This week on SB Exchange, we take a closer look at solo idol IU.

I first encountered IU as the adorable Pil-sook from K-drama Dream High (which I discovered after finishing my first drama, 49 Days, which had a character named Min-ho in it; degrees of separation from SHINee: four). Pil-sook was definitely my favourite character, along with Sam-dong, and her voice was so beautiful. I was still very new to K-pop at that stage, so it took me a while before I realised that she was also a singer (and that Suzy, Taecyeon and Wooyoung were idols — and that Kim Soo-hyun wasn’t). Ah, those were the days, replete with complete and utter ignorance. Le sigh.

IU debuted as a solo singer at the tender age of 15 with the sombre “Lost Child“, but only finding success when she changed to a more youthful sound, beginning with “Boo“. And once “Good Day” happened, her place as the crown jewel of LOEN Entertainment was well cemented. So what do my fellow Seoulbeats associates think of Korea’s Little Sister? Nabeela, Natalie and Fannie gave me their insights:

1. IU’s debut single “Lost Child” has a very different sound from her subsequent releases — while I guess you could say she sold out, I feel like everything from “Boo” onwards was more suitable for her age than the mature themes seen in “Lost Child”. What are your thoughts on this issue of age-appropriate music, if one were to call it such?

Nabeela: I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for IU despite how she has changed. Though I really only caught on to IU with her song “Good Day”, it is obvious she has continuously deviated from her original sound. Take for example her first album “Growing Up” — a lot of acoustics, a lot of strong and tempered vocals, and powerful lyrics. Looking back on that IU, she physically looked more confident in her style of music and her own musical talents. But I think IU dealing with the industry as she became increasingly popular was like a double edged sword. Everyone loved her for talent when she debuted. But even more of us loved her for her face.

As more and more people picked up on the little gem that was IU, it was hard not to love her for her beauty and her natural aegyo (undoubtedly due to her age) and then her music. Personally, I think as IU became more widely known, her company decided to steer her in a direction that would monopolize on her charms, the very charms her newer audiences adored, instead of IU’s own creative genius. Now she’s “the daughter of Korea” and has hordes of uncle fans because of her more innocent and cute image. Sure, maybe that image is more age appropriate for IU — she is relatively young. But her age-appropriate music is boring.

Natalie: Because I’m new to Kpop, I got my first dose of IU with “Last Fantasy,” and I initially assumed she was like almost every other bubblegum Kpop singer. Then I learned that she is far better than all that, which her past work shows. It’s a little unfortunate that IU had to turn the route she did in order to achieve fame – from my perspective, her past work was tons better. As for her age and concepts – I’ve always considered IU to be a very versatile artist. She embodied both her recent and past work well, her age not really being that big an issue. I think this was partly because she wasn’t mainstream when “Lost Child” was released and so not a big enough deal for her age to be a problem. Because of this, she wasn’t anchored to a definite image. The main problem with “age” and how it applies to concepts is that people will primarily have a picture in their heads of what to expect from a certain group or age. When someone goes out of that, there’s a problem and it creates doubt and set-backs. IU, from what I can tell, didn’t have this problem so much.

Fannie: Honestly, I think that as long as whatever comes out of an artist is genuine and truthful, there’s nothing really age inappropriate about it. Not all 15-year-olds are about sunshine and butterflies. IU in particular, I have always felt not only has natural cuteness, but also a natural maturity (maturity ≠ sex kitten), so really she could go either way. Just so long as it’s not overly forced. Admittedly, her material from after she became popular is questionable in this regard. There’s a paradox within the whole ‘innocent’ act in K-pop, nowadays. On one hand, IU’s music is pretty solidly PG. On the other hand, her skirt length from her most recent comeback… made me really nervous every time she performed.

2. “Last Fantasy” is being promoted as a coming-of-age musically for IU. What effect do you think adulthood will have on her music and image? Or do you think that this could all be lip service and that we are all in for more “Good Day”-style tunes?

Nabeela: Hey, I loved Good Day! There was a rainbow parrot in that MV! However, I was largely unimpressed with Last Fantasy. I really hope IU was ‘coming of age’ with that album, because it’s time for her music to grow up, again. But you never know, it really could all just be lip service. Every time there is a comeback, an artist’s company will say anything to raise anticipation.

Natalie: I find it interesting that IU’s early stuff, like “Lost Child,” is more mature in sound and concept than “Last Fantasy.” “Last Fantasy” was a cute, solid album that catered to mainstream Kpop. It helped IU continue her rise in fame and get a firm standing in the spotlight, for which I am glad for her. But at the same time, I’m hoping that IU will revert to back what she once did. Now that she has the public’s attention, can’t she go back to making great songs? Chances are no. The public likes cute, bubbly pop songs, so my guess is that she’ll stay with that for a little bit longer, maybe ease into something more meaningful.

Fannie: Although “You and I” didn’t really seem all that more mature to me than “Good Day” (and I admit that I loved both), I can only hope that now LOEN will stick by what they said about her ‘maturing’ with her latest album when considering how to promote her future material. It’s entirely possible that LOEN could pull a “Sorry, Sorry” on her and keep on trying to recapitulate a past formula for success, but somehow at the end of the day, I still have faith in the company because they HAVE allowed her talent to shine through and produced some great tracks, despite putting her in a lolita-box to springboard her to fame. I’m not expecting a totally different IU the next time she comes out with an album, but I do think that gradually she will start to emerge as more of an artist.

What I love about IU (and I’m not sure if I’m the only one who sees this) is that I’ve always felt a sense of darkness from her, and what personally draws me to her music isn’t the cuteness, but rather the subtle undertone of whimsical, almost gothic, eeriness (kind of reminds me of Yousei Teikoku). LOEN also needs to let her put out more acoustic stuff (girl has guitar skills, she should use them!)

3. IU seems to be famous for her Ajusshi fans, perhaps even more so than other girl groups. To what extent do you feel they influence IU’s material, and does bending to this influence bring in any benefits to IU and Loen Entertainment, monetary or otherwise, that other markets cannot provide to the same extent?

Nabeela: Like I said before, I think IU’s changing image has also forced her to change her style of music. She was a soloist I had never really expected in the beginning, especially since she had much more serious music for a girl of her age. But the attention she has gained and the way Loen has changed her music is definitely for capitalistic gains. IU is ever the more popular and more mainstream because of the changes she’s made. I dont think IU herself benefits from it all. She looks increasingly bored with her music, especially when she performs live. Loen, though, is obviously making more and more money.

Natalie: The only benefit I see IU getting from her uncle fans is fame and popularity. Other than that, her music’s quality has declined and she’s not required to do cutesy aegyo in short, revealing clothing to keep her fans entertained. But uncle fans seem to be the requirement for an idol group to gain ultimate stardom — isn’t 2NE1 beaten out by SNSD in popularity because of SNSD’s large male fanbase?

Fannie: Ajusshi fans rake in a lot of cash for IU and LOEN Entertainment, plain and simple.

I think that IU is naturally sweet and an adorable girl (seriously, she inherited some great genes) and I don’t mind her being her charming and cute self on stage, but when it stops being natural and starts becoming an image, that’s when her artistry starts to become compromised.

Then we get an inauthentic IU, and whether people are disappointed when this happens depends on what they expect from her in the first place. Those of us who fell in love with IU’s earlier work (or videos of her guitar covers) really hope (for HER sake) that she will be able to develop as an artist. Many (not all) Ajusshi fans eat up the image that is presented and hope (for THEIR sake) that she will continue to be all cute and innocent, catering toward them with songs like “Uncle” whilst wearing dangerously short skirts.

4. IU will soon make her Japan debut, something that often, due to the nature of the J-pop industry, often leads to K-pop developing stronger vocals and improving their performances. Though there is always room for improvement, IU is already a formidable singer; would there be anything else she could learn from debuting in Japan?

Nabeela: I hope IU learns that the Japanese music market is more open to differentiation, and that IU is able to explore that creative freedom and show Japanese audiences where her talents truly lie: with her original sound. Then again, J-pop also thrives off of the cute, female charm, so her Japanese entertainment company may decide to develop her cutesy appeal even further. So, as far as IU and Japan go, its really up in the air.

Natalie: I’m hoping for a stellar Japanese album that doesn’t require IU to do any of the weird, kinky stuff I’ve seen in Jpop. She’s so naturally cute and pretty — I’m expecting more aegyo combined with a solid pop album.

Fannie: Language barrier aside, it really depends on what direction LOEN decides for her to take in Japan.

I think that somehow there’s this preconceived notion that Japan unconditionally wants kawaii/aegyo style images… this isn’t true at all. Granted, the cute route is definitely a common one to go down, but I find that a lot of successful female Japanese solo artists (note that I call them artists) choose to go a variety of more mature routes instead. I would like for LOEN to take a page from this book and allow IU to develop more as an artist, and less as an idol, in Japan. I’m not saying that IU shouldn’t be cute (she has this natural cuteness anyway) but rather, I don’t want the cuteness factor to be the main focus of her promotions.

Basically, I’d like for IU to have the same kind of artistic control over her music in Japan that an artist (such as Utada Hikaru, for example) had.

5. IU is no stranger to collaborations, having previously teamed up with 2AM’s Seulong for “Nagging”; but who would you like to see collaborate with her? I for one would love to see what would happen if she and DJ Clazzi got together… 

Nabeela: I also would love to see her collab with DJ Clazzi, just because he’s more alternative and indie in some respects. Maybe she could step out of the box a little and lend her vocals alongside a rapper like Junhyung or Jun.K–that could be fun. If she wanted to stay primarily vocal, it would be nice to see IU and Taeyeon do something together.

Natalie: Oh, gosh, I haven’t really thought about this… I would like to see IU collaborate with male groups like CN Blue or SHINee or INFINITE. Call me crazy (and I know you are!) but I think it’d be interesting to see her and the opposite group meet somewhere inbetween their sounds to make something new and interesting (with eye-candy).

Fannie: I know they already did a special stage together at the most recent SBS Gayo Daejun, but more of IU and Yoseob! I’ve always paired the two together… I think because the very first time I ever came across IU was during one of her old “Marshmallow” performances, which featured a cameo from an extremely blonde Yoseob. I also think that the fact that he’s such an IU fanboy is the cutest thing ever.

In terms of girl collaborations: seconded on the IU and Taeyeon collaboration. I could see the two of them creating some really beautiful OST tracks together. IU and Secret’s Ji-eun would also be adorable — they both have uniquely sweet voices in different ways.

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I would love to see more IU and Yoseob — I find his fanboying rather adorable. I think because IU is a solo artist, I’m really interested to see the kinds of dynamics between her and other artists. For some reason I really want to see a Changmin-IU collaboration — I have a suspicion that his fanboying over her in K-variety show “Heroes” was scripted, but it was pretty funny watching Volde-min almost lose it around IU. And I do wonder what it would sound like if they started hitting high notes together…

As I mentioned above, I absolutely loved everything about IU on Dream High — but the number 1 thing was her singing. Although Suzy’s voice is still my favourite (it’s so low!), her covers were something special, and when I found her acoustic covers of other K-pop hits like “Sorry, Sorry”, my love for her only increased. I discovered “Good Day” and really enjoyed it (the three-octave high note got me as well) — and then I found “Lost Child”.

That song… it gave me shivers. It’s such a beautiful song, and IU delivers it so well, both technically and emotionally. I didn’t think much of the change in sound between “Lost Child”and “Good Day”, reasoning that drastic concept changes happen all the time in K-pop with other artists, why not IU. But when I saw “Boo”, I was… seething, for want of a better word. Not only was the MV a complete rip-off of Kylie Minogue‘s “Come Into My World“, the extreme change in pretty-much-everything really got to me. I couldn’t stand it, because I knew that, basically, IU had sold out. Or LOEN did, on her behalf.

At any rate, the sudden turn-around felt too artificial, and that feeling was only compounded with IU’s latest release “Last Fantasy”. I’ve found it really hard to get into more of her music since then, and really do hope that her future releases bring her back to her more mature sound permanently (she did release a music video for “Only I Didn’t Know“, though they had a different actress for the story scenes). Or I did: with the news of LOEN signing Brown Eyed Girls’ Ga-in for a solo contract, I have a feeling that Ga-in will take over the more mature themes, leaving IU to continue on her aegyo path. My last hope, I guess, lies with Japan, but considering that she’s signed to EMI Japan, who totally kawai-ified T-ara‘s “Bo Peep” even more than I thought possible, my hopes are probably not going to eventuate.

Surprisingly, IU failed many auditions, inlcuding JYP Entertainment’s. From the JYP audition tape released, you can see that IU’s talent is beyond obvious, so why was she rejected? Many theories have arisen, including the one that companies did not see her as easy to mould to their liking as other auditionees. If this was the case, then LOEN has well proved them wrong, for they have been able to successfully mould IU’s image from “Boo” onwards, resulting in unprecedented success — music show wins, music chart all-kills, awards, etc. But in the process, IU has become LOEN’s cash cow, which is not the healthiest of relationships to have, especially for one based on creativity and the qualitative rather than quantitative. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again — I really really really do hope that IU is able to grow and mature in the best way possible, and that LOEN will allow her, and perhaps even aid her, to do so.

And if that doesn’t happen? At least I have this:

Seriously, LOEN, just put IU in a room with her guitar, record every sound made, and release that — I’d be the first one to buy it.

What are your thoughts on IU?