South Korea’s biggest boy band wants to move on from its past scandals and rise to the top of the K-pop scene
by DAVID YI
Thrusting their pelvic muscles while their bulging biceps glisten with sweat in the blinding white-hot lights, the boys of 2PM are smoldering on stage at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. They dance with military-like precision to their first single, “Without U”—a catchy summer anthem filled with teen angst set behind a dissonant piano melody. More 1990s Chippendale dancers than K-pop princes, they exude budding sexuality, which they undoubtedly acquired from their CEO and mentor Jin Young Park. At this point, the entire stadium has been completely saturated with freshly squeezed pheromones, and it doesn’t help that Taecyeon Ok, the band’s resident shirt shredder, is getting ready to destroy his tight black threads onstage.
“Taec it off!” a fan poster cleverly reads while fans chant, “Take it off! Take it off!” The music blasts, and he places two hands on his chest, then grabs the ribbed cotton cloth of his form-fitting shirt. Near the climax of the track, he’s ready to bare it all, fans screaming in ecstasy. But just when he’s about to disrobe, the tweens let out a whimper of disappointment as the heartthrob coyly smirks, looks to the crowd and opts not to slough his uniform after all.
What a tease.
While the group may be largely foreign to the general American public, to South Koreans and many international fans, 2PM is the biggest—and hottest—thing since kimchi. The boy band, which consists of six members—South Koreans Hwang Chansung, 20, Kim Junsu, 22, Lee Junho, 21, Jang Wooyoung, 21, Korean American Taecyeon Ok, 21, and Chinese/Thai American Nichkhun Horvejkul, 22, who was scouted in Los Angeles—is now one of the most lucrative Asian groups ever, earning hefty paychecks from album sales, commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola and drama/television show appearances.
Whereas other record labels easily catapulted their own stars into sensations through exploiting their boy bands’ androgynous looks and cutesy images, JYP Entertainment (JYPE), a K-pop record label founded in South Korea in 1997, opted to go the extreme opposite direction, marketing 2PM in an unabashedly sexual manner. The plan proved to be highly fruitful, and was the impetus of a new craze labeled “jim seung” or “beastly,” which swept young girls and ajummas everywhere, erasing South Korea’s long-standing love affair for the ggotminam (pretty boy) image.
The country began buzzing about the group even before its official formation through a documentary-style reality series broadcast on South Korea’s music channel M.Net. The show, Hot Blood Men, provided a behind-the-scenes view into JYPE’s training grounds and how the band was created.
The JYPE-manufactured band finally made its much-awaited debut in 2008. Shortly after, 2PM released a mini-album, Hottest Time of the Day, but it wasn’t until the second mini-album, 2:00PM Time for Change, that the band made its own distinctive mark in the competitive world of Korean pop.
Under the guidance of Jin Young Park, a Seoul- and New York-based veteran performer who successfully launched the careers of Rain and the Wonder Girls, and who also produced for American acts like Mase and Will Smith, 2PM was quickly becoming the next hot commodity, already gaining a huge following in all of Asia.
Business savvy and highly ambitious, Park remains one of the only South Koreans in the music industry who has a chance at cracking the American market. Stringent and focused, Park pushes each of his members to “never be satisfied with yourself,” as Nichkhun says, and has a reputation for running a no-nonsense business, cracking the whip and trimming fat wherever necessary.
After the 30-minute dance-packed opening show for the New York City leg of the Wonder Girls’ national American tour, and after hundreds of pictures snapped with fans, five of the members (Junsu, the lead vocalist, hurt his leg and stayed in Korea to recover) lounge in their dressing room. It’s clear that the members of 2PM have transformed into well-oiled, multi-purpose machines. Despite a grueling tour schedule, they show no hint of fatigue.
The members sit in a half-circle after their show in their dressing room on plush gray sofa seats, next to their racks of clothes hanging from a rolling closet. Their handlers come in and out, jotting down mental notes.
Junho, whose physical look is eerily similar to superstar Rain’s, seems to have perfected the art of being “Rain-like,” emulating everything from the K-pop sensation’s facial mannerisms and his low voice, to bizarrely replicating the singer’s often parodied, signature accent. Taecyeon—sporting tortoise-shell cat eye spectacles and a black beanie—sits on a chair next to him and is friendly and accommodating. Though his body frame is mature and his shoulders broad and brooding, he exudes a boyish charm, graciously playing translator by regurgitating my questions in Korean to his group members without complaint (“I should get paid for this,” he jokes).
Nichkhun, who sits next to him, speaks in a slurred and very California Asian American accent, donning side-swooshed blonde tresses and a sleeveless black shirt. His expressive doe eyes sparkle, and though his answers are simple and vapid, you can’t help but find him endearing—Pollyanna answers and all. Chansung, the former actor who starred in the immensely popular sitcom Unstoppable Highkick, is a tall, lanky goofball with a sharp-featured face, and stares at the wall as if daydreaming. Rounding out the gang is Wooyoung, whose spiked hair and heavily mascara-ed eyes give off a frosty, if not uncomfortably intense, vibe.
“We’ll work hard and go to the end!” Junho says in Korean, commenting about the band’s future.
It’s a courageous if not blindly optimistic statement, despite the group’s many anti-fans and critics who wrote 2PM off as yet another band that would fade into oblivion, especially after the dramatic events surrounding the departure of ex-leader Korean American Jay (Jae Bum) Park. Jay began cultivating a cult following in September of last year, after netizens discovered an old and now infamous comment posted by Jay on MySpace page that read, “Korea is gay.”
Jay, the b-boy extraordinaire, was arguably the most beloved member of the entire band. Fans quickly (and obsessively) jumped onto the Jay bandwagon after observing his humble personality on variety shows, his adept b-boy dance moves and nice boy demeanor. His washboard abs didn’t hurt either.
While the squeaky clean bubblegum pop stars garnered intense popularity with their singles “10 Out of 10,” “I Hate You” and “Again and Again,” and with album sales having skyrocketed, the sudden departure of Park came at an inconvenient time. 2PM was suddenly scrutinized by the South Korean public and became a juicy source of media fodder, with many anti-fans, netizens and Korean nationalists expressing their disdain for Jay. On the internet, a petition began circulating, calling for the now-23-year-old from Seattle to commit suicide.
But the band mates stood by their leader, giving him a shout-out during every award show acceptance speech—like Chansung who, teary-eyed and emotional, blurted in Korean, “Jae Bum hyung, you’re watching this right? We’re getting this one together, I love you,” after a win at the M.Net Asian Music Awards in South Korea—and even silently protesting against South Korean haters by refusing to sing over his solo parts in performances, leaving Jay’s parts silent. And for months, it was speculated that after South Koreans simmered down, the charismatic and fan-adoring leader would return.
Then, in a drastic and surprising turn of events earlier this year, 2PM and their officials held a press conference to state that Jay Park’s contract with JYPE was severed indefinitely. Issuing a statement that Jay confessed in December of 2009 that he had made a “severe personal mistake” during his time with the band, it was unanimously decided that he would never return.
It was a shocking twist of events that was a huge blow to the young singer; many fans had surely expected he would return to the group. Fans quickly pointed fingers and accused the record label of wrongdoing. Did JYPE fabricate the story as a reason to let Jay out of his contract to save 2PM’s career? What could this “personal mistake” have been, and what could have made it so “severe” that he could never return? Rumors were rampant that Jay made a sex tape or that he was addicted to narcotics. Then there was that one rumor floating around that he had impregnated one of the ex-Wonder Girls members, Mimi, 18, who had quit the girl group around the same time Jay had left the band.
“If Jae Bum wishes to take responsibility for all of this and comes back as a celebrity, we will encourage him. However, I think a return through 2PM is out of the question,” said a vague Chansung at the press conference, which left fans stunned, if not feeling a sense of betrayal.
The rest of the members echoed his sentiments, though it still remains a mystery today over what this “unforgivable act” was.
“I felt like I was tricked and all the brotherly love they showed on TV became ‘fake,’” said Sara Chung, a former fan and translator for Twooneday, a 2PM fan site. “Like they were all very close to each other and seemed like they would stand by each others’ side no matter what, but then it all crumbled down.”
But if there was ever a frozen wall built around the band, it seems to have thoroughly melted since fans like Paja Patel, 17, stood in line for hours at the recent New York showcase to get a glimpse of the teen idols. Decked out in a handmade 2PM shirt while tightly squeezing the flipbook she created for the band (where she drew sketches of her and her friends chasing the band on every page), Patel was shaking.
“It was so moving that they stuck together,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “It was like, they went through so much!”
Others were just as excited: “They’re so hot, so sexy, I just want to do something to them!” shrieked Teresa Vu, 17, from New Jersey, who was also at the concert.
“I’m going to faint, I’m going to be fainting if I meet them!” Eleanor Kim, 15, squealed, showing off her colorful T-shirt she spent days preparing.
The fans will be delighted to know that none of the members are actually dating “though we’re allowed to,” says Nichkhun in English, the only member who’s faux-married (to girl group f(x)’s Victoria Song) via the highly popular MBC show, We Got Married. Even Taecyeon, who’s rumored to be dating Girls’ Generation’s Yoona—both starred in Family Outing 2, a variety show on SBS—claims that he’s still single.
During the interview, Taecyeon calls the rumors “a scandal,” and insists he is not dating Yoona. “It’s kind of like, you know, awkward between me and her cause we’re doing the same program, but a lot of people are like, you know, kind of looking at us like ‘They’re still dating each other.’ But we’re not,” he says. “The company’s not even giving us enough time to date!”
And he’s not stretching the truth—the bandmates admit that they get two hours of sleep on most days, if lucky. But the brutal if not inhumane schedule still feels exciting and fun, even if it goes over 40 hours, Nichkhun insists, even sadistically admitting that he likes testing himself to see how far he can go, much like a game. “Like how many hours can you stay up? You know, like two days, three days without sleep? An hour a day for like, three weeks?” asks Nichkhun.
Back to Taecyeon, the one whose naked chest is now internationally known. This one just loves shredding his clothes while performing. He was even designated by his own record company as the one to work out the most strenuously so that fans could enjoy the sight of his tight abdominals. So he must enjoy being half-naked, right?
“Yes, I love it,” he says sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “No I mean, not really, but if it goes with the performance, then yeah…”
The Seoul-born, Massachusetts-bred Taecyeon takes himself too seriously, brushing off fame nonchalantly with a sprinkle of irony and good humor, but candidly admits that he does feel the heavy onus of pressure and is extremely afraid of disappointing others.
It’s at this moment that Nichkhun—the baby-faced member of the group whose broken Korean is an object of affection—interjects, playing publicist and translating his band member’s answer into a better PR sound bite. “He likes to have fun. He knows what the fans want. He wants to make the fans happy. So it’s, like, he’s enjoying himself.”
“Yeah, I’ll say I enjoy it…” the chisel-faced Taecyeon hesitantly agrees. His body, as he explains it, became cut thanks to fellow member Chansung, who inspired him to hit the gym harder. “I mean, everyone started working out, and Chansung started getting really, really buff. And I was like, if Chansung can do it, then I can do it, too.”
At this point in the interview, the mood is easygoing; the band has finally warmed up. But it doesn’t last long. The vibe in the room quickly and predictably turns icy, awkward and tense as I ask the final (and most important) question of the night: Do you guys still have contact with Jay Park?
“Who?” Wooyoung asks in Korean.
Park Jae Bum, I reply in a Korean accent.
“Ah…” they collectively croon.
Then, deafening silence.
“Mmm … no,” says Taecyeon.
But as if trained, the ever-diplomatic Nichkhun has a perfect answer for everything: “No, [Jay] doesn’t [contact us],” he says politely. “He’s doing his own thing, and we’re doing our own thing. I guess he’s really busy.”
I then ask: But now that he’s in Korea, aren’t you going to hang out with him?
“I highly doubt it,” interjects Taecyeon. “We’re too busy.”
“He’s probably going to be busy, too,” continues Nichkhun. “He has a movie. We would like to congratulate him, if we see him.”
It’s here that the handlers—suspicious, overly protective and bullish—stop the interview. Apparently, Jin Young Park himself was in the hallway listening to the interview, as if expecting the question to come up, and as I walk out, the door locks, and one of the managers tells the rest of the press outside that there will be no more interviews.
Obviously still a sore subject, it’s understandable that the band has been shielded from such questions that are still painful. All the band wants to do now is to completely get over the loss and start anew without ever looking back. The members desire to salvage their careers and move on from their past. They press on, salivating for more than just domestic fame or notoriety; they want international acclaim, power and respect—without this certain Jay Park.
And now might be the perfect time for 2PM to do so.