A Seapunk Primer: Behind Rihanna's "Sh*tty Windows '95 Screen Savers"

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As a general rule, it's safe to say something has officially gone mainstream if your parents are talking about it. That’s exactly what happened when we our news editor Leila Brillson’s mother asked her if she had heard of seapunk — the once-obscure Internet genre that has found sudden fame due to Rihanna and Azealia Banks' recent appropriation of the aesthetic. “Who is filling your mind with this?” asked Leila. “The interwebs,” Mama Brillson replied. Well, of course.

For those of you who don’t spend all your time on the web trading GIFs of floating dolphins, seapunk (or #seapunk, as it’s almost always referred to on Twitter), is a visual aesthetic, musical sound, and — arguably — a genre that everyone from Proenza to Rihanna has dipped a toe in. Springing from Tumblr in summer '11 to refer to underground artists like Ultrademon, Zombelle, and Kevin Heckart, the term was coined by music video director and visual artist @LILINTERNET (the guy responsible for Diplo’s butt-shaking “Express Yourself” video).

To understand why it suddenly featured heavily in videos by both Azealia Banks and Rihanna (within days) and then made its way into a Proenza lookbook, we went to the source, term-coiner @LILINTERNET. “I created #seapunk in terms of the nomenclature, and I was a part of it for the first period of its evolution. What most people think of #seapunk today, however, is really the aesthetic associated with Coral Records. Turquoise hair, hologram John Lennon glasses, ‘90s CGI with a kitsch oceanic look.”

Dolphins, Greek columns, 3-D geometric shapes (usually pyramids and spheres), pentagrams, crystals, and grid patterns are all recurring themes. Think New Age meets ‘90s rave culture meets Trapper Keeper covers, and you’ll be getting pretty close (it’s one of the you-know-it-when-you-see-it type things). Producer Jerome LOL, whose visual art contains similar references, described the appeal of the self-consciously kitschy style to us: “I mean, there is a strong sense of nostalgia in the work, but I wouldn't reduce it to just that. It's appropriating a style and imagery that many would consider ‘bad art’ and making something interesting through curation and juxtaposition.”

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Music Group.


It didn’t take long for the media to catch on: “The press loves it. ‘Fuck dude, deadline's tomorrow, what do I write about. Oh shit, Seapunk, this looks and sounds cool,’” half-joked @LILINTERNET, and by May of this year, the often notoriously late-to-the-game New York Times had written an exposé on the subject including interviews with @LILINTERNET and Zombelle. (There’s also a really thorough history written by @LILINTERNET and @LILGOVERNMENT, another seapunk progenitor, you can read over at Noisey).

Then, last weekend, a serendipitous one-two punch saw both Rihanna and Azealia Banks appearing with visuals that heavily borrowed from the aesthetic. Rihanna’s SNL performance featured the singer superimposed on a 3-D grid, while Azealia Banks dropped a pretty righteous (we think) new video for “Atlantis” that featured virtually every seapunk cliché out there (dolphins, green hair, chain-nose ring, seafoam hair, etc). “The influence is obvious,” said @LILINTERNET. “There were a lot of seapunk references, and this general CGI kitsch that's been floating around the ‘Net Art’ and Tumblr scene for a while. If they said they weren't going for a seapunk look, they'd be lying.”

The videos then caused a mini-uproar among some members of seapunk community on Twitter, who accused the artists of biting their aesthetic. Bebe Zeva, a college student, Lookbook fashion icon, ex-Hipster Runoff model, and star of a film by literary weirdo Tao Lin, soon hit Twitter complaining about what she saw as plagiarism: “why aren't y'all frustrated AT ALL abt the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement,” she tweeted. Zeva went on to invoke a Marxist critique of the appropriation: “imo, if u support azaelia banks in any capacity, u support capitalist exploitation & the reinforcement of a classist system.” Seapunk musician Zombelle also complained, saying, “THE LONGER WE'RE ONLINE THE MORE SUSCEPTIBLE ARTISTS ARE TO THE RICH POACHING OUR CULTURE AND IDEAS AS WELL IDEALS USED AS MARKETING PLOYS.” (Seapunks, as a general rule, dig caps lock.)

Courtesy of Universal Music Group.


While it’s clear that Rihanna and Banks borrowed from the look, it’s also questionable how much an artist can plagiarize something that is, itself, based around pastiche and borrows heavily from cultural nostalgia. Jerome LOL wound up at the center of the controversy when fans pointed out the similarities between Rihanna’s art direction and his own videos, though he doesn’t identify as seapunk himself: “The appropriated visual aesthetic precedes any sort of name that has been applied to it. I understand ‘seapunk’ and recognize that is a scene people are a part of and connect with, but I personally have no involvement with it. I just like the Internet a lot and miss the days before social networking sites and rounded corners took over.”

“I initially thought it was cool that the visual style was being relayed to a wider audience. I later thought about it from a few different angles and definitely understand why it can be considered a problem. But I understand this is how pop culture works, and no, I did not view is as a rip-off of me personally," said Jerome LOL. When asked about Zeva’s outrage, he continues: “I completely understand where Bebe Zeva is coming from. I cannot speak for her, but I have read what she has said, and I agree with what she is saying,” although he notes that the Internet “has no rules about respect for anything, for better or worse.”

Jerome LOL also noted the problems with an underground aesthetic being picked up by popular culture: “I do think that Rihanna's team co-opting the aesthetic for the sole purpose of being ‘cool’ with zero context of the imagery is problematic. Having it be on SNL simply reduces it to an aesthetic, which is problematic to people who connect with the greater context of the style.” (The greater context, to be clear, is an artistic form heavily mediated by the early stages of the Internet.) He also observed that, when it came to Rihanna, most people really had no clue what the heck it was they were looking at. "Many who watched the SNL performance to watch Rihanna perform did not know the references being made with the visuals,” points out Jeromeo LOL. “You can read YouTube comments about it, with many people asking why there are 'shitty Windows 95 screen savers?’”

Courtesy of NBC.


@LILINTERNET is slower to condemn or even complain about the appropriation: “Azealia's always been into that style, she didn't just discover it yesterday, exploit it, and throw it away. Rihanna, I think more-so, had some cool bird whispering this idea in her ear, but Azealia is far from naive about it. She's really into culture — this shit came from her. Besides, this is the Internet age. Culture is shared, spread, echoed, repeated...”

Yet, when more of a tastemaker taps into the signfiers of seapunk, like Proenza Schouler just did, is this the same type of appropriation? Should anyone claim ownership to the style? @LILINTERNET isn’t so sure, “There are a lot of #seapunk related musicians making cool music. I think it's all legitimate. But I don't think anyone owns it. There is no theft; saying there is ‘theft’ involved is a really antiquated point of view, especially with such derivative aesthetics in the first place! Is the creator of Ecco the Dolphin on Sega Genesis calling out #seapunks on Twitter saying they stole his look? LOL, no! That would be preposterous.”

Now that this aesthetic has reached its popular zenith, Jerome LOL doesn’t believe the culture itself — which exists richly on image sharing sites like dump.fm — will be noticeably affected: “At the end of the day, I don't think much will change, there will be a few more people who get into the style but for the most part, a lot of people will view that as the ugliest SNL performance of all time, but I thought it was beautiful, from a purely aesthetic framework.” He also said that his own art won’t change because of genre’s newfound popularity. “I haven't really made glitchy CGI stuff in a while, though I continue to enjoy the visuals. I'll probably always make videos that reference the Internet in some capacity, but this whole thing doesn't affect my mind-set or what I'm going to make.”

@LILINTERNET believes it could actually be a good thing for the original artists: “If everyone bitching and moaning would just realize that, if anything, this is going to give more attention, more following, and more interest to the #seapunk innovators like Ultrademon and Kevin Heckart, then everyone would win... If it did go mainstream, would it have to change it's name to #Seapop? Shit, maybe Azealia and Rihanna just made that :\”

:\ indeed.

Courtesy of Proenza Schouler.