K-pop — a rising music genre that utilizes sound and styles all over the world, incorporating not only auditory, but visual, cinematic, thematic, and literary elements into music heard by people all around the world. The main points of K-pop include unique lyrics with meanings that may reference previous works of literature, using their symbolism, characters, and themes. A popular K-pop artist named IU (full name: Lee Ji-eun), also known as the “little sister of South korea”, rose to fame early in her career as a young artist. As a singer, she also composes some of her music and her lyrics often incorporate references to her experiences as a young adult who suddenly rose to fame as an artist with her unique lyrics. One of her songs, “Zeze”, and the inspiration she got from the autobiographical novel, “My Sweet Orange Tree”, came under public scrutiny and criticism by the publishing company for the novel for its questionable lyrics that supposedly sexually interpreted a minor (the character Zeze).
Zeze is a character from the novel treasured in South Korea, “My Sweet Orange Tree”, who suffers under domestic abuse, and finds a friend in his orange tree named Minguinho who he can talk with. Against a world of pain, this young, five year-old boy finds happiness in this tree.
IU’s lyrics in her song that came under controversy were: “You are innocent, but also definitely cunning. You seem as transparent as a young child, but somewhere you are dirty… Zeze hurry and climb up the tree, take the youngest leaf, pick the only flower, climb up me”. In IU’s apologies to her fans and to the publishing company, she says she wanted to take this novel and interpret it in ways that she could relate back to her personal life. IU explains her interpretation was from the point of view of Minguinho and seeing Zeze as innocent, but cruel, hypocritical, and she found this aspect of Zeze to be “charming”.
The publishing company’s first statement regarding “Zeze” felt this sexualizing of an abused young boy felt her interpretation was distasteful and inaccurate, however, they released a second statement saying they should have accounted for “readers [interpreting] the same text” and apologizing for trying to be authoritative in dictating the “correct” way of interpreting literature. Many people also pointed out the images on her album in which the song was published, called “Chat-shire”, which features an image of what some interpret to be Zeze sitting next to the orange tree in a possibly suggestive position, wearing fishnet stockings. People were outraged by IU sexualizing a young child from a book and the “misinterpretation” she made
To explain in more detail about IU’s interpretation and why she wrote her song this way, her past songs must be examined. In her songs, such as “Palette”, IU sings about her turning 25 and rejecting the girlish standards forced upon her as the “little sister of South Korea”. Her lyrics in “Palette” read, “rather than long hair, I definitely prefer a short bob… I think I know myself a little bit know”. Under the scrutiny of the public eye constantly watching her since she debuted as a young artist monitoring every word she says, song she sings, clothes she wears, her weight (in South Korea, beauty/weight is greatly scrutinized, especially of public figures), IU was unable to grow up freely. Long hair, the clothes she wore — everything was fed to her and she was unable to have her own voice.
Furthermore, her title as “little sister of the nation” refers to the adoration of the masses towards her and seeing her as so integral to the culture and music that she is like a little sister. However, along with that came her innocence as a child being corrupted. She was often sexualized as a minor and was forced to grow up abnormally, in situations children her age wouldn’t be forced to face. In addition, her album, “Chat-shire”, and the image on the album cover, features images from various children’s novels like Alice in Wonderland, and twisting the images in a certain way to portray innocence that was corrupted.
Therefore, her interpretation and lyrics of Zeze tie in together with her personal life. The corruption of Zeze’s innocence from the point of view of the tree and his hard life hint that he may not be as innocent as the readers think. The idea the impression one may have of another may be wrong from how they truly are on the inside relates to IU’s carefully curated image from her young years differing from how she truly was. That image was just to please the masses, and wasn’t actually her real self.
After establishing the context of IU, her background, and her past songs and themes, the question is raised: “is it criminal to interpret it in a way that the original artist finds offensive”? And secondly, “should artists be criticized or censored because their lyrics cross into sexualizing minors”?
Delving into what art truly means, one sees at the core, art is about self-expression. Art is criticism, entertainment, education, culture, propaganda, self-understanding — in other words, it is something that can’t be confined into one single box filled with rules and regulations. If we regulated art, then it wouldn’t be art anymore. It would just be the visual representation of rules and no longer be the true beauty that lies behind the lack of self-repression. Looking at IU’s lyrics through these lens, I would argue her songs are attempting to portray her own life experiences through a character in a novel she connected with. Trying to put a lid on that and labeling it as crime rather than art is, ironically, a crime itself. Trying to repress and dictate what artists should write, draw, or lyricize is a form of censorship that ignores free will.
That being said, her inspiration came not from her own original art, but a novel written by someone else. The publishing company’s second statement points to the truth — you can’t dictate the correct way of interpreting literature. It’s a different story when it is art plagiarising other art that lacks any originality. In this case, IU is reinterpreting the character from the novel and applying how she views the character through her life’s lens. The publishing company and the public’s scrutiny were trying to define the “correct, acceptable” form of art when in reality, art is all about breaking barriers of expectations and the rules of society. To attempt to classify and regulate art is a crime itself.
However, the content of IU’s lyrics is called into question. Is sexualizing minors considered wrong in art? Since she is tying it back to her life and using Zeze more as symbolism, it isn’t attempting to glorify child ponography or anything like that. I argue that as long as art isn’t, in its original intention, trying to idealize crime, that artists should be free to their own interpretation. Each person is free to their own interpretation of art.
Controversial art is important for starting a conversation on topics that need to be addressed — after all, the bigger picture isn’t what’s the issue with IU’s lyrics, but the bigger problem she is trying to express through her lyrics and songs. The sexualization she faced as a minor is concerning — children in the public eye are often subject to psychologically and emotionally damaging incidents. Just take Justin Bieber for example — his popularity exploded overnight as a young teenager, similar to IU. He wasn’t given the time, space, or privacy to develop into an adult but was rather thrust into a world meant for adults. The public space and popularity, which often comes with criticisms, death threats, defamation, is even too much for adults. We see, over and over again, artists who commit suicide because their popularity and the rancid hatred that comes along with it is too much to bear. How can we expect children to be thrust into that same spotlight and turn up on the other side as normal adults? Justin Bieber fell into a loop of depression, drug and alcohol use. His life went on a spiral downwards.
It’s no wonder IU is trying to express the loss of innocence and regaining a sense of identity and control over her life through her lyrics. She wasn’t able to express or find who she truly was because her identity was being controlled by her entertainment agency to please the public. The sexualization she faced as a minor is something children shouldn’t have to go through, similar to how Zeze’s situation is frustratingly unfair. A young, 5 year old boy shouldn’t have to face the emotional struggles of being domestically abused. His chance at living a normal childhood was gone, similar to IU’s situation.
So instead of trying to criticize IU’s lyrics, perhaps we should look to the bigger issue at hand and explore different ways and resources in which minors in the public eye, or even just adults in general, can find ways to take care of their mental health. And perhaps, we as consumers shouldn’t blindly criticize without trying to understand what the true problem at its core is.