“You guys, I’m drinking water, it’s not a big deal,” Eric Nam said calmly to a crowd of thousands of shrieking teenage girls. They only got louder.
The man knows how to work a crowd. Before the 27-year-old K-pop phenomenon took the stage, a video on the stadium screens showed him dressed in a dapper baby blue suit at a flower shop. He picks up a large bouquet of roses and then sets them down, unconvinced. He turns around and an even bigger bouquet of roses catches his eye. Nam then appears on stage IRL, dressed in the same suit and holding the same giant bouquet of red roses, to the screams of his adoring fans.
My entire face failed me—my jaw was on the floor and I couldn’t believe my eyes. My God, he’s really committed to this, I thought. He handed out roses to his fans, one by one, before passing the rest of the bouquet to a throng of wailing girls. They grabbed the flowers and immediately shredded them in a terrifying and awe-inspiring display of devotion. In an instant, the roses went everywhere. In another, they were gone.
This hullaballoo went down last Saturday at Newark’s Prudential Center on the final night of KCON New York, the annual convention that celebrates Korean pop culture. Nam, who performed without backup dancers, shared the stage with newer acts like girl group Mamamoo (clap-o-meter reading: 9) and rock band Day6 (clap-o-meter reading: 8) as well as the immensely successful Bangtan Boys, also known as BTS (clap-o-meter: broken), the first K-pop group to have an album spend more than one week at the top of Billboard's World Albums list—and who accumulated more retweets than Kanye this past March.
Nam's slow and sugary love songs, which each have between 1 and 2.4 million hits on YouTube—compare that to the nearly 18 million hits on Mamamoo’s 2015 hit "Um Oh Ah Yeh" and the more than 35 million hits on BTS’s "Fire" from the last month alone—have earned him the image of an endearing boy-next-door.
While he certainly played to that reputation during his performance, Nam, an Atlanta native and the son of Korean immigrants, has a cultural fluidity that—at least by American audiences—is rarely seen from K-pop stars. He's a heartthrob phenom who drives girls temporarily crazy, but he could also be that dude you worked on a group project with in your econ class. And despite the fact that you won't find posters of him as readily available as those of acts like Big Bang, GOT7, and EXO in the K-pop section of your local Korean bookstore, he may have what it takes to do what no other K-pop star has done before: break into the American mainstream.
I met with Nam the day before his headlining performance at KCON. Nam's is an unassuming presence, not to be confused with meekness. He’s soft-spoken, but not timid by any means, and he certainly doesn't shy away from the issue on everyone's mind in the K-pop world.
“Why do Koreans potentially have a hard time breaking out in other places?" he said. "We have people who just kill it around the world. But they’re not as visible and they’re not as outspoken. And why is that?"
The American market has been notoriously elusive for K-pop acts, although they enjoy a massive presence in Asia and around the world. Big Bang won “Best Worldwide Act” at MTV’s 2011 Europe Music Awards, beating out Femme Fatale-era Britney Spears. But events like KCON prove that there is a substantial American fanbase and plenty of potential: Korean artists are getting more stateside attention than ever before.
The K-pop girl group 2NE1 has been featured on The Bachelor and America’s Next Top Model. “Gangnam Style,” Psy’s globally inescapable 2012 hit, is still a staple at American wedding receptions and Memorial Day weekend car dealership sales. But so far, it’s been Korea’s rappers who have made the most progress, invading America’s underground scene and collaborating with some of the biggest names in the game.
Keith Ape’s track "It G Ma" made such an impression that Waka Flocka Flame, Dumbfounded, Father, and A$AP Ferg joined in on a remix. Big Bang’s G-Dragon and M.I.A. collaborated on the track “Temple” on Baauer’s latest album. Producer Diplo has worked with Big Bang's GD & T.O.P., as well as CL, the breakout star of 2NE1, who many predicted would be the first Korean act to make it big in America.
But so far, even Korea’s most successful acts, including CL, have remained stuck on the fringe. It's an ongoing struggle for them to make it in America and maintain longterm staying power. This conundrum has clearly been on Eric Nam’s mind. “My goal and my dream is to cross over into the states and do things in English and not necessarily K-pop,” Nam told me. “K-pop serves a very niche community. We’re a very tight-knit community, but I think it would be great to see Asian-Americans and Korean faces going beyond that.”
The Boston College graduate was about to enter the world of consulting in 2011, with plans to pursue a career in venture capital and private equity, when he had the opportunity to appear on an "audition program" (like American Idol) in Korea after his YouTube covers of K-pop songs caught the eye of a producer. When he speaks, there’s an accommodating directness in his answers, and from the way he fields questions, you can tell he’s been on the other side of the interviewing process.
See, while Nam is currently making his name as a singer, he’s best known in Korea for his television appearances, various hosting gigs, and interviews with some of the world's biggest celebrities. Imagine a Korean Ryan Seacrest. He’s interviewed Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon, Amanda Seyfried, Chloe Grace Moretz, and other stars, so yeah, he knows a thing or two about chatting with famous people.
“I think it’s a blessing and a curse," he told me. "But a lot of people recognize me more for my TV stuff. People are like, ‘You just interviewed a ton of people. You interviewed a ton of people and people loved you for that.’ And that’s how more people see me. And it doesn’t matter. As long as you listen to my music, I don’t really care.”
Growing up in Atlanta, there wasn’t as big a Korean community as there is now—“They were not there when I was there!”—but his interaction with Korean culture mostly came from his local Korean church and his parents.
“It was weird. My parents are immigrants, I grew up thinking I lived in Korea until I was five years old," he said. "I was just like this person’s white, this person’s black, this person’s Latino, but we all live in Korea.” His parents didn’t even realize the misunderstanding until they picked him up from school, finding him distressed that his teacher wasn’t qualified to teach because she didn’t speak Korean. “They were like, ‘Oh no, he thinks we live in Korea. He’s going to have a major culture shock.’”
Like any other first-generation kid, he didn't always see eye-to-eye with his parents—they weren't always behind his K-pop career. "They were very against it in the beginning," he said. "Like, leaving a well-paid, respectable salary job and going to pursue my dreams? Like, what? They were like, ‘No, you are not doing that. We just paid for your college, you know how expensive that is. That’s not happening.’"
Nam recalled a phone call with his mother, back when he was on the audition program and he realized things were going well for him, seeing a glimmer of music industry success. “She was like, ’No no no no no no, let me put this straight for you. I think you’re misunderstanding Korean culture. You’re going to find out how many more people there are who are so much better than you at singing.’”
“I was like, ‘Thanks Mom,’” Nam said, laughing. “‘I appreciate all the support. Just feel the love.’” After visiting him in Korea and witnessing his budding success in person, she did realize that her son was, well, kind of a big deal. “She was like, ‘Oh. That’s cool.’ But now they’re coming around, they’re very supportive. They’re here this weekend! I think it’s their first time seeing me perform my actual stuff.”
Eric Nam maintains that he does not dance; at least, he doesn't dance like your average meticulously choreographed K-pop boy band. But throughout his KCON set, I was mesmerized by his stage presence. Again, he had no band, no backup dancers, no one to riff off except the audience—who, understandably, had issues articulating words beyond, "I LOVE YOU ERIC!" And yet he thrived, showcasing a shrewd attention to detail. Every single wink, every bite of his bottom lip was so perfectly optimized to elicit the loudest and highest-pitched screams from the girls, it broke my brain. For a hot second, I could not reconcile the laid-back, practical, and driven dude I had talked to the previous morning with this perfect pop music machine, this walking, talking, utterly unapologetic indulgence in the cheesy romance you hate to want but want to want. I'm still having some trouble with that.
At the end of his set, he introduced a new song, “Into You,” his first foray into the American music scene. A collaboration with the LA-based EDM/rock duo Kolaj, the synthy, saxophoney tropical “K-Trop” track is your new irresistible summer 2016 jam.
Before he actually performed the song, Nam asked the audience to stream the track online to help support Asian-Americans and Korean-Americans in the States find success in the music industry. This was probably the first time a crowd of 18,000 ever screamed at the top of their lungs in support of Asian representation—just saying, that was pretty cool.
Despite this passionate plea on their collective behalf, Nam has yet to connect with Asian-American artists working in the United States, like rappers Awkwafina, Dumbfounded, or Rekstizzy. There's a distinct disconnect between Korean-Americans based in Korea and those based in this country. "It’s crazy, I feel so isolated in Korea," Nam said. "I’m not very plugged into the Asian-American entertainment side in the States. In Korea, we have Asian-Americans and we all just kind of support each other."
This support network was clear on Saturday night—during Nam's "Into You" performance, New Jersey-born Ailee, known as the Beyoncé of K-pop, was on the sidelines jumping, dancing, and hollering with the rest of Nam's fans.
It remains to be seen if “Into You,” a song that—unlike other K-pop crossover attempts—is completely devoid of K-pop sensibility, will be the single that finally catapults a K-pop star into the U.S. spotlight. But there is promise in Nam’s ability to connect with American listeners in a way that his Korean-born peers may not be able to do, which could be more a reflection of the racial stereotypes and prejudices that continue to pervade America’s entertainment industry than anything else. Other major acts, particularly BTS, have been making huge strides in bringing K-pop to the American people, but at they end of the day, their lyrics are in Korean. Some assume the language barrier (also informed by stereotypes, ICYMI) contributes to the exclusion of Korean artists, but Nam muses that, more than that, it may have to do with the structure and function of the Korean language itself.
"I think it changes your personality," he said, explaining that the most difficult part of balancing American and Korean cultures is the language. "As an American, as an English speaker, if I don’t like you or if I don’t like someone, I could just say, 'I really don’t think this is the right way to do something, I think we should do something else, I don’t really like this.’ I could say that. In Korean, it’s like this roundabout way, like, ‘Well the weather is really like kind of this, that, and the other, and I have to respectfully suggest behind my back that maybe I perhaps don’t want to do this.’”
For Nam, there is an obvious dearth of Korean-American artists in the mainstream American music industry, and it’s about damn time for the tide to turn.
"We got to get people who are able to mitigate and overcome all those obstacles and get those things out and be vocal and active in standing up for the Korean community, the Korean culture and identity, as well as Asian-American identity as a whole," he told me.
At the end of the concert, after BTS essentially set Prudential Center on "fire," all the artists returned to the stage to say goodbye and to take their final bows as the audience screamed and cried. While some of the other performers merely smiled and waved, taking it all in, Eric was far more transparent—excitedly interacting with the other acts and giving some very lucky fans brief one-on-one moments. He may be a more low-key act in terms of exposure and his acoustic sound, but he sure as hell knows how to give the people what they want.