IU and the Zeze controversy pt. 1: Bad translations, worse logic and terrible, terrible accusations
“Today my wife asked me ‘What are we going to do if later when he goes to school and looks on the internet Goya asks if his dad is a paedophile?'”
I had been going back and forth about whether to address this topic for days now but it was this comment, written on the Facebook wall of the director of IU’s Twenty-Three, that made up my mind to write about the issue.
But first let’s go back a little. I want to take a second to put this in full context before we start because the context here is important.
This all really kicked off a couple of months ago just before IU released her album when it was revealed that she was in a 2 year relationship with Jang Giha. A few fans of a certain boy band member who had been notoriously pictured “visiting a sick” IU decided they were out for blood and dug out every ‘scandal’ she had ever possibly been involved in to try to ruin her image.
Since then there has been a fun game of throwing as much mud as possible and seeing if some of it will stick and, with it, bring down her entire career.
At first, some of the criticism was legitimate if overblown – most of it was not. That uncleared Britney sample for example, should probably be looked into (although that happens all the time) but the rest of the ‘plagiarism’ scandal was absolute nonsense.
But then one finally landed right on her face.
A few people went through IU’s lyrics and contended that a few lines in one song could be interpreted as unsavoury towards a young child character. The song in question ‘Zeze’ refers to Zeze, the main character of My Sweet Orange Tree – an novel by Brazilian writer José Mauro de Vasconcelos based on his own experiences.
Before dissecting this, we should go into how IU uses these literary characters in this album. Although she talks about all the songs having characters, they’re not the actual characters of the books but motifs that reoccur throughout the song in order to represent the underlying theme of the lyrics. In Twenty-Three, for example, The Cheshire Cat, never actually appears in the narrative (the song doesn’t really even have one) except as a reoccurring voice asking the listener “Try to choose” with the implication that there is no right choice.
The Red Queen, too, is not a literal interpretation of the character from Through The Looking Glass but a stand in for a woman once well-loved who is now vilified. (Perhaps a close friend of IU who has well and truly been put through the ringer by the public, just a thought.) These character’s are just vehicles for IU’s ideas and experiences.
We’ve established, then, that it’s unlikely IU ever meant to tell the story of My Sweet Orange Tree’s Zeze as he appears in the book. But it is the song which borrows most heavily from the narrative and imagery of the original source material which is largely where it has run into problems.
Okay, now I’ll admit I haven’t read the whole book. Neither, probably, have you, dearest reader. It’s completely out of print in English, I don’t speak Portuguese and I couldn’t get hold of a Korean copy. However I did manage to download an ebook of the Korean picture book version which gave me essentially a detailed synopsis of the plot.
My understanding is that people in Zeze’s life either tell him is an evil little devil or a sweet angel which leaves him conflicted – as much as a young child can be. It’s this conflict in his character rather than the character itself that IU is reported to have said was ‘sexy’ in one interview.
One word in one interview, badly trascribed by reporters and then badly translated.
But, fortunately, the actual recording of the part in her showcase where she talks about Zeze has finally come to light (starts 2.30):
And here’s my translation (feel free to correct any errors):
When I just look at Zeze’s character, it has a lot of contradictions and because of that I found him really charming and… well. Ok, I’m not talking about young Zeze here. If I were to talk about the kind of personality Zeze possesses, I feel like that’s really sexy. I just got really caught up in the two sides of his character. But never mind all that, when I read until the end of the book, I really cheered for and loved that kid. That’s an amazing character.
(Note: italics here are to indicate the emphasis in IU’s voice, not my own emphasis.)
Reading this actual translation and listening to the way IU delivers it, it’s pretty obvious that the whole part of the speech where she’s talking about sexiness is not about the character at all but an aside in which she is trying to give the audience some insight into how her interest in duality and people’s multi-faceted nature drove her songwriting in this album.
Plus, given that sexy is a word that is overwhelmingly used about women in Korean, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say she’s probably talking about how she feels exploring and performing her own duality.
With this, it’s much more difficult to justify any reading of the lyrics that pegs IU as some kind of evil paedophile. Especially given that most of the most contentious lines relate to the book in some way anyway. “Take this flower” is not some strange virginity allegory but a reference to the ending of the book where (spoiler) Zeze is given Miguinho’s first ever flower and he realises both he and the tree are maturing which helps him overcome the death of his friend. That also means that the tree which is still not fully grown is not portrayed as a predatory figure but, in many ways, his peer. “Climb up me” is also something it says to him while he is playing.
It’s not a crime to acknowledge that everyone, even children, have good sides and bad sides. While children are innocent, the idea they’re completely pure-hearted and never mean or selfish is a Victorian fantasy not bore out in reality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging that and – in fact – embracing and accepting it. And that’s what this song is about – whether it’s a boy, an adult or a tree, the message remains the same.
Well that’s my interpretation, anyway. These lyrics are intentionally vague and can be read, validly, in many ways.
If the song still makes you feel uncomfortable and you have a different understanding of it, that’s fine but the reaction so far has been completely blown out of proportion. Inferring someone is a paedophile is a pretty big accusation and one IU has done nothing to deserve. As I pointed out with the timeline at the beginning of this article, this surfaced as part of an orchestrated hate campaign by a small number of individuals determined to bring her down. All these well-meaning people wishing to ‘call out’ this song are only succeeding in helping random internet strangers drag down yet another young woman.
A young woman with a lot of talent and, if this album, which is good but a little sophomoric at times, is anything to go by, even more potential.
I’m also glad to see the Korean publishing company of My Little Orange Tree has backed down and apologised. It’s a dangerous precedent to set giving a publisher the privilege of being the ultimate interpreter of a story’s meaning. Not even the author should be given that title and in fact the publisher is a particularly awful source to rely on for good criticism given their vested interest in, you know, selling books.
To her credit, IU has given a perfectly reasonable apology for everything that’s happened – one she shouldn’t have really needed to give. So maybe it’s finally time we leave it there.
But as I write that I realise I still haven’t dealt with the Lolita accusations I opened this article with which are being hurled at both IU and her music video director. Maybe that’s a topic for next time…