IU's Palette (Part 2): Experimental Phase and Coming of Age

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. 

Promotional image for Modern Times

Promotional image for Modern Times

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. 

Promotional image for A Flower Bookmark

Promotional image for A Flower Bookmark

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. 

IU in a scene from The Producers

IU in a scene from The Producers

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  

Promotional images for Chat-Shire

Promotional images for Chat-Shire

'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.

IU and Lee Jun Ki as star-crossed lovers in Moon Lovers

IU and Lee Jun Ki as star-crossed lovers in Moon Lovers

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

Promotional image in album jacket for Palette

Promotional image in album jacket for Palette

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.

IU and Kim Soo Hyun in 'Ending Scene'

IU and Kim Soo Hyun in 'Ending Scene'

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. 

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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!  ♪☆\(^0^\) ♪