IU’s “Palette” and the Certainties of Womanhood

In the opening lines of “Palette,” the title track off of IU’s newest album by the same name released earlier this year, IU grounds herself in the things she knows she loves at the age of twenty-five: Corrine Bailey Rae’s music, the color dark purple (over hot pink), pajamas with buttons, lipstick, nonsensical jokes. She goes on, listing short bobs (over long hair), filled palettes (over pictures), diaries, the times when she was asleep. “Palette” is light and easy, a song that is reflective of the comforts of maturity that may come after the turmoil of one’s early twenties.

IU’s song “Twenty-Three,” which was released two years ago, reveals these anxieties IU faces as a young woman. She wonders if she should focus on falling in love or making money, whether she wants to be a child forever or a “moist woman,” whether she wants to “live silently as death” or “turn everything inside out.” She nervously confesses that she worries whether people—even those who pass her on the street—actually like her or not.

The music video accompanying “Twenty-Three” is equally chaotic. IU runs through door after door and through darkened corridors while chasing an ever-elusive white rabbit that is part of the extensive Alice in Wonderland theme that runs throughout the album CHAT-SHIRE. The video itself is reminiscent of the restlessness and eerie disquiet in Radiohead’s music video for “Daydreaming,” which was released in May of 2016. In it, Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s frontman, also goes through a never-ending series of doors, each opening into family homes, hospitals, laundromats, convenience stores, beaches, and forests where he is disconnected from each world that lies around him.

The feeling of helplessness underlying “Daydreaming” also festers in “Twenty-Three,” as IU’s own public identity has been dauntingly and firmly cemented as “South Korea’s ‘little sister'” when she debuted with her first album at fifteen years old. IU was everyone’s girl-next-door, demure and doe-eyed with a perfectly choreographed public identity. While this was certainly an intentional marketing decision that served the bubblegum pop of her earliest albums well, the task of maintaining an image of innocence and submissiveness that ideas of Korean femininity so ardently demand is one that too often brings a sense of powerlessness and confusion.

So when in 2012 an accidental scandal featuring an intimate photo of IU and Super Junior’s Eunhyuk was posted (by IU herself) onto Twitter, it forced a reevaluation of both her sound and her public persona, and it also brought a sense of freedom.

While IU’s 2013 Modern Times album signaled the beginning of that change as it included genres like jazz, swing, and bossa nova, the songs were tentative experiments at best and nowhere near groundbreaking. CHAT-SHIRE returned IU to the epicenter of Korean pop, where she is perhaps most comfortable, though the extended Alice in Wonderland motif was heavy-handed at times. It is with Palette, however, that IU finally and fully finds and exerts control over her own sound and image.

Palette is a blend of the youthful and earnest pop characteristic of artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, the lighthearted and simple instrumentation of singer/songwriters like Sara Bareilles, Colbie Caillat and, yes, Corinne Bailey Rae, and the emotional Korean pop ballads that are often accompanied by a sweeping string section. Palette is refreshing in its maturity and consistency in sound, a large step away from the manic and saccharine songs that young female Korean artists are often boxed into.

Even with the stunning poise of Palette, IU has always sung about femininity and growing up with a refreshing honesty and clarity that reflects each stage of her life. In “Good Day,” her 2010 hit, a seventeen year old IU laments a one-sided crush and asks him what she did wrong. Was it her haircut? The clothes she wore? In “Twenty-Three,” a frustrated IU leaves the insecurities of girlhood behind as her sexuality puts her “girl-next-door” image under heavy criticism. Over a driving and busy beat, she asks the listener to just pick and tell her who she is already—a wily fox? Or is she a bear that pretends to be a fox? She isn’t sure what you want, or what she wants, and it won’t matter because she’s not being seen clearly anyway. But in “Palette,” IU doesn’t need a second opinion.

“I know that you like me,” she sings, brazenly looking straight into the camera with a slight roll of her eyes. She also knows that you hate her too, and she’s okay with it. She knows exactly what she likes and where she stands—on top of the charts, on your small screens, in conversation, and in culture.

The most striking conclusion that IU features in Palette is the realization that sometimes finally knowing yourself means coming to terms with having to leave things in the past. Accompanying the self-love pop is Palette‘s own share of classic Korean pop ballad tracks like “Ending Scene,” “Full Stop,” and “Love Alone” in which IU mourns memories of a lost love and bids goodbye to all the “days of [her] youth that were unforgettably happy.” Growing up is painful, kind of sad, and never feels quite enough, as a brotherly G-Dragon reminds IU on his feature verse in “Palette.” Perhaps IU knows as well as anyone else that heartbreak often becomes the miserable vehicle in which a newfound self-awareness comes.

It is not as if enduring heartbreak or trauma at the hands of another (or many) is a necessity for growth. After all, being able to grow up is still a privilege. It comes with the strange freedom of one’s early twenties, when you have gone through enough doors to realize which rooms you want to stay in, when you’ve worn enough pajamas to know that you like the ones with buttons on them, and when you can do things like shave your head and then discover you like your hair short instead of long. IU’s certainties within Palette are no less personal in that they reflect the myriad of ways in which they come. She is no longer bound by unfamiliar territory, nor a stringent public image, nor a metaphor. Instead, IU finally presents a woman who has the incredible and deserved ability to share the experiences of becoming one.