In 2004, a Seattle B-boy named Jay Park auditioned for JYP at the behest of his mother. At the time, Park didn't know anything about K-pop or Korean culture, but after acing the tryout and receiving an offer to train in Seoul, he shipped off before his last semester of high school.
"It's pretty cutthroat," he says of the training. "You have a bunch of guys who are trying to debut, and you don't know who's going to make it or who they're going to choose. You could be placed, but then they might feel like someone else fits better and swap you out. You always have to be on top of your game." In 2005, Park was selected to sing and dance (and take the stage name "Jaeboem") alongside Nichkhun in 2PM. "[My friends] made fun of the outfits and all that," he says, laughing. "They were used to seeing me chilling with sweatpants on. All of a sudden, I'm wearing eye makeup and crazy clothes."
In late 2009, when an unusually thorough fan tracked down a MySpace comment Park had left on a friend's profile years before as a frustrated, homesick trainee ("korea is gay…i hate koreans…"), the ensuing scandal caused him to leave his band and Korea in shame. Tearful fans saw him off at Incheon Airport. He moved in with his folks and worked in a tire shop, happy to be back home break-dancing with his friends.
Then something extraordinary happened: In 2010, Park posted video he shot of himself covering B.o.B's "Nothin' on You" to YouTube. In two days, the clip garnered two million views and vaulted the original back into iTunes' top downloaded tracks chart. It also landed Park back in Seoul, where, after appearing in a Korean breakdancing movie, he signed a contract with the lesser-known management company SidusHQ and is performing again —as a solo artist. He's since issued public apologies to both his former bandmates and JYP, whom he credited with helping "raise" him both "physically and spiritually." Three days after Christmas, Park released his first solo album in South Korea, a slab of R&B balladry that he wrote entirely on his own.
"It's all me," he says. "It's my music. Not a lot of people here can say that."
It's a Monday night in Times Square. Buddhist monks in Birkenstocks glide past German tourists, all of whom keep a safe distance from the small slice of nuttiness over at the Best Buy Theater. Tonight, MTV Iggy will crown 2NE1 as winners of their Best New Band award, a competition that was restricted to international acts. The screaming, a slightly softer relative of what I'd heard a few days earlier in Seoul, is coming from Blackjacks. They're everywhere, hoping to catch a glimpse of the girls as they appear for the first time on American soil.
Entire Korean-American families have made their way into the theater. Fathers hold zoom lenses steady, mothers transform glow bands into makeshift tambourines, sons and daughters do their best to contain themselves. Throughout the telecast, you get the sense that this is a translation of a translation.
Every runner-up performer that precedes 2NE1 feels like one more hurdle in between. Every interstitial breather, every baffling Matt Pinfield-ism and Sway-ism, every interview segment with anyone but 2NE1 brings on more sighing and fidgeting. But there they are, outside on the street, saying hello. Cameras follow them as they enter the theater, the four of them caramelizing the air around them with every step. The room jitters and heaves. Clusters of digital cameras begin bobbing up and down from front to back, ready for the moment when the group finally steps into view. And then they do.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of SPIN.