Riding the Seoul Train
Korean American Teens Embrace a Pop Music Hybrid

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Teens swarm against the stage at DAR Constitution Hall, holding their cellphone cameras aloft, ready to fire. In nervous anticipation, a girl squeals, unleashing a torrent of Oh my Gods! and a wave of synchronized bouncing.

The object of their affection, a 26-year-old pop star named Danny, emerges in a plume of smoke and struts into a fog of high school estrogen. Jumbo rhinestone-studded crosses dangle from his neck. He peels down to his singlet, showing off lean tattooed arms and baring just enough of his glistening ice-hard chest to set off fountains of tears and howls of eye-squinting desire.

"Obbah," screams Elaine Park, a sophomore at Lake Braddock High School in Burke. "Obbah! You're so freaky sexy!"

Obbah? It means "elder brother" in Korean, and it's the sort of honorific that sets this teen crowd apart from one you might have found for, say, 'N Sync. Normally "older brother" wouldn't belong in the same sentence as "sexy," yet it's a combination that fits this culturally blended audience.

Other than that, it's an example of a classic teeny-bopper formula that works in Korea just as well as it does anywhere else, since the days of the bobby-soxers and the Beatles. "Ahnyong haseyo! What's up, D.C.?" he bellows, greeting the audience. They respond with even louder screams as a sea of neon glow sticks wave frantically in appreciation.

He launches into Korean rap, pumping his shoulders to the heavy hip-hop bass line of "Nasty," sung in English and Korean. His 1Tym group mate Teddy Park joins in, wearing a trucker hat over a Louis Vuitton do-rag: "Say He-ey! Say ho-oh!"

Born and raised near Los Angeles, Danny Im is among a growing cadre of Korean Americans who have broken into the Korean entertainment industry and now serve as K-pop stars to be exported globally.

Some hail from the suburbs of Northern Virginia: Chart-topper Micky Yuchun of boy group TVXQ attended Chantilly High before he became famous in Asia for his baby-face good looks and Justin Timberlake dance moves; Lee Ming Young of the best-selling pop duo As One is a graduate of Fairfax High School.

Like the thousand-plus fans at the multi-act concert at Constitution Hall last month, Danny grew up with one Converse-clad foot firmly planted in the beats and sounds of Snoop and Mariah, and the other in the burgeoning hip-hop and R&B scene of Korea. He and other artists, including the show's headlining star, Se7en, routinely sell out arenas in Korea and across Asia.

"You grow up hearing all kinds of music, languages and sounds growing up in America," says Danny, an eight-year veteran Korean singer and rapper. "Those experiences make you open to more things and more versatile. "

One in five residents of the Washington area is foreign-born, making imports like manga (Japanese comics) and bhangra (Punjabi music) part of the cultural vernacular of the youth. Global travel is more accessible. So is entertainment. In the world of teens, K-pop, J-pop and Taiwanese pop music and movies are a click away. Even some K-pop band names mean more than Americans realize: TVXQ, for example, is a transliteration of the name in Mandarin Chinese -- the group is also seeking a market in the Communist mainland.

This cultural shift has, of course, caught the attention of big business. In the past year, MTV World has launched three channels -- MTV Desi, MTV Chi and MTV K -- with a mix of content from the United States and Asia catering to Asian Americans.

"Asian American youth are coming of age in this country," said Nusrat Durrani, general manager of MTV World. "They are bicultural and demanding a more bicultural experience."

* * *

Micky Yuchun grew up in Seoul, where he was known as Yuchun Park. He immigrated with his parents, middle-class small-business owners, in the sixth grade. He watched Korean dramas on satellite TV and listened to the CDs of K-pop bands. At Holmes Middle School, Chantilly High and among friends, he soaked up the Backstreet Boys, Eric Clapton and MTV.

Three years ago he was plucked from talent contests in Northern Virginia to join one of Asia's hottest boy bands. He uses his American moniker, Micky, as his stage name.

"I felt 50-50 American and Korean," Micky, 21, says in a telephone interview from Seoul. "I think most Korean kids in America feel that way these days."

That's true of Alice Chang, 17, who has closely watched celebrities like Danny and Micky rise from the U.S. suburbs to globe-trotting stardom. The Fairfax native is making a run for fame herself: She plans to try out as a singer on "American Idol" next season. Fluent in Korean and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of Korean entertainers, she has aspirations to become a K-pop star, too.

"I want to make it in American or Korean entertainment," says the Fairfax High senior. "I could see myself fitting in either."

So on a recent balmy Sunday afternoon, Alice is among about 200 hopefuls who show up at SM Entertainment's talent auditions at the Don Quixote bar and club in Alexandria. Parents pull up to the peeling facade of the two-story Latin dance club in their Honda Odysseys, dropping off sons and daughters -- perhaps the next Beyonces and Ushers of Korea. Five friends in knit caps and trucker hats practice break-dance moves in the parking lot, fine-tuning their footwork and robot-sharp turns. A dozen contestants are gathered around a parked minivan that is playing Korean music videos on two drop-down DVD screens.

Inside the Don Quixote, talent scout Jung Ah Kang of SM Entertainment sits behind a folding table on the dance floor as contestants come before her in groups of five. They each take turns singing a cappella for Kang, "Idol"-style. There's a silver disco ball overhead and Spanish-language beer posters on the walls.

Kang is stoic, taking careful notes while assistants train a video camera on the dance floor. After months of travel, she will return to Korea with only a handful of standouts to call back. One may be the next big thing for the Korean pop star machine.

Clean-cut, wearing an argyle sweater and jeans, Alice waits for her number to be announced. In a prayer-like gesture, she raises her clasped hands to her face and takes several deep breaths. "I'm not nervous. I'm not nervous," she tells herself.

When she is called, Alice introduces herself in Korean and then in English and sings "Sarah," a love ballad from Korean chanteuse BoA. Her voice sounds dry and she sings softly. Kang then asks Alice to dance freestyle for the camera along with four other contestants.

In seconds, the audition is over. Alice's bilingual youth, spent listening to countless hours of Korean songs, watching Korean television dramas and visiting fan Web sites and forums, culminated in a 30-second performance that was rattled by nerves and a quiver in her voice.

"It was my first time auditioning," she says with a hint of disappointment. Then brightens: "I'm going to go to Korea and try out again."

* * *

Just as baby boomers once fought over which Beatle would be their "boyfriend," teens Elaine Park, Joanne Kim and Christina Oh argue over who gets to "claim" Tae Yang of boy band Big Bang.

They are sophomores at Lake Braddock High and self-described BFFs -- best friends forever. All born and raised in Fairfax, the three have attended the same schools and churches since childhood. They've shared countless hours lounging in each other's bedrooms, the walls decorated with posters of Korean boy bands, memorizing lyrics and scouring Korean entertainment forums like Soompi.com for scraps of gossip.

At the concert at Constitution Hall, the three stake their claim to a small section in front of the stage. Elaine says she will go home happy if she can give Big Bang's Tae Yang a personal memento -- maybe her student ID.

As performers come on, one by one, the friends sing all the lyrics -- Korean and English -- to songs performed by Se7en, Gummy and Lexy. Arms interlaced, they sway side to side.

"I like American music too, but sometimes I find it too sexual," says 16-year-old Christina. "Korean music is more innocent, but still really fun."

Suddenly the stage falls dim. With a buildup of smoke and flashing lights, the six members of Big Bang come out to the heavily synthesized dance beats of the song "La La La."

The BFFs lose it as the music inspires a hormonal storm. The floor shakes. Fans jump and scream. "Musheesuh!" a girl in back yells. You are so handsome!

Elaine presses forward, trying to get as close as she can. Her moment arrives; Tae Yang comes to her part of the stage. She frantically grabs for something to give him: a water bottle. He takes it and smiles. She floats to another world, but a very familiar one.

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