Recently, OhmyStar* News reporters followed some members of the wildly popular boy group EXO on a community service session at a children’s home, with EXO-K being accompanied for the first time by EXO-M‘s Lay and Tao. The (many) fans of the group may be aware that the boys of EXO-K have actually been involved in voluntary service since their trainee days, volunteering quarterly at the child welfare centre.
Unsurprisingly, the media and fandom reaction to this was overwhelmingly positive, as well it should be. It’s always heartwarming to see celebrities contributing back to the community, as these idol stars are often on the receiving end of love from the public.
Television programmes laud their performative abilities, pretty faces and enviable bodies; screaming teenagers buy home thousands upon thousands of albums and send very, very expensive gifts to their doorsteps. Given this much flattery and love from all directions, members of idol groups — themselves often barely out of high school — could easily have their heads turned. It’s therefore always pleasant for the public to see that idols have chosen to keep grounded in their community through reaching out to some of the marginalised groups in society.
EXO is certainly not the first among idols to participate in volunteer work; 2PM‘s Junho, as mentioned in a previous article on this site, spent his first vacation in four years with an Ethiopian child he had been secretly sponsoring for a year. TVXQ‘s Yunho has also donated numerous times in kind and in cash to groups at risk his hometown of Gwangju; he also heads a club of individuals who each donate 10,000 won a month to be channelled towards a cause in the community at the end of the year.
Fans have also reportedly taken a leaf from their oppas’ book, becoming involved in the causes their idols channel time and money towards. EXO fans, for instance, offer to volunteer with them and send gifts to the children’s home in EXO’s name; a Japanese Yunho fanclub also sent donations to Yunho’s alma mater to be used as a scholarship fund for needy students Whether this arises from love of oppa or love of community, there is good being done to people who need it, and ultimately it is the underprivileged who benefit.
Inevitably, naysayers may call out the media coverage in these acts of charity as a publicity stunt on the part of the idols’ agencies. Given the well-known fact that entertainment companies have a large degree of control over idols’ public and private lives, this conclusion, while jaded, does not seem entirely illogical.
However, as pointed out, many of the fans of these idols are both young and impressionable; both Korean and international fans spend a great deal of their time on the Internet, following news of their favourite idols. The media coverage and saturation of online articles on the good works of idol stars may actually help encourage recognition of these societal needs among young people, who may otherwise have limited awareness of pressing issues in the community.
Developing genuine concern for the community is, after all, a gradual process — if oppas are what start hordes of young fans recognising a need to give back to the community in one way or another, that’s great! Maybe what youths today want to look up to as their role model in all things isn’t a Mother Theresa, but a U-Know Yunho.
Nevertheless, the inevitable suggestion of company-orchestrated charity remains, casting a shadow of doubt on the idols’ sincerity in community service. When interviewed for a statement in 2013 concerning EXO’s involvement in the community, an SM representative offered an interesting insight into the Soo-man Sutra of superstar cultivation. He explained that “when you receive love from the fans, you can easily get used to only receiving , and that “we [SM Entertainment] encourage the trainees to do voluntary service in the sense of becoming people who share.”
Clearly, the higher-ups of the SM empire have it all thought out. Encouraging the future “stars of Asia” (to quote a slogan on their website) to participate in community service as trainees would paint a picture of youthful earnestness and sincerity when the youths do eventually become idols.
A longer period of regular service speaks of consistency and commitment to a good cause, which would depict them in a favourable light and increase the likelihood of opportunities for — well, everything. Appearances on variety shows, endorsements, even ambassador assignments for other good causes — you name it. Given SM’s influence and clout in the industry, this mantra of training pedagogy is unlikely to be limited to this company alone. It’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that other companies would encourage their trainees likewise, given the inevitable plus points in the distant future.
It would be saddening if the genuine goodwill of these young idol stars were undermined by such a setup, and it would perhaps be better for us as readers and fans to avoid commenting on their sincerity. Being unacquainted with the stars themselves, however, we cannot comment on whether they started volunteering out of a recognition that there were needs to be met in their community, or simply acted on company orders.
Nonetheless, it can be seen that idols participating community service has brought about mainly positives for the marginalised group in question. The children’s welfare centre has benefitted from the gifts and volunteering from EXO’s fans; needy students in Gwangju will be more likely to receive an education owing to the donations from Yunho’s Japanese fans. More significantly, the young fans who give back to the community in their idols’ names may find themselves seeing areas of need in society they would never have noticed otherwise.
Whether volunteer work is a publicity ploy or a genuine effort on the part of idols to give back to their community, we as mere consumers of K-Pop may never know. What we can see is the positive repercussions of such work, both for idols’ public image and the community at large. Ultimately, it’s most important the needs of the latter are recognised and met, and idol participation in community service certainly helps enable that.