Celebrities on Pedestals: Do They Deserve to be There?
The United Nations; K-Pop. Two things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with each other.
Yet, in this ever-changing social culture, an intergovernmental organisation tasked with the promotion of international co-operation and what was once a niche Korean subculture have now infused to bring forth a historic moment that no one could have ever anticipated. On Monday 24th September, BTS the biggest musical group in the world addressed the UN Trusteeship Council at the organisation’s headquarters in New York- ahead of their sold out shows in North America. As global ambassadors for UNICEF, they were invited to speak as part of the launch of 'Generation Unlimited,' a new campaign targeted at young people.
It would not be unreasonable to question why a K-Pop group was asked to give a speech in the UN. However, BTS speaking is not a complete peculiarity, celebrities have a history of speaking on behalf of different projects, campaigns and charities to the UN, though they are typically Western, English speaking celebrities. BTS’ visit to the New York headquarters marks the first time a non-Western and Korean artist has given an empowering speech at the UN.
As part of UNICEF’S initiative to ensure better educative opportunities for young people around the globe, the group’s leader RM (Kim Nam Joon) spoke about his personal experiences growing up in Korea. RM spoke in perfectly fluent English despite not being a native speaker, I might add – and reaching the success his group enjoys today, despite many bumps in the road along the way. His speech was an encapsulation of encouragement, resilience and determination. While his speech may not have been particularly groundbreaking to the uninterested, it carried a didactic message of self-love that the group’s dedicated fanbase ARMY continues to celebrate.
BTS’ UN speech is important because many people are increasingly asking the question: what justifies the pedestals upon which celebrities sit by simple virtue of their fame? Why do some people, who are most presumably no more or less talented than their non-famous counterparts, get to be ambassadors, champions and have honorary doctorates when these titles would otherwise require intensive qualification? The simple answer would be their fame. Celebrities are in the unique position of being famous, able to garner a large audience and as such are sought by various companies, brands and charities to further distribute their aims and goals to that celebrity's particular following.
But the question remains: what then justifies celebrity and fame? Who is worthy of holding such a position of influence, and who is not?
The comprehensive debate on the subject of meritocracy in the entertainment industry is too lengthy to be explored in just this one particular piece, however, it would seem that we as the non-famous majority need to accept that- irrespective of whether they deserve to or not- people will get famous. Celebrities, people that we can covet and commodities that music labels to modelling agencies can capitalise on will continue to exist. Should we then, perhaps, shift our focus from the justification of fame in general to being more selective about who holds the power to influence an audience.
For instance, BTS was not selected as youth ambassadors by accident. A quick Google search on the group will tell you they emerged as the victorious underdog in the K-Pop world by being signed to a then-unknown start-up label. BTS comes from a mechanistic industry that typically saw the biggest companies – commonly dubbed as the Big Three by K-Pop fans - hold a monopoly over successful groups. BTS’ debut song ‘No More Dream’ is a classic hip-hop anthem that encapsulates the plight of a disenfranchised youth, in an economy that no longer allows the luxury of a ‘big dream’. This debut, in a hyper-capitalist environment that produced formulaic, commercially appealing songs over socially conscious creative works was ground-breaking. And while BTS did not fully gain traction until their 2016 album ‘Wings,’ they poised themselves to be a generational voice that would break against the mould, which explains why the group are worthy ambassadors to champion the need for better opportunities for young people.
Just yesterday it was announced that they are TIME magazine’s new Next Generation Leaders for the gargantuan impact they have made on the lives of young people around the globe; they have also almost single-handedly raised the cultural profile of South Korea. It was recently estimated they have contributed one billion dollars to the South Korean economy. That is a level of influence one can only hope is wielded for good; their discography and accomplishments speak for themselves in this regard.
Of course, BTS is only one case study, if you will. Countless celebrities have demonstrated a conscious effort to utilise the power that comes from their fame towards worthy causes. Colin Kaepernick, for instance, is taking a proverbial stand against institutionalised racism and holding his country accountable for its socially engrained racism. Or celebrities like Uzo Aduba that have defied Eurocentric Hollywood standards to champion and advocate for the importance of visibility for dark skinned women.
There are countless more examples, and that is precisely the point.
Essentially, the influencing of young impressionable people by the celebrities they idealise is inevitable. I would simply rather look up at the Adubas, the Kaepernicks and the BTS’ of the world on those pedestals than someone who continues to benefit from their fame while living ignorant of its capacity to do good.
[Photo Credits: By 뉴스인스타 CC BY 3.0]