February 25, 2021 | Arts and Culture
a star drawn with my left hand
rhythms of reality in IU’s “celebrity”
Stepping into the departures terminal at SFO, my suitcase filled with various fermented Korean sauces and clothes I probably wouldn’t be wearing to Zoom University, I felt the same sense of relief wash over me that I’ve always experienced when I fly out to Providence. It had been almost nine months since I last made the trip I usually take around half a dozen times per year. Even with the knowledge that I was going to be spending most of the semester in an apartment befriending my laptop screen, my desperate brain was soothed by this false pretense of normalcy—the streamlined process of traveling from origin to destination: following the moving walkway at the airport and seeing myself reflected in the blacked-out windows, listening to my sister’s playlist whilst sitting by the gate, nursing an almond milk latte while waiting for my flight at Washington Dulles. The rhythm of movement and passing hours felt familiar and comforting. I like flying because it resembles a break in time, a moment when I’m not occupying my life at home or in college. I’m just me, moving through the world with nothing really to do and no one to talk to. It’s a nice feeling, this strange sense of obscurity.
The quiet and independence I experienced during the nine-ish hours of travel quickly gave way to overwhelming anxiety during my first few days back. Left to fend for myself after a nine-month retreat from “real life,” I suddenly felt threatened from all sides. Despite the various stressors that came with living at home, the semester I spent in California had been accompanied by a level of seclusion that both eased and encouraged my anxious mind. While the repetitive cycle of eating, sleeping, and doing schoolwork had cleared a little too much space for worrying about the future, it also allowed me to avoid making decisions I now had to face at school. Now, I worried that my pod-mates (both of whom are close friends of mine, but hadn’t really known each other previously) would feel uncomfortable with one another. I worried that I had bought too much spinach and was creating food waste, contributing to global warming. I worried that I wouldn’t get into graduate school next year. I worried that I wasn’t doing or being enough.
In these first few weeks of fogginess, the digital single “Celebrity” by renowned Korean singer-songwriter Lee Ji-eun, better known by her stage name IU, came to me like fresh snow on a winter morning. The electro-pop track jump starts with a crisp, bouncy beat and IU’s clear, watery vocals, describing an unspecified individual who is rejected by the world for who they are: “세상의 모서리 구부정하게 커버린 골칫거리 outsider….” At the world’s edge, crookedly shaped, an outsider. As the lyrics illustrate, this person seems to be out of sync with the expectations of those around them: “걸음걸이 옷차림 이어폰 너머 play list 음악까지 다 minor.” The way they walk, the way they dress, through their earphones their playlist—-even all of their music is minor. Still, to her—the speaker and/or IU—everything about this person is perfect and perfectly beautiful. “Celebrity” is a love letter to this person and to the listener, reminding us that despite everything we feel and the doubt we harbor, to those who love us, we are already whole.
The music video for the song opens with IU half-kneeling, half-sitting dramatically on a carpeted floor, her iridescent blue cape billowing out onto the carpet behind her like a soft, velvety expanse of ocean. There’s an edge to IU’s voice in this opening sequence, just like her. At first glance, she might seem traditionally attractive, with the doll-like features and ethereal long hair that is common in the Korean music scene. But then IU makes direct eye contact with the camera and smirks into the microphone as she effortlessly hits a high note, and you can almost see the bad b*tch energy radiating off her (cue swoon).
The irony of “Celebrity” is that IU, a singer whose renowned fans include a horde of popular artists, is telling the listener/the person the song is addressed to that they are her celebrity—essentially, the celebrity of the ultimate celebrity. The song isn’t necessarily romantic, but rather filled with a kind of patient, soothing love. Despite the deceivingly upbeat instrumentals and high-pitched vocals, “Celebrity” carries a tinge of sadness that I can’t shake off. The storyline of the video follows “celebrity” IU as she coincidentally runs into her doppelganger, “fan” IU, who is sitting at a cafe, looking a little bored as she distractedly plays with her coffee. Still reeling from shock, “celebrity” IU attempts to follow “fan” IU, but loses her in the crowds of people on the street. She ends up returning to her apartment, flopping onto her bed defeatedly as she looks out at the Seoul skyline. I can’t help but think that she looks very lonely.
An echoey hollowness colors the world of the music video. Other than the two IUs and the dancers, the other “people” in the video only appear as limbs or faceless bodies, passing IU by on the streets, holding up makeup brushes to her face, or, at one point, circling around her draped in fairy lights. The effect is eerie, as if IU is living in a dollhouse or musical set where she is the only sentient being, while everyone else moves around her in a mechanical rhythm. I’m sometimes reminded of how loneliness can feel like a soft cocoon, when I’m wrapped up in its intimate, isolating hold and don’t have the energy to escape. As if I’m sitting by a big window and watching the people, cars, and pets pass me by, a little detached. Wanting to join them, but mostly wanting to keep sitting there.
Towards the end of the video, the two IUs end up side-by-side at the edge of the bed in the aforementioned apartment. In a ripple of movement, the IU on the right (celebrity IU? it’s unclear at this point) reaches out to touch the IU on the left (fan IU?), just as the IU on the left sweeps her hair back with her hand. Just before they make contact, fan IU leaves the room. Celebrity IU once again rushes after her, but when she turns the corner, the other IU is gone, and she is faced with her own reflection.
Gingerly, she reaches her fingertips up to the mirror, looking into her own eyes wide with fear. The tension in the song breaks as we return to the chorus one last time, the lyrics slightly altered: “잊지마 이 오랜 겨울 사이/언 틈으로 피울 꽃 하나/보이니 하루 뒤 봄이 얼마나/ 아름다울지 말야.” Don’t forget that through this long winter / A flower can bloom through the frozen cracks / Can’t you see how beautiful / Spring will be tomorrow? The video cuts to another IU in a fancy red dress and decadent jewelry as the melody echoes with the familiar “You’re my celebrity.” I grin into my mug as I watch her run into the night, away from flashing cameras, sharing in her newfound sense of freedom and selfhood.
To me, “Celebrity” describes the feeling of being trapped in our own reality. Whether we’re a famous musician or a college student, tracing the same patterns through each day can feel overwhelmingly lonely and suffocating at times—as if we’re an iceberg slowly melting away, not really sure what’s happening or if anything is changing. Within the landscape of the music video, I get the feeling that IU is reassuring herself. Telling herself that this “real” you exists, both when you occupy the role of the glamorous celebrity and when you feel distant from it. “Celebrity” reminds us that we can’t escape ourselves, no matter how hard we try. And that, conversely, we don’t have to, because it is in facing our fear and doubt that we find freedom from the world around us.
Talking to my therapist this week, I told her that I hadn’t been sleeping well and my appetite was a little low. “You seem a little depressed,” she observed. “Have you been having other symptoms?” Oh, so this is what I’ve been experiencing, I thought to myself, feeling a cooling sense of relief at this realization, knowing that this is something I can sit with and tend to.
There’s only about a month and a half left of spring semester of junior year. Somehow, that makes me feel both relieved and disappointed. Maybe I should be making more of this time? Am I spending my energy on the right things? Will I regret these decisions? I find myself groping around for a sense of agency. And despite desperately wanting a break from everything, I’m also afraid of who and what I’ll be once all of the dust clears and the noise settles. If I don’t have a fancy internship this summer, without all of the work and business that pummels me through the school year, what will I do?
If I’m being honest, sitting with that uncertainty is hard and frightening and makes me want to crawl away from myself into my blankets forever. Maybe this means that I still have a lot of work to do on myself. Or I’m just experiencing imposter syndrome. Nevertheless, I feel held because I know that I’m still showing up. Despite everything that’s happening and everything that’s moving too fast, I know that I’m okay and things will pass, as they always do, because I have myself and people who love me, who know the real me. I’m looking into my own reflection, stopping momentarily—at the airport, in the windows I pass on my way to get my COVID test, in my apartment bathroom. Confirming that I’m real.