IU's Palette (Part 1): Career beginnings and breakout success

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.

IU's promotional images for 'Lost Child'

IU's promotional images for 'Lost Child'

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. 

Promotional image for 'Marshmallow'

Promotional image for 'Marshmallow'

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. 

Promotional for the Real EP

Promotional for the Real EP

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. 

Suzy, Kim Soo Hyun and IU on the set of Dream High

Suzy, Kim Soo Hyun and IU on the set of Dream High

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. 

Suzy, IU and Yoo Inna talking about their friendship on a variety show

Suzy, IU and Yoo Inna talking about their friendship on a variety show

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')

Promotional image for the Last Fantasy album

Promotional image for the Last Fantasy album

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.