The Idol Grows Up (Or Does She?)

IU coming of age

We'd like to thank Suzanne, one of our readers, for sending us the idea for this article! 

Buoyed certainly by Confucian tradition, a person's age, in Korean culture, is of utmost importance - especially concerning how one person views and then treats another. You'll often see reality shows where the first questions asked are directed at someone's age. Deference goes to older aged - respect. There are books written about this, sociological studies. But what about aging itself, and, since this is a Kpop site: how do young idols perceive their own aging? IU's "Twenty-Three" has sparked some discussion on the similarities between her new video and Lim Kim's "Goodbye 20" and Song Jieun's "Twenty-Five," and with good reason. But as these idols tackle growing older, are they really saying the same thing? Let's dig a little deeper here, shall we?

Starting with Lim Kim, and not just because she's the youngest: She entered headfirst into her twenties with "Goodbye 20."

I already know what you're thinking (I can read your mind, it's scary), but twenty-one isn't the same marker for Koreans as it is for those of us in the United States. The legal drinking age is nineteen, and so is the voting age or when you can buy cigarettes (but nice try). 

So why is turning twenty-one even significant? Watching the video, it's hard to tell. Lim Kim's first lyrics, translated in English are something like: "My twenty is all gone, I have done nothing," which, considering her early success, seems a bit disingenuous. It takes a minute to realize that Lim Kim, despite turning twenty-one herself, really isn't singing about herself here: "My Mom tries to imprison my night, like I'm a punk" speaks more of a delinquent child instead of the touring idol that probably sleeps in a dorm room provided by her agency. She complains about her sister being in hysterics, her father who is never home, possibly dropping out of college, finding love. No, Lim Kim is not singing about herself here but how she imagines turning twenty-one would be like for someone who isn't an idol.

This song signals an end to adolescence by embracing the juvenile. Lim Kim has never been more exuberant, popping balloons and knocking over people dressed as bears (she dresses as a bear herself to make the moneys), wearing gloves on her feet, dragging herself to adulthood via skateboard, despite herself. It's a beautiful video, full of cool sky blues and mustard yellows, but even so this release feels a bit off; it feels staged. Looking at her early releases you wouldn't even guess that Lim Kim was so young. "All Right" feels decidedly adult, "Rain" touches the sublime with the grace of someone twice Lim Kim's age. "Goodbye Twenty" isn't about showing fans that Lim Kim is growing up as she's always been presented as mature and adult - instead, this release is reminding us of her youth.

Which brings us to (Secret's) Song Jieun's "Twenty-Five," which is well, mostly different. What's strange with Song Jieun's coming-of-age release, "Twenty-Five," is everything. Watch the music video first, then get back to me.

Did you watch it (please don't lie)? On first glance, it's a nice but pretty unremarkable video, but it actually is pretty remarkable how thrilled Song Jieun is at becoming a woman, referring to herself with lines like: "A perfectly amazing bodyline," and "Beautiful, young, and free." It's oddly empowering, and it's only odd because this feels like a coming-out party, whereas Song Jieun has been doing this idol thing for years already.  

"I don't act like a girl anymore," she sings, clutching a stuffed bear (again with the bears!) and popping birthday balloons, and, despite the visual contradictions, one tends to believe her. She enters twenty-five unencumbered by her naive, insecure youth, dancing in high heels and short skirts with all the confidence of a seasoned diva. 

So how is it just mostly different from Lim Kim's own coming-of-age release? It's because, like Lim Kim's release, "Twenty-Five" is also reminding us of Song Jieun's youth, which is presented here as strangely "girly," with a focus on flowery decor and aggressive pinks. This is probably going for, at least partially, an ironic touch, as midway through the video we enter a more slick (adult) black and white and blue color scheme, but we don't stay just there - we keep returning to these soft, idyllic images - Song Jieun as young princess, forever young. Therein lies intent. In both Lim Kim and Song Jieun's releases, as they confront their aging, one with glee and the other with despair, a central element binds them: they're also selling their beautiful, coveted, youth

Which brings us to IU and "Twenty-Three."

Yes, IU has her own coming-of-age song here, and there are some stark similarities that all of these videos share. The color schemes - these blues signifying maturity are significant (or: entirely coincidental). There's more bear imagery as well but only IU directly mentions the mammal with the intriguing: "Pretend to be a fox that pretends to be a bear that pretends to be a fox." Those lines hint at the fact that IU's take on aging is a bit different than that of her peers. She is less concerned with growing older and more concerned with her own celebrity and duplicity, which, honestly, is far more interesting.

In fact, IU's "Twenty-Three" may have more in common with Gain's criminally underrated "Truth or Dare," which probed into the idol life and certainly exaggerated Gain's larger-than-life persona (and went to great lengths at shaping that persona). The video ends with Gain asking: "Just living - isn't it all acting?"

IU's video isn't selling the idea of youth - it's selling the idea of IU. Like "Truth or Dare," IU brings us one of her most personal releases yet - she doesn't imagine what it would be like for someone not super famous to grow older like Lim Kim does - she peers into her own self as a super famous idol. Unlike Song Jieun insisting on her maturity, IU embraces the duplicity of growing older. The only certainty is uncertainty.

Observe: "Oh right, I want to be in love. (No, I'd rather make money)." Or how about: "Making the opposite facial expression to the heart is really simple." Or, my favorite: "At first, I never wrote a single line of lies." The song is a lyrical smorgasbord, personal and straight from IU's mouth (she at least co-produced all the songs in this CAT-SHIRE mini-album), but still touching on ideas that are universal.

IU depicts growing older as falling into a rabbit hole, life taking the form of Alice in Wonderland's upside-down madcap world. I'm sure many young adults see the absurdity of their adult lives in much the same way. In that, IU's "Twenty-Three" is actually very different from Lim Kim and Song Jieun's similar releases. By sharing how much she doesn't know, about life, about herself, IU is showing how adult she really is. And that's something you have to respect.

Timothy Moore writes from Chicago. He blogs at Read My Blog Please, and edits at Ghost Ocean Magazine. His biases are T-ara, Block B, Nine Muses, Brown Eyed Girls, and Girl's Day.


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