The recent IU/Euhnyuk scandal has been giving me mild feelings of déja vu, but not because it somehow reminds me of one of the k-pop industry’s previous scandals. Instead, all of this talk about IU’s behavior not befitting her “innocent” image vs. her age reminds me of the criticism leveled at IU’s debut effort with, “Missing Child (MIA)”. At the time, people complained that it was much too mature for then 15/16 year old IU to be doing. These critics were vague on the exact specifics of what they were opposed to, although it may have been the melancholy nature of the song, or the half-naked creature people in the video.
The question that IU’s debut raised about the ‘age appropriateness’ of her image is indicative of one of the hidden but obvious facts of the k-pop industry: few groups actually have ‘age appropriate’ images. For instance, the group Girl’s Day includes a member, Sojin, who is 26 years old and is part whose image has always been to sing in a high pitch and do the whole cutesy-aegyo concept. Or take the Rainbow sub-unit, Rainbow Pixie, which is made up of, Seungah, Jisook, and Hyunyoung, all of whom are over the age of 20, and yet have given us singles like, “Hoi Hoi”.
My purpose here is not to discuss the problems with the cutesy-aegyo style, but to draw attention to the ubiquity of these types of concepts within the k-pop industry, since they indicate an uncomfortableness with grown women behaving as adults and a tendency to fetishize youth. And it is this emphasis on youth which is where people’s real problem with IU stems from, not that she has betrayed her ‘innocent’ image.
But the problem with the idea of IU and her innocent image is that it is not only some fancy misdirection so that no one needs to confront the problems about youth and it is also is largely a myth.
Loen conceived IU as moving towards a more mature image eventually, as their marketing plan for her has always included tailoring their marketing speak to IU’s age,
The 19 year old IU lives with Hyunwoo — a boy who has fallen into deep sleep — in a workshop inside a clock tower inherited by her grandfather. IU does not leave his side and while waiting for him to wake up, decides to make a time machine to go meet him. Finally, the long-awaited moment arrives and she leaves for her time travel both afraid yet excited about meeting Hyunwoo but the two miss each other as Hyunwoo wakes up the moment he reaches age 20. (Source)
So, yes, IU did do the whole cute/innocent concept with her earlier releases, but she had moved on. The concept of her last album from 2011, Last Fantasy, was all about IU saying goodbye to child as she moved onto adulthood, and culminated in her latest release, Spring of a 20 Year Old, which marked her transition to adulthood.
Granted, no one goes just from childhood to adulthood. Those awkward adolescence years should fall in between them somewhere, but then again the k-pop industry has no time or use for transitions. Groups move between image binaries with speed, from cute to sexy, or from light to dark, or serious to fun.
While arguably, Loen’s marketing strategy for IU was to try to institute a transition, it did not have enough stages or releases to make it happen, was too subtle and missed. People came away still thinking IU was a child, when she was really all grown up.
Lastly, considering some of the questionable and confusing things I have seen expressed in comments in regards to this scandal, this may be a good time to revisit this post on The Grand Narrative: “Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea”