-pop and Korean society. The fact that Rap Monster shared that he was listening to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” on Twitter and then added that when he checked out the lyrics he liked the song even more? Incredible! I’m really proud that they’re a band clearly operating in 2016 on a global scale, but still have that important group dynamic that is important in the K-pop world. I wish more acts were as open-minded and saw that supporting a song like “Same Love” won’t ruin your career, but instead seems to be actually helping it. I want to see more stars speaking out about the music, art, issues, whatever it might be, that are important to them.
K-pop isn’t just operating in Korea anymore and I think BTS is a prime example of how international fans are being thought of on nearly the same scale as their domestic Korean fans.
MM: BTS’ fan base, A.R.M.Y., were taken down a unique concept path during the WINGS teasers — the “Demian” concept was eluded to during the Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa (HYYH) era. Do you also attempt to decipher the theme and symbolism of their trailers and videos? Have you noticed that BTS puts long-term effort into promotion themes?
JB: Ha, there is definitely a lot of analyses that go into BTS’ work, isn’t there? I do my best to look into fan theories and see what those who follow the acts closest are discussing, but I typically try to not be swayed by what I’m reading and really find meaning in what I’m personally feeling from the music. It definitely feels like BTS’ work is progressing as the band grows older and that includes embracing more complex ideas in their music. I applaud any type of long-term planning the company or artist are putting into their music, but I think realistically you can’t plan a long-term effort unless you’re getting good results—luckily, BTS has!
MM: Any last quarter prediction for 2016?
JB: I’m still curious to what can happen if BIGBANG releases this long-awaited Made album! The latest news is that it’s coming before year’s end, right? Depending on how BTS performs, will BIGBANG—and their fans—rise to the occasion to see similarly successful results? It could definitely be another major moment.
I’m also really curious to see if any acts can make a last-minute play to drop one of the best songs or albums of the year. 2015 felt like everyone was bringing out their biggest, flashiest concept throughout the whole year and I feel like this year has been more of a slow-burner type with some more experimentation and new things seen in the scene. Who else will surprise? I’m really curious to find out.
Ashley Griffin is a diverse writer, blogger and YouTube Personality. A nomad at heart, Ms. Griffin currently resides in Houston, Texas. Find “Multifacetedacg” on YouTube and shoot her a message on Twitter.