I was just in Japan for two weeks and it's my second time there. I love the country and its rich culture, history and traditions and unique way of constantly looking toward the future while preserving its traditions.
In the first part of exploring tracking IU's career as a musician and public figure, I looked at her progression starting from her beginnings to breakout years. She was a singer ready to tackle material well beyond her fifteen years but unfortunately the world wasn't quite ready for her yet.
What IU traded with a cute, girl next door image she wasn't wholly uncomfortable with she gained with popularity and fanbase and therefore the capacity to eventually start asserting creative control over her music. Still, she also traded in her privacy, and a whole lot of haters who started to attack her for being a slut (she was often cited as many male actor's/idols 'ideal'), for being two-faced regarding her image. A conclusion people came to because they realized she was a bit more reserved than most with a wry and deadpan sense of humor that occasionally she got to show. Apparently people were unable to reconcile a constructed public image and an actual person.
In the years from 2013 to 2017, IU would experiment and challenge herself both as a musician and an actress. These are the years I like to call her "experimental phase" that eventually culminated in 2017's Palette.
Image Shake Up and Musical Experimentation with Modern Times
After her 'scandal', IU did not return to music officially for around 2 years, instead focusing on a single project: the weekend drama You're the Best, Lee Soon Shin, which aired from March to August 2013 playing the titular character Soon Shin and co-starring with her close friend Yoo Inna. 2 years may seem like the usual amount of time to take between albums, but not for a kpop artist who often tries to remain in the public eye at least twice a year. The time away from her main love of music allowed for whatever negative public opinion of her to cool and instead anticipate her return to music.
Almost two years after Last Fantasy was released, IU dropped her third full length album, Modern Times. The teasers showed a much more grown up, mature and sophisticated image of IU that sold an image of a modern and chic young woman. Modern Times was a huge departure from her previous albums and experimented with big band music, jazz, Latin pop, swing, bossa nova, electronic and acoustic folk genres. It was a huge risk for both IU and LOEN to take on these genres and put out an album as genre bending, diverse and experimental as this but clearly her fanbase was solid and had wanted more of her. The album allowed to show off her versatility both as a vocalist, songwriter and a musician with several self-composed and written tracks.
Conceptually inspired partly by Old Hollywood, French and silent films, her lead single 'The Red Shoes' s music video was influenced by the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, the 1948 Powell & Pressburger film and Moulin! Rouge. 'The Red Shoes' and Modern Times were a success and confirmed IU's enduring popularity through scandal and image/musical changes. IU would round 2013 off with a repackage release of her album Modern Times- Epilogue and a second single release, 'Friday', a self-composed and written duet with her labelmate Jang Yi Jeong from boyband HISTORY.
A Flower Bookmark, more experimentation and collaborations
Roughly half a year after the release of Modern Times- Epilogue, IU returned with another throwback sound. This time, she was to release a covers album in an EP, titled A Flower Bookmark, updating and reworking hit 80s and 90s Korean music. In a sea of electronic and rap music that was the trend, IU's choice to release an album with an old-school sound and her willingness to experiment by learning from older music was a rare move that no other kpop artist would ever do these days. The EP's lead single 'My Old Story' is a bittersweet ballad that IU updates with production values and flavors with her own unique and delicate vocals that she exerts effortless control over.
A Flower Bookmark, along with what she had accomplished with Modern Times, showed her range, versatility and great musical instincts even if she wasn't the mastermind behind the music.
Most of 2014 would be collaborations and IU trying out different styles of music. 'Not Spring, Love, or Cherry Blossoms' was a duet she penned as the lead single for her labelmates High4 for their debut. 'When Would It Be' was a collaboration ballad with labelmate Yoon Hyun Sang for his debut album Pianoforte. 'Sogyeokdong' written and composed by Seo Taiji, one of the most influential figures in Korean music was for his album Quiet Night. It featured IU on a sweeping, melancholic electropop track. The music video which features IU singing while a story unfolding between two children that reflects the turmoil in South Korea in the 80s. 'Sogyeokdong' also happens to be my favorite IU song of all-time. IU's breathy, delicate vocals that are so unique to her is deeply haunting and affecting on this electropop track that recalls the peak of Imogen Heap's career.
The Producers, Chat-Shire and outrageous controversy
In 2015 IU landed the role of Cindy, a diva-like top singer in the drama The Producers reuniting her with former Dream High co-star Kim Soo Hyun and allowing her to work with top stars Cha Tae Hyun and Gong Hyo Jin.
Cindy was not a likable character. She was proud, cold, complicated and a deeply lonely character that had not known real warmth or friendship since being shoved into the idol lifestyle as a child. Aside from the diva antics, IU felt she had never related more to a character and it showed in her acting. Top Korean actresses generally avoid these types of roles. Although the quality of the show and its public reception was lukewarm, this was easily IU's best performance to date. There was a level of vulnerability in the performance that she showcased in the character underneath that icy demeanor that paid off in some truly emotionally cathartic scenes when the Cindy character confronted her past and the fact that she now had a found family in the main characters who had her back. During the course of the show, she also recorded the self-composed and written single 'Heart' for the show's OST. This would be one of her most popular songs she released, and one of the top 10 singles of 2015 in South Korea.
After completing The Producers, IU returned to music with an EP, 'Chat-Shire' that featured a trippy, colorful, Cheshire cat inspired concept. Her lead single for it, 'Twenty-Three' was a tongue in cheek, biting commentary on her own public image
'Twenty Three' and the Alice in Wonderland concept of the music video had IU reflect on her identity as a girl-woman: the struggle of the transition between a young adult and an adult and the self-doubt that comes with it. She took shots at the infantile image she was often saddled with, addressed the 'fox' label her haters gave her directly with the line 'a fox pretending to be a bear pretending to be a fox' and poked fun at the pressure of maintaining a likable image.
But despite initial praise and popularity on the music charts, the Korean public would stir the pot once more by accusing IU of reinforcing the 'Lolita' concept with her song 'Zeze' and several of the album jacket photos. The song 'Zeze' was about the five year old character from the book 'My Sweet Orange Tree'. The lyrics calls him beautiful and playful and this was interpreted by knetz as her sexualizing the character.
Two pictures from the album jacket featured IU lying in bed with a white t-shirt and messy hair. Take note that she was 22 at the time (23 in Korean years). The pictures were playful, like the entire concept of the album. People will see what they want to see, and it says more about the Korean public that they still saw IU as a girl perpetuating Lolita fantasies when the entire concept of her single 'Twenty-three' was precisely about tackling that image. Nevertheless, IU apologized for the backlash regarding the interpretation of her lyrics—take note: she had to apologize because people interpreted her lyrics regarding a 5 year old as sexual and not because she actually put out offensive content.
Second break from music and Moon Lovers
After embarking on a successful national tour in 2015, IU rounded off the year by being named GQ Korea's Woman of The Year. Nevertheless, she would not release any new music, collaborations or Japanese release or otherwise for another 2 years, which was a much longer radio silence than her break between Last Fantasy and Modern Times.
IU would only return to the public eye in 2016 for the epic period fantasy drama, Moon Lovers. This would be her biggest lead role to date as it was based on the bestselling Chinese novel, Bu Bu Jing Xin (or Scarlet Heart) that was also adapted into an immensely successful Chinese television series. As the female lead Hae Soo who travels back in time to the Goryeo Dynasty into the body of a distant relation to the royal family and becomes embroiled in the fight for the throne between the princes, this was by far the most emotionally and physically draining and challenging role for IU to date. The show received lukewarm reception in South Korea but it was a smashing success all over Asia thanks to the young cast's fanbase, IU's popularity in China and male lead Lee Jun Ki's popularity in Japan.
It almost seems like a pattern now. Everytime IU got involved in some scandal, she would go off to do a challenging and draining TV drama that would somehow reboot and re-energize her creatively, music-wise.
Palette and coming of age
In March 2017, after 2 years of no new music— not even a song for the soundtrack of Moon Lovers, IU announced her comeback. And of course, when the album Palette dropped on April 21, 2017 the music was good. It was always going to be. She had proved time and time again that she was able to pull off complex music, genres and styles, but this time it was different. Because this time, she truly had full creative control over the album, composing several of the songs, writing all the lyrics and putting together the concept of the album.
The idea of the album's concept "Palette" of course, comes from the idea that she found an artist's palette with its mix of colors more fascinating than the finished art itself. Translated into music, she is saying how in love she still is with the process of making music. And that perhaps she likes her music a little raw, honest and messy.
There's the gorgeous ballad 'Through the Night' with its arthouse slice of life like music video, the indie pop, R&B influenced duet 'Can't Love You Anymore' with indie rock singer Oh Hyuk (of the indie band Hyukoh) and its deeply weird postmodern performance video (that IU conceptualized herself). And then of course, the more traditional pop ballad 'Ending Scene'.
The music video for 'Ending Scene' would be her third time working with Kim Soo Hyun, and featured a film within a film where she and Kim Soo Hyun's character play past lovers who look back on their relationship, (500) Days of Summer style. There is no hint as to why the couple fall apart, but at the end, they quite literally cut off each other's strings and let go of each other. Palette, in a way, is both coming of age album and break-up album.
The track 'Palette', also serves as the lead single. It is a sequel to 2015's 'Twenty-Three'. In 'Twenty-Three' IU contemplates exploring her blossoming sexuality in an assertive way, but also expresses confusion and self-doubt over her identity as not a girl, not yet a woman. 'Palette', picks off two years after that, and is a little nostalgic as it looks back on her younger years ("I was pretty when I sang 'Good Day', why is that?"), but also assures the audience she is not one to dwell too much on the past ("I still like Corinne's music, but rather than hot pink, I like dark purple") before moving into the chorus that is the laidback, low-key self-love anthem of the year.
I like it, I’m twenty five
I know you like/hate me
Ooh I got this I’m truly fine
I think I know a little bit about myself now
What makes the song so compelling of course, besides the deeply personal lyrics is the way she sings the song. The lyrics are simple, and direct, but she layers it with a wistfulness, but also confidence that she does indeed, know a little bit more about herself now. In the last chorus of the song, she changes up the line "I'm truly fine" for the word "I've truly found", and if you thought the wistfulness in her voice in the preceding choruses were a form of assurance to the audience, that small change is the honesty that makes one believe that after everything, IU has truly found herself and yes, she will be fine.
On 'Palette', IU even gets to bring back the seemingly untouchable G-Dragon down to Earth. On his rap break in the song, he confesses to his own struggle with growing up, but also offers assurance.
Past twenty, not yet thirty
In between, right there
When I’m not a kid or an adult
When I’m just me
I shine the brightest
So don’t get scared when darkness comes
'Palette' doesn't answer all the questions about coming of age and transitioning into being an adult. It's not supposed to. Rather, it assures you that it's ok to take your time to find yourself. The other tracks in the album are all excellent— interesting and wholly IU musically, and biting lyrically. My favorite track, even more than 'Palette', is 'Jamjam', which encompasses both those things to a woozy disco influenced beat.
Of course, 'Palette' and its other singles were received with great love and IU topped chart after chart with each release. Despite her success however, IU continues to be self-reflective, revealing that "Many people praised this album while others wondered, 'Why am I only talking about myself?' They said a lot of times they wanted to empathize with my music but wasn't able to do so,". That sort of sentiment also reveals the nature of being a female creator. That no matter what you do, you will always be examined more critically than male creators. IU's music on 'Palette' is deeply universal despite being a very personal album about her breakup and own coming of age. But still people's inability to relate to her situation is seen as the work lacking in empathy.
In an interview with her longtime collaborator Kim Eana, IU talks about how the success of 'Palette' leaves her lonely, revealing again more of the candor, honesty and complexity rarely seen in most celebrities, and even less so in a kpop artist. IU has always been a fascinating young woman and artist. Now that she has come of age and moved from her 'experimental' phase into a new, mature phase of her career that is wholly hers, it will be interesting to see how she explores her emotions and experience to create and produce art.
The best part about how great 'Palette' is, and how every bit has felt earned and fought for is that discerning fans of hers will know that this album is not a masterpiece, but a sign of things to come. IU can only get bigger and better from now on.
Happy 24th (or 25th) Birthday, IU! ♪☆＼(^０^＼) ♪
Anyone who knows me knows I'm a huge fan of kpop musician IU. Born Lee Ji Eun on 16 May 1993, IU is about one of the most talented musicians of her generation anywhere, if not the most talented musician of her generation in the kpop world. I've had the privilege of becoming a fan during her breakout moment, when she released the single 'Good Day' in December 2010 and exploded as one of the rising It Girls of kpop.
With her latest album Palette, IU has truly come of age as an artist, a musician, a woman, a person and a celebrity, and I thought I'd trace back her career beginnings and journey as 'IU' to come to understand and explore how satisfying Palette is as a culmination of her entire career so far, knowing all the steps she has taken and struggled through as a girl to a woman and a musician and artist to come this far. In discussing her career, I also have to touch on her public image, as they affect each other and would come to influence her work when she started taking full creative control of her music.
Lost Child and Lost & Found
IU had auditioned for both SM and JYP as a kid and was rejected multiple times before ending up at LOEN. She had assumed she would be put into a girl group at any point, but clearly LOEN recognized that she had the potential and talent to truly shine as a soloist and 9 years from her debut 'Lost Child' in 2008, it is a choice that truly paid off. But that wasn't always the case.
'Lost Child' was a song that showed off her powerful and unique vocals and her ability to take on a song with such dark themes and sing with such emotion at barely 15 years old, but she pulled it off. Initially, she was booed by the audiences during her early stage performances but eventually people recognized her vocal ability. However, the album that accompanied 'Lost Child', Lost and Found however, failed commercially, and saw LOEN shift IU's image to a more 'accessible' and commercially friendly image.
IU...IM and rising years
Her follow up eras from 'Lost Child' were the less memorable and more generically cute bubblegum pop singles 'Boo' and 'Marshmallow', that fashioned IU into the cutesy girl next door younger sister image that would stick to her throughout her career, something she would struggle with, stating that she was uncomfortable in both the costumes and the image of being cute, bubbly and outgoing. She would also suffer from her first backlash as a result of being a female idol when she paired up with a member of popular boyband B2ST to perform a special performance of 'Marshmallow' which would result in angry fans attack her cyworld minihompy page. It got so bad she had to shut down the page.
Still it wasn't bad enough to stall her momentum, as she gained popularity appearing on the music show on Yoo Hee Yeol's Sketchbook in 2009 to promote her EP, IU... IM and performed acoustic covers of Girls' Generation's 'Gee', Super Junior's 'Sorry Sorry' and BIGBANG's 'Lies', showing off her versatility and potential as a real musician as opposed to a generic popstar. That performance became a viral hit, both for the surprising maturity of her acoustic performances and for the way she had captivated both the audience and host Yoo Hee Yeol, who would become a huge supporter of her career.
Real, Good Day, Dream High and breakout success
Late 2010-2011 would prove to be the breakout moment for IU when she dropped her EP Real with the lead single 'Good Day' in December 2010 that still maintained the girl next door image LOEN Entertainment had crafted for her but with a slightly more mature and vocally rich sound. IU would continue her rise as she took on her first acting role in the teen drama Dream High that led to her friendship with and first of three collaborations with the up and comer Kim Soo Hyun, whose breakout role was also starring in Dream High. He would go on to become one of South Korea's biggest TV stars in the years to come. She would also become friends with Suzy, of girl group Miss A, who would after Dream High become one of South Korea's biggest It Girls.
Dream High itself was a miracle. A show that was flooded with celebrity stars in a bid to appeal to the teenage market, it was zany, cheesy, all over the place and confused in its direction in the first 3 episodes. But as the show went on, the script and direction begin to really take advantage of the talent and charisma its young stars naturally had and produce a story that was full of heart and dared to take on the difficult issues of being a teenager and the music/idol industry that no one else dared to talk about. It started off as a show I started merely for its gorgeous idol cast to become a teen drama with true heart that I deeply related to and remains special in my heart to this day.
Suzy and IU's bond off-camera would also make sense given their similar career paths and public image. The level of public scrutiny and pressure on both of them during and after Dream High for their weight, appearance, performance and talent must have been overwhelming, especially for two teenage girls (Suzy was 16-17 years old at the time of filming and her breakout, IU was 17-18).
IU would go on to join variety show Heroes from 2010 to 2011 to maintain her visibility in the public eye which led to her finding one of her best friends in the industry, the actress Yoo Inna, 9 years her senior and who remains one of IU's closest friends to this day.
Meanwhile, in her breakout year of 2011, IU found time to fit in music and projects that would continue to hint at the maturity she had well beyond her 18 years. Her regular songwriter Kim Eana and composer Yoon Sang would write the song 'A Story Only I Didn't Know' for her Real+ EP, a brooding, melancholic ballad that would recall her debut single 'Lost Child'. This time, hot off the success of Dream High and 'Good Day', the dark ballad would be a hit.
IU found the time to open the concert for singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae in Seoul, who has been a huge influence and role model in her career to this day. Besides starring in music videos and continuing her regular appearances in variety shows, she penned her first song, 'Hold My Hand' for the soundtrack for the kdrama The Greatest Love, which also starred her friend Yoo Inna. IU's discussion of how she struggled with writing the song to match the drama's cheery tone also hinted at the honesty and complexity of who she was as a person and artist that would manifest in years to come.
As a celebrity on the reality figure ice-skating show Kim Yuna's Kiss & Cry, IU also collaborated with Olympic Gold Medalist and 'The Nation's Fairy' Kim 'Queen' Yuna on a single called 'Ice Flower'. It was a fascinating collaboration given that Kim Yuna was 20 years old, an Olympic Gold Medalist and the most celebrated and scrutinized celebrity in South Korean media and IU was just getting to that level of celebrity. When you watch the music video which is just footage of the two young women recording in the studio, you can see how young they truly are and yet they have the pressure and eyes of the entire South Korean public on them.
Last Fantasy, Spring of a Twenty Year Old
The end of 2011 saw IU return with her second full length studio album, Last Fantasy and its lead single 'You and I'. Last Fantasy and the concept for 'You and I' built on the success of Good Day with the chic and adorable girl next door concept with a fantasy angle. The album cover and 'You and I' music video had IU's hair up in girlish pigtails, with the album art featuring childhood like imagery of carousels, rocking horses and toys, building on her image as the 'nation's little sister'. It was a strategic concept that would appeal to her female fans who would not be threatened by her child-like image and to her 'uncle' and male fans who could continue to put her on a pedestal. (There is also a track on Last Fantasy called 'Uncle')
The opening track for Last Fantasy, 'Secret' was something out of a Disney musical, and the tracks on Last Fantasy saw more collaborations with notable singer-songwriters Ra.D, Lee Juck and Yoon Sang. The massive success of Real (and 'Good Day') and Last Fantasy (and 'You and I') allowed for IU to embark on her first solo South Korean tour as well as debut in the Japanese market. And to mark her turning twenty in Korean years, she released a short EP Spring of a Twenty Year Old with notable tracks 'Peach', which was self-written and composed, and the sprawling 'Every End of the Day'. She would round off 2012 with a Japanese tour, a successful first Korean tour and reunite with friend Suzy to host the annual year end SBS music awards as well as bagging prizes at various Korean music awards for the success of Good Day and Last Fantasy. She was the most popular solo female musician that year, as voted by the Korean public.
No Longer 'Nation's Little Sister': Turning Point of Public Image
Lyrically and concept-wise, Last Fantasy and Spring of a Twenty Year Old seemed to mark a coming of age, or at least, the end of childhood for IU as a girl and a musician. But it would be more prophetic than expected, as the end of 2012 would mark IU's first major 'scandal' where she accidentally uploaded a selfie onto Twitter with a male idol from the very popular group Super Junior and had the internet abuzz as he was seemingly without a shirt and would suggest that the two were more intimate than being just friends. The 'scandal' was about the anger of female fans who wanted to possess their favorite male idols and proceeded to slut-shame IU, and male fans of IU's who were also possessive of her and wanted her to remain unchanging in her chaste, girl next door image as a fantasy figure for them. This scandal would cause a hit to her popularity, result in no new music for 2 years and become a reason in which people started to label her as a 'sly fox': as being fox-like in trapping men and for being calculating in her image as a celebrity.
To be an idol, by definition of the word is to be fixed and unchanging. There is a shelf life for these 'idols' and they themselves know it and seek to carve a career outside of that image while they can. As they age and mature, the public will move along to younger, fresher models that can be the stuff of teenage dreams and to be placed on a pedestal. IU was always uncomfortable with being labeled as an 'idol' and what was expected from being an idol from the beginning of her career. She wanted to have real creative control as a musician and artist over her career. In a way, that scandal which resulted in a hit in her popularity and image as the 'nation's younger sister', was a good thing, as it would slowly help her shed off that ingenue and cute image she had always struggled with and take a new direction with her music and career.
In Part Two we will look at IU's image, career and musicianship post scandal and how she started to take major creative control over her music, respond to her haters and public image through her music and continue to diversify her sound.