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.

It didn’t work.

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.

chesire cat

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.


This drawing was made by Sulli and the photo appears in the album next to the lyrics for Red Queen. That's all I'm saying.

This drawing was created by Sulli and appears in the album next to the lyrics for Red Queen. That’s all I’m saying.

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…

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  • MN

    Thank you for this well-written and sensible article. This is why I prefer BeyondHallyu over AllKpop or Netizenbuzz.

  • Joy Mendoza

    Thank you very much for this article!I became IU fan just recently and this whole mess is really mind blowing for me!Im dreading to open my computer because of this ,but i tried to endured because i believe that there are still sensible people in Korea!this helps alot! thank u again!

    • cutthroat

      Welcome to the fandom. :) I’m dreading that every IU comeback will be faced with the same criticism from now on. =.=

    • Comde

      welcome to uaenas!! 😀
      Don’t be afraid iu is stronger than people can even imagine and we uaenas are a strong fandom too (just like her)

      this scandal will die soon and iu will shout everyone’s mouth with her talent

  • cutthroat

    Well-written and easy to understand. Def recommended.

  • http://www.dlesself.wordpress.com/ DLE.K.S.R

    I love your article. Thank you! :)

  • Feyre

    Thank you so much.:-)


    If only people knew this part at the beginning, the whole controversy would have been avoided:

    “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.”

    People were getting pissed at IU for calling Zeze sexy, but in the full interview, she explicitly states that she is NOT talking about Zeze.

  • ladadida

    It is not just the sexy comment but the song lyrics has a few sexual insinuations too that hints at zeze as a sexual manner when he is just a child who went through (non-sexual) abuse. I mean with lyrics such as “Take away the flower” “Climb me up” there are many double connotations that is blatant to anyone who is of age. I am in no way trying to attack anyone but I just see a lot of sexual connotations in the song that seems inappropriate when the subject matter is a child.

    • llama_gramps

      In the context of the book, those phrases can be construed as entirely innocent. The book itself details a relationship between Zeze and the tree Minguinho which would make “take away the flower” a reference to simply plucking leaves/flowers from a tree and “climb me up” a non-sexual interaction with a Zeze’s confidant. Also, the English translations of the lyrics leave much to be desired and heighten the sexual connotations supposedly present within this song.

  • Joya Mae Ocasla

    “How amusing, take a look of the tip of your lips rising, I can tell by your laugh that your a mischievous one“ – In one of IU’s interview before in MBC Section TV with Song Jong Ki ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTuVdKdzzd0 ) she said that sometimes she was wronged that she is a brat because of the shape of her lips.

    “Ah your name is really pretty I want to keep calling it, the things I cannot say those bad thoughts are so lovely“ – She is a magnet of bad rumors. Anti’s always call her in different bad ways such as Sly Fox or Whore etc. but for her those name callings or bad rumors make her stronger that’s why she said “those bad thoughts are lovely”

    “With those little finger tips you touch my soul“ – IU is a true musician she creates a lot of good songs sometimes for other people like for HIGH4. Trough music that she made she was able to touch the souls of many individuals. IU’s song is also played in the boundary of South Korea and North Korea it was of the South’s strategy to lessen the tensions between the two sites ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpFN8xynI4w ) alongside wih BigBang and SNSD.

    “With those ticklish voice you sing those colors and landscape yeah~“ – Once again she’s pertaining to her self remember Pastel Colors? ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DotSRmtuN0k ) or Meaning of You ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4L-H_cXSNhQ ) in literal way she also sings about colors and building landscape or a house. Looking in a deeper analization she sings about harmony (colors) dreams (landscape).

    “Zeze hurry and come at the tree put your lips on the leaves“- Its true that the tree symbolizes IU if we are lost in the forest and a wild animal is chasing us we need to climb to a tree to save ourselves. And ” put your lips on the leaves” it is a way not to make a sound right? Remember how she choose to keep quite she’s whenever there’s a rumor it is her way to save herself from wild animals .

    “Don’t joke around you can’t hurt the tree, you can’t “ – She’s talking to the listener or the Haters that they cannot hurt her (she’s saying that like a tree that is strong and tall they cannot hurt her with just foul words or they cannot take her down easily)

    “Take away the youngest flower take the kind one“ – She’s begging to them that to think about when she was young (during the time when she was being loved by public) she’s telling us to take her kind memory (instead of believing the recent bad rumors think about her kindness even more) remember when she give scholarship to her juniors in middle school? etc.

    “Like a flower bloomed look at the two cheeks turned rosy, you’re really innocent but your definitely cunning ” – She’s saying that she grew up from being a girl to a woman. in the following line she’s saying that most of the people think of her as a young innocent girl but she’s saying that she is also witty (look of how she come up with this song most of you thought that she’s a pedophile but look your’e just a bunch of trash you’re way different of how she thinks)

    “You seem transparent as a little child something about you is dirty” – This line is a confession she’s saying that even though she looks like a child but she’s also human she can also make mistakes like most of the people do.

    There’s no way to find out what’s living inside you” – NO ONE TRULY KNOWS A PERSON RATHER THAN THEMSELVES STOP ACTING LIKE YOU KNOW ME – SINCERELY IU <3

    "Right now above your head there maybe a floating sky" – She is reminding herself about her status ( a well known singer) (earn a lot of money because of her talent)

    "But I vaguely see a dark clouds filled inside you" – She's not really happy. You can feel her sadness here.

    (Another Chorus) – More like she is encouraging herself to survive the agony to climb up to the tree and save herself. (She's talking to ZEZE as a tree as a voice and ZEZE is also her)


    "You sneak me away but you'll come to see me again tomorrow night" – It symbolizes that there will always be rumors there will always be bad situation that will make her sad she's saying that it will never end as long as she'll live but she can always comfort herself by listening to the tree by coming to her whenever there is troubles.


  • animetorr

    i don’t care what your opinions are or whose side you’re on. the fact remains she sung about a little 5 year old boy knowingly and found his character sexy in some way. I liked IU but hearing about this song kinda raises eyebrows and basically broke the spell of being mesmerized by this woman. Seriously, the only reason she’s getting a break is because of her fame. If you sung about this to your family or friends, they’d probably think you’re crazy