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Behind The Rolling Stone Cover: Eric Nam’s K-Pop Story Is the American Dream

During the latest installment of 'Behind The Rolling Stone Cover', Poppy Reid and Eric Nam flesh out many of the unknowns of the K-Pop genre and community

Eric Nam might not be a household name to every pop fan in the Western World. And that’s kind of the point for him, as he pulls up a seat next to Rolling Stone AU/NZ Editor-in-Chief Poppy Reid to talk about his atypical start on the path to stardom, and what it means to navigate the K-Pop industry as an American.

The Atlanta, US-born artist of Korean heritage found a voice in a country where he barely spoke the language (Korea), in a market that favours teenage groups and ballad-heavy rock bands. Then, he exported his sound one of the most populous nations on Earth, and wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone India.

During the latest installment of ‘Behind The Rolling Stone Cover’, Reid and Nam flesh out many of the unknowns of the K-Pop genre and community, talk about having a multicultural background and fanbase, and agree that being able to get dinner and drinks at 3am is something all Australians need.

But the first point of order: how a K-Pop sensation with a proud Korean background landed in Korea and couldn’t converse.

“I got to Korea [and] I couldn’t really speak Korean. I spoke Spanish better than I could speak Korean,” Nam confesses about his success in the exciting music market.

“It was very basic, like, ‘I am hungry.’ Very basic, childish Korean. So I had to, very quickly, learn the language and I did that by literally just being forced into TV shows, not knowing what’s going on.

“But I knew that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to pick it up. There was a lot of self-teaching and trial-by-error”, he unashamedly admits, his noticeably American accent still very much intact.

“It was very anxiety-inducing, and it was terrifying. I always felt like I was at a disadvantage because I had no idea what was happening.”

But while it might have taken time and grit for Nam to find his voice in a conversational sense, musically, he was a star-in-waiting. Finding a catchy hook, or a high note were never going to be the problem for the energetic performer, but finding his niche in K-Pop was a different story.

“They wanted me to do power ballads and I can’t even do power ballads. Then I wanted to be in a group and [was told] I was too old. I was 23, and [they said] you’re way too old to be in a group,” he says.

“Then they said ‘try to be in a rock band’ – rock bands don’t really work in Korea, or you could go and be a solo power balladeer.”

Poppy Reid

In the end, Nam did succeed in carving his own path as a solo artist without compromising the music he wanted to make.

“The pickings were very slim,” he jokes, his use of a classically American idiom a refreshing reminder that he is more than his industry, or his heritage. “But somehow, we made it work.”

“We threw everything we had at it. Did the radio, did the TV, promos. Tried to find a balance in terms of the musical style and… I just got very lucky, to be very honest.

For Nam, it’s clear throughout the entire interview that a ribbon of gratitude runs through the art that he makes, the decisions that drive that music, and the person that lives behind the microphone.

Crucially, this interview lifts the veil on the complexities of an enormous industry that treats fame and fortune like pure commodities in K-Pop, and fanbases are treated as communities requiring nurturing and a continued supply of content and access. 

But while K-Pop is a multi-billion dollar industry constantly making headlines, Nam is quick to rebuff any suggestion that K-Pop exists as a standalone genre.

“I can’t force you to think of me as “not K-Pop.” Whatever you want to think of me, just go for it, but I really want you to understand that there is a complexity within K-Pop where it’s not just these massive groups with massive numbers.

“There are so many other massively talented musicians and styles and genres within K-Pop. And, perhaps, I’m not just K-Pop.”

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