K-pop is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s fun, catchy, colorful, and a bit sexy; what’s not to like? But since K-pop is a business, mainstream artists generally avoid any thematic complexity, focusing on vibrant visuals and romantic lyrics instead. Think of the songs made by Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, or 2NE1. They aren’t bad; in fact, a lot of them are quite good. But these kind of songs don’t challenge us, and we will eventually forget about them.
In contrast, there’s IU’s Twenty-Three.
This song is not only catchy, it has intelligent lyrics paired with a clever music video. Adopting an Alice in Wonderland theme, IU sings about a personal identity crisis as she draws comparisons between her age, sexuality, career, and the K-pop industry as a whole.
And you know what’s the best part about reviewing a music video? The music video is so accessible, that you can watch it while reading this review! Ha!
(Since it’s in Korean, don’t forget to turn on the subtitles)
She begins the song by associating her age with sexual charm. Now that she’s 23 years old, she must be an adult, right? “Trust me to some extent if I pretend to be a grown up,” she sings. “If I pretend to be immature, please be slightly fooled.” But what constitutes as being an adult? Moreover, what happens when you leave your childhood behind?
Her thoughts contradict themselves. “I want to be in love… No, I’d rather make money.” “I wanna be a child forever… No, I want to be a seductive woman.” Her life is on the brink of change, and she’s divided between passivity and activity. Or in other words, IU is forced to choose between a conservative lifestyle and a progressive lifestyle.
Finally, the chorus ties it all together. The song describes her identity crisis, how deceiving appearances evolve into a labyrinth of self-deception. Is she being honest to herself, or is she trying to impress you? Who knows? Frankly, not even she does at this point. She might have known when she was younger, but it has become so complicated over time: “At first, I never wrote even a single line of lies.”
There’s even a nice allusion to some Korean myths. “Pretend to be a fox that pretends to be a bear that pretends to be a fox…” The fox refers to Kumiho, a cunning shapeshifter that eats people; the bear refers to Ungnyeo, a faithful believer that yearns to be human (and eventually transforms into a woman).
That said, these references to Alice in Wonderland and Korean myths aren’t new. Music from all over the world have incorporated these ideas before: the coming-of-age, the self-contradiction, the identity crisis, etc. So what makes Twenty-Three special?
Because it’s just so clever.
IU plays as both a girl and a woman in this music video, and as a result, highlights the distinction that K-pop usually makes between the two. Female K-pop singers are always either virginal or sexual, but never both. IU not only reveals her personal frustrations, she also depicts the professional sexism. The K-pop industry only associates its women by age: if she appears young, she can’t be sexy; if she appears old, she can’t be juvenile. By combining the two, IU is having her cake and eating it too. Literally.
So basically, it’s a satire. It criticizes the artists that rely completely on sex appeal, it mocks the teenyboppers, and it ridicules those that alternate between the two. The funny thing is, people are criticizing IU’s Zezé (another song on her “Chat-Shire” album) for its lolicon sexualization. And while IU already issued an apology regarding that controversy, Twenty-Three clearly shows how age and sexuality are relative to one another. When we separate the two, we’re only lying to ourselves.
People tends to have a divisive response to K-pop in general: you either love it, or you hate it. Even I find K-pop to be an acquired taste at times. With Twenty-Three, IU challenges the aspects of K-pop that we all know and love. You’ve watched the music video; do you love it, or hate it? I’ll try to guess which one.