Inside the K-pop world, fans like you and I know all too well how our favorite idols and their faces make big headlines for appearing on spreads and covers for major fashion magazines and make big bucks on advertising deals on CFs, endorsements, and billboards, aside from making infectious and addicting pop music. Without much doubt, the idols we know and love carry a lot of weight and influence over a certain demographic, which is exactly why they are contracted: to bring the attention of consumers as well as consumer’s time and money front and center.
It’s a perfectly well known capitalist practice. It’s cut-and-dry advertising, and idols (or at least their agencies) have no problem lending their pretty faces to the public economy. But aside from bringing face value to market product, idols also lend their time to certain social causes. For example, many idols big and small take visits to hospitals and and orphanages to spend time with children. Many idols also participate in short films about anti-bullying, nutrition, and energy conservation as well. And while some even seem like childish endeavors, idols truly have an enormous influence over the young people paying attention to them, and therefore huge role in motivating what it is those young people do and how they think. If they put their faces on campaigns for positive lifestyles, their fans and followers will surely take notice.
These are all great ways to get young people and young adults to pay attention to both social and economic issues embroiled in the communities they live in. I mean, I’ve always been a big fan of eggs, but B.A.P. singing a song about eggs definitely makes me want to eat more eggs — particularly with BYG and Jong Up. But aside from the endearing and the adorable, I’ve also often wondered if idols have ever thought about putting their faces on materials much bigger than lipstick and more specific than energy conservation. Wondered what would happen if more idols suddenly began taking on more dramatic social issues.
To begin this discussion on how idols can motivate change on more complicated social issues, let us have a little disclaimer. Most of what I have to say is coming from a western, non-Korean perspective. I am aware, however, that Korean culture is relatively conservative and has its roots in Confucianism, and thus reflects a variance of opinions compared to the Western world.
Okay, here’s where I’ll start.
Korea is home to a culture with a lot ethnic nationalism, with a tinge of inadvertent, and sometimes blatant racial ignorance, some gender inequality, and oddly liberal, sometimes contradictory views on body image, to name a few things.
I bring up these issues not to say that Korea is the only place in the world where these issues exist, because let’s face it, these are issues that concern many, many places in the world in some degree or another. But I bring them up in a context that concerns pop culture to ask why pop culture, a hot spot of both domestic and foreign attention, doesn’t do or hasn’t done more to advocate the betterment of these larger social problems.
Idols are products of the music industry, tailored to appease public tastes and desires. They command audiences by the thousands and motivate thousands more to act charitably on idols’ behalves; Fans and fan clubs take on enormous projects in the name of their favorite idols, simply out of adoration. Which furthermore has led me to wonder if idols openly advocated positions on more prevalent societal problems, would the audiences that follow them be motivated to open their minds to helping those same causes.
To put it more clearly, if using Yoona and Lee Minho can raise product sales by 200% for brand name apparel, what could their faces do for campaigns on, say, multiculturalism? Or body image (even though I’m pretty sure Yoona is plastic fantastic)? Regardless of who it is or what their story might be, who’s to say that it wouldn’t help if idols put their beautiful faces on heartier causes?
Why idols don’t already do this, though, is obvious. K-idols don’t even have time for themselves let alone much else, and more than that, representing a more complicated social issue is more cause for controversy that most entertainment agencies don’t want for their entertainers. It’s a bout inside red tape and a high risk for bad press that I’m sure many could do without.
So, instead of insisting that this is what all idols need to do and why, I though it may be worthwhile if I made a wish list of sorts. A short list (only two topics, I know, this is getting long-winded) about what idols I think could do a great job as the face for much larger causes in society.
An example of racial ignorance in Korea is contemporary blackface. Blackface is a theatrical trend that involves non-African American actors painting their faces and/or skin black to portray African American characters. Though there is virtually no unanimity as to when blackface originated, it has throughout history shaped negative archetypes and stereotypes for the African-American community, and in contemporary Western society (I can’t necessarily speak for others around the world) is regarded as an extremely ignorant theatre vice.
In Korea, blackface is still, unfortunately, seen from time to time on day-time television as various entertainers and idols impersonate African-American figures in what is supposedly comical situations. The issue with blackface’s prevalence is that it perpetuates an attitude of racial ignorance, both specifically towards the African American community as well as people of color everywhere. This also can lead to the solidifying of fervent ethnic nationalism which (which is, in short, rampant ethnic pride), while not racism, can potentially foster racist attitudes. And sure, we here in the West can sit here and get upset about it; but Korea is a much more homogenous country that may think otherwise, and as an independent and democratic nation, they have every right to do and act as they please and put what they want on TV, right?
Blackface is only one example of how racial ignorance still persists, and efforts to keep it off air seem lax. Multiculturalism, however, is on the rise in Korea. According to the Korean Herald, “The number of children of different ethnicities has increased about threefold from 44,258 in 2007 to 151,154 last year.” If ethnic nationalism and racial ignorance are still prevalent among pop culture, it may very well affect how young people interact with the growing number of multi-racial children in their communities.
Which is why I think Tasha, aka Yoon Mi Rae aka Natasha Shanta Reid, would fit right in being the face for cause to stop racial ignorance. We’ve heard plenty from the likes of her husband Tiger JK speaking out against racist comments directed at Tasha and their son, as well as addressing racism in general, but I have yet to hear Tasha, a half Korean, half African-American woman in Korea, speak openly to audiences concerning the issue of racial ignorance and ethnic nationalism. As a successful hip-hop artist, a wife, and a mother, I feel like Tasha’s opinions on such issues would be extremely enlightening for fans of K-music, who are also very likely to be young adults living in Korea’s diversifying society.
Jay Park would also an amazing figurehead for such a cause. Jay is now a soloist singer-songwriter who has proved much to the world of K-pop about perseverance and musical creativity. Jay was born and raised in the great Seattle, Washington area (woot, West coast!) and therefore has connections and friends of several different ethnicities. He openly works with people and friends of a mix of nationalities, and has no problem sharing that with his fans in Korea.
But more than that, as an Korean American artist with perhaps one of the most unprecedented and epic Korean comebacks of the last decade, Jay can be seen as a rather cosmopolitan personality. His Western beginnings and Eastern career may lend itself to allowing Korean audiences to open up more to people of different races, since Jay is not afraid to share his freinds and his Western cultural influences with his fans. Jay would be a great face for such a cause because of his idol status and his greater ability to reach out to young people and motivate them to respond.
2. SNSD and 2NE1 on Bridging the Gender Inequality Gap
Call me crazy, but I think this could actually work.
Now first and foremost, I want to include a male artist/entertainer here to be fair, but I don’t necessarily know how they would fit into this argument (if you can find a rhyme and reason for a male presence here, though, please throw it out there).
It can be contended that gender inequality as well as its persistence in contemporary Korean culture has something to do with the culture’s historic and religious beginnings. And that’s fine–different cultures have their opinions about the role of the man vs. the role of the woman and to what degree those roles are accepted or debated. But as a robust industrial economy and an Asian nation that has been increasingly on the global radar in terms of economic health and manufacturing, Korea still lays claim to some disheartening statistics. Check out some numbers from the Korea Times.
The result of the study itself is hardly surprising, reaffirming similar research by foreign institutions, including the World Economic Forum, which put Korea’s gender gap index at 115th place out of 134 countries. For instance, only 60.9 percent of female college graduates landed jobs here in 2007, the lowest level among OECD members, whose average rate stood at 79.9 percent. Women also receive 38 percent less in wages than men, hitting the lowest level in the club of 30 industrial countries.
Now I know SNSD and 2NE1 are considered to be polar opposites, and they aren’t necessarily the best representation of the liberated woman. But if we’re talking idols and we’re talking face value, think about SNSD’s influence over a male audience as well as 2NE1’s appeal to female audiences. Now imagine that the members of these two girl groups were given the opportunity to be the face of a campaign on gender inequalities. How would fans across the spectrum respond? Who would pay attention, and what would the results be?
SNSD are regarded as the princesses of K-pop, and command an enormous fanbase all across the world. They are the angelic and wonderful and are admired and revered all throughout Korea. And yes, you can call them products of a patriarchal music making machine, but they carry significant influence nonetheless. 2NE1 on the other hand are seen as the rebellious, near-revolutionary ‘bad girls’ of K-pop, and their music carries a light coloring of female empowerment that is neither over-bearing or outright feminist. They are also making waves in the world Hallyu with not only their music but also their continued collaborations with American music artist will.i.am and fashionista Jeremey Scott.
So what could two visions of practically unattainable beauty and capital success do for the average citizen? Physically, perhaps not much. But if they can sell this cause like they sell endorsements, then wouldn’t more people turn their attention towards the gender gap? Would it not draw more attention to the cold hard facts? Even when Sooyoung and Bom wear plain t-shirts, people lose their mind. Imagine if their t-shirts had statistics printed on them, like how Korean men on average earn almost twice as much as Korean women in the workplace, or how less than 5% of females employees in the Korean workforce hold executive positions. You would look, but you would also learn.
Yes, I agree, it’s an outrageous thought, SNSD and 2NE1 joining forces. Perhaps even superficial, considering how fabricated image and concept are in K-pop. But fans put their faith in idols regardless, don’t they? So if two of the biggest girl groups in Korea became the face of or advocated a gender equality cause, an issue that awaits a great number of young female fans in the near future, couldn’t it facilitate a more awareness and consequently more change?
I mean, think about this: the cover photo for this article is a picture of EXO-K. Delicious, right? And I’m sure some of you clicked this article just because of that cover photo. And now you’re realizing you’ve been tricked into reading something that had nothing to do with EXO-K. Hopefully, however, what you read piqued another interest. Maybe you learned something, maybe you didn’t, but either way, you’ve made it this far down the page, haven’t you? So, really, think about it. What do you and what would you pay attention to if you saw your favorite idols plastered all over it? Today it might be one girl’s ridiculously long rant on idols’ influence and their potential to change society. But one day, it may actually be about a cause trying to bring about change in society, a change much bigger than eating eggs or wearing the season’s best lipstick.
The point I’m trying to make here is that idols hold an exorbitant level of influence over their fans. If they can make music and clothing and coffee fly off the shelves, who’s to say they couldn’t use that same presence to empower social issues that directly affect society at large? Even though I’ve yet to see idols go so far (except for the likes of perhaps Queen Hyori and her animal crusade), I honestly think their command over so many young, reactive people within a generation that will live and work in an every diversifying and expanding future, could go far in facilitating progressive change. To channel that kind of energy, however, is not an idol’s job; that much I understand. But if they could, if the thought even ever crossed their minds, think about the potential for change they could bring to so much that affects adult society. Call it far-fetched, but you can’t deny the kind of power idols have over people.