Jay Park, formerly known as Park Jaebeom of 2PM, just released New Breed, his first full-length studio album as a solo artist. New Breed is more than just a debut as a solo artist; it’s a symbol of all the hardships of being a K-pop artist in the spotlight, and Park’s personal expression.
After training hard for years, JYP Entertainment debuted brother groups 2PM and 2AM in September of 2008. 2PM was always the flashier, dance-driven group while 2AM focused on ballads, bringing 2PM into the spotlight and into the hearts of millions of tween girls around the world.
Park has always been a strong dancer, singer, and rapper, and with his confidence and strong work ethic he perfectly fit the role of group leader. In 2008, just when 2PM was starting to get really popular, I worked with the boys at a live music TV show in Korea. I was surprised by Park’s willingness to talk with me (I was really excited to speak English with someone at work), and was struck by how down to earth he was. Even as the boys had hundreds of screaming fans stalking them, Jay would always take the time to pose for pictures, sign autographs for my friends, or even show me how to do the “I Hate You” dance.
In 2009, netizens (the term for the hordes of Korean citizens spending way too much time online) uncovered Jay Park’s old MySpace page, where he complained about Korea and his training. In a nation of very proud people, this began a huge controversy, with some people demanding Park be kicked out of the group. Park left the group, and there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding whether or not there were other issues along with the MySpace controversy. He returned home to Seattle while his devoted fans waited, even raising money to fly a banner over Seattle and donating over $100,000 to various charities around the world.
I am particularly excited for this album, because it’s Park’s opportunity to really show the world what he’s all about. While he enjoyed enormous popularity with 2PM, members of K-pop groups are often limited by group activities or the image that the group is trying to portray. I always suspected Park was a little more hip-hop than the rest of the group, and his emergence as the solo artist Jay Park has allowed him to do multiple collaborations with rapper Dok2 (pronounced Tokki meaning “bunny”).
Hip-hop veterans Tiger JK (AKA Drunken Tiger) and his wife T (AKA Yoon Mirae or Tasha) are both on the album, and for me, serve as an example for Park to follow. Both JK and T were born in America and had to struggle with a mixed identity – not necessarily belonging to America or Korea (especially T, who is half African-American and half Korean). However, through their rapping and singing, the couple have been received by Korea as Koreans and established themselves as pioneers of Korean hip-hop. Though they’ve been top-tier celebrities for decades now, JK and T are very down to earth and still ever grateful for their loyal Korean fans.
Korea has always had a strange relationship with America; without the US military, South Korea could still be a third-world country struggling to survive. At the same time many Koreans feel a strong anti-American sentiment due to a very visible US military presence. These are the same Koreans who are keeping companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, Bennigans, and SPAM afloat; Koreans have always equated America with modernism and the latest trends.
This unique relationship is also seen in the entertainment industry. Korean celebrities get surgery to have more Western facial features, use skin whitening creams, and try their best to learn English (though sometimes you wouldn’t know it), working side by side with Korean-Americans like Jessica or Tiffany from Girls Generation, or Nickhun or Taecyeon from 2PM. The new girl group Chocolat was made to be the first K-pop group featuring mixed Korean-American members. While these celebrities are embraced when they’re behaving, once they begin to show disrespect, the cultural divide between East and West comes out as well.
I was somewhat surprised to see a small controversy build over f(x)’s Krystal (SNSD Jessica’s little sister) rolling her eyes at her ice skating coach on a TV show. Viewers were outraged that she would be so disrespectful toward her teacher, and on television! However, Krystal grew up in California, where rolling one’s eyes is just another facial expression.
These differences are easy to spot if you pay attention. One day between rehearsals, someone had put a fan in the doorway of 2PM’s dressing room to get air flowing (Korean people don’t use air conditioning like we do); when the boys walked in most of them stepped politely over it not saying a word, but when Nickhun, Taecyeon, and Jay Park encountered the fan, they showed surprise or even a little annoyance at someone leaving a fan in such an inconvenient place. Not to say the American boys are rude or unappreciative, just that growing up in a completely different environment effects how you interpret things.
So when Jay Park’s old MySpace page was dragged up from the depths of the internet, it was no surprise the Korean public wanted to jump on his “American-ness,” saying he was disrespectful and didn’t care about Korea. In fact, Park is a really respectful guy, he simply made the mistake of complaining on the internet. Being a trainee in the K-pop industry is not easy (I wouldn’t know personally, but I know they are not really treated like humans), and I suspect that being a star is even harder, because the stakes are so much higher than if you’re a no-name trainee. Park was an easy target because he came out and insulted Korea; Koreans then saw this as a great opportunity to let out all their anti-American sentiment.
The good news is, Korea changes at lightning speed. Not just the physical landscape, but the cultural one as well. I was scolded for wearing flip-flops to work at a television station, being told it was disrespectful to my elders, just a few years ago and not too long after, I saw Koreans wearing flip-flops in public.
Fortunately, I think most Koreans are ready and willing to forgive Park. His latest album New Breed is currently holding the top spot on the Gaon National Physical Chart, showing that his fans are willing to pay real money for a real CD. In one of the most connected nations in the world where pirating is rampant, this says a lot. I always loved the elaborate CD cases and artwork K-pop artists put out, even if the album only has a few songs; creating something beautiful and unique that people are willing to pay for is a good lesson that the American music industry might want to take note of.
This Saturday, March 3 mark’s Park first solo concert ever, which will be held at The Olympic Park in Seoul. The concert is officially titled “Jay Park New Breed Live In Seoul,” and if you want to go, you’re out of luck. Park’s fans bought up all the tickets in 10 minutes and crashed the website’s server: a typical story whenever K-pop stars hold live concerts. Park has expressed his desires to eventually break into the American market; I wish him the best of luck and if he can keep delivering something fresh and bold while staying true to himself, I think he’ll succeed.
New Breed is available on iTunes, but you can tune into the Asian Invasion tonight from 8-10 PM to hear songs from the album!