This month will mark Iz One’s first debut anniversary spent as a disbanded group. That’s not to say that Iz One have disappeared. In fact, the situation is exactly the opposite. Former members are still firmly in the spotlight, with Eunbi and Jo Yuri making solo debuts, Wonyoung hosting Music Bank, Chaeyeon participating in Mnet’s Street Woman Fighter, and other members on the verge of their own ventures. Iz One’s record-breaking popularity continues to resonate in the fourth generation of K-pop, setting a high bar for future groups to meet. It’s also hard not to think of Iz One in the context of Mnet’s newest multinational girl group creation project, Girls Planet 999.
So, Iz One may be inactive but they are far from gone. What does seem to have faded though is their distinct style of music. Iz One weathered a major scandal and rose to the top of the very crowded K-pop field in part because they carved out a genuinely unique niche for themselves. You could call it classy cute, or fairytale with an aegyo twist. But to explain Iz One’s concept in such simple terms actually minimizes the extraordinary balancing act of dozens of ingredients that went into building their distinctive sound and aesthetic.
In the wake of Iz One’s disbandment, it would seem obvious that another group would step up to claim their successful concept. That hasn’t happened, which points to the fact that Iz One’s member lineup may have been especially suited to their elegant yet refreshing style. It’s not as easy to replicate as just snapping your fingers. However, K-pop is a less interesting place for not having Iz One and their special flair in it. That’s why, in honor of Iz One’s anniversary, we’re taking a jaunt down memory lane to explore some of the b-sides that showcase their remarkably balanced appeal.
“Have you ever seen this color?” Iz One appropriately ask in “Colors”, the standout b-side from their debut mini Color Iz. Color Iz introduced the world to Iz One’s mix of endearing naïveté and elegant maturity, perhaps most memorably through title track “La Vie en Rose”. However, “Colors” also features the same mix with a more obviously cutesy twist.
What would become Iz One’s signature light as air vocals are fully present in “Colors”. The song’s subject matter, a wide-eyed first love, also fits adorably into cute conventions. Musically though, “Colors” shows unexpected restraint. Its tempo is moderate, even leisurely. The instrumentation is plucky but not explosive. And while the lyrics of “Colors” tell an exuberant story, their construction is graceful. “That beautiful sky lies there, I want to draw myself, the color we make” Iz One sing.
The many ingredients of “Colors” combine to make a song that is both sweetly youthful and sophisticated. In their following releases, Heart Iz and Bloom Iz, Iz One continued to pursue that balance in title tracks “Violeta” and “Fiesta” respectively. However, in these album’s b-sides, Iz One adopted a divide and conquer strategy that gave them the opportunity to reach new heights of cuteness and maturity in separate songs.
On the cutesy side, Iz One gave listeners a double punch of travel-related cuteness in “Airplane” and “Spaceship”. These songs are truly two sides of the same coin, each using the concept of flying high as a metaphor for soaring up to your dreams. “Airplane” says “That wind tells me not to hide, that it’s my time to shine” and “Spaceship” answers:
Go up spaceship, past the milky way
Till the end I’ve never seen
Go up go up my singing
The only significant difference between the two tracks is that “Spaceship” has a softer, bubbly quality compared to the full-throttled enthusiasm of “Airplane”. Both songs catapulted Iz One up to new levels of cuteness, making them veritable aegyo pop masters.
On the other end of the spectrum, Iz One were also developing their sophisticated musical muscles. Bloom Iz in particular has several excellent elegant b-sides, such as unit track “Daydream”. The most memorable though is “Ayayaya”. The song is high energy yet completely controlled as Iz One take command. This is a track lyrically full of brash confidence. The empowered nature of “Ayayaya” is further reinforced by the frequent mirroring and repetition of lyrics, as if Iz One are casting a self-assured spell:
Wherever I go is the stage, I become the protagonist (Become the protagonist)
Yeah so everyone focus on me now (Focus on me now)
The increasing volume is the evidence to explain the attraction in your heart
You won’t be able to do anything about it, Ayayayayaya ya (Aya)
“Ayayaya” also has a clear companion song, though their relationship is more like siblings than twins. Heart Iz’s “Highlight” is similarly confident, but it embraces an even more mature mood due to the injection of a slight sense of menace. “Highlight” is backed by a series of deliberate dance beats, giving it a pulsing momentum. Its intense anti-chorus is filled with almost squeaky, eery synth noises. Additionally, its lyrics have a touch of ill-fated seduction to them:
Just myself, I’m a Highlight (Highlight)
Your space that I couldn’t reach, please hand me a spot of my own
So you can sparkle, to be dazzling
Keep your eyes on me, look at me
Highlight (Look at me)
After honing their elegant and cute sides separately, Iz One brought everything back together in their b-sides off mini album Oneiric Diary. “Merry Go Round” is an especially successful meeting in the middle. Much like “Colors”, “Merry Go Round” initially comes off as leaning towards Iz One’s naive side. It certainly has a twinkly musical quality, especially in its vocals. Its story is also of an utterly sweet love. Once again though, Iz One mix it up, this time by adopting a maturely leisurely pace and hinting at nostalgic sadness in the track’s lyrics:
I have something to show you
Promise me to see it in our dreams
Now take lighter steps, like a merry go round
That is dancing as if time has been broken into pieces
The universe of just the two of us
“Merry Go Round” is also an improvement on “Colors” because unlike that charming but totally leisurely song, it has a musical climax in its lushly fanciful chorus. This is largely thanks to “Merry Go Round” incorporating the fairy tale style found in Oneiric Diary’s title track “Secret Story of the Swan” and its delightful opener “Welcome”. The extra element adds even more flair to an already stylish song.
In their final mini album release, One reeler Act IV, Iz One pivoted to favor elegance in both their b-sides and title track “Panorama”. Still, Iz One did not abandon their signature balance. Take the fantastically confident “Sequence”. To the backing of a stomping dance beat, Iz One urge their crush to step up to the plate:
Concentrate, make my heart louder
All of me, take it or leave it
Show all of you with all your heart everyday
That’s the sequence
“Sequence” is a maturely flirtatious song that is full of the playfulness Iz One cultivated in their most adorable tracks. Additionally, it stands out from other thematically similar songs because of its lighter vocals, also a product of Iz One’s aegyo penchant. The result is a track that is equal parts sophisticated and fun.
In their shockingly brief career, Iz One carved out a space in K-pop that has yet to be filled. Only time will tell if Iz One will remain the sole masters of elegant cuteness. That would be a shame for music lovers. But no matter who does or does not come to fill Iz One’s big shoes, one thing is for sure: Iz One had a short but truly special run.
(Naver, YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via Off the Record Entertainment, Swing Entertainment.)