There are few artists can boast the kind of longevity and relevance that K-pop star IU has had in her career. Since her debut in South Korea in 2008 in her teens — at fifteen, to be exact — the singer has since gone on to establish herself as a veteran of her own kind in the Korean music industry, and gaining legions of fans in international markets as well — the kind of career that most can only hope to dream of.
It’s truly quite interesting thing to witness — since her debut, IU, who was born as Lee Ji-eun in Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, has had a career that’s spanned decades of music across a wide variety of genres, as well as handful of notable drama series. This coming 2021, the singer-actor is slated to appear in her first feature film — across top-billed star Park Seo-Joon, no less.
In essence, multi-hyphenates are a dime a dozen in South Korea’s wildly successful, highly lucrative entertainment industry, so much that Korean entertainment has evolved into an entire force all on its own, big enough to rival its Western counterparts. How the industry operates, however, is a starkly different ecosystem altogether. In South Korea, entertainment agencies are plenty, where future artists train and study for years honing their craft — whether it be singing, dancing, or acting or music production — although more often than not, trainees undertake combination of all or some of the four, all before their first debut into the public eye.
All this has then created an industry that is entirely unique and on its own, and has produced a saturated landscape of entertainment artists in South Korea, who have more or less become the harbingers of what’s now known as the hallyu wave outside of its shores. And indeed, in the K-Pop acts generated year by year by the handful of entertainment agencies that now stand in the country, the image of K-Pop, particularly on the global stage, has since solidified into the shiny, highly-produced, tightly-choreographed phenomenon it is today.
Which isn’t to say that it’s a negative thing — the tried-and-tested formula of complex choreography combined with catchy, addictive tunes and often paired with elaborate, high-concept, art film-esque music videos have long since proven their worth and effectiveness on both the local and global music markets since K-Pop generations past, so much so that for decades now, the very face and reputation of the hallyu wave is that of slick, stylized, and highly produced idol-focused pop music — which also is what dominates much of South Korea’s music charts.
That is, perhaps, with the rare exception of IU, a K-Pop soloist. As a standalone artist with no former ties to a group, IU is a rarity in the Korean music scene, in ways more than one. For one, although technically debuting as part of the ‘second generation’ of hallyu wave idols (the second generation pertaining to K-Pop idols who debuted approximately between 2001 to 2010), IU has been a consistent presence on the Korean music charts to this day, in spite of the countless acts that have flourished since her debut.
But perhaps more surprising, even, than her very longevity and consistency in the general public’s favor is IU’s unique steadfast integrity towards her own artistry. Although beginning her career with cutesy, girl-next-door music and concepts that were guaranteed made-for-the-chart hits, IU, as an artist and singer, has since matured and grown exponentially — a growth tracked and matched by the impressive evolvement of her craft through the years.
There is a self-aware maturity in the way that IU approaches her music, that could only come from someone who’s spent a significant portion of her life as an artist in the public eye. It is in her self-written albums that this particular quality is most accurately reflected, perhaps most especially in her 2015 EP Chat-shire, the first release she had complete creative control over. Penned entirely and solely by IU, the seven-track collection allowed for a more personal, in-depth exploration of IU’s very nature and sound as a singer and artist of her own right, and at the same time showcasing, perhaps for the first time in full, her very capabilities as a songwriter and storyteller with a knack for crafting tunes grounded in self-referential awareness — and just enough hints of whimsy.
This artistic risk-taking wasn’t her first, however: prior to Chat-shire, IU had also released 2013’s Modern Times, an album consisting of music entirely in the jazz and swing genres, along with bossa nova-influenced sounds. Perhaps more than anything, the album was a uniquely ambitious undertaking, especially for the then twenty-year-old whose career thus far had thrived on primarily a sweet, innocent, youthful pop-star image. Indeed, as a singer, IU could have just as easily settled on a radio-friendly pop sound, and would no doubt have been highly successful there — but she’s also highly gifted at producing heartfelt ballads that are instant classics upon one listen. One listen at her latest collection, the EP Love Poem from last year, and one would get an immediate impression that IU is a born balladeer and a natural at it — that is, until you listen to her other pop experiments: ‘Black Out’ and ‘Jam Jam’, from her 2017 full-length album Palette, are among some of her best.
This very maturity has also translated into the screen as well, in the roles IU takes on as an actress. Although her credits belong primarily to the small screen thus far, there is an overarching quality and inherent grounded-ness and authenticity in many of the roles she’s chosen to take on, which itself is a noteworthy enough feat, given the largely trope-heavy world of K-Drama characters, especially for young women. And whether consciously or not, there is a certain sense of parallelism that this creates with her music career’s penchant of not necessarily following music trends to establish her own kind of creative path. Perhaps most telling of all, in early 2019, IU had embarked on a Persona, a Netflix four-part short-film project that enabled IU to take on four starkly different characters, each under a different narrative and director, and to this day remains one of her most experimental undertakings yet.
In essence, this is, perhaps, what lies at the very core of IU’s one-of-a-kind presence in Korea — in a highly saturated industry filled to the brim with undeniable talent, a figure like IU, who has turned the delicate balancing act of celebrity longevity with true, pure, artistry is a one of a kind marvel all on its own.