By Deborah Sontag
, a South Korean pop star, actor and pan-Asian heartthrob, is preparing for two concerts at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2 to 3, 2006, by studying. Day and night, an English tutor trails him through Seoul, peppering him with conversational phrases as he labors to polish his singing, his martial arts-inflected dancing and, presumably, his chest baring.
At Jan. 23, 2006, Rain, who has been labeled the Korean Justin Timberlake and the Korean Usher, is a serious and driven performer (with washboard abs, winsome looks and a Gene Kelly-like ability to leap through puddles while performing his hit song, "It's Raining"). He wants nothing less than to break down barriers, build cultural bridges and become the first Asian pop star to succeed in America.
"The United States is the dominant music market", he said through an interpreter in a recent phone interview from Seoul. "I would really like to see an Asian make it there. I would like that Asian to be me. That's why I'm studying the language, reading up on the culture and practicing every day to correct my weaknesses".
Since his debut in 2002, Rain
, whose real name is Jung Ji-Hoon, has been riding what is known as the Korean Wave. As South Korean products, from cellphones to the music known as K-pop, have swept across Asia, Koreans have coined a new term, hallyu, to describe the phenomenon. Through his leading roles in soap operas and his music, Rain has become the personification of hallyu, which some see as a high-quality regional alternative to American cultural dominance.
Rain is inspired by American pop music, but his interpretations provide, at the least, an Asian face and filter. His producer, Jin-Young Park, describes Rain
's music as more "sensitive and delicate" than American R & B and says that his choreography is crisper and more precise, influenced by classical dance and martial arts.
, Asians might see the spirit of Usher or Timberlake or even Michael Jackson, but he makes the music theirs", said Nusrat Durrani, senior vice president and general manager of MTV World. "He is a huge star in the making, but, at the same time, he is a very indigenous artist and a source of local pride".
Last year, Rain
sold out arenas across Korea, China and Japan, playing to more than 40,000 in Beijing and 20,000 in the Budokan in Tokyo. America, with its growing interest in Asian popular culture, from Pokémon to Bollywood, was the obvious next frontier.
But Mr. Park — a 34-year-old impresario who is Rain
's Henry Higgins — said that Rain will be not be officially ready to cross over until approximately October. That, according to a meticulously devised business plan, is when he is expected to achieve basic fluency in English, to release an English-language album and to smite the hearts of American young women.
The performances at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Thursday and Friday are merely a prelude. "This is for the American music industry", said Mr. Park, "basically introducing Rain, giving a taste, and everybody is coming".
Most of the 10,000 people coming, however, will need no introduction. Like Julie Cho, 25, vice president of the Young Korean American Network in New York, who considers Rain
"a really good dancer" and "very humble", they are already fans.
Immigrants or children of immigrants, they live in an era when technology makes it easy to connect with their homeland. Small-time entrepreneurs have long catered to the immigrant appetite for culture from back home. But what used to happen on a neighborhood level — a Colombian dance troupe at a Queens community center — is now taking place on a much larger scale. Like Rain, foreign artists are filling mainstream venues, their fans primed by the songs, videos, television shows and films that are ever more accessible through the Web, satellite television and new media outlets targeting hyphenated Americans.
Thus, word spread very quickly through New York's Korean community that a Korean pop star was coming to town. "There is definitely a sense of Rain-mania washing across the 32nd Street land here in Manhattan", Minya Oh, a D.J. on New York's Hot 97 radio station, said, referring to the city's small Koreatown.
This is not Rain
's first performance in the States. He played at a Korean festival at the Hollywood Bowl Feb. 4,2005, and Susan Kim, a sociologist in Los Angeles, regrets that she missed the show. She and her American-born children discovered Rain
, whom they refer to by his Korean name, Bi (pronounced Bee), on a Korean music Web site called Bugs. Then they sought out videos of a Korean mini-series, "Full House
", in which Rain plays a pop star.
As of this month, "Full House
" became available with English subtitles on New York cable, too, through ImaginAsian TV, which bills itself as America's first 24/7 Asian-American network.
And soon, Rain
's music videos will find a platform on MTV-K, a channel catering to Korean-Americans that will begin later this year. MTV-K will feature a diverse array of Seoul music, including hip-hop artists like M.C. Mong, boy bands like HOT and melodic harmonizers like SG Wannabe (the SG stands for Simon and Garfunkel).
Inevitably, non-Asian-Americans are discovering such easily accessible foreign culture, too. Because of the "multidirectional flow of cultural goods around the world", there is a "new pop cosmopolitanism", according to Henry Jenkins, professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an essay in "Globalization" (University of California Press, 2004), Professor Jenkins writes that "younger Americans are distinguishing themselves from their parents' culture through their consumption of Japanese anime and manga, Bollywood films and bhangra, and Hong Kong action movies".
Indeed, Michael Hong, chief executive officer of ImaginAsian Entertainment, said that 60 percent of those who watch his company's Asian channels are not of Asian ethnicity. Similarly, at his company's two-year-old East 59th Street movie theater in Manhattan, which shows only Asian films, 70 percent of the audience is non-Asian.
"There is a great deal of interest in Asian content right now", said Mr. Hong, who helped set up and promote the Madison Square Garden concert. "Rain is just the tip of the iceberg".
In the recent interview, Rain
said that he had been dreaming about Madison Square Garden since he was a child imitating Michael Jackson's moves. "It is an incredible honor to perform there", he said. And yet he is preparing himself for failure: "In the case that my music is not loved by the American people, I will work very hard to fix things and hope to please them the next time".
Rain is a self-flagellating superstar
"He thinks he's not good at all", Mr. Park, who spoke from Los Angeles, said in flawless English. "He's always worried. He thinks he's not blessed or talented. He thinks people are being fooled, that it's an illusion. He wants to catch up to that illusion".
's family was living in a one-room house in Seoul when Mr. Park and Rain first met. "There was something sad about him then, and there still is, something cool and gloomy", Mr. Park said.
That's how the stage name came about. "I was told that when I'm dancing I give off the feeling of a rainy day", Rain said, in a speaking voice that is deep and rich.
said that he first discovered "the euphoria" of performing during a sixth-grade talent show, after which he tried to hang around some professional dancers in his neighborhood. But he said they treated him terribly, finally beating him up and stealing his winter jacket.
He went on to be rejected — he kept count — 18 times by artistic management companies. Again and again, he was told that he would never be "hot", that he was too tall and "too ugly", primarily because he lacked a "double eyelid". Without cosmetic surgery to create a fold above his eyes — a relatively common procedure, though one often decried as a capitulation to Western beauty standards — he could forget about a show business career in Korea, he was told.
By the time he presented himself for an audition at Mr. Park's performing arts academy, Rain was in a state of desperation. His mother was quite ill, and he himself had not been eating regularly.
, then 19, gave the longest and most passionate audition he could muster, nearly four hours of singing and dancing. Mr. Park (who goes by the initials J.Y. or J.Y.P.) accepted him into the JYP Academy. "He had this hunger", Mr. Park said.
"That is true", Rain
said. "I was literally hungry".
Mr. Park himself had made his debut in 1994 as a "crazy, lunatic hip-hop artist from the Ivy League" of South Korea. He was a bad-boy performer who wore see-through vinyl costumes, but he got away with being outlandish because he had graduated from a prestigious university, he said.
After finding high-powered backers for an entertainment management and production company, Mr. Park opened the academy in 1998. He aimed to discover and make stars, and Rain
clearly had potential as well as need.
"As soon as I signed Rain
, he asked me to help his mother and explained the situation", Mr. Park said. "I was like, 'Yo, get in the car'. We went to his house, and I saw his mom lying there on this cold floor. We got a big surgery done on her. But then she insisted on no more treatment. She wanted me to spend my money on her son. He would tell her, 'Yo, Mom, J.Y.P. has enough money to support both of us'. She passed away a year before he debuted".
After three years of training, Rain's first stage experience came as a backup dancer for Mr. Park. Mr. Park, who still writes all his songs, created Rain's first album, "Bad Guy
", in 2002. With the second album, "Running Away From the Sun", Rain said that he began asserting himself in the realm of choreography. "By the time his third album came out in 2004, they stopped calling him little J.Y. and started calling me Rain's producer", Mr. Park said.
Soap operas are the engine of celebrity in Asia for Koreans, and so Rain's move into television was a calculated one. "We saw Korean drama flowing all over Asia", Mr. Park said. "I said to Rain, 'Since you know how to act, we should use this to make you go overseas'. As soon as his second TV drama, 'Full House
', exploded all over Asia, we went over to hit them with concerts".
In Rain's most recent soap opera, "A Love to Kill
", he plays a martial arts fighter. To alter his physique for the role, he told Korean journalists, he was jumping rope 2,000 times a day and eating only chicken breast and mackerel.
This kind of discipline defines him. In addition to his acting, recording and some modeling, he is finishing a university degree in postmodern music. Although unable to attend many classes, he does all the homework, he said, plus studies not only English but Chinese and Japanese, too.
Mr. Park said that Rain
was motivated by a sense of obligation to his late mother.
"He promised his mom that he was going to be the No. 1 singer in the whole world", he said. "That's why he never parties, never drinks, never goes out and practices hours every day".
It was Mr. Park who, with 20 CD's in his backpack, set their global journey into motion. He took off for Los Angeles and went door to door "being nobody". After a year, he got his first call, from Bad Boy, P. Diddy's entertainment company, expressing interest in one of his songs for the rapper Mase. After that, the collaboration with Americans began.
Mr. Park said he believed that other Asian pop stars have failed in the United States by trying "to impersonate what was going on here". He said that he and Rain wanted to avoid "being another couple of Asian dudes trying to do black music", by embracing their inner delicacy and letting their Asian-ness show.
The moment is ripe, Mr. Park said. "Every market has been tapped except for the Asian market, and that's 5 percent of America", he said. "That's our base. But I believe that we can move beyond that, and I believe that the American music industry needs to partner with us to make inroads into Asia, too".
Mr. Park said that it has been easier for him, working as a songwriter in the United States, than it will be for Rain since "songs don't have color". But Rain is convinced that he has crossover appeal based on his own informal market research: he had women — "real American women" — climbing all over him at a bar in Los Angeles last year.
At the end of the interview, Rain was asked if he took some pride in defying those naysayers who once thought he would never be "Hot".
"Yeah, sure!" Rain answered in English, and then switched to Korean, leaving his female interpreter in a sputter of giggles.
"Um", she said. "He say, um: 'You have to come see me in my concert, and you have to be attracted to me!' "
The above article is from The New York Times.