IU and Zeze

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Who’s Zeze,anyway?

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:
Zeze
Zeze
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 songclinched 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.
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. (Althoughshe 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.
cr:askkorean.blogspot

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