PASADENA, California — Non-K-pop fans may not be familiar with the name Jae Park, but millions of listeners have long been infatuated with the 29-year-old idol, the lead guitarist and vocalist for K-pop quintet Day6 (here’s one of the group’s music videos — it has 45 million views). And the crowds of fans who saw him at 88rising’s Head in the Clouds festival this month certainly were excited to see him again, with the audience screaming wildly as Park made his first public performance since a quiet step back from the spotlight two years ago.
“WE MISSED YOU JAE,” signs read across the Rose Bowl.
In a landscape as tightly controlled as the K-pop industry, Park has spent seven years in the public eye cementing a distinct personality for himself with his brazen “American openness” as a Korean celebrity. However, he hasn’t always been rewarded when opening up about the effects of stardom, his mental health, and industry control.
“They get tired of you questioning, they feel that’s being disrespectful in Korean culture [where teachers and elders are so highly regarded],” he tells me after his first appearance onstage. “After a while of trying to reason with you, they fall back on the same go-to. ‘Why can’t I do this?’ ‘Because it’s Korea.’”
Disappearances from the public eye are typically deliberate and executed by K-pop idols’ companies, who usually release a statement before the artist has said anything at all. But Park, the self-described “problem child” of K-pop right now, does not always stick to the plan.
Park hinted at unhappiness in Instagram Lives during his “offline period,” with statements about “Disney Channel filter bullshit” and doing “everything out of [his] own pocket.” And the legions of fans who follow him and his company, JYP Entertainment, were quick to speculate about mistreatment and possible changes to the group.
“You know, you feel bad,” he says. “Because you’re in a group — you’re not just an artist on your own. If I was, I wouldn’t give a fuck. But your actions mean your bandmates get hate as well.”
But here, now, without his bandmates and under a brand-new moniker, eaJ, Park’s solo career has not yet even officially begun as he took to the most well-known main stage for Asian American music.
The crowd is distinctly divided between long-term K-pop fans, and festivalgoers who are just there on a whim — a perfect illustration of the massive-yet-insular world of Korean pop music. “I don’t have any official songs out on any distribution platforms [as eaJ],” he tells the crowd during his set. “Isn’t that weird?”
Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Cerritos, California, Park first drew industry attention online as a YouTube cover artist.
“I didn’t really have the nicest time in high school. It was really hard for me to socialize and I’m not really good at social cues,” he says. “[Making covers] was one of the things that got me somewhat accepted by people. I would upload a video and people would go, ‘I saw your video, it has 300 views!’ It was just nice. To have people be nice to me.”
In his first year at Cal State Long Beach, he was scouted to join the competition show K-pop Star and went on to sign with the top-three label JYP.
“I originally went there thinking like, Oh, it’s gonna be a nice two-month vacation. I get to leave school. My mom’s gonna love me because she knows JYP. Everyone loves JYP. I was like, All right, this is how I’m gonna get to go and party and have fun. It ended up being exactly the opposite. I was stuck in a 4-by-4 room, singing to a keyboard for the next four years.”
The training system is notoriously brutal for K-pop idols, although as Park explains, standardized across the industry.
“They’re very intense, and they’re all very similar,” he says. “They somehow bash it into your brain that you’re not good enough. So even though we’re talking right now, I’m remembering the mistake I made onstage earlier in the right side of my head. They somehow bash that into your brain, which I don’t think is totally a bad thing, but I don’t think it’s healthy mostly.”
“As a trainee, you battle with other trainees in order to be the person they want. The one they call on while you’re sitting in a lobby room and they say, ‘OK, I think he’s ready. I think he’s ready to debut.’ So they give you opportunities, but they don’t train you to be performers. Your stage presence, all of that, isn’t as manufactured as people think. I’ve been put onstage and I’ve been told that I should have better presence, or I need to be better, but never how. You’re always scared because they’ll just cut random people. It’s a lot of fear.”
Park was one of the few who made it to debut with the band Day6, marketed as a more traditional band, rather than the K-pop trademark of choreography-based groups. Yet despite the backing of a major company, and a unique positioning in the K-pop landscape, he still feels there were misconceptions around the success of the group.
“I don’t feel like we’re as successful as people make us out to be,” he says. “But I think we were very grateful that even with the amount of success that we accomplished, we were able to do world tours and meet people that actually cherished our music.”
Money is another recurring yet evasive topic throughout Park’s stream of consciousness. He jokes, “Why are we wasting our time on hating people when we could waste our time making money, you know what I mean? I’m broke, but. That’s why my mind’s on it.”
“I definitely don’t have as much money as people think I do,” he says. “People are always like, ‘You’re rich. You’re rich. You’re wearing Cartier glasses.’ Bro, I got these used! What are you talking about? What are you talking about, dude? People are like, ‘You wear expensive clothes.’ What clothes? These aren’t my clothes! These are the company’s clothes. People think idols are super rich. We’re not.”
I ask what that means. “That’s for another conversation, until my engagements, sort of…” he trails off, but it resurfaces again later. “I’m trying to work with [a certain] producer, but I don’t have money for him, dude! OK, I’m not broke, I have life savings. And I’m prepared to spend every single last dime on this producer next year. It’s kind of do or die. But I’d actually go broke if I don’t make it.”
So being successful, which Park defined loosely as ranking among international superstars on global charts, was not something he ever felt he fully achieved in his career, although he does accept some success in that he feels the love between his fans and the band was — is — genuine.
But the life of being a K-pop idol continued to wear on. “I’m 100% confident if I didn’t have this career path, I wouldn’t have broken down with panic attacks. I think it’s because of just constant fear of a lot of things. You should ask every idol what the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning is.”
I asked what he thought about for the past seven years.
“Am I gonna be done today? Is something going to happen?” he says. “That’s the first thing you think of. That’s why idols are all over the socials. Because they’re constantly checking. Is there something from 50 years ago that I did or, like, did I wrong someone in some way?”
Park speaks in terms of “cancelable” and “not cancelable” more so than “right or wrong” in this conversation — a viewpoint likely shaped by his idol training. “My friend is in another much, much more established group than I am, another American that went over to Korea. He’s so concerned with what he says, that even when we’re talking one-on-one, I see him filtering his words mentally. I feel so bad. I know that route, because I’ve been down it, and you lose your mind.”
In early 2020, Park experienced an intense panic attack that led to his diagnosis of panic disorder, a now-publicized event that was the inspiration behind his clothing label, From Friends.
“It was really, really hard for me to let go because the thing that I heard the most was, ‘You’re in a group, you’re in a group. If you fuck up, your group takes responsibility for it.’”
The moment of recognizing the fragility of his mental health was certainly was a turning point, but Park still carries guilt and stress with him around his actions in his career. “I feel like I have caused more distress to my fandom than I’ve caused happiness in the past two years that I’ve been absent from the group. And my ongoing tension with the company as well hasn’t been good. Because there’s always speculation like this, and what is this going to do for people? It’ll stress them out. And that stresses me out. That especially stresses my fam out — my members. Day6.”
Currently, Park confirms he is still a part of Day6. But, he says, “I believe that it is in the best interest of everyone, that for the moment, I do take a leave. Not just for my members, but for my fandom and for me as well. I’m not gonna lie and sit here like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is like this is all for my members or my fans.’ I’m sorry to break it to you. But all your idols who tell you that this is all for you? They lie. Because everyone at the end of the day, you have to take care of yourself. So this is for me, as well as my members.”
In his absence, his company JYP Entertainment has faced blame for his hiatus, particularly the company’s CEO, Park Jin-Young (also known as JYP), who is a mainstay celebrity in the Korean pop culture zeitgeist. It wouldn’t be the first time the company was in the hot seat, including fans’ assertions of mistreatment when band Got7 left the company earlier this year and its long-standing relationship with R. Kelly. But Park remains in defense of Jin-Young Park.
“It’s a shame that people get mad that I support him. People get really upset, but they’re not understanding that things that happen to groups are not on him. I’m sorry to break your dreams, but even he gets his own songs rejected at the company. So you’re telling me that your idol didn’t get promotions the way they should have? Or they didn’t come back the way you wanted? That’s probably not on him. I mean, keep them accountable. Do your thing, pop off, but it’s not the end of the story. You’re literally throwing spears and stones at the messenger. At who? The person who’s the head of an entity? He doesn’t control things.”
Despite his hiatus from Day6, Park says he’s happier outside of the idol industry control, making independent music. He’ll always be a part of Day6, he assured fans on another livestream, but now, “I’m much happier this way. Making my own decisions. I’m happier being able to talk to you like this rather than, ‘It’s great, idol life is really good. I love being onstage. I love everything.’ I like to speak my mind because I feel like, in the idol world, it’s very rare to find that. I get shit on, but it’s cool. I’m OK with that.”
“I have never once branded myself as an idol,” he says. “I told people straight off my first Live. I cuss a lot. I say these things. I have opinions. I’m not God and I’m not Jesus. I sin so I have a lot of shortcomings. I misunderstand things. I have a temper. And I will sincerely apologize every time and I guess it’s funny because I mean, I’m the guy that says sorry, like every other day, but I’m genuinely sorry because I didn’t know and I didn’t want to offend people.”
Performing at Head in the Clouds was a homecoming for Park, with new fans and returning followers mixed among each other in the audience. He was smiling from “here to here,” he says, pointing at his ears and grinning. 88rising is one of the most prominent Asian American music companies, and Park says he was truly humbled and excited to be a part of it, particularly as someone without an established career in the West.
While the future remains open for Park’s new leaf, he remains positive about the changes in the K-pop industry around mental health. “I’ve seen a lot of companies hire psychologists or hire therapists and ask people to talk to someone if they need it. Because they’re very open about mental health now. So Korea is slowly starting to move to that; it’s cool they’re opening up about it.”
“The system is different,” Park says. “I understand why they have to have some control. In Korea, you’re taken as not an artist, but a trainee to become an artist — someone that shows they have the capabilities and the talents to be some of that statute. In America, in order to become an artist, you start as an artist. You come with your own music. You have your own flavor. In Korea, they give that to you. There are very few cases in which they have their own color.”
The next day when we see each other, I ask if he has any advice for young Asian creatives. “Don’t be creative,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! That was really fucked up.”