Tuesday, November 17, 2015

IU and Zeze

Dear Korean,

This seems shallow but I couldn't help but to ask this question. What's up with IU and this whole Zeze controversies? Who's Zeze,anyway?


This blog is about to answer a question about K-pop. Could it be?

The second question first: Zeze is the main character from a Brazilian children's novel, My Sweet Orange Tree. The novel is popular worldwide and well known among Koreans through translation. In the novel, Zeze is a five year old boy whose family moves to a poor neighborhood because his father lost his job. In the new (and dilapidated) home, there are several trees in the backyard, and each of Zeze's siblings claim a tree for his or her own. Because Zeze was one of the youngest, he ends up with a small, sorry-looking sweet orange tree. Although Zeze does not like the tree at first, he finds out that he can talk with the tree. Zeze names the tree Minguinho, and the two become friends, partially because all of Zeze's family is busy working and trying to support the family. Left alone, Zeze causes all kinds of trouble, and frequently gets beaten by his parents and his older siblings.

Now, about the song. Zeze is one of the songs on IU's most recent album, Chat-Shire. Here is the translation of the first verse of the song:


흥미로운 듯 씩 올라가는 입꼬리 좀 봐
Look at the lips that curl up, as if something's interesting
그 웃음만 봐도 알아 분명히 너는 짓궂어
I can tell just from that smile; you must be mischievous
아아 이름이 아주 예쁘구나 계속 부르고 싶어
Ah you have a pretty name; I want to keep saying it
말하지 못하는 나쁜 상상이 사랑스러워
That unspeakable naughty imagination is lovable
조그만 손가락으로 소리를 만지네
With the little fingers, you touch the sound
간지러운 그 목소리로 색과 풍경을 노래 부르네
With that ticklish voice, you sing the colors and the scenery

제제 어서 나무에 올라와
Zeze, hurry and climb the tree
잎사귀에 입을 맞춰
Kiss the leaves
장난치면 못써 
Don't fool around
나무를 아프게 하면 못써 못써
Don't hurt the tree, bad bad
제제 어서 나무에 올라와
Zeze, hurry and climb the tree
여기서 제일 어린 잎을 가져가
Take the youngest leaf here
하나뿐인 꽃을 꺾어가
Pluck the only flower here 
Climb up me Climb up me
Climb up me Climb up me

If you can't tell why this song caused an uproar, congratulations--the ways of this world has not yet tainted your little heart. Please stop reading now.

For everyone else: the song obviously is barely disguised pedophilia. If there was any remaining doubt, IU's own interview about the song clinched it: "The song Zeze is from the point of view of Minguinho, from the novel My Sweet Orange Tree. Zeze is innocent, but in some ways he is cruel. As a character, he has a great deal of self-contradiction. That made me feel that he was attractive and sexy."

Is this a big deal? Objectively, and emphatically, no. But people rarely fail to overreact to a topic like pedophilia. The publishing house that introduced the novel to Korea expressed displeasure at the lyrics of the song on its Facebook page, noting that "Minguinho is Zeze's only friend who takes care of Zeze through the abuses from his family.  . . .  It is regrettable that the song makes a five-year-old, who holds the pain of abuse, as an object of sexual desire." After the media ruckus, IU issued an apology, saying she never intended to sexually objectify a five year old child, and Zeze in the song was another character based on the novel rather than the novel's Zeze.

What does TK think about this? The controversy itself is uninteresting; the more interesting part is the way in which IU decided to make this song. TK is convinced that, in today's K-pop scene, IU is the artist who possesses the most self-awareness about the way in which the K-pop market consumes her (or more precisely, her image,) and the interaction between her actions and the pattern of that consumption. In fact, she may be the most careful orchestrator of self-image in Korean pop music since Seo Taiji.

Here is the uncomfortable truth: underlying much of IU's fandom is the id of barely-legal pedophilic desire. To be sure, this is a general phenomenon in the K-pop market, in which "uncle fans" of girl groups--men in their 30s and up, ogling mostly-uncovered young women--make up a significant portion of the fan base. Writ large, it is the general phenomenon of the way in which most young female pop stars are consumed in the market. (The Catholic school girl uniform by Britney Spears was certainly not geared only toward young men of her age.)

But what sets IU apart from other youthful, girlish-looking K-pop idols is that, unlike the girl groups who are creations of a producing company, IU has invited the pedophilic gaze on her own terms. IU does not settle for the crude simulacra of pedophilia, like a school girl outfit. (Although she certainly does employ that too.) She employs much more sophisticated devices, like issuing a remake album containing hit songs from 1980s and 90s. (For an 80s song to be meaningful, you must be at least born in late 1970s. IU was born in 1993.) One of the most popular moments of IU is when she sings the songs of Kim Gwang-seok, whose soulful reflection on self made him the legend of early 90s Korean pop music. In this sense, IU is akin to an evolved Madonna; like the pioneering female American pop artist, IU flipped the script by taking over the agency of her own sexuality. In fact, IU does one better than Madonna, because she does this without any crass skin exposure. 

What makes IU's Zeze truly interesting is not the overblown controversy about whether or not the song is pedophilic. (Of course it is.) The truly interesting part is that, with Zeze, IU flipped the script once again. In Zeze, IU is no longer the young child that subtly invites the sexual attention of the grown-ups. (For those who are dense: IU is obviously not a young child in reality. That is her public image that she herself cultivated.) In the song, IU plays the role of the grown-up, detecting the nascent sexuality in a young child and gently encouraging the child to be even naughtier. That feels uncomfortable, because that's exactly how IU wants you to feel--because being that child is the reality that IU has experienced throughout her professional career.

IU will never stop playing you. The whole media circus is about getting played by IU. That's what's up.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. > "uncle fans" of girl groups ~ make up a significant portion of the fan base.

    Aren’t the main demographic of pop music teens and people in their twenties. I would say IU and other ‘carbon copy’ singers or girl groups (singers who go by the “cute concept” as defined by kpop) are aimed at mostly young people. All of these cute concept singers have uncle fans but I’d say they would make up a secondary portion of the fan base. By my approximation I’d say 30%, not based on actual figures. They may be important but still the minority in my opinion.

    I also see a problem in the labeling of IU, by many people, as employing “Lolita psychology.” (I’d say this would be a more accurate descriptive term because it describes a desire for teens and since a good number of idol singers are still in their teens.)

    First, because of IU’s appearance. She has a small featured and youthful looking face, pretty common in Korea. Anything she does can be equated as employing “Lolita psychology” whether or not it was actually intended. This over generalizations of IU’s image can be very marring to anyone just born with such facial features, who wants to be an entertainer. Even if they do not employ such tactics at all and appear as is, this generalization will act as a stigma on them.

    (I see the kpop ‘cute concept’ just as a utilization of youthful attractiveness and something different in nature than deviant Lolita psychology)
    Second, labeling IU (who utilizes this cute concept) in this manner will make it possible to label all female singers and girl groups (who use the same concept) in the same way. I see this kind of generalized labeling as a threat to all uncle fans because it puts into question their motives for liking a certain singer or girl group (especially if they have under aged members). I think that most uncle fans like viewing idol performances for their entertainment value or to satisfy sexual desires aimed at women in general not a specific deranged abnormal desire toward minors. (One of the reasons why I think minors should not be allowed to be singers at all.) I base my assumption on the fact that pedophilia and Lolita psychology is considered a highly abnormal, deviant and psychopathic disorder which probably afflicts a fraction of a population. Saying that Lolita psychology is the predominant underlying factor in the fandom of IU and similar concept artists is problematic because it can equate all uncle fans to such psychopathy. Something which would be unfair to most sane uncle fans.

    This not really a criticism of what you wrote TK but more of a criticism to similar things said by other people and news articles, I feel they did not fully consider the ramifications of this kind of over generalization.

  2. I always thoght IU's public image was an intentional Lolita one. But I had the impression it was never her choice, but rather the imposed style by her managers or the company she works under, as they saw it as the perfect selling image that would fit her innocent looking face features.
    Now that she finally graduated from being controlled into being in control and uses her position and experience to show the ugly side of the business she herself is a part of, now she is publicly called a Lolita. Controversies are also part of the plan of the business model when it comes to pop culture. Just a little reminder.

    1. @Dac X Lee + @Ennui
      What you guys are saying is that IU’s company is intentionally using the Lolita concept. It is equivalent to saying that their business model purposely targets audiences that responds to the Lolita concept. If you define it as the Lolita concept then it means that the company is targeting those psychopathic people that are pedophiles and people who have the Lolita complex. It is no different than saying that their target audience are people who lust for minors. What percentage of the population lusts for minors? Maybe 3% or 4? Targeting 4% of the population. What a wonderful efficient way to make money! You might say I’m over exaggerating things, but logically speaking what I’m saying connects.

      And also a company that uses the Lolita concept would be a very unethical. And not be allowed to do business.

      Furthermore, if it is indeed the Lolita concept that they are using then why does she have so many female fans and teen fans? (Albeit their numbers have declined recently) Something doesn’t fit. If they are using the Lolita concept then IU she should not have any female or teen fans.

      My conclusion, is that the concept that Loen (IU’s company) is using cannot be defined as the Lolita concept as it would be inaccurate, illogical and unethical.

      The correct term would be the “cute concept.” a concept that most of the masses who are normal responds to. (And also the small percentile of perverts, who lust for minors, a small percentage that can be ignored by any business model.)

    2. To all that you say here in this reply --> not necessarily. Sure, I don't exclude the possibility I'm wrong, but the "Lolita concept" isn't always taken as seriously, which opens the door to non-pedophile admirers. Because, as you say, who doesn't like cute? Also, IU's "Lolita-ish" image is waaaaaay softer than the Japanese style one, which, apparently sells well, despite being aimed at a seemingly minor group of audiences. As for the "unethical" part, ethics are not so rarely ignored when it comes to business. Sad, but true. Not always the case, of course, but it does happen.

    3. It just seems to me that people are confusing cute with Lolita. Cute is just another mode of beauty here, the other mode being sexy. Cute doesn’t automatically equate to immaturity. There is nothing wrong a grown woman (or men even) striving for a cute look, it is just one direction of the social norm. This is why many music companies utilize the cute concept in their business model and why most people do not see a problem with it. It is normal. (While Lolita psychology is abnormal.)

      By labeling IU with the Lolita concept, it is warping the cute concept into something abnormal and disgusting. And it is alarmist in my opinion.

  3. I am with Dac X Lee here. The Lolita concept is clearly manufactured by IU's company. In a similar vein, how can we know that this self-deconstruction of the Lolita concept, "flipping the script" in TK's words, is really IU's own doing, not another business maneuver by the agency? In our post-industrial economy, controversies create more buzzes, gather more attention and consequently bring in more capital gains.

    That's also why I don't see similarities between Seo Taji and IU. Seo Taiji is the mastermind of all the music as well as the "concepts," while the same cannot be said about IU. Moreover, although IU or her company are playing the media, they still care about the responses from the public. The company just issued a statement today that they will sue netizens who've left malicious comments. I've seen equally or even more nasty comments about Seo Taiji for decades, but this bespectacled genius, albeit also known as a shrewd businessman, is almost like, or at least appears to be, a Nietzschean Übermensch who just keeps doing what he loves to do without being bothered.

    I do find the whole incident blown out of the proportion. At first I felt uncomfortable at IU's choice of the text, since ultimately there are WRONG interpretations when it comes to interpret literature. New Criticism is such a cliche and passe. However, when the public debate shifts to the topic of Lolita, it's become far more interesting. And yet, I still don't see any radical potentials in this particular incident. I hope that IU has as much control of her image-making as TK is suggesting here. Mind you, even the identity such as an artist, or a singer songwriter, is pretty much a "label" for marketing. Even the title of music producer these days can be dubious at times. My two cents.

    1. To the comment about IU's agency - I've heard that IU released a statement or mentioned in interviews that she has had primary control over producing this album. (A point made to differentiate from her other albums) Also from what I understand about her company - it was virtually no-name before IU rose to superstardom in the Korean music industry. It stands to reason that the power dynamics in the standard business model may have flipped, as do in some cases where the star outshines the producing team. There is no way she could be dropped permanently or shuttled out of the public eye without mass uproar from her fans. Barring some kind of complicated legal mess, I imagine she has quite a bit of leverage, or at least a certain degree if she really wants to send out a message.

  4. I came across your blog and find it super interesting. I like a person who's not afraid to tackle tough subject matter, with lots of dialogue. Kudos! www.intheknowwithro.blogspot.com

  5. This entire controversy was likely started by some 50 year old guy who's afraid he won't be getting his free fap fap time on korean national television. This "statement" album by IU is all about shining a light on an industry that infantilizes sexuality. Someone was just clever enough to turn it around on her and make it look like she's the pedophile to all the mouth breathers on the internet. If you need an example of what I'm talking about go back and watch the Infinity Challenge Music Festival episodes from this summer. IU is paired up with the cranky and snide MC Park Myung soo who continually hounds her with the help of MBC to adopt a "Matilda and Leon" concept. Matilda and Leon are the characters from the movie "The Professional". Now if you've ever seen the movie then you'd know that the main characters are played by a 12 year old Natalie Portman and Jean Reno a man old enough to be her father. Obviously this might be problematic for a 23 year old woman who just wants to be seen now as a grown up and a professional. IU and Loen didn't create this "lolita" concept in a vacuum. The mainstream korean entertainment industry infantilizes sexuality at every opportunity. I'd say that it infantizies women but that wouldn't be true any longer since now this also extends to young men. There's a method to why idol singers get younger and younger and why even long after into their twenties they continue to look like they are still teenagers. It's not all about appealing to young people it's a concept of "innocence" equals sexual purity plus isn't innocence sexy. It's really fascinating and very creepy at the same time.

    1. I'll be "the one who quotes" here, but the Manic Street Preachers summed this up quite accurately (although maybe a little too pessimistic) in their song Little Baby Nothing: "They need your innocence to steal vacant love and to destroy your beauty and virginity used like toys."

  6. I'm a new (and superficial) kpop fan who wants to ask TK : in your opinion is IU playing (us) out of crass commercialism or - is it art? Skewing and skewering public perception is a long tradition of 'Art'. So is milking the public for money. With Madonna I lean toward the
    former, not that I am a fan but since she is from my same cultural background it's easier for me to understand that she at least sometimes was making a statement. Art is usually a confluence of intention and beholder. Do you know enough about IU to say something about her intention? Interested in your bridge as usual. Cheers.

    1. It's art. No question about it.

    2. it's a terrifying world to live in if everything can be justified in the name of art.

  7. I feel that “Zeze” can be interpreted in different ways, and also innocently without it being a stretch. Just a few points I’d like to make.

    Point 1.
    Lets play a pretend game. If a tree had feelings what would it think if a boy started to climb up its branches? Maybe it would say, “Stop climbing on me, it hurts.” If trees can feel pain I assume climbing on it would hurt. Breaking a few thin branches on the way up would be excruciatingly painful. IU’s lyrics, “It’s not nice to hurt the tree.” How would a tree view that boy. At first it would think the boy is mischievous, naughty, and evil or worse. IU’s lyrics, “You are very innocent but surely cunning.” Maybe later on the tree will realize that the boy is abused, misunderstood, lonely and depressed. IU’s lyrics, “Vaguely visible, I see your soul touching gloomy clouds.” If the tree knew compassion wouldn't it want to console the boy. IU’s lyrics, “Immediately I try to put sunshine over your head.” If the tree comes to like the boy wouldn't it want him to come again tomorrow. IU’s lyrics, “I wait for you here everyday.”

    Point 2.
    What would you say to a mischievous boy who lifts up a girls skirt at a playground as a prank? What would you say to admonish him? How about, “Stop doing that, you ”dirty“ little boy! It’s not nice to play pranks like that on your friends. You’ll hurt their feelings.” What are the boys motives? Maybe the boy likes the girl but is too immature to know how to express his feelings properly, so instead he plays pranks on her to get her attention. Or maybe it is an expression of sexual curiosity. Child psychologists say that if a child likes to draw squiggly tadpoles it is a possible indication of sexual curiosity. He might need a lesson about the birds and bees a little earlier than other boys. So you can call a boy dirty, though it means you are misunderstanding him. But you can still call him dirty

    Point 3.
    What do some people do when they see a beautiful flower in a meadow? They pluck it and put it in a vase. What do some people do when they see a pretty leaf on a tree? They take it home as a keepsake, maybe let it dry in a book and put it in a album. What does it mean if a tree asks a person to “take its youngest leaf and pluck its only flower?” Maybe it wants the person to take it as a keepsake and remember it always. Does it necessarily have to imply something sexual?

    Point 4
    The problem, I think, is that IU’s song has a major fault. It is unclear who the narrator is. (Probably unimportant in most other songs, but extremely critical in IU’s song.) Most people assume the narrator is IU herself. So it seems like a 23 year old woman is asking a five year old to “climb up me,” “kiss my leaves,” “pluck my only flower.” (Maybe sounds more explicit in Korean?) Thus appearing to sound like sexual innuendos.

    At her album showcase she explains her song “Zeze." She states that she wrote the song from the perspective of the young tree Minguinho (Zeze’s best friend). She also states that she interprets Minguinho as being a girl, and views the relation between Zeze and Minguinho as a manifestation of adolescent love between a boy and a girl. Sort of like Minguinho is singing a love song to Zeze. The so called sexual innuendos don’t sound that suggestive anymore when the narrator is a little girl tree.

    IU’s words: “In the book Zeze is described sometimes as bad and mischievous and at other-times good and angelic. I think that his contradictory (double-sided) nature makes him an attractive character. Furthermore, and this is something I’m not saying about the young Zeze but it is something that I’m saying about his characteristic, that his characteristic is (what shall I say) kind of sexy.“ (summarized translation)

    Interestingly when her critics (and newspaper articles) quote her on this, they conveniently leave out the part where she says, “this is something I’m not saying about the young Zeze but it is something that I’m saying about his characteristic.” With this part edited out her remarks seem inappropriate.

    1. I 100% agree with your points! I mean, IU could also have meant that while ZeZe is growing up, he might get naughtier (meaning, not only sexually-_-,but having bad behavior). He doesn't have to be a child, if he were real, he'd be old by now. I seriously don't understand why people have to make such huge fusses about this, it's not like there isn't anything terribly inappropriate in the world(('porn' for instance, it's easily accessible online)).

  8. Not trying to argue with you (I think your point is valid), but a lot of the "pedophilic" lyrics were taken from the book itself (Climb up me, etc). Also, the interview you quoted is not the full interview; the part of him being sexy is actually this:
    "When I just look at Zeze’s character, it has a lot of contradictions and because of that I found him really charming and… well. Ok, I’m not talking about young Zeze here. If I were to talk about the kind of personality Zeze possesses, I feel like that’s really sexy. I just got really caught up in the two sides of his character. But never mind all that, when I read until the end of the book, I really cheered for and loved that kid. That’s an amazing character."

    ( http://beyondhallyu.com/k-pop/iu-and-the-zeze-controversy-pt-1-bad-translations-worse-logic-and-terrible-terrible-accusations/)

    1. Thanks a lot for the link. :) I think it sheds more light on the situation. I’ll have to read it more closely later on.

      The part that I emphasized in my final paragraph was the part that I felt most important, so I paid special attention to it. The other parts are just a loose summary.

      IU starts this part with “뭐랄까” which I translated as “what shall I say.” It seems to me that “sexy” wasn’t the exact word she wanted to use but the closest approximation to the idea that was in her head

      {phrase 1} 아니라 {phrase 2} 이다.
      I think that “but” is the best transitional word to connect the two phases. The translation in your link seems too word for word. Might be the best method for documenting what she was saying but a little awkward in its flow.

  9. to say that she invites pedophilic gaze by issuing the remake album is really pushing it TK. And i dont agree that for an 80s song to be meaningful, the singer must be at least born in late 1970s.

    but i like the article in general, as usual.

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  12. > For everyone else: the song obviously is barely disguised pedophilia

    Eh, everything in that verse you mentioned is a quote from the book. That's exactly what the Tree says to Zeze. Maybe it's the original book the problem? It's not the first time a book has been interpreted as written by a pedophile afters authors death. Lewis Carroll is an infamous example of this.

    Though I do see the Lolita image, I don't think she had a hand in it, her company had. I remember her saying this is the look she liked for herself, which looks very different from her image https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Eirn1dqc-F8/TWdYCkWp9iI/AAAAAAAAAew/T2WNNS1KK5M/s1600/5248qiq00vwdxq6480906.jpg

  13. This is one of the most interesting things I've read on K-pop in recent months.
    I generally like most of IU's music and believe she is talented. But after seeing these carefully staged and designed photos, it become pretty difficult to deny that she (or at least her label) was intentional in choosing to use devices that reference pedophilia.
    In my personal experience, I've met many guys in their 30s or above that love IU, qualifying their remarks by saying that she is "so innocent and talented." I've always found these "uncle fans" a little uncomfortable and slightly creepy. Equally as creepy as guys who watch barely-clothed teenage girl groups.

  14. I'm gonna ignore the whole controversy and just say how glad and surprised I am to know that a book from my country is famous internationally (including in such a different and far away place such as south korea!), I had no idea.

  15. Now you've got me rethinking The Little Prince and his rose. "She wrapped herself around me and enlightened me."

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  17. Maybe I am the first person who leave a comment in Korean.
    삼촌팬이라는 단어 자체가 얼마나 역겨운지에 대해서 생각해보면 좋을것 같네요. IU가 의도한 칸셉과 무관하게 IU의 이미지는 소아성애적으로 삼촌팬들에 의해 소비되고 있는게 현실입니다. IU를 대하듯 자신을 대하는 삼촌팬이 있다고 생각해보세요. 끔직하지 않나요?
    뿐만 아니라 한국에는 여자 화장실에 몰카를 설치해서 여러 사이트에 뿌리고 있죠. 이 몰카에 십대가 없을 거라고 생각하시나요? 그 사이트의 유저가 몇명이라고 생각하나요?
    Just I hope you guys to consider the word "uncle fan". It is so disgusting. Imagine that your uncle do what uncle fan does. It is so creepy.
    Regardless of her concept, her image is consumed in a way of phadophilic by uncle fan.
    In korea, a number of sites have spy cam images and porns, don't you think that it has teen's scene? And the number of user is beyond your expectation.

  18. I don't think she purposefully targeted uncle fans on her own accord. If you see her interviews, she hated singing boo. It's an old trick in the book by entertainment companies. How fitting then, that at the same time, Gfriend is going down the same path IU once walked on. If you see "you and I" and "rough" it is so similar. i.e. High school girls wanting time to pass quickly so that they can date their loved one. "Ze Ze" was probably a jab at the time she had to sing and dance to songs like that.

    It's such an impressive feat though. To make a jab at society through a non-titular song on an album you did not even promote and then have society overreact to it exactly the way you wanted them to. Standing ovation. Without the public's knee jerk reaction, this song wouldn't be complete.


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